By May 1945, the Soviet army and its citizens had endured almost four years of horrific treatment at the hands of the Nazis . The Germans had destroyed more than 1,700 Soviet towns and 70,000 villages. Sixteen million Soviet civilians were dead. Approximately sixty percent of Soviet prisoners of war died in captivity, with as many as 600,000 shot outright. Others were killed in labor camps, on forced marches, by disease, or through medical or gassing experiments. In the weeks that followed the Soviet victory over the Nazis, some Soviet troops brutally attacked German civilians, particularly the women. An estimated two million women were raped.
“…we were hearing about the rapes, we were hearing about the looting. I don’t think it made me feel differently about the Soviet Union as a whole. This was just the behavior of men who’d been under enormous pressure for years reacting in a human brute manner. After all our interests there were longer range–we wanted to get the Soviets into the war with us against Japan. We had other, we had some longer, bigger issues to think about at that moment.”– George Elsey, U.S. delegation, Potsdam Conference
In July 1945, the Allied leaders–Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin , and Harry Truman –met at Potsdam just outside Berlin. The atmosphere was tense. The Western Allies still had not recognized the provisional government that Stalin had placed in Poland, and the question of Poland’s postwar borders, had not been settled. The Soviet Union now occupied most of Eastern Europe. Although the Allies had previously agreed that all satellite governments would be democratically elected, it was beginning to look as if Stalin was going to break his word.
The Soviet leader was angry about how he felt the West had treated his country throughout the war. For nearly four years the Soviets had borne the brunt of German aggression. To make matters worse, as far as Stalin was concerned, the Allied invasion of France, known as D-Day , took place two years after it had first been promised.
“In one of the conversations I translated personally between Stalin and a French visitor–Stalin said he had hoped and waited for the second front to be opened quickly. But it was only opened when the Allies felt endangered by us moving deep into Europe. Stalin said to the Allies quite openly that they didn’t want to help us. But when we crossed our border and moved into Europe then we felt that the Allies started to be concerned.”– Vladimir Yerofeyev, Stalin’s interpreter
The Allies did work through a number of issues at Potsdam. They scheduled the first war crimes trial, set Poland’s western boundary, and gave the Soviet-controlled Polish government more power after Stalin again promised that free elections would be held there soon. Great Britain, the United States, and China issued the Potsdam Declaration , which called for Japan’s “unconditional surrender” and warned that the alternative was Japan’s “prompt and utter destruction.”