September 4, 2015

1948. Politics and the Black Market in West Germany

The Western Stand
The Berlin airlift in 1948 (photo by Walter Sanders of Life magazine)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

July 30, 1948: The Airlift

We who have lived in Berlin during these past months of crisis have a special feeling about the airlift, and the Anglo-American announcement that it is to be cut to skeleton size beginning next Monday leaves us all a little sentimental.

Berliners have developed the same affection for the air-bridge that kept them alive last winter as, say, San Franciscans have about their cable cars, or New Yorkers have about the old elevateds.

However, there isn't a man flying in Operation Vittles who isn't glad that the show is over. The glamour, if there was any, in making the routine flight twice daily two hours up the corridor and two hours back, disappears after a couple of weeks.

And the American and British taxpayer should be happy. Someone figured out that it cost about $250 a ton to deliver coal and other supplies into Berlin.

The Big Four foreign ministers should also be pleased. For once it would appear that we have achieved a working agreement under the modus vivendi plan arrived at in Paris last May. Diplomatically, the posture is to keep the fingers crossed. That's the reason that the announcement retiring Operation Vittles specifies that "a reduced force of US and British air force planes will remain immediately available in Germany and that each air force will maintain installations sufficient to ensure that the airlift can, if necessary, resume operation at any time and thereafter be built up to full scale."

Beginning Monday, the skeleton airlift assignment is 5,400 tons of supplies for the month of August. In other words, for the entire month the troop carrier groups will fly in what would normally be considered a bad day on the airlift. This means that during August an average of eighteen planes a day will fly the corridors. In September, this will be reduced to about twelve planes daily, and in October the average daily flights will involve only seven planes.

This exercise is just to keep the air force's hand in, in case the Russians change their mind about blockading Berlin.

So it would appear that we may have a quiet summer in the East-West Cold War. If there is going to be more pressure, the experts here don't expect it until fall.

But we are going to miss the airlift. The steady drone of planes overhead spoke louder than the combined propaganda organizations of the Politburo, the Cominform, the German Communists, and the Kremlin itself in assuring that the Democracies meant it when they declared they would not be shoved out of Berlin or any place else they had a right to be.

However, there are genuine fears here in Berlin that the restricted operation of the airlift marks the first retreat of the Western allies from this city, one hundred miles inside the Soviet zone. These pessimists are not without logic. They point to the reorganization now underway under High Commissioner John J. McCloy. This reorganization calls for the moving of military and civilian personnel from Berlin to the Frankfurt area, leaving only two hundred persons to conduct the quadripartite offices here. When these retreat rumors started spreading, Mr. McCloy issued a special statement this week saying that he intended to maintain two offices, one on American zonal headquarters in Frankfurt and one in Berlin. But the uneasiness among the people, who during the blockade defied the Soviet military administration and their German Communist stooges, still continues to grow.

The fact that the airlift is to be put on a standby basis is not going to help dispel these fears.

At the height of the blockade last winter it was reported that the Communist strategy was to cause such suffering and discomfort under the blockade of West Berlin that the population would become desperate and restive. Then deliberate rioting would be provoked and the Soviet military government could move in troops on the excuse of preserving law and order in their zone.

Withdrawing large numbers of Americans from Berlin has given rise to the fear that the German Communists may become more bold; that political kidnappings will increase; that we may allow the democratic two-thirds of the city to fall into Communist hands by default.

There has been no announcement as to just how many security troops the American, British, and French commandants intend to keep here. But I am told that there has been no change in policy, and that the fifty-nine lives and millions of man-hours of effort expended in these past thirteen months in the airlift would mean nothing if we retreated from our stand in Berlin at this time.

As a matter of fact, the Democracies are so committed morally in Berlin that any immediate policy change is unthinkable. The effect on Western Europe as a whole could be disastrous. The East-West struggle in Berlin has become a capsule symbol of the parallel conflict throughout the world.

But the fact remains—and every West Berliner knows this—that if in the future the United States of America wants to change its policy regarding the dangerous and expensive position in Berlin, it will be much easier and can be done with much less loss of face if only a small establishment is withdrawn than if the main headquarters is in this exposed position.

So the Anglo-American airlift is ending its current mission to supply by air a population of two and a half million persons under blockade. This mission succeeded, and now comes time for summary. Who has won what?

There is confusion in trying to add up the plus and the minus that has evolved from Operation Vittles. There are no absolute victories to be won in a cold war alone.

In terms of power, it is probably true that the past year's East-West struggle in Germany has been a standoff. But it is also true that the Soviet Union and its German Communist sympathizers have taken an ideological and spiritual lacing. And no one should underestimate the importance of the moral victory that the Western stand has achieved.

The fact remains, however, that materially the American, British, and French sectors of Berlin stand substantially where they were a year ago when the Russians imposed their blockade. The cost of maintaining this stand through the blockade. The cost of maintaining this stand through the blockade has been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but we are still here and doing business.

The Russian blockade policy has been defeated this time, but nothing material has been won. The Communists have not diverted from their goal to control the former German capital.

Berlin's Black Market

The Kurfürstendamm, the main shopping district in the British Sector, is the center of Berlin's black market. It still is the Fifth Avenue of this bedraggled city; a spot that specializes in sin and cynicism that has almost become a trademark of German morality. Today's Kurfürstendamm is as inevitable in postwar Germany as spots after measles.

There are Kurfürstendamms in Frankfurt in Bonn, in the Ruhr city of Düsseldorf and the Soviet zone cities of Leipzig and Dresden. At these centers one can buy American cigarettes, Russian caviar, Italian silk stockings, Parisian perfumes, narcotics from the Middle East, and women.

The symbols of the black marketeer in Germany have changed from the bedraggled little men with the knowing looks and the briefcases. Today the black marketeer is a well dressed man wearing a modified zoot suit. He has a wide brimmed hat with a bright band, and this summer his uniform calls for dark glasses. Dark glasses have become a symbol of illicit living here in Berlin.

In the difficult give-and-take of the ordinary German caught between the struggle of East and West, every person is in the black market one way or the other.

The man with twenty pounds of coffee thinks himself better off than his neighbor who works on the railroad. He may be able to parlay the coffee into something substantial, and if he does, he can buy dark glasses. With a railroad job, who knows when you have to strike.

It is not that every German makes his living dealing illegally. But the Horatio Algers of this defeated country are to be found on the Kurfürstendamms. The trade is for food and drink and housing and clothing and profit and power. People think not in terms of security but in terms of opportunism.

And that is the political pattern of Germany too.

The Political Situation

At the present moment, the major political parties in Western Germany are conducting their campaigns for the first free general election in this nation since Hitler came to power in 1933. An estimated 17.5 million people are eligible to vote, but from the size of the crowds attending the so-called mass rallies of the political parties, observers are predicting that they will be surprised if half the electorate turns out on election day August 14th.

People are staying away from politics in droves. One of the reasons is that the German people have lost faith in elections as such. They had elections under the Weimar government and Hitler emerged. Many of the same men who ran Weimar are now heading up politics of the new West German state.

The British-licensed newspaper, Die Welt, conducted the other day a pre-election poll of some three thousand persons. The results are interesting. According to this poll, only six percent of the people favor the formation of the West German government as the sole government of Germany. The rest look on it only as an interim movement until a united Germany can be achieved. The amazingly high number of twenty-two percent of the people oppose taking the step.

The newspaper concludes that the present politicians thus must deal with the enduring resentment of the population. To the question, "What do you think of the Bonn constitution?" the reply from those sampled was uniform: "Who asked these people to form a constitution for us?"

The unfortunate fact is that, after sixteen years of dictatorship, the ordinary German is politically immature. The country has reached back to the days of the Weimar government for its leadership towards democracy. And this leadership—men like Adenauer, Schumacher, and Erhard—demand this traditional authoritarian control of their parties.

Although women have the right to vote and run for office, in only one province only three women were nominated as candidates, although there were sixty-five offices open.

The newspaper poll asked for suggestions as to people they would like to see in the West German government. Among the names mentioned were Pastor Niemöller, Otto Strasser, and General Clay.

However, whatever its shortcomings might be, the fact that Western Germany is staging an election at all is an important step towards the kind of Germany we want to see.

American political experts are of the opinion that the first government of the new Federal Republic of Germany will be a coalition of the right-wing parties. The Socialists, who have been the most vigorous and vocal in attacking everything from communism to the Occupation Powers, are expected to be the biggest single party in the parliament.

However the right-wing Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists, and Liberal Democrats are expected to team up against the Socialists. And then the horse-trading will begin as to what party will get the presidency and who will get the chancellorship.

The new federal diet is expected to hold its first session on September 5th or 6th.

In this current campaign, the Communist Party has been suspiciously quiet. Their opponents believe that Max Reimann, Western Germany's leading party leader, is holding his fire until the last moment. During the final days of the campaign, the Communists are said to have plans for a thousand rallies in Western Germany, but mostly they will concentrate on the industrial Ruhr area and in the big cities of Hamburg and Bremen.

One of the paradoxes of the present political situation in Germany is that on the major of issues of occupation, the right, left, and center are in agreement. All parties, including the Communists, want a unified Germany and blame East-West differences for the present split. All of them oppose occupation as a policy, although the anticommunist parties want the Western Powers to stick around as long as the Soviet Union is in Germany. All parties oppose the Ruhr statute, which gives the Western Powers international control of that area. And all parties, including the Communists, are bitterly attacking our dismantling program originally designed to destroy German war industry.

Thus, in backing the new Federal Republic of Germany, we are backing a state that will oppose our basic policies in this country. As I said, it is a paradoxical situation, but opposition is the paradox of democracy. And that is what we are betting on in the new Germany.

It is too early to say whether or not the government now emerging in Western Germany will be democratic. It is now democratic in form, but this form of government depends more on the spirit than the mechanics of operation.

The unanimous opposition to Western occupation policies from all segments of West German political parties is ample evidence of the intense nationalism existing in the Germans.

The nervousness over Berlin and the possibility that the Democracies might abandon her is evidence of German distrust of American, British, and French motives. The differences of the policies of the conquerors also has made the German a political cynic.

In the final analysis, it is not going to be America, Britain, or France which will decide the fate of the Federal Republic of Germany. It will be the German himself—the man who goes to the polls.

The elections next month are by way of being the first lesson of a great educational campaign in democracy. The ordinary Germany must be convinced that his vote has meaning and importance.

And part of this faith that he must learn must come from the Democracies.

The stand of the Western Powers in Berlin is a prime example of the kind of political morality that convinces the German that democracy can stand up against the totalitarian pressure that enmeshed him under Nazism and threatens him now under communism. The Western Powers must not erase the lesson of the airlift nor let its spirit die.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.