May 16, 2017

1949. The Communist-Socialist Divide in Berlin

The Lord Mayors of East and West Berlin
Mayor of West Berlin Ernst Reuter walks along a railway platform in May 1949 (photo by Charles E. Steinheimer)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin - "Newsmakers"

January 14, 1949

This is a tale of two cities: East Berlin and West Berlin, as represented in the lives of the men chosen to lead on its schizophrenic way.

The split personality of this city, a result of the Russian blockade, is amply demonstrated by the characters of the two men who are today's newsmakers. Representing the Soviet Union's stand in the Berlin crisis is Fritz Ebert, oberbürgermeister of the self-proclaimed Opera House government of East Berlin.

Heading West Berlin is Professor Ernst Reuter, socialist, former communist and oberbürgermeister of the blockaded sectors by virtue of the elections held last December 5.

When the communist-dominated Socialist Unity Party proclaimed itself a government a month and a half ago, and when it was announced that the name of the new bürgermeister was Friedrich Ebert, perhaps the most surprised man in all Berlin was Ebert himself. Announcing the appointment in such a way made it impossible for him to refuse. The communists had the use of a name famous in German history, one allied with democracy and freedom in the minds of most Berliners.

After the city got over the initial shock toward the "little Czechoslovakia" coup in the Eastern part of Berlin, their next reaction to the hoisting of Ebert as head of this rump government was one of amusement. Newspapers, looking through their files for biographical material, found themselves short of it. "He simply is not that important," librarians explain.

Western Berlin cartoonists refer to him as "Fritzchen," the diminutive and derisive child's nickname.

His former colleagues in the Socialist Party shook their hands and opined that Ebert had finally trapped himself in his own opportunism.

There is still argument whether Ebert is a villain or a victim of his own ambition. Most Berliners look on him as a collaborator—a risk every German politician must take in attempting to work with any of the occupation powers.

Perhaps Ebert's greatest achievement is in having been born the son of his father, also named Friedrich Ebert, the first President of the Weimar Republic established in Germany after World War I.

The father was a leading Social Democrat who built up a reputation for middle-of-the-road political leadership. Young Friedrich, who served as a soldier for three years under the Kaiser, didn't absorb much of his father's liberal philosophy. But his acquaintances explain that "Fritz always was a problem to his parents."

The boy was born in Bremen on September 12, 1894. He took up the printing trade, where he joined the trade unions. When these unions were organized into the Social Democratic Party, Ebert went along. When the first war came along, it was an easy shift from printing to journalism, and he interested himself in socialism. After the war he rose in socialist politics and finally was elected deputy to the Reichstag, where he served from 1928 to 1933.

It must be mentioned that Ebert built his political career at the height of his father's popularity in Germany. When Hitler came to power, the Nazis immediately arrested Ebert, and he spent eight months as a political prisoner in a number of concentration camps. He was under constant supervision after his release and was forced to join the Wehrmacht in the Polish campaign.

The defeat of Germany in 1945 found Ebert back in socialist politics, this time as district chairman of the party for the province of Hamburg.  The Russian occupation troops moved in. Ebert was impressed, and he made his split with the socialists of the West.

The German Communist Party proposed that the Socialists merge with them to create what they called a strong "worker's bloc" in the Soviet zone. Old time Socialists, who hoped to build an independent political movement, objected. Ebert, however, played along with the Communists and advocated forming the Socialist Unity Party, or the SED. The SED now is the party which runs the Soviet zone of Germany, or rather it is the instrument of the Soviet military government that runs East Berlin and Eastern Germany.

Having made this concession to his political principles, other concessions followed naturally. Ebert's former Socialist colleagues report that when they needed help in dealing with the Russian occupation authorities, Ebert would refuse. These men also report that he began drinking heavily.

His adherence to the communist party line and subservience to the Soviet occupation authorities made him a great favorite among the Russians, to whom the name Ebert meant built-in political prestige for the German people.

In 1946, Ebert moved from Brandenburg with his family and part of his staff to take residence in the Potsdam headquarters of the Russian occupation authority.

He was given an automobile, a comfortable home, extra food rations, and most importantly, according to those who know him, he was also given large supplies of wine and liquor.

There are those who say that Ebert thought he really could work with the communists in rebuilding Germany, and that his original purposes were honorable. But the Potsdam bribe stopped even these stories.

Ebert looks all of his fifty-four years. Dumpy and moderate height, the combination of his bald head, his round face, and his thick glasses gives him something of the appearance of a frightened bullfrog.

But more descriptive of the Oberbürgermeister Fritz Ebert and the things for which he pretends to stand is his New Year's message to the people of East Berlin. "Germany is torn into two pieces," he declared. "Her unity is sacrificed in honor of American imperialists and monopolists..."

Such pronouncements brought protests from his brother Karl. During the recent Berlin elections, Karl Ebert warned Berliners that "the name of Ebert has been misused to deceive you...The first bearer of this name stood for freedom," the brother continued. "Do not let it be betrayed."

It is hard not to feel sorry for Fritz Ebert, for he appears to be the loneliest man in Berlin. Disowned by the men who knew and worked with his father, discredited for discarding his political beliefs, disavowed by his family, and finally, distrusted by the men for whom he works.

It is common talk even in communist circles that Ebert must soon be replaced and a more dynamic and influential man take his place. If and when this happens, the puppet strings will be cut from his legs and arms and brain, and he will join a large heap of Europeans who have had similar experiences over the past dozen years—men who tried to make a deal with their consciences.

If Western Berliners suspect the principles and motives of Fritz Ebert, it is only fair to say that the communists, for their part, suspect the principles of the Oberbürgermeister of blockaded Western Berlin. They have good reason for doing so.

Professor Ernst Reuter has had a fantastic political career that has taken him to the Russian Volga, made him an exile in Britain and Turkey, and now has earned him the most important job in this former German capital.

He is a big man; fifty-nine years old, six feet tall, and weighs about 180 pounds. If Ebert looked like a frightened bullfrog, it can be said that Reuter reminds one of a disappointed St. Bernard dog with his heavy features, sad eyes, and immobile expression.

West Berlin, which elected Reuter to office, comprises the American, British, and French sectors. He governs about two-thirds of the city, a total of two and one-quarter million people. The Social Democratic Party is developing into the most virile of all in Germany. It has a socialistic program spelled out for the country that has wide appeal. The Socialists also have overwhelming self-confidence, and it is this quality that Oberbürgermeister Reuter most expresses.

As a political phenomenon, Reuter is unique in any country. He was born into a middle class family, fairly well-to-do in Schleswig-Holstein. His father rain a marine navigation school. Young Ernst was one of five sons, but he was an intellectual black sheep. In school and college he concentrated on history, economics, and languages. Today, Reuter speaks English, French, Turkish, and Russian, as well as German. When he has time for relaxation, he might also read Plato or the Roman poets in Greek or Latin.

Before World War I, he did not fit the standard German military pattern. As a youth he was a leader of the pacifist movement called "New Fatherland." He had joined the Socialist Party; the pacifist movement was an outlet of his idealism. However, the Kaiser banned the movement, and young Ernst found himself in the army.

He was captured on the Russian front in 1917. It was an interesting situation. A 28-year-old idealist, victim of a war in which he did not believe. He found himself in the middle of the Russian Revolution, a revolution  protesting war, oppression, and monarchy. Reuter joined the revolution and became a communist.

It was in those days, from 1917 to the 1920s, that Reuter became acquainted with Lenin and a man named Josef Stalin. He doesn't talk volubly about his Communist Party experiences. "Those were the times when Communism was a people's movement," Reuter explains. "Nothing like it is now."

Such was his status among the new victorious communists that Lenin once described him as one of the only "true revolutionaries in Germany."

The peak of Reuter's communist career in Russia came when he was made commissar in charge of organizing the Volga German Republic. The assignment was to set up the "German Volga Labor Commune," an area comprising more than ten thousand square miles and which eventually achieved a population of more than a half-million persons.

But Ernst Reuter was considered too valuable a man to be stuck on the banks of the Volga. The Party reassigned him to return to defeated Germany to help duplicate the glorious communist revolution in his Fatherland. Reuter agreed to return. The wisdom of this decision is best testified in the current history books, which remark: "The Volga German Republic was dissolved on September 24, 1941. Its inhabitants were resettled in Siberia."

Reuter was almost thirty years old then. He returned in 1919 to be the General Secretary of the Berlin Communist Party. Germany after the First World War was ripe for rebellion. Allied occupation policy was vague. It would appear that the communists would have an easy time of it in the postwar chaos, but they failed. For all the armed rioting in Hamburg and Berlin, in Saxony and Thuringia and the Ruhr, they were beaten down.

There was a crisis and a purge in the Communist Party. Reuter renounced his communist affiliation. "I could not take dictatorship from Moscow and remain a good German," he says. "When the Kremlin came in the door, freedom went out the window."

This turning point in 1921 resulted in Reuter rejoining the Independent Socialist Party and again plunging into German politics. Reuter's ability and experience rapidly carried him to leadership. He became editor of two socialist newspapers. He was elected to the city council where he organized the municipally-owned Berlin Transport Company, which still struggles with the transportation problem. In 1930 he was elected a deputy to the Reichstag, and then three years later Hitler came to power.

Like Fritz Ebert, Reuter soon found himself a political prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. His first sentence there lasted seven months. He was released and rearrested, this time spending several months in solitary confinement. British Quakers obtained his release again, and this time he fled the country. He took up brief residence in Berlin until invited to become a municipal and economic adviser to the Turkish government. In this capacity he spent eleven years in exile, also teaching at the University of Ankara.

But the dream was always to return to Germany. He says he wanted one of two jobs when he returned: either the job of socializing the Ruhr, or to be oberbürgermeister of Berlin. The fact that he got the latter job appears almost inevitable.

Viewed from the East, the West, or from the German point of view, the job of being Lord Mayor of Berlin is not a comfortable one, whether it is East Berlin or West Berlin.

As I said before, die-hard German nationalists—and there are plenty of them—regard the men who attempt to work with the occupying powers as collaborationists.

Ebert of East Berlin has perhaps the easiest administrative job. He has only one occupation power to worry about. His one big decision which he must make every day is to be polite. All other policy is made for him.

On the other hand, Reuter has to work with Americans, British, and French. He has to consider the position of two other political parties opposing him. And he has to keep one eye, sometimes both of them, on the East.

What manner of governments do these two men offer? Oberbürgermeister Ebert, in being proclaimed into office, demonstrated his brand of democracy, a government calling itself a people's movement; of police control, of single party domination, of enforced labor and fear.

The Oberbürgermeister Reuter of West Berlin says that the Socialists "foresee a free, democratic Germany following the same pattern as the Labour government in Britain, but with its own constitution and parliamentary procedures."

The Oberbürgermeister Ebert of East Berlin declares: "The fight for Berlin is a fight for peace, for Germany, for the reestablishment of her unity, and for her democratic future."

The difference in these two propositions facing bisected Berlin today lies in the definition of that one word: democracy.

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