How Russians Failed To Take Berlin?
Although Berlin was split into four sectors in 1945, the Soviets were determined to see a unified city under their control. Their tactics for undermining the other occupying powers ranged from seductive to brutal, and a desperate blockade backfired into a 40-year divide.
The first edition of the Deutsche Volkszeitung, which appeared on newsstands in the devastated city of Berlin on June 13, 1945, brought some intriguing news. The newspaper contained the first postwar appeal by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany. It read: "The path of forcing the Soviet system on Germany would be wrong." The Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which had advocated a "Soviet Germany" until 1933, was now calling for the establishment of "a parliamentary democratic republic with all democratic freedoms and rights for the people." Of course, most Berliners gave little thought to the future structure of the nation as they wandered hungrily through the ruins. KPD Chairman Wilhelm Pieck's son Arthur, a captain in the Red Army, described the mood among residents of the German capital in a confidential letter to his father on May 7, 1945: "The food situation is catastrophic. There is no electricity and no water. The few pumps or wells are insufficient, and people stand in line all day at the pumps and in front of the few shops. Although everyone is happy that the bombing has stopped and the war is now over for Berliners, the mood is gloomy and depressed. Men and women alike cry very easily. Most people have lost everything, their homes, possessions and money, and have nothing left."
Very few Berliners paid any attention to a poster describing "Order No. 2" of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD), dated June 10, 1945, which provided for the formation of "anti-fascist" parties. Four parties were established in Berlin within a few weeks. In addition to the Communists, they included the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Stalin wanted to set the course before the Western allies, as agreed in July 1945, took over the western half of Berlin as occupying powers.
On May 19, the Soviets appointed a Berlin municipal administration, headed by nonpartisan civilian Arthur Werner. The engineer, in office until October 1946, was a figurehead, while KPD officials like Arthur Pieck and Karl Maron, who would later become the East German interior minister, held key positions in the city administration.
The new city administration restored the power supply, and it opened theaters, schools and, in August, the German State Opera. It also tried to fight dysentery and typhus epidemics that began in July, killing thousands of emaciated Berliners.
KPD spokesman Walter Ulbricht urged his comrades to "create a new, trusting relationship" with the Social Democrats, with the aim of quickly merging the two parties. The SPD, and initially its leader in the eastern zone, Otto Grotewohl, opposed a merger under pressure. But Grotewohl, an amateur painter who was determined to bring about harmony, soon began to blur the contours of Soviet policy.
Making Communists Out of Democrats
A secret directive from the SMAD information administration, issued in the spring of 1946, showed how important a single, unified party headquartered in Berlin was to Moscow. It stated that all regional divisions were to submit a report on preparations for a unity party by 10 p.m. every evening.
The information administration included several hundred experienced Red Army veterans who had worked in units "operating within the armed forces and population of the enemy" during the war. The head of the information administration was Colonel Sergei Tyulpanov, an economist and social scientist who had studied in Heidelberg for a while and lived on Ehrenfels Street in Berlin's eastern Karlshorst neighborhood.
Tyulpanov was Stalin's most effective ideological warrior in Germany because he made the impression that he was not a rigid Stalinist. This is how Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, the conqueror of Berlin, described Tyulpanov's mission in a May 1945 speech to party officials at the Soviet garrison in the German capital: "We have taken Berlin by storm, but now we must win the souls of the Germans. It will be a difficult struggle, and now this is precisely where our front line lies."
Tyulpanov's weapon was amiability. When he met with Berlin's leading Social Democrats, he was gregarious and full of smiles, asking them whether they had any special requests. Sometimes those requests could include a BMW, such as the one that was given to Max Fechner, an SPD politician who would later become East Germany's justice minister.
Many SPD officials in the eastern section of Berlin acquiesced, sometimes because they were coerced and sometimes in the hope that they could dominate the new party. Still, Berlin's Social Democrats wanted the general membership to vote on a possible merger with the KPD.
However, the Soviets barred the SPD's East Berlin members from participating. The outcome of the vote in the western sectors shows why: On March 31, 1946, only 2,937 of the 32,547 Social Democrats in West Berlin voted for an immediate merger, 14,763 voted for an alliance between the SPD and the KPD, and 5,559 voted against either an alliance or merger.
Nevertheless, the SPD and KPD Unity Party convention, held on April 21-22, 1946, at the Admiralspalast theater, became an emotional event for the more than 1,000 delegates and hundreds of guests. In front of portraits of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, as well as a banner that read "Onward Socialists, Let Us Close the Ranks," the audience heard Beethoven's "Fidelio" overture and Grotewohl's promise that the decades-long "battle between brothers" had now come to an end.
Democracy Fails for the Socialists
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which counted some 1.3 million members when it was founded, insisted that it didn't want´a "single-party system." Instead, it advocated the "expansion of self-administration on the basis of democratic elections."
Half a year later, citizens of the German capital, including those in its eastern half, were indeed allowed to vote freely on the composition of a city council. The politicians on the ballot in October 1946 were Christian Democrats, Liberals, Social Democrats and members of the SED. The result was a disaster for the latter, with only 20 percent voting for the SED and 48.7 percent for the SPD. Even in the Soviet sector, the SED received only 30 percent of the vote. It was to be the last free election in the eastern sector for more than 43 years, until the March 1990 election of the East German Volkskammer, or People's Parliament.
Life became increasingly difficult in the eastern sector for those Social Democrats who had joined the SED. At the second SED convention, held in September 1947, Pieck announced: "The Soviet peoples have shown us the way to make socialism a reality." In June 1948, when the SED called for the "eradication of harmful and hostile elements" in its "new type of party," panic erupted among the Berlin members. Many Social Democrats fled to the West, including, in October 1948, Erich Gniffke, a member of the SED Central Secretariat.
Gniffke criticized the SED for pursuing "a policy of deceiving itself and others." Christian Democrats and liberals who had come to terms with the Soviet occupying power in the east also came under growing pressure.
At first, the Soviets tried their hand at what Tyulpanov called "positive methods." Moscow's governors hosted lavish banquets for poorly nourished officials of the CDU and the Liberal Democratic Party. Ernst Lemmer, a CDU politician in Berlin, later recalled the scenes of hollow-cheeked guests feasting on saddles of mutton and roast suckling pig. With the vodka flowing profusely, Soviet officers kept their guests in good spirits with toasts to the "great German people." Under these circumstances, many a middle-class politician soon found his defenses weakening.
The majority of Berliners were starving and freezing, especially during the harsh winter of 1946 to 1947. Coal was in short supply, the so-called "fat rations" issued through ration books were deplorably small, and tuberculosis was spreading throughout the city. Berlin had mutated into a slum.
The Carrot-and-Stick Approach
In this situation, the Soviets used a system of rewards and punishments. A secret Tyulpanov dossier from April of 1948 reveals how the Soviets tried to entice reluctant politicians with food. "The most progressive leaders of the LDP," the document reads, were to frequently receive "food packages, food stamps, gifts and sometimes money, as an expression of 'concern for their health.'" On the other hand, "compromising material" was to be used against "leaders and party officials with reactionary views," as well as against the press, for the purpose of "cleansing the party leadership."
Anyone who fell into disfavor with the Soviets had to flee. In December 1947, the Soviets deposed Berlin CDU leaders Lemmer and Jakob Kaiser, who just three months prior had portrayed their party as a "breakwater against Marxism" at a CDU convention in eastern Berlin. In early 1948, Berlin's CDUn was split into two parts, one in the west and one controlled by the Soviets. The branch in East Berlin issued the slogan: "Ex oriente pax," or "peace from the East." The LDP was also split in two at the beginning of 1948.
In early 1947, Berliners already had an idea of what was in store for them. In a March 1947 cable to Moscow classified as "secret," Tyulpanov reported: "There is a vigorous discussion within the population of Berlin over whether Germany will remain a single country or be broken into pieces. At the same time, there is a growing fear that Germany could be divided up due to the opposing political views and ambitions of the Allies."
Berliners faced the dilemma of having to align themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union. In September 1948, Tyulpanov, writing in the SMAD newspaper Tägliche Rundschau under the German pseudonym "R. Schmidt," demanded that Berliners show loyalty to Moscow: "It is very clear that, in a zone occupied by the troops of a socialist country, only truly democratic parties stand a chance of further development."
Behind this statement stood the threat of violence. In Berlin's eastern sector, the Soviets also had personnel who knew how to treat political adversaries with ruthlessness.
In January 1946, the Soviet State Security office in Germany, headquartered in Berlin, managed 2,230 employees and 2,304 German informants. Ivan Serov headed the German branch. The short general, son of a czarist prison supervisor, specialized in the deportation and subjugation of resistant peoples, from the Baltic Sea to the Caucasus.
Eastern German Prisons Swell
In Germany, he remained true to his reputation. In July 1947, there were more than 60,000 prisoners in camps in the Soviet occupation zone awaiting a court sentence. These prison camps included "Special Camp No. 3" on Genslerstrasse in Berlin's Hohenschönhausen district.
Until late 1945, the camp was primarily used to incarcerate low-ranking Nazi officials as well as prominent sympathizers, such as actor Heinrich George, who had played leading roles in films meant to boost morale during the war, such as "Kolberg." But starting in 1946 and 1947, more and more Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals ended up in the cells without heat, running water or windows.
Many inmates didn't make it. According to official statistics, 886 prisoners died in Hohenschönhausen between July 1945 and October 1946 alone, most as a result of malnutrition and disease.
In the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, the phrase "they picked him up" was synonymous with the despotic rule under which Soviet citizens had already suffered in the past. By March 1948, 6,455 Berliners had "disappeared." Neither attorneys nor courts could do these people any good, and the families often never learned what had happened to their loved ones.
As documents from Moscow that were long kept secret reveal, Soviet generals were fully aware of the devastating consequences of these methods. Major General Ivan Kolesnitchenko, the head of the SMAD in the eastern state of Thuringia, wrote in a November 1948 report: "The 'disappearance' of people as a result of the activities of our operative sectors is already the cause of great dissatisfaction within the German population. I would venture to say that this approach by our security officials elicits severe anti-Soviet propaganda and hatred of us among the Germans."
The Soviet occupying power faced a dilemma: Its option of a neutral Germany, with Berlin as its undivided capital, was obsolete by December 1947, in the wake of failed negotiations among the foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain over the future of Germany.
Soviets Misjudge the Berlin Airlift
The Americans and the British prepared for the creation of a West German nation, one that would be part of an alliance they dominated. A key step in this direction was the monetary reform enacted in the western zones on June 20, 1948. The Soviets responded by cutting off the road and rail connections between West Germany and West Berlin.
Meanwhile, emissaries from Moscow were explaining the purpose of the measures to SMAD staff. As Alexander Galkin, who is now 90 and was a major in the SMAD at the time, recalls: "We were told that the Soviet zone was being destabilized by the presence of Western troops in this zone, West Berlin, and that the troops were an interfering factor and had to disappear."
But Galkin sensed early on that the blockade would fail. "It could only have been devised by people who knew nothing about the mood in the western part of Berlin, or the transport potential of the British and American air forces," he said.
At the end of June, the Western Allies began bringing supplies into West Berlin through three air corridors. The "raisin bombers," as West Berliners soon called them, brought grain, powdered milk, flour, coal, gasoline and medical supplies to the western part of the city. Authorities in East Berlin used their weekly newsreel, "Der Augenzeuge" ("The Eyewitness") to remind Germans of the Allied bombardments ("Back then, these philanthropists showed up with bombs and phosphorus"), but the propaganda was ineffective in West Berlin.
While American Douglas DC-3s roared over the skies of Berlin, the city was breaking into two parts. When the Berlin city council refused to defer to the SED, the party began organizing riots against the assembly, starting in late August 1948. On September 6, the delegates moved the city's parliament to West Berlin, despite the protests of the SED parliamentary group.
Three days later, Mayor Ernst Reuter, speaking at a rally of more than 300,000 people in front of the Reichstag building, made an appeal to the West for solidarity: "You people of the world, you people of America, England, France and Italy! Look upon this city and recognize that you may not surrender this city and this people -- that you cannot surrender them!" The partition had begun. In November 1948, the SED formed a separate "Democratic Municipal Administration," by acclamation of coerced "workers."
Blockade Over, Division Just Beginning
It's an irony of history that the Communists in East Berlin chose as their mayor Friedrich Ebert, the son of the first president of the Weimar Republic and a former Social Democrat, while a former top Communist official, Ernst Reuter, led the resistance against the Soviets in the West. In Lenin's day, Reuter was a people's commissar in the USSR's Volga German Republic, and in 1921 he was briefly the general secretary of the KPD.
The political air war over Berlin ended in defeat for the Soviets. On May 12, 1949, after about 280,000 airlift flights, sometimes at the rate of one flight a minute, the Soviets ended the blockade. It had cost 39 Britons, 31 Americans and 13 Germans their lives.
West Berliners, relieved that they had escaped Stalin's grasp, tried to ignore the other side. The city was divided for the long term. West Berlin remained a dependent entity and a protectorate of the occupying powers for decades. The occupiers' intelligence agencies could spy on Germans as they pleased, and they had veto power over the appointment of department heads, including those at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
The SED, which now controlled East Berlin, initially emphasized patriotic fervor. "As the mayor of Greater Berlin," Ebert said at an SED party conference in January 1949, "I repeat the pledge of the people of the capital not to end the fight for German unity and the creation of a unified, democratic republic with Berlin as its capital a single hour before this goal is achieved and the banner of German unity and German freedom flies over the entire country."
But Ebert could hardly have imagined the circumstances under which German unity would be achieved 40 years later.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:
Photo Gallery: Soviet Sticks and Carrots in Postwar Berlin
Conquering the Capital: The Ruthless Rise of the Nazis in Berlin (11/29/2012)
The Age of Excess: Berlin in the Golden Twenties (11/23/2012)
Teenage Angst: Berlin's Turn of the Century Growing Pains (11/22/2012)
The Late Bloomer: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Germany's Capital (11/21/2012)
The Forbidden Journey: How Two East Germans Fled to China to Go West (10/19/2012)
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