I couldn’t resist the opportunity to announce a wonderful new arrival: a diary of the Potsdam conference kept by George Leggett. In his early 20’s, Leggett was sent to the conference, expecting to be just one of the interpreters in Russian. However, his excellent Polish meant that he was quickly "catapaulted into the centre of events" and found himself interpreting for Eden, Churchill – then, after the 1945 election, for the new Labour government Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary (Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin) in negotiations with the Polish delegation. At Potsdam, the territory and borders of Poland were debated and the map of Eastern Europe was redrawn. Leggett’s observations on the conference make fascinating reading on these key issues but his diary also includes many memorable descriptions of occupied Berlin and ‘sight- seeing’ expeditions. Here’s a flavour with part of the entry for Thursday, July 12th 1945.
We entered the Kanzlei [Hitler’s Chancellery]. On guard duty were a few youthful Red Army men in ill-fitting, untidy summer uniforms, fingering their sten-guns. The entrance itself was rather low, almost narrow and unimpressive. We passed into a spacious court surrounded by a modern unostentatious two-storey building in rectangular shape. In the courtyard stood a couple of broken-down gutted armoured cars with black-crosses, witnessing to the fighting that must have preceded the capture of the edifice. At the far end was a more impressive entrance, a flight of steps crowned by a portico formerly surmounted by a Nazi eagle, now removed. We were now in a marble-walled antechamber, and came to another raised portico, this time proudly adorned with a huge gold eagle, with wings outspread; we passed into a smaller circular hall with a dome shaped skylight which had evidently been pierced by a big calibre bomb, for there was a huge gaping hole in the floor, and we gazed into an abyss; twisted girders and collapsed masonry lay at the bottom, somewhere in the deep vaults of the building. And then the pièce de résistance: the magnificent marble hall, that ran like a corridor the length of a couple of hundred yards, with wide windows admitting the light on the left hand, and imposing doorways and candle-brackets on the right. Now the thin marble layer was chipped and peeled, and the tawdriness and superficiality of the ornamentation stood revealed, but with a little imagination it was possible to evoke the splendid scenes once enacted here when Hitler, wrapped in his megalomaniac dreams, received some foreign ambassador in this overawing place, having him ushered from hall to hall and then dwarfing him in his minute progress along this heroically proportioned wing. The centre room on the right of the corridor was the Führer’s own study, a high domed vast chamber, now littered with rubble, boards, mortar and dirt. Against the windows stood an upturned stone desk, its huge marble slab cracked and reclining in the dust. At the far end of the vast corridor was a reception room, with two monstrous chandeliers lowered by pulleys onto the floor.
We explored the floors upstairs in other parts of the building, which is far too vast to be properly investigated in a few hours. Every room was in a great disorder, sometimes with roof collapsed, always with safes and cupboards stove in, and all the contents scattered in unbelievable disarray on the floor. We found several rooms dedicated to the issue of medals and by dint of much excavation among the rubbish, we acquired iron crosses, Motherhood medals second and third class (none of us qualified for a higher grade by producing triplets), 1939 campaign medals, and other ornate decorations, plaques and distinctions. Well pleased with our loot, but very hot, dishevelled, and perspiring, we emerged into the warm and dazzling sunlight and returned to the car.
Our next stop was at the Reichstag. This large palace stood empty, blackened and gutted. We could not tell whether this was entirely due to the ravages of war, or partly at any rate, to the effects of the famous fire. The most striking thing about the Reichstag was the zeal displayed by Red Army men in decorating every inch of wall space with their signatures, with slogans and phrases, all in Russian characters. ‘Pyotr Buryshkine – Stalingrad, Sevastopol, Odessa, Berlin’ ran a typical inscription. At the exit, several Germans lay in wait offering to brush up our dusty shoes for us.
Leggett’s diary was also a scrap book for other material including items such as this sketch of the participants at Potsdam round a meeting table, currently our Image of the Month.
Reference: George Leggett Papers, LEGT 1/1/33.
The catalogue to the collection is available online on the Janus webserver and the collection complements a range of other material held here – the papers of Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Alexander Cadogan and also Hugh Lunghi, a fellow interpreter at Potsdam.
19 November 2013