July 23, 2021

1949. Drafting a German Constitution Amid the Cold War Power Struggle

The Socialist and Christian Democratic Parties Seek Compromise
The Basic Law of West Germany is signed in Bonn (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

April 23, 1949

Maybe it was the fine spring weather—the first this year here in Berlin—but for the past week this whole blockaded city has been a little balmy.

"Rumor happy" is the term we use for it. Everywhere you went last week—whether it be a diplomatic cocktail party, a ride on the subway, in a bus, or into the office of an occupation field—it was the same.

"What about it," the conversations invariably started. "Are the Russians going to lift the blockade?"

The tipsters here had a field day. Your phone would ring, and the usual mysterious voice would say: "I have it from a friend of mine who goes out with a girl who works at the Soviet military government headquarters in Karlshorst. The transportation division is repairing coal cars to run into the Ruhr."

Or a friend might say: "I was talking to my Communist contact a while ago. He seemed very depressed. Do you suppose the Soviets are really going to do it?"

As the unconfirmable reports spread, the West Berlin newspapers began to print them. And the fever rose.

It was a week ago Friday that there first appeared to be some basis for the possibility that the Berlin siege might be lifted.

The German Economic Commission of the Soviet zone announced that certain enterprises of East Berlin and East Germany had been granted permission to establish trade relations with German concerns in the Western sectors of blockaded Berlin. A day later, a similar call for commercial ties with the West was made by the burgomaster of the rump government of East Berlin, Fritz Ebert.

You remember that on the day before Easter, the airlift set an all-time delivery record, flying more than 12,900 tons of supplies into Berlin. This was hailed as a complete defeat of the Russian blockade—a fact that sent Berlin's hopes even higher.

There was a report that the Russians had directed that the Berlin-Cologne train, which would have run across the Soviet zone border, be rescheduled for service this summer.

And today the strongest rumor hedges a bit—according to this report, the Russians are preparing to lift the blockade, but it won't occur until the middle of the summer.

The only trouble is that no responsible Western official here will admit knowing anything about the blockade-lifting rumors. From General Clay on down, American authorities say no Russian approach has been made to them.

The other difficulty is that all of these unconfirmable reports could be true, and the blockade might possibly be lifted tomorrow.

The Berlin Blockade is now almost ten months old. For nine of those months, the Western powers' counter-blockade has been in force. The Soviet authorities slapped on their blockade last June on the excuse that the Western currency reform violated Four Power agreements. Since then, Germany has been operating on a dual currency—the West mark and the East mark. On official exchanges here in Berlin, one West mark is worth four East marks, which is just about the measure of the progress of the two economies in the Western zones and the Soviet zone.

Every official report that we have had for the past six months shows that the Soviet zone economy is in bad shape. In instituting their original blockade, the Russian officials did not anticipate the effects of a counter-blockade, and East German factories cannot function efficiently without coal and steel and machines and parts and replacements from the factories of the Ruhr. For example, one of the big problems that had to be solved in the Russian zone industry was conversion of their furnaces from the hard coal of the Ruhr valley to the soft coal which had to be brought in from Poland.

A few days ago, the British Control Commission issued a set of comparative figures which tell the story. Total industrial production for the past year increased 151 percent in the West, and according to the Communists, 126 percent in the Soviet zone. Coal production increased 232 percent in the Western zones and 113 percent in the East. In the metallurgical industries, the increase in the Soviet zone was 140 percent; in the American and British zones it was about 200 percent. And so on down the line.

Six weeks ago I was in Leipzig. By walking through a city's streets and looking into shop windows and watching the people, one can get the feel of the well-being of the Community. I can testify that there is no comparison between the Soviet zone city of Leipzig and, say, the American zonal city of Frankfurt.

I mention this because one of the strongest arguments pointing to the imminent lifting of the blockade here is the fact that an unhealthy East German economy is a great burden to the Soviet Union. It not only makes Russian stewardship of her zone difficult, but it also hampers reparation payments back to Russia.

However, there is every evidence that the interest of the Soviet Union in Germany is more political than economic.

It is in the political field that this blockade situation is most interesting. There are those here who argue that Russia has finally realized that her siege on Berlin and the zonal blockade has been a political mistake; that she has alienated more Germans than she has won to the cause of Communism by taking such stringent measures. Although her propagandists have been working overtime, it is the Soviet Union who has received the blame for the splitting of Germany. Thus it is time for Russia's blockade policy to change.

And yet there is more to it than that. During the conference of foreign ministers early this month when the Atlantic Pact was signed, America, Britain, and France reached important agreements concerning the future of Germany. The most important of these agreements was the decision to proceed at once with the establishment of the West German government.

For many months now, West German politicians have been struggling with a constitution. They had received directives and advice from the Western powers as to the kind of constitution which would be acceptable to the occupation powers.

But there was not real urgency then about the setting up of a West German state. France was hesitant, lest she create another Wehrmacht power; Britain feared for her foreign markets. American policy was to compromise these disagreements. They were compromised here in Washington. The German politicians were told to get a move on. And the Communists in East Germany took note.

The two main political parties in Western Germany are the Social Democrats—the Socialists, who have the most delegates to the constitutional convention—and the right wing Christian Democrats, who are also strong. There is another minority called the Free Democratic Party as well as a couple of Communists.

The Socialists and the Christian Democrats worked out one draft of a constitution to which the occupation powers objected, claiming it would establish a government with too much concentrated power in the administration. The occupation powers demanded that the new Germany be based on a federation of Länder, or states. The Christian Democrats were willing to go along, but the Socialists objected. They insisted that the socialist government which they planned to institute would be unworkable, broken up into states; and that nationalization of basic industries, which they favor, would have to be just that—nationalization with national centralized control. So they walked out of the constitution committee last week to hold a special party meeting to see how far their members would allow them to compromise.

In the meantime, the rumors that the Russians were going to lift the blockade were beginning to spread with a strange coincidental timing.

Last Wednesday the Socialists had their party meeting in Hanover. Before the results were announced, the Communist-dominated government of East Berlin called a press conference in which they would announce "The New Plan for Berlin."

However, on Wednesday night the Socialists announced that they would not compromise on the constitution. They petulantly attacked what they called the "interference" of the occupation powers. And the Socialists then submitted their own short-form constitution which they said would be the only basis on which they would participate in future negotiations.

In other words, with the agreement on the West German constitution so near, the Socialists balked at the last minute. Today, the Christian Democratic Party leaders and the Socialist Party leaders are meeting to try to work out their differences.

But the most interesting reaction to all of this came from the Communists. The extraordinary meeting of the East Berlin magistrate was called off. The special press conference in which Oberbürgermeister Ebert was to announce the "New Plan" for Berlin was canceled at the last minute. The West German Communists issued an appeal to their archenemy, the Socialists, asking that the Socialists continue to refuse collaboration with the Western powers and the right wing Christian Democrats. The Communists wanted to form a coalition with the Socialists in order to bring about what they called the unity of Germany.

In other words, the rumors circulated about the lifting of the blockade appear to be a major political instrument in which the German Communists hoped to delay the formation of the West German state.

So far, this rumor-mongering has succeeded. As long as the Socialists hold up the constitution, the Communists can wait.

The blockade in Germany is the main motivation for the establishment of a separate government in the West. The blockade splits the nation economically to begin with, and no German political party or individual would bear the responsibility of splitting the country in the future if a new government were formed. But if Russia lifts the blockade, then there would once again be economic unity in Germany. It would be extremely embarrassing to the West German politicians in the process of splitting Germany politically to be caught with their blockade down, because the keystone of any successful political party in this country is German unity.

The West German politician is a strange animal. He is a kind of Communist in reverse. The German Communists spend all their time praising and emulating the Soviet Union. It works the other way in the democratic zones, where the German politician must present himself as resisting the occupation; of refusing to toady to the Americans, British, or French. If he and his party are to get the votes, he must take the stand of "Germany for the Germans."

Thus, they often talk for German ears and act under occupation order and suggestion. It is still possible that there can be agreement on the constitution and establishment of a West German state by this summer.

If there is no agreement by the West German politicians, then the occupation powers may have to act in setting up a national government as they did in the German states. Or perhaps the Germans would find a solution in a national election of delegates to an assembly, which would mean long delay. There also has been some discussion of a possible plebiscite on the constitution.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Communists are fighting the creation of such a state.

An unofficial promise to lift the blockade has already disrupted German political plans. But, if it comes, the Soviet Union is ready to move with the creation of an East German government under Russian sponsorship. Then the split of Germany would be complete.

However, today America, Britain, and France let it be known just how important they regard this project of forming a West German state.

They are attempting to reconcile the recalcitrant Socialists and the Christian Democrats by a last minute series of proposals to review sympathetically the points of differences.

This note was sent to the Bonn constitutional convention last night, and surprisingly enough, the German politicos accepted it in good faith and as an instrument which might speed their work on the constitution.

Now it all depends on the West German politicians. If they can reach agreement on a compromise constitution acceptable to the Western occupation powers, then the major step toward formation of this new government will have been taken. We should know by Monday, when the German political leaders are scheduled to meet the Western military governors.

This is the moment, some say, when the Russians might lift their blockade. For then the Communists could say, "Why have a divided Germany? There is no blockade anymore. Work with the political party of the Soviet zone and let us together strive for the creation of a unified country."

However, there is one important fact that emerges from this complicated and complex situation. The creation of the new West German state in the orbit of the democratic powers of the West has become a keystone in United States foreign policy—a policy that calls for the consolidation of all of democratic Western Europe into an economic whole to expedite the workings of the Marshall Plan.

The Western powers have seized the political initiative in Germany. We now await the counter-move from the East.