Echoes from the Cold War resound in Potsdam house

July 17, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

POTSDAM, Germany -- Who says the Cold War is over?

On this former confrontation line where East and West once traded captured spies, a new dispute has erupted along old ideological boundaries.

This time the issue is history, or how to commemorate the "Little White House" where President Harry S. Truman stayed during the Potsdam Conference from July 17 to Aug. 2, 1945. That's when he, Soviet dictator Josef V. Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill charted the future of postwar Europe and discussed how to wrap up the war in the Pacific against the Japanese.

The dispute began in November, when the Potsdam City Council decided to explore how to publicize the house as the spot where Truman picked Hiroshima, Japan, as the first target for the atomic bomb.

Sensing a potential smear campaign against Truman by the council's former Communists, 11 Americans responded by forming "Friends of the Truman House," and the group is now trying to raise enough money to buy the house and turn it into a Truman museum.

"We call this our mini-Smithsonian conflict," said the group's chairman, U.S. businessman Robert S. Mackay, referring to the Smithsonian Institution's recent controversy over its Hiroshima exhibit.

"But it's really sort of a mini-Cold War conflict," he added. "Without context and explanation, focusing only on Hiroshima would make [Truman's decision] seem like a war crime. From there, the next step is saying that Harry Truman is a war criminal. It's not balanced, it's not historically accurate, and it's a bit of old ideology."

Well, maybe so, said Potsdam's vice mayor, Claus Dobberke, although he believes the Americans are the ones still thinking like Cold Warriors. "Their apprehensions are related to the sort of thinking that paints everything in black and white," Mr. Dobberke said. "The Cold War bears all the blame for the way this has been dealt with."

Mr. Dobberke said he agrees that it wouldn't be fair to mention the Hiroshima decision without plenty of context and that he'd just as soon commemorate the decision with a plaque at the city museum rather than at the Truman house. As for the house itself, why not just have a plaque saying that it was where the U.S. delegation stayed during the Potsdam Conference?

Rolf Kutzmutz, leader of the council's largest voting bloc, former Communists who are now members of the Party of Democratic Socialism, agrees with Mr. Dobberke.

"It was not our intention to reduce Truman to this order," he said. "There is a dispute only if you interpret our motion in a one-sided way."

Then why are the two sides still at odds?

One problem seems to be that communication between them has been about as clear as a jammed transmission from Radio Free Europe. Their liaisons have been limited to snippy news releases, partisan resolutions and aggrieved letters.

Mr. Dobberke also acknowledges that the council may have underestimated the sensitivity of the Americans. "As soon as one mentions the word 'Hiroshima,' an American feels attacked," he said.

Then why did the Potsdam Council follow up its November resolution by naming its local film festival award the "Hiroshima Prize" in May? For the Americans, it was confirmation of the council's ill intent.

On Friday night, Mr. Mackay got a few U.S. journalists together for dinner at the house, showing them the room where Truman met Stalin.

While at the house, Truman plotted his strategy for meetings that would decide the postwar partitioning of Germany. He also began the planning that evolved into the Truman Doctrine against the expansion of Soviet communism and the Marshall Plan for economic aid to Western Europe. And, yes, with the war in the Pacific still raging, he met with his military advisers and chose Hiroshima over Kyoto for the fateful atomic bomb attack. The decision was made shortly after news reached him in Potsdam that the bomb had been successfully tested.

From its first days as the home of the Mueller-Grote family, the house has seemed to be in the thick of Germany's 20th-century history, as reflected by its changing street address. First it was No. 2 Kaiser Strasse. The Nazis changed it to Strasse die S. A. (named for the Nazi brownshirts). After the war, it briefly reverted dTC to Kaiser Strasse and then became Karl Marx Strasse, its current name.

As the Mueller-Grote family grew, it carved the initials and birth year of each child into the door of a room. But when World War II came, one son died on the Russian front and two daughters were raped on the premises by Soviet soldiers as the rest of the family was forced to watch. The Soviet army evicted the family on four days' notice to make room for the Truman delegation.

When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, it ran through the back yard, and Potsdam's nearby Glienicker Bridge, connecting with West Berlin, became an exchange point for spies, second only to Checkpoint Charlie as a Cold War crossroads. Now the route of the wall has become a path for bicyclists, and the remnants of the Mueller-Grote family have reclaimed ownership of the house.

They've put the house on the market for about $10 million, and the U.S. group hopes to raise $15 million to buy and renovate it. That would be fine with the City Council, Mr. Kutzmutz said, because the city would never be able to afford it.

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