June 12, 2022

1949. Berlin Faces Labor Uprising

Berlin Rail Worker Strike Leads to Violent Crackdown
"Officers of the French military police stand on a platform of the Gesundbrunnen train station in Berlin, 24 May 1949" (DPA/Alamy)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 21, 1949

Rioting broke out in a half-dozen places here this morning as 12,000 anti-Communist trade union workers moved to enforce their strike on Berlin's elevated railway.

Approximately fifty people have been arrested thus far, many of them strikebreakers from East Berlin taken into custody for their own protection. There have been a number of black eyes and bloody noses—some bricks were thrown and clubs used—but no one thus far has been seriously injured. At the Tempelhof elevated station near the Russian sector border one shot was fired in the air by West Berlin police.

The UGO [Unabhängige Gewerkschaftsopposition] anti-Communist trade union is striking against the Russian-controlled railway directorate which has refused their demands to be paid in West marks instead of East marks.

Traffic on the elevated ring that serves all sectors of the city is proceeding at a restricted pace. The strikers have moved into power plants where they can shut off electricity.

I went to the disputed Tempelhof station this morning. About a thousand strikers were milling about at the entrance while, above the tracks, strikebreakers and the specially-trained, black-uniformed "people's police" from the Soviet zone stood on guard. A few heads were bumped. It was a bizarre sight, even in this bizarre city. And it was the first time in my experience in covering labor that I saw Communists used as strikebreakers.

The Communist propagandists are already calling the strikers "tools of the Western capitalists." They assert that the strike was timed to make the Paris negotiations on Germany more difficult. The Communists also charge the UGO union with sabotage and wrecking.

The American military government officially is taking a "hands-off" position in the strike, although the Berlin commandant General Frank Howley said that American military police would be used if necessary to preserve order and security in the city.

Right now there is a four-power meeting of transport authorities underway, and the new strike situation is under discussion. Four Russian officers appeared at the Tempelhof elevated station this morning to investigate the situation. West Berlin police had to give them protection from irate strikers.

There's another important story in Germany today. The necessary two-thirds majority of the West German states have ratified the Basic Law for the new German republic. That's good news at least.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 21, 1949

The sound of gunfire sounded in the streets of Berlin tonight. At this moment the issue at the Neukölln elevated railway station in south Berlin is not settled, as striking Western railway workmen clash with the Soviet-sponsored police of East Berlin who control the elevated and against whom the anti-Communist workmen are striking.

So far the injuries of people caught up or participating in this rioting have not been serious. There have been plenty of bruised heads and eyes and bleeding noses. The closest scrape came a few hours ago at the Wannsee station where an East police bullet nicked a striker trying to take over the station.

It has been a strange twenty-four hours. Correspondents here have been chasing from rail station to rail station as reports of trouble come in. When you arrive at places like Tempelhof near our airdrome on the border of the Soviet sector, there are the crowds of roughly-dressed people, some wearing the uniform of the railway employee. Then there are always the youngsters. Ranging from ten years to twenty, they form the most volatile and aggressive group. It is a little frightening, for these youths carry iron bars and clubs and knives. You look at the pinched dirty faces of these youngsters, the impression confirms itself. At these riots one could hold a very successful Boy Scout meeting—or a massacre.

Berlin tonight has had neither.

At the Tempelhof station this morning I saw men beaten, some of them for no more reason than the fact that they had ridden the struck elevated railway from the Russian sector of the city—where there is no strike—and got off to find themselves in the hands of strikers. This morning the West Berlin police moved in to disperse crowds.

Tonight that stopped. At the Schöneberg station, one of the most important transfer points in the elevated system, the police stood by and did little to disperse the thousand people who gathered in anticipation of fireworks. The aggressive feeling of the mob was demonstrated when the striking workers moved in up the railroad line to the station. Some of the crowd started throwing the bricks from the bombed buildings at them, not recognizing that these were the strikers whom they were supporting.

The strikers took the station, and only a plea from a leader of the striking anti-Communist union prevented violence to East Berlin employees inside. The violent attitude of the mob expressed itself later when a truck took some fifty strikebreakers back to the Soviet zone. Only a few bricks were thrown at them.

A few hours ago I returned from the Wannsee elevated station where the first actual gunshots of this strike were fired. We heard of the shooting, and since Wannsee is very near the press camp on the western edge of Berlin we were able to reach it quickly.

We drove to the disputed elevated station and found the gates barred. We pounded on the gate. A man, hiding himself in the darkness, asked who we were. We said that we were American reporters. He replied: "I don't speak your language. Go away." Our German was not that bad.

As we drove off, three shots rang out. We had been talking to the East Berlin police who were doing the shooting. We didn't know it then, but we did later.

The strikers have not taken the Wannsee station nor Tempelhof, and there are reports now circulating that the rump government of East Berlin is now shipping in riot squads by the railway they control to take over the stations.

The democratic trade union, UGO, is staging this strike because they demand their wages be paid in West marks. But this is a schizophrenic city in more than an economic way. There also is a Communist-dominated trade union, the Federated, which is opposing the strike. Thus you have the spectacle of the proletarian state strikebreaking, opposing the workers they hope to win to Communism.

But actually this struggle between Germans—because the occupation powers are keeping their hands off—is a product of a much larger struggle that is now going on between the East and the West. The thousands of people who were waiting to attack the East Berlin police and strikebreakers were not thinking in terms of West marks.

I'm not exactly sure what they were thinking about except laying their hands on the people who, to the West Berliner at least, have become a symbol of their troubles.

The frightening thing is that for the first time since the war they have risen up to strike back—violently and viciously. Not only the strikers and their adherents, but also the armed East police so carefully indoctrinated by the Russians.

The lesson of this night is for both the East and the West.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 22, 1949

Berlin's little "civil war" over the city's elevated railway system still is raging at this moment as anti-Communist strikers make assault after assault on the rail stations held by East German police and strikebreakers from East Berlin.

Scores of people have been injured, and last night the railroad police occupying—or trying to occupy—passenger stations in the British, American, and French sectors began using gunfire to repulse the strikers.

So far only one man has been reported killed. The striking UGO union says he was a refugee not concerned with the strike who was shot while standing in a crowd near the Russian sector border west of here. However at least half a dozen people have been hit by bullets, but none are reported to be seriously injured.

At this moment the hottest spots in the city are the Charlottenburg and Zoo stations in the British sector and near the heart of Berlin. Charlottenburg is where the British military trains come in, and where the first blockade-lifting train was greeted only ten days ago. A few hours ago a truck with about forty Soviet soldiers drove to the Zoo station. The crowd stoned the vehicle as it drove away.

This morning several hundred strikers put in an attack on the Charlottenburg station. Shots were fired and four people injured. Some fifty strikebreakers retired and were promised safe conduct out of the station. However the crowd broke through a police cordon and two pro-Communist strikebreakers were badly beaten. Later the mob burned Soviet-licensed newspapers in the square in front of the station. At this moment the Charlottenburg station is still in the hands of the strikers, while the Zoo station, the next stop away, is held by the pro-Communist strikebreakers.

The situation this morning is confused, but it appears that the East sector police are being shipped into the disputed stations in trains bristling with arms. The strikebreakers have now retaken the key power stations, and except for a few passenger stations, they have most of the elevated line under their control.

The striking UGO leadership now is meeting to draw up an appeal for support of the Western military governments, but the American, British, and French authorities continue to pursue a hands-off policy. If no settlement can be reached, the striking union said it will call for a general strike throughout the city.

The Communist press this morning charges that the strike is all a great plot being fostered by the United States. The official Red Army newspaper, Tägliche Rundschau, says America "wants to create a 'civil war' atmosphere" in West Berlin on the eve of the Paris foreign ministers meeting in order to bring about a breakdown in the talks. The headline in the Russian-licensed National Zeitung reads: "The American Assault on Berlin."

The only Americans involved here are the correspondents. We have been running from one trouble spot to another all last night and probably all this night too.

The German bullets still have that nasty whine we learned to hate so much during the last war.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 23, 1949

I have just returned from the Zoo station, a major objective in Berlin's battle of the elevated railroad.

The anti-Communist strikers have forced the German Soviet-zone police and their strikebreakers to leave. But for the first time in this bitter struggle between Germans and Germans there have been fatalities. Burgomeister Ferdinand Friedensburg, Deputy Mayor of the West Berlin government, told me that two youths had been killed and two seriously hurt. The Russian-licensed radio station in Berlin said that twenty people had been hurt in the rioting at Zoo, but we have no count of the injured inside the station.

This new incident came after a day of quiet in the tense strike situation in which some 12,000 Berlin railwaymen are demanding their pay only in West marks instead of the less valuable East marks authorized by the Russian military government.

The situation has all the aspects of a little civil war. Tonight's shooting was not as sustained nor as frightening as it had been last night and the night before, but it was much more effective. Only a half-dozen shots were fired—but four men fell.

It happened at about 9:30 Berlin time tonight just as it was getting dark. The Zoo station in the British sector was occupied by about five hundred Eastern police and strikebreakers. A group of East Berlin police—spick and span in their special issue black uniforms—walked out onto the open track of the elevated. What they had not anticipated was that there were strikers in nearby buildings bordering the track. Rocks started coming at them. They fired wildly then ran back into the station. The strikers picked up their casualties.

News of the death spread wildly. Strikers and their sympathizers armed themselves with clubs and iron bars and began to shout for Communist blood. Western police moved in reinforcements and a sound truck was called to try and calm the mob.

A British public safety officer, hearing of the trouble (and perhaps it was his invention), sent word to the pro-Communist group inside the station that unless they withdrew immediately he could not be responsible for their safety in case the mob broke in.

The leaders of the East Berlin group conferred by telephone with their superiors in the Russian sector of the city, and shortly afterward walked back to their sector. Deputy Mayor Friedensburg told me that he hoped there might be a settlement of the strike soon, and that tomorrow the city council would submit proposals.

The Communists are charging that this strike is inspired by the United States to disrupt the Paris conference of foreign ministers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have had nothing to do with it. But one thing it most certainly will do, and that is underline the differences between East and West. A difference that, strangely enough, hits at the root of Communist policy. Because after all, the men who are on strike and who the East is trying to break are not exactly capitalists.

The strikers have moved a mile to another elevated station, Westkreutz, and another ultimatum for the pro-Communist police to leave has just been given. Looks like more trouble.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 24, 1949

West Berlin this morning could be described as a man with a club in his hand, facing trouble from the East but at the same time glancing over his shoulder to see if his troubles are being settled in Paris.

In fact, to borrow a phrase from Ed Murrow, Berlin today is the conscience of Germany, for it is here that the basic differences between the Russian brand and the Western brand of democracy are being fought out.

The city has returned to a state of restive quiet this morning after a night of strike violence. The renewed rioting last night cost at least one youth his life when anti-Communist strikers ousted East Berlin railroad police from the Zoo elevated station in the British sector. The Soviet-controlled police fired into a crowd of a thousand persons when strikers began stoning them. After two hours in which it appeared that the mob would get out of control, British safety authorities notified the three hundred strikebreakers inside the Zoo station that Western authorities could no longer be responsible for their safety. The five hundred men inside withdrew. But the mob was out for vengeance and proceeded to take seven more West sector stations on the Berlin elevated railroad.

This morning it is reported that the anti-Communist rail union now holds all but five stations in Western Berlin. The Russian-sponsored police and strikebreakers still occupy two stations in the American sector, two in the French sector, and one in the British, which is jointly occupied by East and West police.

Deputy Mayor Ferdinand Friedensburg told me last night that the West Berlin city council would make proposals to the Russian rail directive to end the strike, and to pay the men their wages in West marks which they are demanding.

I got confirmation last night that the Communist-led East Berlin government has been importing men from the Russian zone to help break the anti-Communist union. A railroad worker who abandoned the fight told me that he had been ordered into the city from a switch point east of here, but was only told he was going to do repair work in Berlin. He said he knew nothing of the strike.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 25, 1949

Berlin is quieter this morning than it has been at any time in the past three days, and the strike crisis seems to have eased off somewhat as rioting crowds wear themselves out and the 12,000 striking railway workers seek a settlement of their wage demands.

The casualty toll of the past sixty hours shows seventeen persons hospitalized, four of whom are member of the Communist-zone railroad police. Scores of other persons were treated by first aid stations, but an earlier report that one man was killed has not been confirmed.

The strike is still on, and the elevated trains are running only in the Soviet sector of the city. This morning there appears to be hope that the Soviet-controlled railway directorate will meet the demands of the striking trainmen of West Berlin who want their pay only in West marks.

The Russian-licensed newspaper, Tribune, says today that the strike was unnecessary; that negotiations are underway and that there is a promising prospect that adequate West mark pay can be granted to the strikers. The Communists continue to try to place blame for the strike on the United States, charging that it is a grand conspiracy to disrupt the Big Four foreign ministers conference in Paris.

The anti-Communist union conducting the strike issued a proclamation last night demanding that the Russian-controlled police, who have been trying to break the strike, be withdrawn; that the Western police take over the elevated; and that the rail directors sell tickets in the Western sector of the city for West marks so that pay could be made in that currency.

An extraordinary meeting of the West Berlin government this morning asked that the American, British, and French military commandants authorize Western police to take over the elevated stations in their sectors and give military police backing if necessary. The three Western military commandants met this morning to consider the strike situation. They resumed their meeting a few minutes ago to consider the magistrate proposal.

Important events are taking place in Bonn. The basic constitutional law for West Germany has been ratified by the required two-thirds of the states, and at the last meeting of the constitutional convention this afternoon the new Federal Republic of Germany will be proclaimed and the black, red, and gold flag of the republic will be officially hoisted for the first time.

During the meeting of the foreign ministers, an eight-man German committee representing the new republic will sit in Frankfurt to advise the three Western nations.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 25, 1949

Renewed fighting between anti-Communist strikers and East Berlin non-striking railroad men was reported an hour ago at two places on the city's elevated railway.

Reports are still coming in and we have no indication of the seriousness of the incidents or whether there have been any casualties. The clashes are reported at the Anhalter station on the American-Russian sector border in the center of town and at the Priesterweg railroad yards. The fighting is between East Berlin repair gangs attempting to get the shut-down elevated running again, and the strikers.

These incidents followed the first quiet night Berlin has had in five days. The orders yesterday by the American, British, and French commandants for West Berlin police to occupy the elevated stations in their sectors were carried without incident. The orders were issued as a public safety measure after the killing of one striker at the Zoo station the night before last.

Today West Berlin police are in all stations of the three Western sectors. However, in the Priesterweg railroad yards, thirty-seven Russian soldiers were stranded because the striking union workers will not allow them to take out steam engines as transports. Four locomotives were steamed up this morning, but the strikers cut electric power that runs the turntable and immobilized the yards. Some of the Russian officers left by truck, but others still remain.

At this moment, the Russian-sponsored economic commission of East Berlin is considering a proposal of the rail directorate to collect West mark fares so that the striking workers can receive their pay in this currency.

This issue precipitated the strike, but now the anti-Communist union says that there are more than the pay issues involved. They demand that all men who went on strike be reinstated, and that their union, opposed by the Communist-sponsored Federation of East Berlin, be recognized.

There is hope in some quarters that the strike may be settled by tomorrow.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 26, 1949

Western Power authorities today are questioning if and just how much the Soviet military government in Germany has lifted the Berlin Blockade. They charge that the Russians are employing the same tactics they have used in the past—to agree in principle and then to obstruct in carrying out the details.

This morning thirty-six trains were lined up just outside Berlin in the Soviet zone city of Potsdam. Four of these trains were passenger trains containing some 140 American and British travelers trying to get to Berlin. On one American train, thirty-five military and civilian personnel have been sitting in their passenger coaches for the past twenty-four hours. They were in radio communications with American transport officials here and said they had run out of water but still had some food left.

Repeated requests for permission to send buses and trucks to Potsdam for the stranded passengers have been ignored by Soviet military authorities.

The reason for this rail traffic snafu is that the key control tower at the main switch point for trains coming into the West has been abandoned, although it is under Russian control.

Ostensibly this is because the West Berlin rail workers are on strike, but the anti-Communist rail union conducting the walkout has asked permission to man the switch tower and to lead the trains from the West over tracks now being picketed by the strikers. The Russian-controlled railroad directorate refused this request.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 27, 1949

The Anglo-American airlift delivered more than eight thousand tons of supplies to Berlin yesterday. These daily reports look like becoming news again this morning as virtually all railroad traffic between this city and the West is shut down for the fourth day in a row. The airlift continues to fly, yes, but actually Berlin does not have the blockade conditions it endured for eleven months. Truck and barge traffic is running into the city in increasing proportions.

But the main supply route, the railroad between here and Helmstedt, is jammed up with more than thirty trains, and the Berlin rail yards are stacked with more than a thousand freight wagons loaded with potatoes, coal, and other cargo with no men on engines to move them. Soviet transport authorities have notified the British that no further trains into the city from the Western zones can be handled until the present freight crisis is solved.

The Soviet military government is doing exactly nothing to solve the situation. Their transport officials cannot be reached, and they are ignoring all Western requests to facilitate rail movement which now is stalled in their zone from Potsdam, just outside of Berlin, westward.

American, British, and French officials here interpret this transport jam as much more than a local Berlin crisis. The Russians take the position that the traffic tie-up is the result of the elevated rail strike in Berlin and that therefore the situation is one for German settlement.

However, the striking anti-Communist union maintains that it is striking only Berlin's elevated railroad, and not traffic from the West. The union asked the Russians for permission to bring in the freight trains and was rejected. Today they say they will work anyway if ordered to do so by the Americans or British.

General Frank Howley, American commandant for Berlin, charges that the entire railroad problem could be solved by the Soviet military government if it so desired, or if they desired to act in the spirit of the New York blockade-lifting agreement.

The new Berlin rail crisis makes an interesting comparison of action competing with words now being spoken in the foreign ministers conference in Paris.

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