May 7, 2017

1949. Leipzig Under the Iron Curtain

Exhibition of a Police State
East German Volkspolizei marching in Berlin, May 1, 1949 (Photo by Herbert Blunck – source)
This report was later quoted in the Australian newspaper The Mail. The text below is from the original broadcast script.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

March 8, 1949

I have just returned from the famous Leipzig fair in the Soviet zone. The Russians lifted the hem of their Iron Curtain just a little to let correspondents take a peek at this seven-century-old exhibit.

The Leipzig fair once was Europe's most distinguished showcase of international free trade. The fair today is an exhibit of shabby designs—unfilled orders and national economies bedeviled by the struggle between East and West.

It is almost entirely made up of exhibits from the Soviet zone of Germany and the Iron Curtain countries. But most striking, the Leipzig fair, held for the first time under Soviet sponsorship, really is an exhibition of a police state.

Several hundred people's police were imported from outside the city to handle the crowds. All roads are blockaded, and those without the proper credentials are not allowed into the city. The people of Leipzig hardly speak, even to each other. Only after they solidly established my identity as an American and only when we were out of earshot of any potential secret police would they talk of their poor rations, of their fear and hatred of the Communists—not only the Soviet troops, who are well-behaved there—but of the German Communists who have clamped a regime of fear on the zone.

In the Western zone of Germany, the people walk upright and there is an atmosphere of confidence and hope in everything they do. They fight and argue and work hard. In Leipzig, faces are yellow with malnutrition, their stride is a shuffle. And everywhere there is that fear of saying the wrong thing—of offending the wrong person. There is also hate.

A waiter in a restaurant who said he was born in America whispered to me as he served a vodka, "We don't need guns. We have a thousand butcher knives and the steel to sharpen them."

Another man was a prisoner of war in Texas. Since his return to Leipzig he has lost forty pounds. He prefers the American prison camp.

The oppressive atmosphere of fear in Leipzig I found matched only one other place—the year that I lived in Moscow.

Returning to blockaded Berlin, I took a deep breath of fresh air. The real blockade is in Leipzig and the zone that surrounds it—there it is a blockade of individual freedom.

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