December 19, 2016

1947. Life Under Occupation in Berlin

A Sick and Fearful Berlin
A man and his children walk past the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany in 1947. Photograph by photojournalist David Seymour (also known as Chim), who accompanied Bill Downs on their postwar tour of Europe in 1947 as part of the CBS News special "We Went Back" (source)
From the "Special Issue: A Report to America Two Years After V-Day," This Week magazine, August 10, 1947, pp. 22:

New trees grow on Unter den Linden but the once-great city is sick and fearful
There is no doubt that Berlin today forms the biggest junk pile in the world. It is a ruin man-made by the efforts of the Allied air forces and the Russian troops who finished up with artillery and demolition what the air bombs missed. It's hard to remember that Berlin was one of the capitals of the world—the fourth largest and one of the most beautiful.

In trying to comprehend the killing of a major city, you find yourself trying to reduce destruction to its lowest common denominator. After miles and miles of rubble, of thousands of useless walls sticking out like stumps of teeth in a ruined jaw, you decide that there is only one common denominator for a city: the brick, the stone lying about you.

Absolutely nothing at all has been done about the wrecked government buildings, the streets and famous sites. The priority is on accommodations for the people and the public services.

There is little pedestrian traffic on the broken sidewalks of Unter den Linden. And the new linden trees are having a bad time. Partition of the city into zones is partially responsible for this but so is the lack of community spirit, however small. Over it all looms the smashed hulk of the Reichstag where free government was slaughtered long before the bombers came.

Kurfürstendamm, the street of smart shops, sidewalk cafes and theaters, is the only place in the city that makes even a gesture toward pre-Hitler normality. Even here it will require many years to clear away the rubble. But, at least, there is an attempt. The people seem to enjoy sitting at tables in the sun, drinking a brown water brew which is supposed to be beer.

In those buildings with a ground floor intact, you find the first efforts to revive the exclusive shops. And it must seem ironic to the super-aryans who took such delight in looting Jewish stores under the Nazis, that the shops bear names like Katz and Stein and Sakiel.

Generally speaking, there are two types of shops on the Kurfürstendamm today: legal and illegal. The legal shops deal in perfumes, bad costume jewelry, dolls and odds and ends made by German craftsmen.

The illegal shops are actually places of barter, the trading ground for people who must sell their family heirlooms or household goods to get marks for food. The dealings may be in tapestries, china or art, but no records are kept because the two-way transaction tax is so high that no one can pay it, not even the rich Americans.

Prices are so high that few Germans can afford to enter these shops. Most Germans are also too thrifty to fall for the trash that is being unloaded on the occupation groups.

"Russians," said one dealer, "will buy anything and everything. Their country has been so destroyed that they need all things." Americans are also good customers, if not very discriminating.

Night clubs form the main postwar outlet for entertainment. They are mostly out of bounds to American and British personnel and cater to the black-market aristocrats, the only Germans who possess the fantastic amount of money it costs for an evening.

Entertainment, for the most part, is second rate. Germany's prewar humor was ponderous, dull and without subtlety. Nothing has happened to change it.

In the U.S. and British zones, you can hear a turgid anti-Russian joke—if it isn't too bad. In the Russian zone, it's the reverse.

Most Germans sooner or later confess to an almost pathological fear of the Russians. It stems from their own feelings of guilt for what the Nazis did to the Slav peoples. And from the memory of the Red Army's invasion of Berlin.

The Germans also fear the Allies may pull out and abandon the country to the Russians, although they hint that perhaps the Allies should leave and permit Germany to get back to business.

Neither the Russians nor the Allies have helped the situation much. Daily, Germans can read in their press of bickering between the occupation authorities.

The most glaring evidence of the Russian occupation is the circus-type posters supporting the Communist-led Socialist Unity Party, which keynotes the Russian policy for all Germany.

There are a couple of motion-picture theaters which play nothing but Soviet films. And a big restaurant has been reserved for Red Army officers. On a vacant lot in the working-class district you are likely to see a small traveling carnival, blaring Russian marching songs from its loudspeaker.

"The one thing notable about the Russian zone headquarters," says Correspondent Bill Downs, "is that it sports the most benign-looking picture of Stalin I have ever seen. The Russian premier is portrayed as a vigorous, graying man, his eyes crinkled and his lips parted in a broad smile. After being exposed to the traditional stern Communist art, this twelve foot high portrait is a bit of a shock. Your first reaction is: 'What is he laughing at?'"