Global historical perspectives on the time after 17 July 1945

After the Second World War, many friend-foe constellations in Europe and the world were shifted. After the end of the war, Germany, too, became friends with former “enemies”. Thus, as early as 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, former Federal President of Germany Joachim Gauck thanked “our former enemies in East and West”. On 8 May 2020, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed his thanks to the successor states of the former Soviet Union for their “liberation” and encouraged reflection on how to deal with former enemy states. He also spoke to the thousands of young people whose grandparents were on different sides of the war, but who 75 years after its end should come together in Berlin to talk about the past. “It is you who are the key! It is you who must carry forward the lessons we have been taught by this terrible war!”

Photo: Tobias Kleinschmidt

“This war only ended once the Western Allies and the Soviet Union had forced Germany to surrender, thus also liberating us Germans from the Nazi dictatorship. We of the later generations in Germany have every reason to be grateful for this self-sacrificing battle by our former opponents in the East and West. Their struggle made it possible for us to live in peace and dignity in Germany today. Who would not be grateful for this?“

Here you can read the complete speech.

Photo: Speech of the Federal President Joachim Gauck on May 6, 2015, Land NRW, U. Wagner.

“We had planned to commemorate the day together, with representatives of the allies from East and West who made huge sacrifices to liberate this continent. Together with our partners from every corner of Europe that suffered under German occupation, and yet were willing to seek reconciliation. Together with the survivors of German crimes and the descendants of those who perished, so many of whom reached out to us in reconciliation. Together with everyone around the world who gave this country the chance of a fresh start.“

Here you can find the complete speech to read.
Here you can find the complete speech as video.

Photo/Screenshot: Speech of the Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on May 8, 2020 (

The Potsdam Conference was the third and last conference held by the “Big Three” (Great Britain, Soviet Union, USA). Previously, a meeting was held in Tehran in November 1943 as well as one in Yalta in February 1945. The decision to divide Germany into occupation zones was taken in Yalta. The ideological differences between the USA and the Soviet Union became apparent at the Potsdam Conference.

Photo: Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman and Josef Stalin in Potsdam, 1945
(The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 198958, public domain)

Map of the division into occupation zones, 1946
(Ziemke, Earl F.: The U.S. Army in the occupation of Germany, 1944–1946, Washington 1975, public domain)

In order to decide how things should continue in Europe after the end of the war, the Allies planned a conference in the capital Berlin. Due to the massive war damage, however, the conference was held in the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, 30 km away.

There the heads of state of the USA, the Soviet Union and Great Britain came together: Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill or his successor Clement Attlee. Together with their foreign ministers and an advisory staff, they negotiated on further joint action between 17 June and 2 August 1945. Peace was still far away.

Photo: Cecilienhof Castle, 1945 (The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 198948, public domain)

Radio report by US President Harry S. Truman on the objectives of the occupying powers in Germany, 9 August 1945 (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, SR61-37, public domain)

The participants of the Potsdam Conference agreed on basic goals that should be achieved with the occupation of Germany. In this context, the four D’s are often invoked: denazification, demilitarization, decentralization, democratization. These targets were often publicly displayed in the form of posters and described there as follows:

1. Complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany and the liquidation of all German industry, which can be used for war production.

2. The German people must be convinced that they have suffered a military defeat and that they cannot escape responsibility for what they have taken upon themselves.

3. The National Socialist Party with its affiliated divisions and sub-organisations is to be destroyed; all National Socialist offices are to be dissolved.

4. The final transformation of German political life on a democratic basis and a possible peaceful participation of Germany in international life are to be prepared.

Poster: Goals of Allied occupation policy in Germany, 1945 (Stiftung Haus der Geschichte; EB-Nr. H 1998/01/1240)

… the border between Poland and Germany. In the course of the conference it became clear that the Soviet Union had already created facts by drawing the border at the Oder-Neisse line and enforcing the settlement of numerous Poles on former German territory. While the question of the border had to remain open, an agreement on an “orderly and humane” resettlement of German parts of the population was managed.

Photo: Refugee trail from East Prussia, 1945, (Federal Archives, B 285 Bild-S00-00326, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

… the question of reparations. Stalin wanted to rebuild his own country with reparations. Truman, on the other hand, saw support for the rebuilding of Germany as the best way to lead the country back into financial independence.

Picture: Division and dismantling of German industrial plants as reparations, in: The U.S. Military Govenor: A Year of Potsdam. The German Economy since the Surrender, 1945, public domain.

The Allies dismantle extensive industrial plants and send them to their home countries. The dismantling is intended as compensation for war damage suffered.

Photo: Dismantling Tracks, 1945 (Deutsches Historisches Museum)

The result of the Potsdam Conference was the “Report on the Tripartite Conference of Berlin”, also called the “Potsdam Agreement”.

“It is not the intention of the Allies to destroy or enslave the German people. It is the intention of the Allies that the German people be given the opportunity to prepare for the eventual reconstruction of their life on a democratic and peaceful basis. If their own efforts are steadily directed to this end, it will be possible for them in due course to take their place among the free and peaceful peoples of the world.”

Here you can read the complete agreement.

During the Potsdam conference US President Truman received information about the successful nuclear bomb test in New Mexico. This gave him leverage against Stalin, who had invoked scepticism among the Western powers due to his arbitrary action on the border question in the East.

When two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, ending the Pacific War, the destructive power of the weapon became apparent. It triggered a nuclear arms race amongst the great powers (“nuclear diplomacy”). From this point on, the atomic bomb was inseparably linked to East-West relations.

Video: Archive footage of Hiroshima bombing, 1945, The Telegraph.

Despite some groundbreaking decisions, it became clear at Potsdam that there was a considerable potential for conflict between the Allies, which eventually paved the way for the “Cold War”. The decision to divide Germany into occupation zones laid the foundation for the subsequent division of Germany into two states.

The Potsdam Conference can thus be seen as a turning point: It was both the end and the beginning. It stood for the end of the Second World War in Europe on the one hand. On the other hand, the conference was also the beginning of the East-West conflict (“Cold War”), which only came to an end with the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a year later

During the Second World War, the Western Powers and the Soviet Union were allies, referring to a set of common values. At the Potsdam Conference, however, serious differences in their ideology became apparent. In the years to come, the differences in their values were to harden. It is clear that values are always subject to change. In our personal environment, for example, they result from our life circumstances, our age or our family situation. Similarly, in democratic systems, the basic values that society can base itself on, are constantly being renegotiated. This question pervades debates between people, parties or states.

Short answers to the question: What is democracy? 2015 (Federal Agency for Civic Education, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE)

Julie Soenens talks about the Betzavta, a method of political education that seeks to raise awareness of the value of diversity in a democratic society, 2020 (Federal Agency for Civic Education, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE)

“Friendships” and “enmities” are not permanent. Opponents can become allies, partners but also “rivals”. The relations between the USA and the Soviet Union are a good example of this: While they still fought together against National Socialist Germany during the Second World War, increasing conflicts determine the years after. They eventually form the fronts in the Cold War, which would shape the world for decades.

The Cold War in Latin America


Already in the early stages of the Cold War, the USA attempted to secure its leading role in Latin America. At a conference in Rio de Janeiro on 2 September 1947, the states belonging to the American double continent signed the “Inter-American Agreement on Mutual Assistance” (also known as the “Rio Pact”). In it they committed themselves to mutual military assistance in the event of an external conflict. In the period that followed, the accusation of being close to the communist Soviet Union was used to take action against political opponents. For example, the USA supported the opposition in Cuba, where the communist rebel leader Fidel Castro came to power after a revolution in 1959. Diplomatic relations with the new government were cut off, while the Soviet Union sought to establish ties with Cuba.

Here you will find the complete agreement to read.

Map of current (dark blue) and former (light blue) Rio Pact member states, 2008, public domain

“Apple of Discord” Berlin


At the Yalta Conference, in addition to the division of Germany into four occupation zones, it was also decided that Berlin should be divided into four sectors, in order to reach agreements on the capital city jointly. As a reaction to the announced currency reform in the western occupation zones and in order to gain control of the whole of Berlin, the Soviet Union blocked traffic to West Berlin on 24 June 1948. In order to supply the two million people with food, the Western Allies set up an “airlift” and for almost a year until May 12, 1949, they delivered essential necessities by plane.

Photo: People from West Berlin waiting for the arrival of an airplane of the “Airlift”, 1948 (Steijger, Cees: A History of USAFE, United States Air Force Europe, 1991, public domain)

Block Formation


On 4 April 1949, ten states from North America and Europe joined together to form a military alliance: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The FRG joined NATO in 1955. In that year, eight states joined together to form the Warsaw Pact, which, under the leadership of the Soviet Union, was to form a counterbalance to the Western military alliance. The GDR was a founding member. A large part of the other states aligned themselves with the respective blocs. Exceptions were a number of “non-aligned” states, such as Yugoslavia, Indonesia and India, which did not want to be tied to the West or the East, but wanted to maintain political and economic independence.

Map: NATO (blue) and Warsaw Pact (red) countries and their allies, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The Division of Germany

23.05. / 07.10.1949

Encompassing the US-American, the British and the French occupation zones, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was formed on 23 May 1949. On 7 October 1949, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded on the soil of the Soviet zone. One year before – in June 1948 – the occupying powers had already introduced different currencies in their zones. On 13 August 1961, the GDR erected a wall that would divide Berlin and Germany for the next 27 years.

Photo: Signed Basic Law, 1949 (Photo: Andreas Praefcke, copy by Theodor Heuss in the Theodor-Heuss-Haus Stuttgart; property of the Heuss Family Archive, public domain)

Arms Race


The USA’s nuclear weapons monopoly ended when the Soviet Union carried out the first successful nuclear test on 29 August 1949. At the beginning of the 1950s, an arms race began between the two blocs, which resulted in the development of ever newer weapons technology in the years to come. The Soviet Union stationed nuclear medium-range missiles in the GDR in 1958. The USA reacted by stationing nuclear missiles in Turkey, Great Britain and Italy. The arms race reached a climax with the “Cuba crisis”: US reconnaissance planes had discovered Soviet missile bases in Cuba. On 22 October 1962, US President John F. Kennedy called on Soviet Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles. In the event of an attack, he threatened a nuclear first strike. Only with the promise of the USA to withdraw the missiles from Turkey did Khrushchev announce the withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba on October 28.

Map: Range of missiles stationed in Cuba, in nautical miles (NM), 1962 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, TCSPP-049-006-p0101, public domain)

Proxy Wars


During the Cold War, so-called proxy wars occurred in various countries around the world. They were characterised by the military intervention of the USA and the Soviet Union, which wanted to extend or defend their dominance in a third country. They never faced each other in a direct military conflict. The first proxy war took place in Korea between 1950 and 1953, in which the USA supported the South and the Soviet Union supplied weapons to the North. In 1964 both states intervened in the Vietnam War. While the Soviet Union supported the Communists in the Northern part of the country with weapons supplies, the USA declared war on North Vietnam with the “Tonkin Resolution” on 7 August and stationed its own troops in the South. In 1973 the conflict ended with the withdrawal of US troops and the conquest of South Vietnam by the Communists. The last proxy war began on 25 December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to consolidate the Communist government. The US influence on the war was limited to supplying weapons to resistance groups. Only ten years later did the Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

Photo: Military helicopter operation by US soldiers in Vietnam, 1966 (The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 530610, public domain)

Uprisings of the Eastern Block Countries


During the Cold War uprisings occured in some Eastern Bloc countries, which were directed against the Soviet government. They protested against the sole rule of the Communist party, the deterioration of working conditions and against supply shortages. After the popular uprising in the GDR had already been crushed on 17 June 1953 and the Soviet Union prevented the revolution in Hungary by military intervention in 1956, troops also marched into Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968. There, reforms had been initiated in the spring in order to grant the people more freedom under the slogan “Socialism with a human face”. The Soviet Union eyed the reforms of the “Prague Spring” with suspicion. It feared that the changes might affect other Eastern Bloc states and endanger socialism. After the invasion, the reforms were reversed by the “Moscow Protocol” of 26 August 1968.

Photo: Protesters in Prague in front of a burning Soviet tank, 1968, public domain

Space Race


When Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957 as the first Earth satellite, the USA was shocked – and the “race into space” began. Only one month later, the Soviet dog Laika was the first living being in space. The following year, the USA also succeeded in launching a satellite into space. However, the Soviet Union remained in the lead: In 1959 Lunik 2 hit the moon, a few months later a Soviet satellite photographed the back of the moon. After the first man in space in 1961 – the Russian Yuri Gagarin – the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, followed two years later. The USA realized that the only way to catch up was a moon landing. On July 20, 1969, the US government celebrated its “victory” in the “race into space” when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on the moon.

Photo: Buzz Aldrin was one of the first men to set foot on the moon, 1969 (Johnson Space Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, AS11-40-5874, public domain)



There were also repeated phases of détente and disarmament agreements during the Cold War. In 1968, for example, Great Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union agreed on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to disarm nuclear weapons and to refrain from nuclear weapon tests. One year later, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) began. The aim was to limit the arms race. On 26 May 1972, US President Richard Nixon and the Soviet Secretary General of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT Treaty. On 18 June 1979 further limitations on nuclear weapons are agreed upon (SALT II).

Photo: Signing of the SALT II Treaty by Jimmy Carter (left) and Leonid Brezhnev (right), photo by Bill Fitz-Patrick, 1979, public domain

End of the Cold War


As a result of an economic crisis in the 1980s, the Soviet head of government Mikhail Gorbachev decided to implement reforms known as “glasnost and perestroika” (openness and restructuring). As a result, 15 states declared their independence on the basis of the regained right of self-determination. On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. This event is regarded worldwide as a symbol for the end of the Cold War. The reunification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990 with the accession of the GDR to the FRG. One month later, Europe, together with the USA, had declared itself in favour of an end to the “age of confrontation and division”. On 26 December 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved – the Cold War came to an end.

Photo: People on the Berlin Wall, 1989, CC BY-SA 3.0

In Europe, the year 1945 is perceived as a clear watershed moment. But if one takes into account those countries that were colonised at that time, the end of the Second World War can only be perceived as an impulse that promoted long-cherished efforts towards independence and decolonisation. Only three decades later, former European colonies had become largely independent, often only after long and bloody battles. But even after so many years, the consequences of colonisation are still being felt. Former enmities led to new alliances, but also to new dependencies.

Map of Colonial Development from the Pergamon World Atlas, 1967

A decisive upheaval in Asia had already taken place before 1945: During the war in 1941/42 Japan had brought parts of the Pacific region and thus some colonies under its control, including the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), which had previously been controlled by the Dutch. The changed power influences favoured anti-European and national aspirations in the region, which led to independence efforts shortly before Japan’s defeat. Indonesia was promised sovereignty as early as 1944. The emerging power vacuum after the end of the war supported these aspirations. Indonesia proclaimed its independence on August 17, 1945. The Netherlands then tried to regain control of the islands. During the recolonisation war, the USA supported the independence movement, as they feared further unrest and Communist influence. Indonesia only gained full independence in 1949.

Photo: Indonesia’s declaration of independence, 1945, public domain

The Sri Lankan independence movement was formed at the beginning of the 20th century. As a peaceful political movement, it demanded the self-determination of the country, then British Ceylon, from the British Empire. During the Second World War there was considerable resistance to support for the British war effort. These had established a base on Sri Lanka after the Japanese entry into the war. After the end of the Second World War, there were several waves of strikes in the country, whereupon the British began their retreat. After the first elections in 1947, the British handed over their governmental power to the national parliament. On 4 February 1948 Sri Lanka was granted Dominion status until the country became a republic on 22 May 1972 and was renamed the Republic of Sri Lanka. Since then the country has been part of the Commonwealth of Nations. The union of sovereign states consists primarily of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and their former colonies.

Photo: Opening of the first parliament in Sri Lanka, October 1947, photo by the Government of Ceylon and UK, public domain

In the French colony of Algeria there were increasing protests from 1945 onwards, which were based on the political and economic inequality of the Algerian population. The uprisings were repeatedly crushed by the French army, until unrests in 1954 spread over large areas of the country for the first time. The beginning of the eight-year-long fight for independence was a series of attacks by the National Liberation Front of Algeria (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN), which was founded in March. The war was marked by terrorist guerrilla attacks on the FLN side and human rights violations such as torture on the French side. During the Algerian war, France was repeatedly exposed to fierce public criticism, especially from the United Nations. In September 1959 Algeria was granted the right to self-determination and only in 1962 independence. In the following years France provided economic reconstruction aid, in return for which the country received access to Algeria’s oil reserves and the assurance of access to the nuclear test areas in the Sahara. In 1991, a civil war broke out in the country, which is still simmering below the surface today.

Video: “France Digs In for Total Algerian War” – a newsreel by Universal Newsreel, 1956, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

After the colonies gained formal independence after the Second World War, political and economic ties with the former colonial powers remained in place. As so-called developing countries, an economic dependency relationship developed that could not be overcome until today (neo-colonialism). Colonial power relations continue to have an effect as a mental structure in our societies today. The decolonisation of one’s own thinking and acting and thus also coming to terms with the colonial past is a demand repeatedly voiced towards the former colonial powers.

Starting points for economic independence can be found in Afrotopia by Felwine Sarr.

Initiatives point out traces of colonialism in the urban environment (such as the German project mapping.postcolonial).

The protest movement “Rhodes must fall” demanded in March 2015 that the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town. One month later it will be demolished. Further protests followed both in South Africa and in other parts of the world, which aimed at decolonising the education system.

Similar demands were again made in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, for example at Oxford University (video) or in Bristol (video, up to about 3:50).

Furthermore, there are efforts by former colonies to recover looted cultural assets. For this reason, the Benin Dialogue Group is in contact with several museums in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Great Britain. Its aim is to set up a museum in Benin City, Nigeria, to exhibit its collection of artworks scattered around the world.

It is thus of particular importance that a shift in public thinking takes place. Projects like the podcast Decolonization in Action by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science question, how decolonization in science, art, and the museum world is proceeding.

In addition to all the old and new conflicts that took place after the end of the Second World War, there were also efforts to forge a global alliance to secure peace and to build a global alliance for securing peace: In the aftermath of both world wars and the failure of the League of Nations, the creation of the international alliance of states in the form of the United Nations (UN), was supposed to prevent future wars. The founding of the UN took place with the adoption of the UN Charter on 25 June 1945 in San Francisco.

“We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save future generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold suffering to humanity, […] have resolved to cooperate in our efforts to achieve these goals.” These words prelude the UN Charter. The UN Charter sets out the guiding principles of the UN: the maintenance of international peace and security, respect for national equality and sovereignty, the promotion of international cooperation, respect for human rights and the renunciation of the use of force.

Image: The Preamble of the UN Charter, 1945 (The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 515901, public domain)

The composition of the UN Security Council has been the subject of repeated criticism. This critique focuses primarily on the composition of the UN Security Council, in which the five permanent members (China, France, Great Britain, the USA and Russia) make decisions on their own and block each other. Time and again, the veto powers defend themselves or their friends against sanctions. For example, the Iraq War in 2003 had no legal consequences for the USA. Further points of criticism are the lack of democratic legitimation and the lack of existing competences of the United Nations.

Criticizing the United Nations, Video: Is the UN in its Death Throes?, 2019 (arte)