Before the Wall The Soviet Fight for Postwar 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.
Editor's Note: Berlin is currently celebrating its 775th anniversary. In the coming days, SPIEGEL ONLINE International will be publishing a series of stories on the history of Germany 's capital. This is the fifth part of the series. The first , second , third and fourth parts can be read here.
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.
- Part 1: The Soviet Fight for Postwar Berlin
- Part 2: The Carrot-and-Stick Approach