ON 1 MAY 1945, Walter Ulbricht set foot on German soil for the first time in twelve years.1
Before dawn the previous day, Ulbricht had woken in his room at the Hotel Lux in Moscow. Since 1917, this splendid Tsarist-era building on Tver’skaya Street had provided comfortable accommodation for favoured foreign comrades. Ulbricht belonged to that privileged few. Otherwise, he would not have been there. He would nave been dead, like Hermann Schubert and Fritz Schubert, also leaders of the underground KPD, or former Politburo member Heinz Neumann. All had sought refuge in the welcoming bosom of the Soviet Union, and had perished in the cellars of the NKVD or the cruel wastes of the Gulag.
For Stalin, all humans were suspect, but foreigners, even Communist foreigners, were most suspect of all. Many thousands of lesser fish, refugees from Fascism, were sacrificed, along with their families, to the Soviet leader’s paranoia. In August 1939, Stalin made a pact with Hitler, opening the way for the rape of Poland. In a breathtakingly cynical gesture of goodwill to the Führer, during that autumn Stalin delivered hundreds of refugee German Communists back to the Reich. Those not immediately executed disappeared into Gestapo prisons and concentration camps.
The exiled Ulbricht obeyed every bizarre twist and turn of Stalin’s policies. He spent years travelling on Comintern business. Following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, he turned to political work with German troops captured by the Red Army on the Eastern Front. His job was to persuade POWs to turn against Hitler and support a Communist future for post-war Germany.
Now all that work, and all that subservience, was bearing fruit. By 1945, Ulbricht ranked second in the exiled German Communist hierarchy after the veteran Communist leader, 69-year-old Wilhelm Pieck. Spring was here, and the war against Hitler was now all but won. A new phase was beginning.
At six a.m. on I May, a bus arrived to collect him and nine other German exiles.
Courtesy of Lend-Lease, two American McDonnell Douglas transport planes were waiting on the tarmac at Moscow airport—one for Ulbricht’s group and the other for members of the ‘National Committee Free Germany’, prominent German prisoners of war who had agreed to work against the Nazis. They were also flying home, but for presentation reasons would travel separately from the Communists.
Little was said during the flight. ‘Under Stalin you didn’t ask questions…. Under Stalin you didn’t talk much.2 The Communists’ plane landed at a captured German Luftwaffe base seventy kilometres east of Frankfurt on the Oder.
They stayed overnight at an inn and carried out preliminary discussions with Soviet political officers before travelling by road to Bruch-mühle, near Strausberg, thirty kilometres east of Berlin. The fires of the burning capital could be clearly seen from their new base, the headquarters of Soviet Colonel-General Berzarin. Berzarin had been appointed by Stalin as city commandant of Berlin on 24 April 1945, when Hitler still had nearly a week to live. The General was currently visting the front line, but his staff had organised accommodation for the German Communists in a nearby villa.
Ulbricht headed for Berlin, while the others stayed at their new quarters. Their leader returned that evening. The tireless Ulbricht called a meeting, which Soviet political officers also attended. He told his comrades: ‘It will be our task to build the structure for the organs of German self-government in Berlin.’ They would gather any technicians, engineers and construction experts they could find, plus teachers and artistic leaders. This was what the Russians wanted. This was the correct next step.
His colleagues glanced at each other in astonishment. Everyone knew of the unspeakable chaos and destruction in Berlin. Hitler had killed himself twenty-four hours previously, but fighting was still going on. Ulbricht talked as if he had just been made mayor of a town that needed a few problems sorted out.
Berlin was the administrative, political and economic hub of the Reich. Its last census had recorded a population of four and a quarter million. Six hundred thousand of these worked in factories. One German industrial worker in thirteen lived in the Greater Berlin area. The city accounced for nearly a tenth of German production. After five years of relentless Allied bombing and two weeks of vicious street fighting, costing almost a hundred thousand Soviet army dead and twice as many German civilian lives, scarcely a building remained standing in the city centre. The population was roughly half the pre-war level. Forty per cent of buildings had been destroyed.3 Berlin had no power, sewerage system, or functioning public transport.
As the ‘Ulbricht Group’ settled into their comfortable quarters at Bruchmühle, Berlin’s citizens were in hiding in cellars, or crowded into the maze of subway tunnels that ran beneath their city. Especially Berlin’s women. ‘Frau, komm’ (Woman, come), the Soviet soldier’s pidgin-German command to females he encountered, became the words every woman in Berlin, from seventeen to seventy, knew and dreaded.
Perhaps Ulbricht was aware of the wave of murder, looting and vengeful sexual violence sweeping through Berlin in the wake of the Red Army’s advance. If so, he did not admit it and never would. Colleagues who tried to bring it to his attention were simply frozen out. In his fantasy version of ‘liberation’, such horrors could not have happened. After twelve years in Stalin’s USSR, Ulbricht knew that, above all when reinforced by fear, such political fantasy could constitute a stronger power than any reality, however universally known.
However, though their new Communist masters might force them to keep silent, the people of Berlin and eastern Germany knew what they knew. The post-war Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten was known, with typical dark Berlin wit, as the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Rapist’. The two million abortions a year carried out in occupied Germany in the immediate post-war period, mostly in the Soviet Zone, witnessed unimaginable suffering, as did the rocketing incidence of venereal disease and the 150,000 to 200,000 ‘Russian babies’ born as the result of the rapes. Such problems were described in Soviet military literature as applying to ‘women who have been visited several times by soldiers of the Red Army’.4
There were many Soviet soldiers who behaved kindly and honourably, who did their best to help civilians. Many educated Russian officers were more deeply acquainted with German artistic and musical life than their Anglo-American equivalents. None the less, the Soviets and their German allies would always struggle to gain support in post-war Berlin.
It was clear from the first day that Ulbricht and his band were tools of the occupiers. On his first evening in Germany, Ulbricht met with General Galadshev, head of the Main Political Administration (PUR) of the Red Army. The Germans would carry out Soviet orders, he was instructed. ‘Those travelling [to Germany},’ as Comintern boss Dimitrov told the titular head of the KPD, Wilhelm Pieck, in May 1945, ‘stand not at the disposal of the Communist Party of Germany, but of the Red Army and its organs.’.5
Ulbricht would take his day-to-day orders from Galadshev’s titular deputy, General Ivan Serov. This corrosively corrupt figure, brutal veteran of numerous purges and forced deportations, was in fact more powerful than his nominal superior: It was he who would dictate Ulbricht’s and East Germany’s fate. Serov was the senior NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) officer in Germany, reporting directly to Stalin and his secret-police chief, Lavrenty Beria.
Serov’s chief task was to dismantle vast areas of eastern German industry and ship it to the Soviet Union, as part of the reparations Moscow was determined to extract from the defeated Reich. This devastated a part of Germany that had previously contained much of the country’s most advanced industry. By March 1947, II,800 kilometres of railway track (almost half the 1938 total) had been removed, while 30 per cent of the Soviet Zone’s industrial capacity had been stripped and shipped.6 Serov was also authorised to seize any wealth or valuables that could be viewed as compensation. This provided opportunities that made him and his aides notorious.
On 2 May 1945, Ulbricht’s group got their first look at conquered Berlin. Wolfgang Leonhard described that first journey through the eastern suburbs into unimaginable suffering:
Our cars made their way through Friedrichsfelde in the direction of Lichtenberg. The scene was like a picture of hell—flaming ruins and starving people shambling about in tattered clothing; dazed German soldiers who seemed to have lost all idea of what was going on; Red Army soldiers singing exultantly, and often drunk; groups of women clearing the streets under the supervision of Red Army soldiers; long queues standing patiently waiting to get a bucketful of water from the pumps; and all of them looking terribly tired, hungry, tense and demoralised.7
Remarkably, the first weeks of occupation saw considerable progress, The raping and looting continued for quite a while, None the less, surprisingly few Berliners actually starved. General Berzarin remains a controversial figure. He died in a—some say—mysterious motorcycle accident in Berlin on 16 June 1945. However, he did organise basic supplies for the German population, often from the Red Army’s own stores. He also showed a keen interest in reviving the cultural life of the city.8
As early as 17 May 1945, exhibitions from Berlin’s museum collections opened in temporary quarters. On 26 May the Berlin Philharmonic gave its first post-war concert. The Soviets, accustomed to the harsh exigencies of a command economy, immediately dragooned thousands of Berliners into labour gangs, and so the streets soon started to be cleared. Trams started running once more. The first stretch of subway was reopened on 15 May. Before long, the Russians had rounded up enough biddable journalists to publish a daily newspaper, the Täglicbe Rundscbau (Daily Review). However, since it was mostly filled with Soviet propaganda, the paper was known as the Kläglicbe Rundscbau (Pitiable Review).9
Meanwhile, on 19 May the city government was re-instituted. A former Social Democratic trade-union leader, Josef Orlopp, was persuaded to join. The method used to legitimise his ‘election’ was a little basic. The Russians scoured the surrounding buildings, rounded up a few dozen men and women, herded them together and told them to ‘vote’. A pre-war Catholic politician, Dr Andreas Hermes, who had served as Food Minister during the 1920s, was drafted in to take charge of feeding Berlin. The famous surgeon and director of Berlin’s Charité Hospital, Dr Sauerbruch, was tracked down to his lakeside villa at Wannsee and invited to lead the municipal health department. The architect Hans Scharoun and the film and theatre star Heinz Rühmann became advisers on architectural and cultural matters.
This city authority of all the talents did something to restore confidence. No matter how much the Russians were distrusted, an appeal to the Prussian sense of duty could be surprisingly successful. Ulbricht played this card for all he was worth.
On 12 May, Ulbricht found his Lord Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) for Berlin. His choice was an unpolitical college principal by the name of Dr Arthur Werner. Werner was elderly and becoming somewhat vague. Leonhard recalled the group’s futile attempts to raise this problem with their leader:
‘I don’t know, Walter,’ said somebody. ‘Dr Werner doesn’t seem to me quite the right Sort of man. Besides, he’s too old.’
‘I’ve heard it said sometimes that he’s not quire right in the head’, said one of the men we were intending to put in the city government.
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Ulbricht. ‘His deputy will be one of our men.’10
As Dr Werner’s deputy, Ulbricht brought in 42-year-old Kurt Maron, one of the hard core Communist group. The directors of education and personnel were also trusted Communists. The latter was the son of KPD leader Wilhelm Pieck. Arthur Pieck had been serving, until discharged earlier that week, with the political department of the Red Army.
Either because Stalin wished to keep good relations with the West, or because he genuinely believed that the German people could be seduced over to the Soviet side, his initial policy appeared to encourage democratic diversity. Ulbricht expressed this in a directive:
In working class districts the mayors should as a general rule be Social Democrats. In bourgeois quarters—Zehlendorf, Wilmersdorf, Charlottenburg and so on—we must appoint a bourgeois member of the Centre, the Democrats or the German People’s Party. Best of all if he has a doctorate, but he must also be a anti-Fascist and a man we can work well with.11
He added an instruction belying the notion that Moscow’s carpet-baggers had abandoned Leninist toughness in favour of wishy-washy bourgeois democracy:
And now to our comrades. The first deputy burgomaster and the heads of the personnel and the education departments have to be our people. Then you have to find at least one absolutely reliable comrade in each district whom we can use for building up the local police.
This was the ‘regime of deputies’, of which Dr Werner’s appointment was a fine example. The figurehead would be a non-Communist, but the deputies must be Ulbricht’s men. Communists would also be in charge of the police, giving them a monopoly of institutional force. Last but by no means least, they controlled the hotline to the true power in the shattered land, the Soviet Military Administration (SMA).
Wolfgang Leonhard was twenty-four when he accompanied the party veterans back to Berlin. As an adolescent, he had left Germany for Moscow with his Communist mother and had studied at the Comintern Political School, learning ideology and conspirational tradecraft as if it were geography or maths. He spoke fluent Russian. Ulbricht’s Russian was serviceable, but he preferred to use Leonhard as an interpreter during meetings with his Soviet masters. He also sent the young man out to rustle up an administration for the middle-class suburb of Wilmersdorf. A respectable member of the bourgeoisie was required as the usual ‘front’. Leonhard solved the problem by approaching every male he saw wearing a necktie until he found someone who would do.
It was at this time that Ulbricht uttered to Leonhard the famous sentence that perfectly summed up Communist strategy in newly occupied Berlin: ‘It has to look democratic, but we have to hold everything in our hands’.12
The Ulbricht group’s agenda in Berlin was urgent. Within a little less than eight weeks, the three Western allies would enter ‘their’ sectors of the city. Meanwhile, the Communists’ task was to establish as many ‘facts on the ground’ as possible.
The division of Berlin between the three wartime allies—Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union—had been agreed by the inter-Allied European Advisory Commission (EAC). This was set up in January 1944 in London. Its task was to draw up plans for the temporary administration of the defeated country, pending its political rehabilitation and the establishment of a German government. The Allied Control Commission, which would meanwhile rule Germany, would be based in Berlin.
The capital itself was too far east for the occupation zones to abut each other there, so a mini-occupation regime was set up in the capital. Each ally was assigned a chunk of Berlin, known as a ‘sector’, reflecting the areas controlled by the allies in Germany as a whole.
So far, so good. There were, though, problems that were either ignored or unforeseen in the warm glow of allied unity and the euphoria of approaching victory.
First, the three-power government of the city increased to four when the French demanded and were given a bit of Germany (and Berlin). Government was to be conducted by a collective Kommandatura, whose decisions must be unanimous. This gave any one ally a veto over the government of Greater Berlin.
Second, no formal written arrangements were set down concerning the Western allies’ access to Berlin, even though it lay 160 kilometres (100 miles) inside the Soviet Zone, entirely surrounded by territory under Stalin’s control.
VE Day found the Americans often hundreds of kilometres east of the demarcation lines, occupying Leipzig, Magdeburg, Halle, Weimar, and other major German cities earmarked for the Soviets. The British had part-occupied Mecklenburg on the Baltic coast. Western forces had taken a third of the territory due to be Soviet-controlled. The question was, would America and Britain withdraw from those places before the Soviets allowed them to take over the proposed Western sectors of Berlin?
Churchill was aware of the importance of ‘facts on the ground’. He had wanted to march on to Berlin during the final weeks of the war. He warned Washington of the ‘Iron Curtain’ that a Soviet presence in the heart of Europe would create. The British Prime Minister was in favour of retaining all conquered territories until ‘we are satisfied about Poland and also about the temporary nature of the Russian occupation of Germany’. Churchill was overruled by the new US President, Harry S. Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt after the wartime President’s death on 12 April 1945. Truman, busy finding his feet, did not want to upset the Russians.13
To the distress of German civilians, the Anglo-Americans withdrew honourably and in orderly fashion to their side of the river Elbe early in June. The Soviets, including the NKVD, swept into the vacated areas, and did what they had done elsewhere.
The West faced the task of getting its forces into Berlin. This was not easy. The Russians claimed that ‘mine-clearance operations were not yet complete’ or that roads were blocked by ‘re-deployment of Soviet troops’. This went on for six weeks after peace had allegedly broken out.
Finally, on 23 June 1945, permission was given for an American ‘Preliminary Reconnaissance Party’ to go to Berlin. One hundred vehicles and 500 men set off, commanded by Colonel Frank L. Howley. The column was stopped when it reached the river Elbe at Dessau. Half the force was allowed into the Soviet Zone. It proceeded under close Red Army escort to Babelsberg, just short of Berlin. There it was again held up. Personnel were forbidden to leave their vehicles. Eventually, they had to turn around and go back west.
Stalin, whose men were hard at work dismantling factories, looking for gold and other valuables, and each day introducing more proxies and agents into positions of power, was in no hurry to hand over two-thirds of the Reich’s largest, richest city to his erstwhile allies. What Stalin had, he held—at least until it was prised from his stubby grasp, from the fingers that the long-since liquidated Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had described as ‘thick…fat like worms’.14
It took a flying visit to Berlin eight days later by General Eisenhower’s deputy, General Clay, and the British Deputy Military Governor, Sir Ronald Weeks, before progress was made. The Soviet commander gave a verbal assurance that their people could travel to Berlin via one main highway, one railway line, and two air corridors. Later Clay would write:
We did not then fully realise that the requirement of unanimous consent would enable a Soviet veto in the Allied Control Council to block all our future efforts…I was mistaken in not at this time making free access to Berlin a condition of our withdrawal into the occupation zone.15
Colonel Howley tried again on 1 July. He manoeuvred through a series of obstreperous Soviet checkpoint squads into the American sector, to find the Russians in situ resentful at having to abandon districts they had won at such terrible cost two months earlier. When Howley posted proclamations of the Americans’ arrival, the Soviets tore them down. He had to place the placards under armed guard.
The British experienced similar difficulties. Their advance group was stopped at the Magdeburg Bridge. It was ‘closed’. Undaunted, His Majesty’s Forces found an unguarded bridge elsewhere on the Berlin perimeter and sneaked in that way. Further Russian obstruction prevented sufficient Western troops from establishing themselves in Berlin in time for the parade the Americans had planned for 4 July.
Two weeks later, the conference of the victorious ‘Big Three’ opened, at Potsdam just outside Berlin. The city was festooned with huge posters of Stalin, Marx, Engels, Lenin and other heroes of socialism. Under these circumstances Truman, Churchill and Stalin met to decide the final shape of post-war Europe. A few days into the proceedings, Churchill was voted out of office and replaced by a new prime minister, Labour’s Clement Attlee. With Roosevelt’s death in April, and Churchill’s election defeat in July, two of the wartime ‘Big Three’ were no longer on the scene. The third, Josef Stalin, seemed more powerful than ever.
In the kitsch splendour of the Cäcilienhof Lodge (built in 1913 for the German Crown Prince in English villa style), fine words were said about the ‘five d’s’—demilitarisation, de-Nazification, de-industralisation, decentralisation and democracy. Nothing was done about Poland, where borders were being redrawn at the point of a bayonet and a bloody purge of non-Communist elements was under way, or about the fates of other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where the Red Army was likewise enforcing Stalin’s will.
The Russians must have been delighted that America proposed to withdraw from Europe by 1947. There was still nothing in writing about access to Berlin.
Harry Truman announced that America had the atom bomb. The Soviet dictator did not seem especially impressed. This was, as so often, misleading. Stalin knew about the bomb through a spy within the American atomic establishment. He had already ordered his scientists (and the German rocket experts the NKVD was busy kidnapping) to accelerate the Soviet nuclear programme.
Walter Ulbricht had undertaken visits to Moscow twice during June 1945. He was again instructed to resist attempts to initiate a dictatorship of the proletariat and the wholesale state seizure of industrial and financial companies.
Calls to this effect came especially from home-grown Communists. When the German Communist Party was re-founded on 10 June, of the sixteen signatories to its appeal, only three had spent the Nazi period as ‘illegals’ in Germany. The rest were Moscow-trained exiles, blooded in the savagely conformist cockpit of the Hotel Lux on Tver’skaya Street.
Slowly the British, the Americans and the French established themselves. The Berliners’ welcome was complex, but on the warm side. One British officer wrote:
Germans are by no means sullen or resentful…they gaze fixedly, but many smile and wave, a few almost cheer. It is indeed a more sober liberation welcome than a triumphant entry into a conquered city, and for that, without doubt, we have the Russians to thank. Who would ever have foretold this, the most amazing irony of all, that when we entered Berlin we would come as liberators, not as tyrants, for the Germans.16
George Clare had come to Britain in 1938 from Vienna as a young Jewish refugee, and now returned as a British soldier to work with the Control Commission. His route to Britain seven years previously had led via Berlin. He had become attached to the Kurfürstendamm:
Its wide tree-lined pavements were always crowded with strollers…Wherever you looked, at people, at shop windows, at the dense traffic, you saw the signs of prosperity. In the early autumn of 1938 life in Germany—unless one was either a Jew or valued justice, liberty, individuality—was pleasant…I, however, was a Jew…17
He was shocked by the changes war had wrought. And yet life continued:
Berlin was not a lifeless moonscape. It lived—albeit in something of a zombied trance—mirrored in the dazed looks of many of the people I passed, more often noticeable in men than in women. But then the men were mostly old or elderly, bowed and bitter-faced; the few youngish ones who were about—emaciated shadows of the soldiers who had almost conquered an entire continent—looked pathetic and downtrodden in the tattered remnants of their Wehrmacht uniforms.18
Sadly, one particular part of Berlin that no longer lived was the family of George Clare’s mother’s aunt, Frau Bartmann, with whom he and his parents had spent evenings while awaiting their visas in the autumn of 1938. The Bartmanns, also Jews, had never emigrated. Clare knew enough to guess what that probably meant.
One day, Clare found himself outside a familiar apartment block. Seven years before, this was where they had lived: sixty-year-old Frau Bartmann—Aunt Manya—and her daughter, Clare’s cousin, the attractive, quick-witted Rosl, who had worked for Air France in Berlin, avoiding the Nazis’ ban on employment of Jews in public bodies. He examined the door of the apartment, but found only names he didn’t know. On careful examination he saw ‘a small oblong space on the upper-left door panel where the name plate “M. and R. Bartmann” had kept it free of Berlin’s grime’. As Clare wrote many years later: ‘That little rectangle, a shade lighter than the rest of the door, was their only epitaph. The only one they would ever have.’19
During talks that eventually ‘allowed’ the three Western allies to take possession of their sectors, they made a serious misjudgement. Their negotiators agreed that all orders issued by the Soviet commandant since Berlin had been under ‘Allied’ (i.e. until July de facto Soviet) control, remained in force until further notice.
These Soviet orders were more than simple administrative provisions. They included the appointment throughout Berlin of block and street wardens. Just as in the Nazi period, these people reported on and disciplined anyone who did things of which the authorities (that is, the SMA and its agents) might not approve.
On 17 August, the British commander for Charlottenburg district stripped such persons of all powers, and forbade them from interfering in the private lives of local people. The American military authorities followed suit. Westerners realised that they would have to take concrete steps to ensure that genuine representative democracy, with its concomitant freedoms, would return to Berlin. It would not happen of its own volition.
It took some weeks until the extent of the French sector was agreed. The British were the main supporters of a French role, so their share of Berlin, comprising the districts of Reinickendorf and Wedding, was carved out of the northern part of the British sector. The difference between Paris and the other Western allies was that it wanted to keep the Germans as weak and disunited as possible.
The French opposed turning the Allied Control Commission into an Allied government for the whole of the country, and at first discouraged German self-government. France continued to lay claim to the German-speaking Saar industrial area, as well as to control of the Rhineland and the mighty Ruhr industrial basin. Fiercely opposed, for patriotic reasons, to Soviet interference in their sector, they were unprepared to join the Anglo-Americans in standing up for the rights of Berliners in the face of increasingly blatant power-plays by the East and its agents.20
For the meantime, anyway, many Westerners persuaded themselves that these excesses were oversights, the result of Soviet inexperience in running a modern city.
Political life began to revive in the Soviet Zone. Ulbricht hoped that the SPD’s erstwhile supporters would flock to the KPD, attracted by its dynamism and its closeness to the Soviet occupiers.21 He was wrong. The SPD re-formed very quickly and within weeks had branches all over the Soviet Zone. Many on the left of the SPD had become so excited by the heady atmosphere of liberation that they started campaigning for the ‘reunification’ of the German workers’ movement. In the 1930s, it was the split on the Left that had handed power to the Nazis. Never again!
Ulbricht’s team dutifully followed Stalin’s orders and kept its distance. To retain an element of control, however, Ulbricht proposed joint policy committees in which they would discuss how best to rebuild Germany in a democratic, socialist fashion. The SPD agreed.
The middle-class parties were also encouraged to re-form. They would be invited to join the KPD in a post-war ‘block’. In the case of the Liberal Party (LDPD), the ‘bourgeois democrats’ were slow to get going. ‘Walter, what can I do?’ complained Richard Gyptner, the apparatchik charged with co-ordinating this. ‘They talk a lot, but don’t seem that keen on founding a party.’ ‘Well, Richard, just give them a good talking to,’ Ulbricht replied sternly. On 5 July 1945, the Liberal Democratic Party was founded in Berlin, following the establishment of the centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) on 25 June.
On 14 July, the ‘Unity Front of the Anti-Fascist Democratic Parties’ was announced. It comprised five representatives each from KPD, CDU, SPD and LDPD. Ulbricht’s pseudo-democratic edifice stood in place. Two years later, the finishing touch was added by the creation of the National Democratic Party (NDPD), a home for repentant small-fish ex-Nazis and ex-militarists who wanted their sins forgiven and a role in the ‘building of socialism’.22
The trick was that, although the KPD would appear to be just one party among equals, it was in fact the only political group within the ‘Unity Front’ that had the ear of the all-powerful SMA. Ulbricht met with senior Soviet officials every day. Without these officials—and therefore without him—nothing happened in the Soviet Zone.
This was the situation the Western Allies faced: a ‘block’ of superficially independent parties, a Berlin city administration fronted by democratic and/or bourgeois figures, but with shadowy, Soviet-controlled groups in the background.
In November, elections were held in Hungary and Austria, where similar ‘blocks’ existed under Soviet auspices. Local Communists did badly and the bourgeois and moderate-left parties very well. The hope that Soviet nominees would sweep all before them as part of a natural historical process was seen to be mistaken. A worried Soviet official told Ulbricht that if they wanted to avoid the ‘Austrian danger’, they would need to take a more forceful attitude towards non-Communists.23
Soon came a policy change. In late January 1946, Ulbricht again flew to Moscow. Stalin now told him that a merger between KPD and SPD must be achieved at all costs. The process was to be completed by the symbolic date of 1 May 1946.
Leftist Social Democrats such as Otto Grotewohl were in favour, and carried some of the rank and file with them. Many other SPD activists resisted. Those in the East quickly found themselves banned from speaking by Soviet commanders, who held absolute power in their localities. Others were dismissed or arrested on spurious charges. Attempts to organise a free Berlin-wide ballot of SPD members were foiled by the Soviet authorities, sometimes at the point of a gun. Polling stations in the West that managed to stay open showed a substantial majority against the merger.
It didn’t matter. In the German State Opera House in East Berlin on 21/2 April 1946, a thousand delegates formally voted to merge the parties. More than half the membership of the new ‘Socialist Unity Party of Germany’ (SED in German) was made up of Social Democrats. The fourteen seats on the party committee were distributed 50/50 between Social Democrats and Communists. Joint leaders were Wilhelm Pieck (KPD) and Otto Grotewohl (SPD), while their deputies were Walter Ulbricht (KPD) and Max Fechner (SPD). Grotewohl and Pieck shook hands to a storm of applause. A stylised version of the handshake became the SED’s emblem, later reproduced on a million banners and badges and posters.
With the creation of the SED, the real power in the Soviet Zone rested with the man who was technically its joint deputy leader. Walter Ulbricht, the relentless Saxon, reigned supreme in the entity he had so industriously and ruthlessly constructed. It was now a year since his arrival in the ruins of the German capital.
And Ulbricht had not finished with Berlin yet.
With Germany at their feet, the victors were soon at each other’s throats. The Western Allies found themselves overwhelmed by too little of some things and too much of others. They had too little shelter and food. They had too many helpless, unproductive human beings.
In May 1945, the population of Berlin was half what it had been a few months earlier. Much of the population had fled west to escape the Russians, and many who stayed died in the fighting for the capital.
At the Potsdam Conference, a fateful step was taken. The borders of Germany were moved hundreds of miles to the west. The Poles would get most of the territories east of that new line. Protocol XII stipulated that if long-established German populations were removed from these areas, this would be done ‘in an orderly and humane manner’.
Sadly, humaneness had nothing to do with it. Countries that had suffered the cruelties of German occupation thirsted for revenge. Of the five million Germans in the Polish-occupied territories, almost all were also expelled, often suddenly and with great brutality. On 19 May 1945, the Czechoslovak government announced that their three million German-speaking compatriots, the so-called ‘Sudeten Germans’, would be forced to leave. Women were raped, families robbed by thugs who roamed the roads and preyed upon refugee trains. Murder was commonplace.
Many of the roads and railway lines led through Berlin. Robert Murphy, political adviser to the American commandant, described the parlous situation of the refugees in a message to the State Department on 12 October 1945:
At the Lehrter Rail Station in Berlin alone, our medical authorities state an average of ten have been dying daily from exhaustion, malnutrition and illness. In viewing the distress and despair of these wretched people…the mind reverts instantly to Dachau and Buchenwald. Here is retribution on a large scale, but practised not on the Parteibonzen [Nazi Party bosses] but on women and children, the poor and infirm.24
Life magazine gave a figure of eight million refugees in Berlin. Perhaps a wild exaggeration, but the city was full to overflowing. The Allies had enough trouble feeding the 1.5 million Berliners under their care. At one point, up to 25,000 refugees were reaching the Berlin city boundary each day. Perhaps these desperate people hoped that something of pre-war, splendid Berlin, with all its possibilities, survived. They could not have realised how much of the city lay in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of dwellings had been reduced to rubble. In the British sector, forty-three out of forty-four hospitals had been destroyed or seriously damaged. Newcomers were pushed straight on to westbound trains, any westbound train.
At this point, the Soviets forbade the importation of food from the surrounding countryside. They also began, under administrative pretexts, to limit the number of trains that could travel to and from the Western zones. Since original Russian regulations remained in force, for a long time the Soviets retained control, by default, of most aspects of everyday life. They could increase the pain any time they chose.
Constant hunger became the Berliners’ lot. Allied soldiers or officials had access to drink, food, nylons, and especially cigarettes (which became Berlin’s unofficial currency). If they were not averse to bending the rules, they could live like kings. The going price for sex with a German woman was five cigarettes. The activity of Kippensammler (cigarette-butt collector) became a recognised calling. A waiter in places frequented by Allied troops made a tidy side-income in this way; those at the Café Wien could earn five dollars per hundred.25 A black-market bazaar spread across the huge expanse of the Tiergarten park in the centre of Berlin, where East met West.
In August 1945, it was reported that each day between fifty and a hundred children who had lost both parents, or had been abandoned, were collected from Berlin’s stations and taken to orphanages or foster-parents.26 These were the lucky ones. Gangs of children roamed the streets, thieving where they could, looting abandoned buildings and hoarding scrap to sell.
By October 1945, the German civilian ration was 800 calories per day. In the British sector at New Year 1946, it had fallen to about 400. Fuel shortages were inevitable. Previously, most of Berlin’s coal had come from Silesia, just a few hundred kilometres to the east. Now the Silesian mines were in Polish hands. All coal had to be imported, mostly from the Ruhr, far away in western Germany. It was required at the rate of 600 tons per day as winter came on. There was never enough.
Around 12,000 Berliners died during that first post-war year, of starvation or of illnesses associated with malnutrition. However, for the survivors there ensued a feverish cultural flowering—newspapers opened in the Western sectors, theatres and night-clubs and cabarets, and even film studios were open again for business. Berliners might have little to eat, and they might freeze in unheated cellars, but for the first time since 1933 they could do, say and write what they wanted. With grim humour, these were known as the ‘golden hunger years’.27
In the Soviet Zone, SPD and KPD had merged to form the SED. This was not, however, the end of the old SPD. When allowed, most SPD members had voted against union with the Communists. Despite persecution in the Soviet sector, the oldest and largest working-class party continued to operate on a citywide basis.
Elections for provincial and municipal assemblies throughout the Soviet Zone (and in parts of the Western zones) took place in September/October 1946. The Soviets and the Communists did their best to persuade—or intimidate—the electorate into voting for the SED. All the same, the results were, for Ulbricht and his Soviet masters, a disappointment. This was crushingly true in Berlin.
In the Berlin city elections, the SPD won almost 49 per cent of the votes. Second came the right-of-centre CDU with 22 per cent. Despite massive support from the Communist political machine and the Soviet Military Administration, the SED trailed at 19.8 per cent. The SPD beat the SED in every district—even ‘Red’ Wedding, where before Hitler came to power the Communists had regularly won 60 per cent of the vote.
Colonel Sergei Tiul’panov, director of propaganda for the Soviet Military Administration, was outraged. It would in future, he declared, be necessary ‘to forbid categorically even the slightest degree of disrespect towards the Soviet Union and Soviet occupation authorities’.
In the winter of 1946/7, the Communists decided to pursue a ‘hard’ course. There was a wave of arrests, of real or imagined Nazis and ‘subversives’, including liberal and Social Democrat activists. In 1946, the Soviets set up the German Administration of the Interior (Deutsche Verwaltung des Innern = DVdI), made up entirely of trusted Communists, which would control a German auxiliary police force soon dubbed the ‘People’s Police’.
Ominously, ‘special camps’ were set up. Some of these, as an appalled world would later learn, were converted Nazi concentration camps such as Buchenwald, near Weimar, and Sachsenhausen, thirty-five kilometres from Berlin. At least 150,000 Germans and 35,000 non-Germans from the Soviet Zone disappeared into these brutal places between 1945 and 1949.
Whether these were death camps like those run by the Nazis remains a matter of controversy. There were many executions and beatings. Deaths through disease, malnutrition and maltreatment accounted for at least a third of those imprisoned, as they did in the Soviet Gulag system. Although the Soviets and their German allies claimed that many of those who died were Nazis and war criminals, the vast majority were, in fact, either relatively low-level Hitlerite fellow travellers or simply opponents of the Stalinist system.28The leaders of the rapidly growing DVdI would emerge openly in the 1950S as commanders of the internationally notorious Stasi.
It took one of the Communists’ own to lead the fight-back. That figure was Ernst Reuter. In common with many who rose to prominence in Berlin (as in New York and London), Reuter was originally from somewhere else.
Born, like Hitler, in 1889, Reuter grew up as son of a sea captain in Friesland. In the First World War, he served on the Eastern Front. He was captured, became a prisoner of war in Russia, and after the revolution was drawn to Bolshevism. Reuter caught the attention of Lenin himself, who sent him back to Germany at the beginning of 1919. He became Berlin Secretary of the infant KPD.
Reuter underwent a meteoric rise to the top of the German Communist Party, but his career as a revolutionary was short-lived. Disillusioned by the KPD’s violent methods, he found his way to the SPD.
Reuter was elected an SPD city councillor and became a successful member of Berlin’s magistracy, responsible for transport policy. He originated the unitary ticket and pushed forward with building more subway lines, aware that the automobile could change the city in profound and probably undesirable ways. From 1931 to 1933, Reuter accepted the job of High Burgomaster of Magdeburg. During the economic crisis, he worked tirelessly on relief projects for the unemployed. After 1933, he was saved from a concentration camp by friends who got Reuter a job advising the Turkish government on transport. He spent the war years exiled in Ankara.
Reuter returned to Berlin in 1945. He was once more elected to the city council and awarded his old job in charge of transport. Then, in May 1947, the existing Mayor was forced to resign, and Reuter was offered the top post.
The Communists hated no one more than an apostate. The Soviet commandant refused to recognise Reuter’s election. He had to stand down in favour of the SPD veteran Louise Schröder, but remained the key figure around whom Berlin’s anti-Communists rallied. Reuter’s understanding, as an ex-KPD insider, of the mentality of apparatchiks such as Ulbricht, proved invaluable.
Frustrated by their inability to run Berlin as they wished, the Communists started arresting their opponents, not just in the Soviet Zone but also in the West. Paul Markgraf, a former Wehrmacht captain, captured at Stalingrad and transformed into a keen Communist, was appointed Police President of Berlin by the Soviets in May 1945. More than 5,000 individuals thought undesirable by Markgraf’s masters ‘disappeared’ from the streets of Berlin, including the Western sectors.29
George Clare described the routine, based on his own experience as a British employee of the Control Commission in Berlin:
The Russians…began to ‘take out’ political and human-rights activists who opposed them. It was all over in seconds. A car screeched to a sudden halt, hefty men jumped out, grabbed their victim, bundled him into their vehicle and, before those who witnessed it could even begin to comprehend what had happened, they were racing off in the direction of the Soviet sector.30
After each abduction, the Western commandants lodged a protest at Red Army HQ in Berlin-Karlshorst. General Kotikov, their Soviet colleague, would deny involvement, sigh, and remind them that it was their job to prevent ‘banditry’ in their sectors, not his.