April 14, 2017

1948. West Berlin Holds Elections as Risk of War Looms

West Berliners Go to the Polls
"German painters mark British-Russian border line at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin," August 21, 1948 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

December 4, 1948

The American people are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each month to supply some 2.5 million people in the blockaded sectors of Berlin.

In accomplishing this, thousands of Americans have been assigned to duty in Germany from Japan, Alaska, Honolulu, and elsewhere in the United States. Of this number—and it also includes the British—more than a score of men have died in flying the Berlin airlift.

It costs about $250 to fly every ton of coal that comes over the Russian blockade, and that much for every ton of food and medicine and other supplies needed to keep this isolated community alive.

The question is: Why?

Tomorrow at eight o'clock in the morning, Western Berliners will begin voting in some 1,462 polling places in the American, British, and French sectors of the city.

As in America, the Western Berliners will do their voting in schools, public buildings, and business places—for some reason, restaurants are great favorites as voting sites in this city. The Western Berliner will go to his polling place, identify himself, and have his name checked off the registration list. Then he will go into a booth, draw a canvas curtain behind him, and make his marks on the ballot opposite the names of the candidates he favors.

It probably doesn't sound like much, listening to this in America. We perform this simple operation somewhere in the United States every year. But against the background of this bifurcated, bedeviled, berated city of Berlin, the act of the individual citizen casting his free vote in secret to choose the kind of government he prefers, without fear of intimidation, is truly an important event.

This is the real reason that there is a Berlin crisis. This is the reason that there is an airlift. The fact that the Western Powers are keeping a city of some 2.5 million people alive at great expense is done so that a mildly hungry adult in patched clothing—the Berliner—can cast a free vote.

At this moment, the insistence of America, Britain, and France to extend this privilege to a conquered people is the reason that we are risking war to maintain what we believe to be the basic requirement for a peaceful world—political and individual freedom.

And make no mistake about it. The risk of war is here.

The Communist Party is boycotting the election, backed by a Soviet military government decision that the elections are illegal.

In the view of the American, British, and French military governors, they most certainly are not illegal. As documentary evidence, the Western Powers point to the provisional constitution of the city of Berlin—signed, incidentally, by all four occupation powers—which was adopted two years ago. This agreement between the occupation powers and the Berlin city government provides that city elections will be held every two years. The original date already has passed. The two year deadline was last October 20. The voting was delayed because the Russian military government did not give a definite reply to a request to hold citywide elections, and the Berlin city assembly decided to go ahead with the voting without a reply from the Soviet commandant.

You know what happened. When the election date was set—two months late—the Russian occupation leaders finally acted. They called the elections illegal, charged that they were undemocratic, and ordered that no elections would be held in the Soviet sector of the city. The Communist Party, having finally received its directive, announced a boycott of the voting and has since been threatening reprisals against Western city officials and all others who participate.

The climax of this anti-election campaign came last Tuesday when the Communist-led faction of the city government, the Communist-dominated parties and trade unions, and various East-sector "cultural organizations" arbitrarily selected delegates to a rump assembly in the State Opera House, arbitrarily voted the elected assembly out of existence, and then proceeded to appoint a new "temporary" city government for what it calls "the whole of Berlin." The voting was unanimous, as it always has been since the politburo took over things in Russia and Adolf Hitler made his successful putsch in 1933.

The so-called "Democratic Bloc of Berlin" then called a spontaneous mass meeting on Unter den Linden, a mass meeting so spontaneous that the big job fell to party members who had to check off the names of workers who were ordered to quit their jobs and attend a rally.

The East-sector magistrate says that it has appointed itself as only a temporary city government—that it will hold city elections too, sometime in the near future. Presumably they will be just about as democratic as the selection of what is now becoming known as the "Opera House government" appointed arbitrarily last Tuesday.

So, despite these objections and the ouster of the city government from the Russian sector of the city, Western Berlin has an election on its hands tomorrow.

Since the Communists are boycotting the elections, the Western Berlin voter will make his selection from candidates presented by three political parties. Reading from right to left, they are: the Liberal Democratic Party, the most conservative; the Christian Democratic Union, a middle-of-the-road party with large church and middle class support; and finally, the Social Democratic Party, the farthest left of the political organizations and generally referred to as the Socialists.

Ordinarily in citywide elections, 130 seats to the Berlin assembly would be elected. However, with the Russian sector boycott on, only 98 seats will be contested. Close to 400 candidates are vying for these offices which are apportioned in the twelve Berlin districts concerned according to population.

In the last citywide election in 1946, the Socialist Party emerged the strongest, taking 48 percent of the vote. The Christian Democrats were next with 22 percent. The Communists had about 20 percent of the vote, and the right-wing Liberal Democrats got only 10 percent. All in all, the anti-Communist parties voted 80 percent of Berlin, and it is now charged that the Communist party officials did not want to go into these elections on Sunday for fear of showing a drastic loss of even their 20 percent minority.

Throughout the blockaded sectors of this city you can see the party campaign posters making their claims for victory. Often they are obscured or torn down by the "activists" from the Soviet sector of Berlin which have been making forays on the sign-posts, tearing down Socialist and other anti-Communist party placards and posting warnings of their own not to vote in tomorrow's elections.

The right-wing Liberal Democratic Party is charged with being the "capitalist party of Berlin." It has attempted to overcome this attack by proving that more than half of the Liberal Democrats are working men. But it is in fact the most conservative of any entered in the ballots. Its chairman is a 42-year-old engineer, Carl-Hubert Schwennicke, and the Liberal Democratic leadership includes a manufacturer, a couple of political economists, university professors, doctors, and judges.

The Liberal Democrats hope to gain votes on the anti-Communist feeling that has arisen in the past few weeks. Schwennicke claims that 95 percent of the Berlin population would vote against the Communists in free, citywide elections. But foreign political experts predict that the Liberal Democrats will still be the weakest political party in Berlin after the elections are over.

The Liberal Democrats are appealing for votes on a program that demands the "safeguarding of private property," a nonpartisan city administration, and free private enterprise. It opposes bureaucracy and socialization.

The middle-of-the-road party participating in tomorrow's elections is the Christian Democrats. Unofficially, the American occupation authorities have given the nod to the Christian Democratic Union here, although it is strictly an unofficial gesture. Like the Liberal Democrats, the CDU hopes to gain votes on the reaction against Communism. It hopes to cut into the majority of the Socialists on the theory that anything left-wing is too close to Marxism to be comfortable these days.

The CDU, with certain exceptions, is the closest thing that Berlin has to the traditional American political party—that is, in the things it stands for. The Christian Democrats are not socialistic, but they approve of things like job insurance, national pensions, and the like. In other words, to make an unbalanced comparison, the CDU would like to institute social reforms and at the same time maintain the traditional economic structure of the country. Their opponents declare that this is impossible; that you cannot have your economic cake and eat it without destroying the political frosting.

American military government political experts with whom I have talked say they expect the Socialists to gain even more seats at this next election than they did at the last. No one will make a prediction—since predicting elections went out of style last November in America—but the hardworking Socialists with their down-to-earth appeal to the common people seem to have the edge, at least 24 hours before the voting begins.

The Socialists are campaigning on a ten-point economic program that includes socialist organization of commerce, trade, and industry, and for free determination of ownership of property. They are against the private ownership of heavy industry, but at the same time are against state capitalism. They stand for socialization of basic industries, transportation, and financial institutions. The Socialists make a point of opposing the Communist state monopolies which are being established in the Eastern part of the country.

The missing factor in tomorrow's elections of course will be the Communist vote. In this sense, the election will be incomplete. The inference of course is that the Communists did not dare risk their unpopularity in a free election.

However, in no balloting probably in the history of the world has the judgment of results depended so much upon the people who do not vote. There are more than 1.5 million registered voters in the American, British, and French sectors eligible to vote tomorrow.

A campaign of intimidation is now underway by the Communist-dominated action groups from the Russian sector. There are rumors that gangs may try to seize the ballot boxes tomorrow. So, without Communist opposition on the ballot, the Western Powers are looking to the size of the vote for confirmation and support of the policies of the British, American, and French governments.

As in all elections, weather will play a part. But given a good day, it is predicted by some experts that between 85 and 90 percent of the vote will find its way to the ballot boxes tomorrow. We don't know what will happen tomorrow, but in the face of these Communist threats, the people of the blockaded sectors of this city have an opportunity to express themselves.

The really strange thing about tomorrow's Berlin elections is this. The men who are running—symbolically at least—do not even have their names on the ballot.

In more ways than one, the Berlin elections are a contest between Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman. Joe doesn't choose to run here right now. Harry just won one campaign and looks like winning another in absentia tomorrow in Berlin.

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