May 24, 2017

1949. The Council of Foreign Ministers Meets in Paris

Occupation Powers Discuss Germany as Strike Cripples Berlin
"Delegation heads at the 1949 Council of Foreign Ministers meeting (left to right) Dean Acheson for the United States, Andrei Vyshinsky for the Soviet Union, Robert Schuman for France, and Ernst Bevin representing Great Britain" (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 28, 1949

Berlin naturally is taking great interest in the foreign ministers conference in Paris. You might say that this city is taking a "clinical" interest in the proceedings.

The Berlin viewpoint on the conference is very much the same as that of a patient on an operating table who watches a consultation of his physicians who are about to operate on him. In Berlin there is the same anxiety, the same fear, and the same hope of a man about to undergo major surgery.

At the first of this week there was much hope of success in Berlin. Even two days before the ministers convened, some 12,000 anti-Communist rail workers began the biggest strike in Berlin's postwar history.

The reports of the first meeting of the foreign secretaries came in last night. What was Vyshinsky doing, how did he act, the Germans asked. And the first reports were encouraging. One dispatch said: "Mr. Vyshinsky appeared smiling and joking and quoting Russian proverbs of which he is so fond."

This was the mood indicated by the New York agreement on the lifting of the Berlin Blockade. Trucks and trains and barges were beginning to pour into the city, and although the anti-Communist strikers were slugging it out with the Soviet-organized directorate of Berlin's elevated railway, there was hope that maybe the strikers and the Russian occupation authorities would catch the mood of friendliness; that this local East-West struggle would be called off or suspended while the Big Four was meeting to decide the fate of Germany and Berlin.

But instead of getting better, matters began to get worse here. At best, the strike of the Berlin rail workers is a complicated affair, but it is a situation that has its very roots in the economic and political problems that the conferees in Paris are trying to settle.

Berlin, like Europe, is split into an Eastern and Western segment. Also like Europe, Berlin's main communication system, the elevated railway, connects both segments and is vital to the life of the city. Some 16,000 of the elevated rail workers work and live in the Western half of the city, but they get their pay in the currency of the Soviet section—a currency, incidentally, that has about one quarter of the purchasing power of the West mark.

The UGO, the anti-Communist trade union formed during the blockade, voted last April to strike but held off for six weeks to see if some solution could not be reached. When the blockade lifted, they decided to strike. They maintain that if the Russian-controlled elevated railway collected its fares in the American, British, and French sectors in West marks, there would be more than enough revenue to meet their Western payroll. The elevated now collects fares only in East marks.

But the matter goes deeper than that, for it would also mean an official recognition from the East of what the Russians originally called an "illegal currency." And this matter was one for settlement by Mr. Vyshinsky.

Meanwhile, the Berlin elevated strike deteriorated into a series of clashes between Western anti-Communist strikers and Soviet-directed railroad police and strikebreakers who moved into elevated stations throughout the Western part of the city. The railroad police, including many of the Russian-recruited "people's police," brought along their guns. At least one man was killed, a number of others wounded.

And rightly or wrongly, the Berlin strike crisis, in the eyes of the people here, has become a kind of test case of Soviet sincerity regarding Germany.

Although we here who have been dodging East German police bullets in covering the strike story might be considered too close to the local situation to see the big picture, every American, British, and French official in Berlin with whom I have talked agrees that the actions or failure to act by the Soviet military government this past week has violated the spirit of the New York agreement lifting the blockade, and that the actions of the Communist-directed police in trying to break the strike of the West Berlin rail workers reaches a new high in Communist cynicism in their efforts to wipe out opposition from the people of Western Berlin.

These officials say that it is repetition of the situation that has risen time and again in dealings with the Soviet Union—agreement in principle that breaks down when these principles are to be carried out. And if that is what is going on in Paris right now, then Berlin should be an example to guide the foreign ministers in their deliberations.

These facts stand out in the past week here in Berlin:

First, the incongruous situation arose in which advocates and leaders of a "workers' state"—the Communist proletarian system—used force to break the strike of another group of working men, a section of labor which they hope to win over in what they call their tide of history.

Second, there is no doubt that the Soviet military government at any time could have stepped in and ordered settlement of the strike and saved the life of one man, injury to hundreds of others, and prevented economic dislocation that must hurt East Berlin as much as it does the Western part of the city. They did not and have not chosen to do this.

Third, Russian transport officials have refused virtually every offer of cooperation the Western Powers have asked for in solving the dilemma of moving rail transport into the city. When four British and American passenger trains were stranded in Potsdam a few miles west of Berlin, the Soviet authorities mysteriously disappeared. They would give no answer for requests to send trucks and buses for the passengers. And there has been the same negation of every effort the British and Americans have made to start rail traffic moving again.

On the credit side of the East Berlin ledger is the fact that the Russian-controlled railway directorate did finally offer to grant West mark pay to the strikers. But UGO workers, fearing a trap, have refused to return to work until their union is recognized, until they have assurance that there will be no reprisals, and that rail workers formally discharged for political reasons will be reinstated.

There is no solution either for resumption of rail traffic or the end of the strike in sight right now. But if the present crisis continues in Berlin, Mr. Acheson, Mr. Bevin, Mr. Schuman, and Mr. Vyshinsky may hear officially of it in Paris, according to reports here. They are being advised on a day-to-day basis of the progress of events here.

If the Russians are sincere in their appeal for a conference to reach agreement on the German question, then there is another proverb that can be quoted to him.

It is found in all languages: "Actions speak louder than words."