1945: Berlin in chaos as Potsdam Conference maps out new world

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden contracted a form of dysentery whilst at the Potsdam Conference.

Today marks the anniversary of the Potsdam Conference, when the three main leaders of the Allied nations, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin, met in the German city of Potsdam, outside Berlin, to decide the future of a defeated Germany.

As Nathan Morley outlines in his book ‘Hitler’s Home Front: Life in Nazi Germany during World War Two,’ the city their forces occupied was reeling after 5-years of war.

In Berlin, the Russians found that every kind of public service was either seriously impaired or totally unworkable and accommodation for those who survived was often primitive to the extreme.

To make matters worse, one-third of the population of 2.7 million were suffering from dysentery picked-up from the polluted city water supply.

‘Records show a mass disinfection of refugees found that 10 to 15 percent of them had body lice,” Morley says. ‘Scarlet fever and diphtheria were common, and the lack of electrical equipment made it difficult for the early diagnosis of tuberculosis’.

A Naafi canteen operating in the ruins Berlin a few months after the end of World War Two.

When the Allies moved into Berlin in June 1945 to replace Soviet troops in western sectors, the Seventh Armoured Division took the central role in the British occupation. They were joined by the American Second Armoured Division and the First French Army.

‘That summer, the weather Berlin became exceptionally trying, with high temperatures and no breeze to temper it – even the nights were oppressive and infested with mosquitoes,’ Morley explains. ‘Even by August, the health and sanitation situation was still precarious’.

In fact, the situation was so bad that the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden contracted a form of dysentery whilst at the Potsdam Conference.

Anthony Eden

Drinks were chiefly responsible for the outbreak among the Anglo-American personnel and beer and bottled mineral water was tested for purity, whilst its consumption was forbidden to Allied personnel.

Crime and food quickly became the two big problems facing the Allies. In July alone, there were 123 murders in Berlin – including that of German policemen shot in trying to prevent looting.

Eileen Taylor had been sent over to work with the British forces: ‘The children had swollen stomachs…the Germans…picked up cigarette ends dropped by our soldiers…Every morning you saw women picking through the dustbins for our leftovers,’ she remembered.

Renowned journalist Ferdinand Tuohy was appalled at the thriving black market which he branded a ‘menace to world society’. During an investigation he was offered a ‘share in a farmyard for a suit of English tweeds.’ British soldiers were told that fraternizing with Germans was strictly forbidden, however, some could not resist the temptations of a country teeming with pretty frauleins and young war widows.

‘As all this was going on, the architects of German misfortune were being hunted down,’ Morley says.

‘That summer, a large group of former Nazi leaders fell into allied hands including Goring, Rosenberg, Ley, along with generals and admirals, such as Dönitz, Kesselring, Rundstedt, Busch, Guderian, Schörner, Weichs, Leeb, List, Kleist and Falkenhorst’.

It wouldn’t be until 1948 that normality returned. That year marked a turning point for post-war Germany with the introduction of the new Deutsche Mark in the West putting the country on the path to recovery.

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Hitler’s Home Front: Life in Nazi Germany during World War Two