March 7, 2020

1948. The Growing East-West Divide in Blockaded Berlin

The Berlin Crisis Enters a New Phase
Communist rally in East Berlin in September, 1949 (Photo by Gerald Waller – source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin - for Edward R. Murrow with the News

November 30, 1948

An operation was performed on the city of Berlin today. Call it politico-surgery; an operation that could spread an infection which could inflame the whole body of this world with the disease of war.

The patient right now is spending an unquiet night as we await the reaction. When that reaction comes, it will probably be serious—and dangerous.

So it is necessary now, some twelve hours after the Communist-led faction of Berlin made its incision, that we think calmly of what has happened. It is very important.

It has been evident that a move by the Communist-led organizations was imminent. Posters and stickers began appearing throughout the city three days ago attacking the Western sector elections next Sunday. This propaganda is all signed "The Democratic Bloc of Berlin."

Today we see for the first time what constitutes the so-called "Democratic Bloc" from the Eastern sector and how it works.

The "democratic bloc" assembled in the State Opera House this afternoon. Between 1,500 and 2,000 persons attended: leaders of the Communist-dominated Socialist Unity Party, the Communist-dominated Federation of Trade Unions, Soviet-endorsed East sector city officials, and various cultural groups.

This "democratic" assembly proceeded to summarily dismiss the Berlin magistrate election in the citywide voting two years ago. It appointed a new magistrate from a slate agreed upon beforehand, and the whole thing went through unanimously. No objections, no protesting votes. No opposition.

Then the assembly adjourned to a democratic bloc mass meeting organized in Unter den Linden. I was at this meeting this afternoon. The day has been cold and foggy, a fog that has kept the Anglo-American airlift on the ground for more than twenty-four hours.

All the trappings were there. The red banners and forty-nine slogans proclaimed for this event; East sector workers were ordered to stop their jobs and attend the "spontaneous" demonstration—a demonstration so spontaneous that one man said he had only ten minutes to go before he could quit demonstrating. About 100,000 people were on hand. There might have been more, but after an hour of waiting workers were walking away as quickly as others arrived in trucks from their factories.

The whole affair was grim, cheerless, and unenthusiastic. Only one woman took the trouble to recognize me as an American. She turned around to spit at my feet, but I felt that she would have done the same to any national from an occupation power, including the Russian.

As you have heard from Ed Murrow, the Western sector elections will be held on Sunday as planned.

Berlin is now two cities. The dissection tonight has not been completed; maybe it will not be a total cleavage. The inter-sector subways and elevated railroads are still running. But the new identification cards ordered by the Soviet military command will start distribution tomorrow.

Hope for East-West settlement over this intensifying Berlin crisis are at a new low tonight.

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

CBS Berlin

December 1, 1948

The Communist-led Opera House government of Eastern Berlin moved to take over the Russian sector of the city this morning while, in the blockaded Western sectors of the city, the legally elected assembly proclaimed a state of "political emergency" for this bisected city.

Police and personnel at the Berlin city hall in the Soviet sector were changed overnight. Acting Mayor Friederich Friedensburg, ignoring yesterday's rump assembly dismissal of the present magistrate, reported to his office as usual this morning, but Eastern German police refused him entrance to the building. Yesterday afternoon, after the so-called election of a "democratic bloc" magistrate in the State Opera House, members of the newly proclaimed government went to the Rathaus—some with their families—to select their new offices.

Tomorrow the rump magistrate of Berlin will hold its first meeting and officially take over the government of the Eastern sector.

Leaders of the three anticommunist parties in the Western magistrate meeting minced no words in calling yesterday's events in the Russian sector as an out-and-out putsch in the same pattern as that which put Hitler into power in 1933. Frau Louise Schroeder of the Socialist Party said that any person participating in the East sector magistrate would be tried in orderly courts.

There was some serious ridicule about the "light opera government" proclaimed in East Berlin at today's magistrate meeting, but an undercurrent of crisis was also evident, because those who participate in the elections next Sunday and in this current government most certainly are marked men and women.

The Western city assembly will meet daily during this period of what they call as "political state of emergency." Preparations are going ahead for Sunday's elections in the Western sector.

The charge that the Communist-dominated parties are afraid of free elections at this time would seem to be confirmed by yesterday's action. The rump assembly says it will hold its own elections soon—elections which it can control.

On the surface, Berlin appears unchanged today. The underground and elevated railroads that connect the Eastern and Western part of the city are still running. Public services shared by the divided sectors are operating as usual.

But the final irony of the so-called "democratic bloc" assembly which voted itself into power comes in a letter from Ottomar Geschke, a Communist Deputy Chairman of the original city assembly. This letter, addressed to the military commandants of all four occupation powers, notifies them of the formation of a new magistrate, with a final paragraph that says: "I take the liberty to assume that this new magistrate will get the necessary support to carry out its duties."

The answers from the four military governments should be interesting, particularly the answer of Marshal Sokolovsky.

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

CBS Berlin

December 2, 1948

Gangs of Communist-led rowdies roamed the streets of the blockaded Western sectors of Berlin last night, tearing down election posters and pasting up placards warning Berliners not to vote in Sunday's elections.

These putsch tactics were extended to at least two Socialist Party political rallies. In a working class district near Tempelhof Aerodrome, some four hundred members of the Russian sector Socialist Unity Party tried to break up a political meeting. A first class brawl ensued until German police using nightsticks threw the rioters out. Nine persons were arrested. A similar scene occurred in another meeting in the American sector.

German police are taking precautions against the possibility that gangs from the Eastern sector might storm polling places on election day and try to confiscate ballots. German police guards already have been posted at the homes of Western city officials, and other police patrols have been placed at elevated and subway stations which might carry the rioters into voting areas.

Both the Western city assembly and the so-called "light opera magistrate" of the Eastern sector met today. The blockaded city government has a housing problem on its hands—British and American military governments are turning over a number of requisitioned buildings to provide office space for the municipal authorities.

The Soviet sector magistrate in its initial meeting in the Berlin city hall considered measures to provide winter help for the blockaded parts of the city—winter help that Berliners can buy at the price of their political freedom.

The election of Fritz Ebert, son of the Weimar president, as Oberbürgermeister for the rump magistrate of the Eastern sector has precipitated a family argument. His older brother Karl Ebert, who lives in Heidelburg, disowned his brother's activities and told Berliners that "the name of Ebert has been misused to deceive you." The elder brother, who lives with his mother, urged the cities to go to the polls on Sunday.

The Berlin airlift is slowly pulling itself out of the chocking fog that virtually grounded it for the past week. In the most serious stoppage yet, air deliveries over the blockade for the past five days have been less than half of what normally arrives in this city in one day. But the planes are beginning to fly again this morning.

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

CBS Berlin

December 3, 1948
The Soviet Union has recognized the Communist-led "putsch" assembly of Eastern Berlin. In the most brazen political maneuver since the Communist coup d'etat in Czechoslovakia, the deputy Soviet military governor for Berlin dispatched a letter to the leadership of the rump city magistrate which proclaimed itself into power last Tuesday.

The letter, signed by Colonel Jelisarov, says that "the Soviet Command declares that the provisional democratic magistrate will be granted any support and assistance necessary to take care of its functions serving the interests of the population." The letter further states, with rare cynicism, that "the Soviet Command supports measures aiming at keeping unity of the city and the safeguarding of normal actions of democratic self-governmental institutions. It acknowledges the provisional democratic magistrate elected by the special city assembly until uniform democratic elections in all of Berlin are carried through, which the Soviet Command considers of imminent importance."

Soviet recognition of the "opera house government" came a few hours after the American, British, and French military commanders for Berlin denounced the rump assembly as illegal and withdrew their liaison officers from the city hall in the Soviet sector.

Marshall Sokolovsky put the clincher on the Soviet Union's latest diplomatic move by receiving Fritz Ebert, the Oberbürgermeister of the rump Berlin government, in his Russian headquarters.

Meanwhile, more gangs invaded the Western sectors last night and attempted to break up political rallies being held in the campaign for next Sunday's elections. There was a fistfight at one Christian Democratic meeting and another fight at a subway station where some sixty young men started a demonstration against the elections.

The Berlin blockade indirectly was responsible this morning for the death of ten to fifteen Germans in a train wreck on the western borders of Berlin just inside the Russian zone. At six o'clock this morning, an express train carrying passengers into the city was stopped so that police could check documents of the travelers and inspect their luggage so as to confiscate foodstuffs they might be bringing through the blockade. A commuter train which had not been warned of the blockade delay crashed into the rear of the express, demolishing two passenger cars. In addition to the ten to fifteen dead, twenty-five persons are believed to be injured.

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

CBS Berlin

December 4, 1948

The stage is all set for tomorrow's Western Berlin elections. Some 1,400 polling places have been set up in schools, public buildings, pubs, and restaurants. German police have been alerted to full strength in the event that any Communist-led raids on ballot boxes are attempted.

The American, British, and French governments are officially keeping hands off this election—it is a completely German affair. However, the occupation troops will be on a standby basis tomorrow in the event there is any serious outbreak.

For the past two days, Allied inspection teams have been making the rounds of the polling places. Their job is to see that the elections are conducted fairly and freely. They will be on hand tomorrow. Tonight there will be the final political meetings by the Liberal Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and the Social Democrats.

The Communist-controlled press from the Eastern sector of the city this morning came out with the "big lie" tactic in an effort to frustrate the elections. The Russian Army newspaper, Tägliche Rundschau, carries banner headlines that the Western Powers are preparing to leave Berlin in January. Another story says that General Clay is going to be replaced as the American military governor. The inference is that anyone who votes in tomorrow's elections will be deserted by the Western occupation forces, and thus be at the mercy of the Communist-dominated rump government of Berlin which already has threatened reprisals.

Yesterday there was a small riot at a political rally in the British sector. When Socialist candidate Ernst Reuter declared that Berlin would continue to fight, a heckler shouted, "Yes, until we end in a common grave."

Fists started flying, and a number of youths from the Soviet sector were beaten so badly that they needed first aid treatment afterward.

It has been expected that the elevated and subway trains which connect the Eastern and Western parts of Berlin might stop running on election day to make it more difficult for voters to get to the polls.

This happened yesterday to persons riding the trains to the Socialist meeting. The trains failed to stop at the station near the mass meeting and people changed trains, riding back and forth several times until someone got the bright idea of pulling the emergency brake. It led to another fight with the railroad police, but the crowds got to the meeting anyway.

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