June 16, 2017

1949. Deal Sought to End the Berlin Rail Strike

Soviets Consider Strike Demands
Striking Berlin rail workers remove a portrait of Joseph Stalin at the German Reichsbahn headquarters, May 21, 1949 (Alamy/DPA)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 19, 1949

It's a gloomy day here in Berlin, one of those days when the weather seems to pattern the future. Overcast, cold, and unpleasant.

In the French sector there was some trouble yesterday at one of the struck elevated rail stations that is located on the Russian sector border. East Berlin railroad police and strikebreakers started dismantling parts of the elevated railroad. French police demanded they withdraw. After a short dispute, a Soviet officer and several Russian soldiers appeared. The Frenchmen were arrested, taken to Soviet headquarters, and then released. The French military governor has protested. Otherwise all is quiet in the Berlin elevated strike that is now entering its fifth week.

It is interesting to note that, during the entire foreign ministers conference in Paris, there has been absolutely no letup in the Communist propaganda attacks against the Western Powers.

In the past few days the party line has been taking a new tack. The Communists are predicting that Western Europe is heading for a sweeping depression—an economic crisis directly attributable to the depression which already is beginning in the United States.

According to the Soviet experts, America is flooding Europe with products under the Marshall Plan that cannot be sold in the US. Also, Western Europe is suffering from a shortage of raw materials that used to be purchased in the Eastern European countries. This shortage, along with the shortage of dollars, is leading the democracies down the path to economic ruin, according to the Communists.

On the other hand, according to this propaganda line, the peoples within the Russian orbit are doing just fine, thank you. Production and employment are increasing, and the standard of living for the masses is on the rise through the employment of the two year plans in Eastern Europe.

Some observers here attribute Mr. Vyshinsky's refusal to come to any major agreement in Paris—yet his interest in keeping the door open for further negotiations in Germany—as a wait-and-see stalling tactic to find out if America and Western Europe are approaching severe economic difficulties.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 20, 1949

The eve of the final meeting of the foreign ministers has produced more crisis jitters in Berlin today.

The exchange rate between the East and West mark made another shift. The East mark fell in value, and this morning one West mark will get you 5.2 East marks. No one knows the reason why.

Depending on which side of the bed you got out of this morning, one can believe the optimistic reports or place credence in the rumors spread by the crepe-hangers.

One unconfirmed report says that the Russians conferred with officials of the struck elevated railroad over the weekend, telling them to stand by to resume operation this week.

The weather in Germany has been as unpredictable as her politics. Snow fell last night in the Harz mountains. In Berlin it has been more like fall than summer.

In other words, no big news from here until we know what will be the exact outcome of this afternoon's meeting in Paris.

Political humor in Western Europe during these days of crisis has been about as funny as a broken leg. Here's the type of story which is now circulating in Berlin:

Two Communists are supposed to be talking about the Marxist plan for the seizure of Europe by the proletariat.

"It's easy," one Communist says. "We send a comrade to London with an atom bomb in a suitcase. We send another to Rome and to Madrid and Oslo and Stockholm and Brussels, all with atom bombs in suitcases."

The other Communist interrupts him: "Yes, but comrade, where are we going to get all those suitcases?"

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 23, 1949

Settlement of the Berlin elevated strike and the lifting of the rail blockade into this city this morning hinges on the promise of a Russian general.

And so far today there is no indication from the 14,000 strikers that they will accept the assertion of the Soviet transport chief, General Kvashnin, that no reprisals will be taken against them if they return to work.

Kvashnin made this promise in a letter to the Western commandants last Monday, adding however that any strikers who committed sabotage or other crimes during the strike would be subject to prosecution.

However, on the union's main point—that of reprisals—the Russian general's written word is now on record.

The American, British, and French commandants are trying to convince the anti-Communist union that the compromise wage proposal plus the promise of security for the strikers is a reasonable arrangement to go back to work. In a special meeting yesterday, the executive board of the independent union disagreed. They offered to institute emergency service of railroad traffic from the west this morning, but to keep the elevated shut down.

The Russians objected to this move, as did the British. The British commander, General Bourne, this morning ordered West Berlin police to keep strikers off railroad property.

In other words, pressure is now coming from the democratic West Berlin as well as from the Communist-led East to put an end to the strike as part of the modus vivendi to normalize life in Berlin.

The three Western commandants are meeting within a half hour to discuss ways of restoring rail traffic here. But the independent union says that without recognition of their organization by the Russian-controlled rail management they are vulnerable to any sort of attack when they run elevated trains into the Soviet sector of the city.

To these 14,000 men who have been fighting Communist strikebreakers and armed Eastern police for the past month, they need more than the word of a Russian general to go back to work, unless the occupation powers can convince them otherwise.

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