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Postwar Germany: Britain's Lost Opportunity

Ian Locke investigates an intriguing and little-known attempt to commandeer Third Reich assets as reparations - and its mixed results.

At a political level, the basic determination of the future of a defeated Germany was thrashed out at the Yalta conference in February 1945 and the subsequent Potsdam Conference, codenamed 'Terminal' of July and August 1945. The latter conference period was marked by the British General Election of July 16th, when Attlee's Labour administration succeeded the wartime coalition. The result remained unconfirmed for three weeks pending the servicemen's vote. Elements of the Labour party, notably Harold Laski, urged Attlee to accept observer status only at the conference, while Foreign Secretary Bevin issued a clear summary of Labour's intent 'We can promise continuity in nothing... We did not fight an election to perpetuate the spirit of coalition'. This political intent was reflected in the Labour Manifesto 'Let Us Face the Future'. In this first post-war administration, domestic policy was to be continually thwarted by overseas responsibilities and obligations, not least those arising from the defeat of Germany.

A major element of the Potsdam agenda related to reparations, which had been agreed by the Allied Commission on Reparations in Moscow in July. This commission had been inaugurated at Yalta and was to meet thirty-seven times. The Moscow meeting had resolved a plan which aimed to provide maximum possible compensation for Allied war losses, to eliminate war materials, and to put in place other measures necessary to ensure Germany posed no further threat to its neighbours or to world peace – while seeking to maintain a means of livelihood for the German people.

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