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The Last Division A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 by Ann Tusa Book

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The Last Division A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 by Ann Tusa Read Book Online And Download

Overview: JFK, Khrushchev, Reagan, and a city divided. Berlin has played a major role in world politics since the Nazi era and continues to be in the spotlight today as the once-again-great capital of Germany. Ann Tusa presents an engaging chronicle of the Cold War partitions of this historic city, from the political strife and administrative division by the victors against Hitler, through the building and eventual destruction of the Wall. Using newly available documents, she offers by far the fullest account to date of the political, diplomatic, and military affairs of the city, with vivid characterizations of central figures like Konrad Adenauer, Nikita Khrushchev, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Tusa's account also displays the full drama surrounding the building of the Wall, from its ramifications for world politics (including John F. Kennedy's famous response that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war” and Ronald Reagan’s iconic “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) to the experiences of ordinary Berliners and the personal tragedies they experienced as the Wall severed a living city and sundered families for generations.

The Last Division A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 by Ann Tusa Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
The Last Division A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 by Ann Tusa Book

The Last Division A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 by Ann Tusa Book Read Online Chapter One

The Division of Berlin, Germany, Europe


The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was only the final act in a long series of divisions of the city from 1945 onwards. The first split had been planned by the coalition which was led by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain and was engaged in the Second World War against Nazi Germany. These allies set up the European Advisory Commission (the EAC), which began work in London in January 1944 and had three members: John Winant, the American ambassador in Britain, his Soviet counterpart Fedor Gusev, and the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir William Strang. Its job was to plan the terms of German surrender and the nature of the subsequent occupation regime. Its assumption was that allied military government would be short-lived: once the German armies were disbanded, civil institutions denazified, and industry put on a peacetime basis, a German civilian regime would be created and power would pass rapidly into politically and morally cleansed German hands. The victorious Powers would then impose a peace treaty and evacuate their forces.1

The EAC worked according to instructions which had been sketched in only the broadest of brushstrokes. While the battles were fought from 1939 to 1945, the allies were too stretched by the demands of war and too uncertain about its outcome to consider seriously how Germany would be treated if they ever achieved final victory. That was why the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, warned a joint session of the US Congress in 1943: “We must beware of every topic, however attractive, and every tendency, however natural, which diverts our minds or energies from the supreme objective of the general victory of the United Nations.” What he could not admit publicly was that any discussion of post-war policy exposed fundamental disagreements in the alliance and threatened to wreck it. Furthermore, it seemed sensible to postpone an itemised scheme for the peace until the war was won and actual conditions in Germany could be assessed – as the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it: “I dislike making plans for a country we do not yet occupy.”

So just a few basic principles were established for the EAC to develop. It had been agreed by the coalition that Germany must surrender unconditionally: there must be no revival of the post-1918 myth that potentially victorious German troops had been “stabbed in the back” by politicians. Once the body politic was purged of Nazism and militarism by occupation forces, the victors would impose a peace settlement to ensure that Germans could never again wreak havoc in Europe. It was also determined that Germany would be kept intact, give or take some frontier adjustments. Throughout the war each ally had toyed with schemes for dismemberment of Germany, for destroying once and for all the country which had caused two world wars of unparalleled ferocity in twenty-five years. The US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, had gone even further: he wanted to “pastoralise” Germany – to dismantle all industry and create an impotent and impoverished population barely able to subsist, let alone disrupt the peace of Europe. Opponents of dismemberment gradually won ground in the final stages of the war. They argued successfully that enforced partition and consignment to pariah status would ultimately provoke German revanchism and new aggression, that a reasonably prosperous Germany was an essential trading partner for her neighbours and a vital source of coal and steel for rebuilding a shattered continent, and that a thriving but carefully supervised German industry would create goods which could be seized as reparations by those who had suffered such destruction from Nazi invasion and looting.

It was therefore immediately agreed by the EAC that Germany should be run as a single unit. For ease of administration, however, the country would be divided into three military zones of roughly equal size and resources – one each for the Americans, Russians and British. The three Military Governors would meet in an Allied Control Council to devise common policies. Initially, Sir William Strang suggested that the zonal boundaries should be drawn and the ACC set up wherever they converged – Leipzig seemed geographically likely. But Berlin had always been the government centre of a united Germany, and would no doubt be the capital of a reunified Germany. Berlin, logically, must be the seat of the Allied Control Council. And the city, like the country, would be subdivided into three administrative sectors but run according to common policies drawn up by the three Military Commandants in an Allied Kommandatura. Into these tidy, bureaucratic arrangements the EAC had inadvertently built a boobytrap. Common policies required unanimity in the ACC and Kommandatura: a veto had been given to each member. Yet this potentially destructive device aroused no immediate suspicion or comment. It was an item of faith in the period that peace would nurture the cooperative spirit of the wartime alliance and that the institutions for maintaining that peace must be based on consensus (which is why a veto was also plumbed into the Security Council of the United Nations Organisation). Even Churchill – highly sceptical about the ambitions and motives of the USSR and pessimistic about the chances of preserving collaboration once the common Nazi enemy was defeated – shared the prevalent belief that the maintenance of peace and the rebuilding of a shattered Europe could not be achieved without Soviet help. He wrote, “I felt bound to proclaim my confidence in Soviet good faith in the hope of procuring it. Our hopeful assumptions were soon to be falsified. Still, they were the only ones possible at the time.”

There was a second danger in the occupation plans. This stemmed from the decision that the lines of the occupation zones would not meet at Berlin: the city lay too far to the east, and was well inside the designated Soviet area. How would the American and British commanders keep contact with their garrisons there; how could the Military Governors in the Control Council maintain communications with their zones? Junior American officials in the EAC were keen to make the Russians specify road and rail links for western use and provide written guarantees of access. Gusev merely waved away the request: there would be “no difficulty” over access, he assured them; “of course” the allied presence in Berlin automatically meant a right of communication. John Winant was unwilling to press the access point. He argued with one of his team, Robert Murphy, that he had “established a personal relationship with Ambassador Gusev after months of patient effort and had gained the Soviet envoy’s confidence . . . The Russians”, he declared, “were inclined to suspect our motives anyway and if we insisted on this technicality we would intensify their mistrust.” He told Murphy he “would not do it.” In Winant’s opinion, pursuing this matter against Soviet resistance risked wrecking EAC agreements made so far and aborting others. Strang took much the same view and, in addition, reckoned that a written guarantee would be broken by the Russians just as easily as a verbal promise if and when it suited them. He also upheld the legal judgement, frequently quoted in civil and military circles, that specific arrangements on access implied a denial of movement over any and all routes. Only years later did Strang decide that the western representatives on the EAC had made a fatal mistake, that they should have held out for a tightly defined access arrangement “the possibility of such an agreement”, he wrote in his memoirs, “did exist then, and perhaps only then.”

Unfortunately, however, those who wanted to secure allied access to Berlin got no backing from higher authority. The US War Department insisted that it was up to the military, on the spot and at the time, to decide what communications would suit their needs; the State Department had no wish to insult their coalition partners, the Russians, by suggesting that a Soviet word was not a bond. Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe took no interest in the question at all: there were many more urgent problems to settle in the final months of the war. Indeed, when the EAC’s proposals finally arrived at SHAEF about a week before D-Day, the Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, confessed that he “gave them only the most casual inspection”: he was a busy man, the EAC’s terms for the peace looked like “counting chickens” before the war had even reached its crucial stage. Not least, the recommendations came from under the names of three diplomats, not the combined chiefs of allied forces or heads of government, so he assumed they were tentative suggestions, which would be analysed and adjusted for months to come.* The Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had many too many immediate problems on his mind and he always made a very proper distinction between military matters, which were his business, and general policy, which he regarded as the responsibility of politicians.2

Post-war policy for Germany was a responsibility shirked by the Big Three, the leaders of the United States, Soviet Union and Britain, when they met at Yalta in February 1945. Absorbed as they were in holding together their coalition and winning the war they nodded through the agreements drafted by the European Advisory Commission. They paused only to grant an occupation zone to France – to be carved out of American and British territory. This was at the insistence of Churchill, who wanted a Continental counterweight to the Soviet Union in Europe but who diplomatically put it that the French were needed to share the burden of occupation of Germany. Access to Berlin was not even mentioned at this conference. It should have been thoroughly discussed and settled.

Because the western allies had blithely put themselves behind what would soon become enemy lines, their Berlin garrisons, as well as the seat of the military government for Germany and the administration of the capital were all 120 miles inside the Soviet Zone with the West’s communications totally dependent on Soviet goodwill – and that was already an evaporating asset Western presence in Berlin was an essential element in the occupation of Germany and the final settlement of Europe. Yet that presence was painfully vulnerable. If the Russians decided to hinder access, it could not be maintained: the western garrisons, the symbol of occupation rights, would be turned into hostages. Berlin’s role as a post-war Pandora’s box had been created even before the fighting stopped.

When the Big Three met again, at Potsdam from 17 July to 2 August 1945, the pernicious results of neglecting the access question were already manifest. The German armies had capitulated in the first week of May. From that moment, according to the decisions of the EAC approved at Yalta, all four victorious powers should have established quadripartite government in their capital, Berlin. This had not happened. Worse: the western Powers were not even admitted to the city until early July. The Russians kept them out.

Soviet forces alone captured the German capital. General Eisenhower had allowed them to do it, for what seemed good military reasons. The Red Army had broken on to German soil in January 1945 and by March was within thirty-five miles of Berlin; western forces, on the other hand, were still 200 miles away. Eisenhower was influenced by intelligence reports that Hitler would order a last stand in the south and that nuclear weapons were being developed in the same area. His staff assured him that an assault on Berlin might cost 100,000 men. Why, Eisenhower kept asking, “should we endanger the life of a single American or British soldier to capture areas we soon will be handing over to the Russians?” Why encourage his forward units to press on to Berlin when he could not yet give them infantry or air support? So Eisenhower overrode the protests of several of his own generals, ignored the repeated appeals of Churchill to “shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible” and did not push on to Berlin. He also swallowed a lie from Stalin: that the city was not the prime strategic target and the Red Army would concentrate on a grand meeting with the western allies at Dresden. Once Ike’s attention was distracted, Stalin attacked Berlin and took it on 8 May. The Russians had certainly achieved a military triumph. They had also stolen a political march.

They used their position in the capital to keep western forces out until it was convenient to admit them – and on terms favourable to the Soviet Union. A month after the four-Power Allied Control Council should have begun work, Eisenhower and his British and French colleagues were grudgingly allowed to pay a visit to the Red Army commander, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, in Berlin on 5 June. The Marshal argued, as if a patient and reasonable man, that it was improper to start quadripartite government until American units were withdrawn from Saxony and Thuringia in his Zone, into which the impetus of their advance had propelled them. At this point Eisenhower could, and probably should, have replied that he would not move his forces until the Soviet Union fulfilled its international agreements and allowed the entry of the western allies into the capital and the establishment of the ACC. Instead, he persuaded himself that there would be “grave misunderstandings, if not actual clashes” with the Russians unless he withdrew. His colleagues shared his fears and were equally determined to start four-Power government of Germany on amicable terms with their Soviet ally. As the future Military Governor of the American Zone, General Lucius D. Clay, put it in May 1945: “If the four of us cannot get together now in running Germany, how are we going to get together in an international organisation [the UN] to secure the peace of the world?” Clay was perfectly aware that collaboration was going to be difficult but he explained later, “I thought then and I still do, that we had an obligation to try and make it work – and that if it failed, it wasn’t going to be our fault.” So the western allies meekly accepted Zhukov’s arguments and hoped against hope that concession would earn Russian cooperation.3

It did not – then or later. Once the United States promised withdrawal of its troops into the American Zone on 21 June, Stalin insisted that allied entry into Berlin would have to be delayed until the city was “cleared of mines”; he ignored requests from the United States and Britain for free access by road, rail and air. Washington decided to leave the matter to be settled by the military authorities in Germany, and when the western commanders again visited Zhukov on 29 June, their requirements were hardly exorbitant: four rail links between Berlin and the western zones, two roads – one for the British, the other for the Americans – and two air lanes. Zhukov reacted as if they were absurd: few means of communication in his zone were in a fit state of repair, he explained, and western control of routes through his territory would “create an extremely difficult administrative problem”. Surely, he pleaded, one railway, one road and a single air lane would be more than enough to supply the small garrisons in Berlin. In any case, he added, proper transit arrangements could be drawn up later by the Allied Control Council (not reminding them of his veto).

The western commanders took Zhukov at his word – they always saw him as an admirable officer and charming gentleman, not as the servant of the tyrannical, devious and mendacious Stalin. They settled for the access he offered, however unsatisfactory. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery explained three years later that they believed they had “a sort of friendly agreement, rather loosely defined. It was accepted that we would all do our stuff and no one would abuse” the arrangement. Clay took the tougher line – “we were sitting over there with the greatest army that had ever been seen, nobody was concerned about anybody blocking us on roads and railroads” – and could not imagine that within six months American troops in Germany would have been cut to a division and a half. In the meanwhile the western military leaders assured themselves that once they were teamed up in Berlin and applying sound military common sense to their problems, all the wrinkles would be ironed out.4

Far from it. And even before the western Powers got into the city the Soviet Union had tied them in further knots. On 7 July Zhukov presented the western commanders with another démarche: their sectors of Berlin could not be fed from the surrounding Soviet Zone. His reasons sounded plausible, indeed they engaged sympathy: food supplies in eastern Germany had been destroyed in the recent fighting, the Red Army was sacrificing its own rations to keep Berliners alive, the Russian people were starving and could do nothing to help. Faced with such a heart-rending story how could the West refuse to bring in food, even though they would have to do so from 120 miles away and on one railway line and one road? Yet again the allied commanders assumed this was a temporary arrangement which could be sorted out in due course. But while they were still victims of Soviet pathos and their own optimism, Zhukov added a further onerous stipulation: they must also provide their sectors with coal from the Ruhr since the city’s traditional source, Silesia, was now under Polish control. This indeed presented considerable logistical difficulty. Berlin’s public utilities alone consumed about 6,000 tons of hard coal a day for gas and electricity. In addition, householders needed coal for their fires and boilers and for some solid fuel ovens. Once the western commanders got their breath back, they appealed for the Russians to provide 1,500 tons a day of brown coal, lignite, for domestic use. This point, at least, the Russians gracefully conceded.

They could easily afford to do so. In the course of just a few weeks the Soviet Union had made sure that the West’s presence in Berlin would always be insecure because it depended on tenuous and inadequate access routes which could be cut at will by the Red Army. Furthermore, if the West chose to fight for its right to stay in Berlin it would not only hazard its garrisons but the lives of two and a half million Berliners in the western sectors whose heat, light and food were now their responsibility. The West’s high risk gamble – sacrifices to win Soviet collaboration – did not even gain a quick entry to Berlin. Only in the first week in July did the Russians finally and reluctantly admit western troops. The Allied Kommandatura, in which the four Military Commandants were to run Berlin, was set up on 11 July. The Allied Control Council for Germany did not meet until 20 July. By then, the Soviet Union had the city in a tight grip.

Though the western allies had neglected, indeed deliberately avoided, the details of their own policy for Germany while the war lasted, the Soviet Union had not been so casual. In February 1944 a commission of German exiles in Moscow began to examine the political, economic and ideological framework of occupation. Twelve months later it was ordered to plan the work of “anti-Fascists” in the future Soviet Zone. The talks were under close Soviet supervision, all decisions depended on ultimate Kremlin approval. The key figure in the work, however, was a German – Walter Ulbricht.5

He was uniquely well-qualified. He had been a dedicated Communist since joining the youth movement in 1908 when he was fifteen years old, a full-time Party official since 1919. He was trained at the Lenin School in Moscow in the mid-1920s and was a Communist deputy in the Reichstag (the German parliament) from 1928 to 1933. The rise of Fascism broadened his experience and honed his talents. After fleeing from the Nazis in 1933, he worked for the Party in Paris and Prague, then made a name for total ruthlessness in the Spanish Civil War, exterminating anti-Stalinists in the Republican Army. In Moscow from 1938 to 1945 his reputation for implacable orthodoxy was substantiated – he never lifted a finger to help the fourteen top German Communist officials who were executed and was merciless in “purifying” the exiled Party of any who veered from the straightest of ideological lines. Ulbricht was much more than a zealot, however. He was an apparatchik with an insatiable appetite for work and an exceptional capacity for organisation. He had no rhetorical talent; he was renowned for spreading gloom over any event he attended; he won no affection and never showed any. It was easy to mock or mimic his castrato voice and the Saxon accent which Germans find so hilarious. Cartoonists delighted in his goatee beard which was no doubt intended as a loyal tribute to Lenin but which went only too well with his bleating tones. But Walter Ulbricht was no laughing matter. He was a chilling, remorselessly efficient, Party machine.

Given his qualities and experience, Ulbricht was an inevitable choice to head one of the three groups of German exiles which the Kremlin decided would move into Germany with the Red Army in April 1945. These were tiny cadres – ten men in each – but every member had been picked and trained for his work. One group was destined for Saxony, one for Mecklenburg, and the third, under Ulbricht, for Berlin. They were to make the first political assault: build up an anti-Fascist (though not necessarily a Communist) bloc, purge Nazism, and set up information media to preach cooperation between the local population and the Soviet forces. Waiting for them were local Communists with information on activists and particular enthusiasm for their duties. Held in reserve were about 150 more German émigrés in Moscow as well as German troops who had been indoctrinated in the prisoner-of-war camps. The first task of the cadres, after the surrender of the German High Command in May, was to make contact with anti-Nazis of every hue – politicians of all parties as well as public-spirited citizens – to enlist their help in wiping out the Nazi state and restoring public services.6

In Berlin, they faced an appalling task. The city was a scene of ghastly destruction. Western bombing, Soviet artillery, and vicious street fighting had pulverised it: 12 per cent of all buildings had been razed to the ground, 76 per cent were in ruins; there were only 8,500 hospital beds remaining from a previous 35,000; 128 of the 150 bridges were smashed. There was no public transport, no gas or electricity, no water supply. The sewage system had been out of action for months and dysentery and typhus had reached epidemic proportions. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder decided in May 1945 that the “city is completely dead. One drives for miles through desolate smoking ruins and finds nothing habitable. It can never be reconstructed.” Clay, on his first visit to Berlin in June, found “my exultation in victory was diminished as I witnessed this degradation of man”.7

Yet within a week of arriving in the capital, Ulbricht’s Moscow group and its workers had restored limited services for buses and trams, the district surface railway (the S-bahn) was working and some lines of the flooded underground railway (the U-bahn) had been pumped out and begun operation. For the ideological task of propaganda Radio Berlin had gone on the air again, and two newspapers had begun publication: the Berliner Zeitung and a Soviet Army publication, the Täglische Rundschau. Small shops had reopened to sell the very limited stores of food and guards had been posted at depots to prevent looting; by 15 May ration cards had been printed. While army engineers struggled to repair electricity and gas supplies, standpipes were set up in the streets to provide buckets of water for the weary, grimy queues of Berliners. On 26 May there was enough order and normality for the Berlin Philharmonic to give its first post-war concert. All in all it was a remarkable achievement.

Most impressive of all was the speed with which a new Berlin administration was created. It was in place by 17 May. The principle on which it was based was brazenly but privately expressed by Ulbricht: “It’s got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control.” At the head of the Magistrat, the eighteen-man Berlin executive, a figurehead was appointed as Mayor – Dr Arthur Werner. His anti-Nazi record and innate decency made him publicly acceptable; his lack of any political convictions or personal assertiveness meant he was no threat to the Soviet authorities. His deputy, Karl Maron, on the other hand was a member of the Ulbricht group and had been a Communist émigré in Moscow since the ’30s. Several departmental positions were held by non-political experts: for example an eminent surgeon was in charge of public health, an architect was to deal with housing. But seven other departments were given to Communists and of these Education and Personnel were to be run by members of the Moscow group. The same process of camouflaging Party officials with specialists and political neutrals was applied to the local governments of the twenty Berlin Bezirke or boroughs. The structure of Party control was finally capped in June by the appointment as Chief of Police of Colonel Paul Markgraf, fresh from political training in a Soviet POW camp since his capture at Stalingrad. The machinery for running the whole of Berlin – the three western sectors included – had been designed to ensure a prevailing Communist influence and, through it, Soviet control.8

With so much accomplished, Marshal Zhukov could now confidently allow the western forces into the capital. He claimed to have “cleared land mines” from the roads through his Zone; in fact he had dug a political pit in Berlin. The western Powers obligingly fell straight into it. On 11 July the four Military Commandants met for the first time in the Allied Kommandatura and without any western discussion, let alone objection, they signed a decree, drafted by the Russians, accepting and legitimising “all existing regulations and ordinances”. As a result, they were now harnessed by Soviet ideological decisions which had pre-empted true quadripartite government. The western Powers were blinkered too: they preferred not to notice the almost derisive way in which they had been hoaxed, and to persist in the fallacious belief that they could win Soviet good faith by demonstrating belief in Soviet good intentions. There were practical considerations mixed with their naïveté: given the appalling state in which they had found Germany, they could see no other option but to struggle for four-Power unity at any cost to tackle the enormity of their problems.

For Berliners, on the other hand, the experience of the last two and a half months, during which the Red Army took and held Berlin, had been a trauma which damaged irreparably their relations with the Russians and with the Communist Party. The final assault on their city had been devastating. At least 300,000 Russians and 100,000 Berliners were killed in the last weeks, and no one could count the German military dead. The stench of putrefying corpses lingered for months beneath the twenty-five million cubic metres of rubble. Yet it was not the horror of war which hardened Berliners against their invaders. It was the nightmare of debauchery, looting and havoc which followed once the guns were silent. Little girls, young women, grandmothers were raped. Hundreds died of wounds because there were no hospitals to treat them or of venereal diseases for which there was no penicillin. Watches were snatched from their owners or hacked off with the hand if resistance was offered. Day and night, carpets, china and glass were looted; furniture and paintings were smashed or burned by drunken soldiers.

Stalin was puzzled that anyone should complain “if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and earth has fun with a woman or takes some trifles”. The Red Army authorities made no attempt to discipline their brutal hordes – the bacchanalia was seen as justifiable revenge for German barbarity in the Soviet Union for years on end. Indeed, the Red Army engaged in its own carefully organised and deliberate rapine: stripping Berlin of anything and everything which might be used in the Soviet Union to repair the destruction of Nazi invasion and occupation. Russian troops raided factories and removed their machinery, stocks, raw materials, blueprints; if they found good engineers or research scientists, they took them too. They tore out electrical fittings, telephones, wash basins, filing cabinets and piled them on to trains for despatch to the Soviet Union where the engines and rolling stock would be kept as well as their contents. Having transported their booty home, the Soviet Military Administration sent the lines on which it had travelled – by the end of 1945 over half of all East German railways were single track. No one stopped to consider whether all this rail equipment would fit Soviet gauge; nor was there any mechanism for distributing or making use of the captured goods – for years, overland travellers to Moscow would pass mountains of German industrial equipment, crumpled and rusting by the wayside.

The Soviet Union paid dearly for what it took so freely. When a young member of the Moscow group expressed horror at the scenes of wholesale pillage in Berlin in May and June 1945, a political commissar told him: “This will cost us a million roubles a day. Political roubles.” The depredations of the Soviet soldiers did, as he prophesied, ensure that Berliners would forever oppose them and their local sympathisers.9

For the moment, however, Berliners were in no state to take sides actively. They were totally absorbed in a desperate struggle for survival. Through the autumn of 1945 and the bitter winter which followed they fought against starvation and cold. The official rations could seldom be met, thanks to the destruction of agriculture and transport, and people were driven to barter for black-market food with their last remaining personal possessions. Foreign visitors were shocked to see Berliners slowly stumbling across streets in front of oncoming traffic – they were, in fact, too hungry and exhausted to move out of the way, their children were riddled with rickets. There was little or no work to be had: the German civil service had been Berlin’s major employer but it no longer existed; industry had been wrecked by the Red Army’s invasion and looting and now had no coal to start up again. The population was living in rubble: in damp cellars or in roofless rooms tented with a sheet, shivering in the dark, coughing with TB, and sniffing the foul air compounded of mildew, blocked drains and rotting flesh. It was the time they called Stunde Null – Zero Hour – when everything had stopped dead. Whether or not anything would ever start again and, if so, in what direction it would move was out of German hands. It was up to the four Powers to decide.

Berlin’s misery reflected the destitution in the whole of Germany. Most cities had been shattered by air attack and artillery bombardment: 53 per cent of all buildings in Hamburg were reduced to rubble, only 44,000 out of 177,000 houses still stood in Frankfurt; Dresden and Stuttgart were in ashes after firestorms. A British official driving across the country in the early weeks after the Nazi surrender decided that “Everything which modern man considers necessary to the maintenance of life in a civilised society had disappeared. There was no governmental authority, no police. No trains, trams or cars; no factories working, no postal service, no telephones, no newspapers, no banks. No shop was open and it would have been impossible to buy a loaf of bread, a glass of beer or an aspirin.” The roads were potholed by shells, railways contorted by bombs, river bridges lying in the water and blocking the barge routes. As a consequence, what little food was produced could not be distributed; the few factories still intact could not get raw materials or fuel to start work.10

Even without transport, however, Germans were on the move, trudging across the country with suitcases, or a few possessions bundled on handcarts or bicycles. They were city dwellers who had fled to the countryside to escape the bombing and now had no homes to go back to, or people from eastern Germany who had fled before the advancing Red Army and were afraid to return to Soviet occupation. With them traipsed Displaced Persons – mainly those who had been brought by the Nazis to Germany to work as forced labourers and could not or would not go back to the Russian-held East – there were over two million of them in the American Zone alone. They were joined by millions more refugees from east Europe. Many of these were racial Germans whose families had lived in the Slav lands for hundreds of years. It had been decreed at Potsdam that they could be deported together with the hated new settlers who had arrived in the wake of the German armies. The rest were exiles from former German territory east of the rivers Oder and Neisse. This area had been handed to Poland by Stalin, without any consultation with his western allies, while the Soviet Union absorbed East Prussia. In so doing, the Soviet Union had dared to impose two frontier adjustments in advance of a peace settlement and carried out a unilateral dismemberment of Germany. Still, even faced with such provocation, the western Powers were not prepared to face a war with the Soviet Union having just ended one with Germany. After a weak splutter of protest, they were content with a clause in their Potsdam communiqué which put the Oder-Neisse territory “under Polish administration’’ until a “final settlement”. They might as well have set the date at the Greek Kalends.

It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy how many people this decision added to the drifting, homeless masses in Germany in 1945 and 1946. Given the collapse of administration, no proper figures were compiled. One guess is that by 1950 a total of 7,978,000 refugees had arrived in West Germany. They were a distressing burden on an already shattered land; they would ultimately be an incalculable economic asset as the labour force which rebuilt it. Already they served as political indicators: a high proportion of them preferred to stay in the West. The story of the events that led to the building and the collapse of the Berlin Wall has refugees as its leitmotiv.11

For the moment, however, refugees were simply seen as extra mouths to feed – and Germany was frighteningly short of food. Agriculture was neglected during the war when the populace lived off what was looted from occupied Europe; there was now no fertiliser, and no chemicals or coal to start production. The country could not afford to import the 30 per cent of food on which it always relied in peacetime. By United Nations calculation, an adult needed to consume 2,650 calories a day. In the western zones of Germany in late 1945 and early 1946 the best that could be provided was 1,500 calories. Conditions were rather better in the Soviet Zone where officials, intellectuals and manual labourers were guaranteed 2,485 calories a day, but those categorised as “useless” – that is to say the old, the unemployed and the politically incorrect – were lucky to get 1,248. In March 1946 west zonal rations had to be cut even though the British and Americans were importing food at their own expense – what the British Chancellor of the Exchequer called “paying reparations to the Germans”. No wonder that TB was rife, typhus and dysentery endemic, and that miners in the Ruhr who used to produce 1,547 tons of coal per shift in 1938 were now only averaging 711.

Clearly it was not just a humane duty to feed the Germans. It was also in the interests of the occupying Powers to do so. As General Clay put it: “there is no choice between becoming a Communist on 1,500 calories and a believer in democracy on 1,000 calories”. German diseases could spread to allied troops, German coal and industry were essential to rebuild devastated Europe, and it was difficult enough to denazify and demilitarise without also having to deal with hunger marches in spring 1946 and a strike of Ruhr miners for food. Yet the Allied Control Council could agree on no quadripartite policies for agriculture or food distribution: the Russians refused to pool resources or accept a joint export-import programme so that food could be bought from abroad. According to the agreement of the four Powers at the Potsdam Conference, Germany was to be run by the Allied Control Council as a single economic unit and to be administered by German departments acting under its close supervision. But from the very first meeting of the four Military Governors in Berlin on 20 July 1945, the ACC was castrated by the veto built in to its constitution.

It was the French not the Russians who first used that veto consistently and destructively. They could not forget that France had been invaded by Germany three times since 1870 nor forgive the recent humiliating and vicious occupation by the Germans. They were now determined to prevent a resurgence of German military power and to secure a strong eastern frontier by detaching from Germany the Saar and the Rhineland. They were ready to hold up all ACC business until they achieved their aims. So in 1945 the French blocked the creation of a central German transport agency or indeed any German administrative department and they prevented the federation of trades unions and the formation of national political parties.

By a terrible irony, almost the only common policies the ACC devised made the situation worse. In March 1946 it accepted the recommendation of an international commission on reparations and fixed the overall level of German industrial output at half that of 1938, with a total ban on the manufacture of armaments and building of aircraft and ships, and a limit on steel production to about a third of pre-war output. For the moment the diktat was pure fantasy – industry was incapable of reaching even the low level set – but it was still a harsh settlement, smacking of vengeance and bordering on Morgenthau’s plan for pastoralisation. In the longer term, it was economic nonsense: ignoring Europe’s need for German exports and preventing Germany from earning enough to buy food. It certainly was in contradiction to the allied requirement for reparations. At the Potsdam Conference it had been agreed that each occupation power would take reparations from its own zone. At first they came from dismantling armaments factories then, once the Level of Industry Plan was in operation, from any surplus productive capacity. In recognition of the dreadful losses the Soviet Union had suffered in the war, it had also been decided that the USSR would receive a further 15 per cent of all industrial equipment dismantled in the West in exchange for raw materials from the Soviet Zone, and another 10 per cent without counter-deliveries. No final total had been fixed. While politicians argued about it, the Russians simply stripped their zone without rendering any account and took deliveries from the west without payment in raw materials. In the absence of an overall economic policy, the four occupying Powers were plucking a goose which might one day lay golden eggs and letting it die slowly of hunger and cold.

Faced with this dangerous and self-destructive situation, the Military Governor of the American Zone, General Lucius D. Clay, called in May 1946 for Germany to be treated as a single economic unit with shared resources and sufficient exports to buy food. Yet again the Russians refused to cooperate, and Clay’s patience snapped. He sent no more reparations from the American Zone and stopped dismantling “until the economic unity on which reparations are based has been achieved”. He furthermore warned Washington that currency reform was essential for the revival of German industry and trade: inflation which had been drifting steadily upward since before the war was now galloping, thanks to liberal Soviet use of captured Reichsmark printing plates to pay their occupation costs.

The Soviet authorities in Germany were unmoved by Clay’s protests and new tough measures. Rather than work for economic unity they forged ahead in creating a separate system for their Zone. They took control of the banks, and impounded all gold, silver, foreign currency and valuables on deposit. Not content with removing about 45 per cent of all industrial equipment as reparations (the total was around 8 per cent in the western zones) they also took reparations from current production, including the entire output of the East German uranium mines. Having reduced their zone’s productivity to 42 per cent of its 1936 level, they then grouped up to a third of the industrial concerns into SAGs – Soviet Limited Companies, two-thirds of whose products were sent to the Soviet Union with transport costs paid by the East Germans. By spring 1948 these SAGs employed about a fifth of the entire labour force. Similar Soviet methods were applied to agriculture. First the Russians took over Nazi and former State property, then the estates of the Prussian landowning aristocracy, and finally any land in excess of a hundred hectare holding. A third of all confiscated land was collectivised. The rest, however, was distributed to small fanners – a popular move, of course, but an agricultural disaster, since there were now too many smallholdings for efficient production. That, indeed, was probably the intention: poor farmers would be driven to join collectives.

The Russians found it more difficult to establish a political grip on their Zone. After a campaign of coaxing and bullying, all the zonal parties were forced to join the Communists in April 1946 in a new Socialist Unity Party of Germany – the SED. It fared badly in the Soviet Zone elections that autumn and failed to get a majority in any of the five eastern Länder (or provinces). After that, authorities would permit only a single list of candidates in any election; opposition was abolished. The big stumbling block to Soviet political ambitions, however, remained Berlin. Here the local branches of the democratic socialist party, the SPD, resisted all pressures to join the SED. On 31 March 1946 they held a referendum in the city on the issue of party merger. This, for the first time, drew the western allies and the Soviet authorities into open political confrontation. The western Commandants were persuaded to provide newsprint for the SPD and guards for West Berlin polling stations; the Russians arrested SPD speakers in their sector, allowed their police to beat up SPD activists and finally closed the Soviet Sector polling booths. Even so, of those able to vote 82 per cent came out against party merger and the Berlin SPD was saved. In the Berlin municipal election in October 1946 the Russians and German Communists used old tactics of intimidation and physical violence and added new inducements such as distribution of free food and cutting the electricity supply to the western sectors. To no avail: the new city Assembly had 63 SPD members, 29 Christian Democrats and 12 Liberals; the SED won only 26 seats.

Berliners in all sectors were proud of the democratic stand they had made. The experience had stirred them out of political apathy and confirmed their loathing for the Soviet authorities and their German Communist henchmen. The lesson they drew from it was to look to the West for support: to national party organisations in the allied zones and to the western occupation forces. In the middle of the Soviet Zone there was now a city divided not just by the occupation authorities but at the political grass roots, and determined to build up an alternative to the Soviet system. Berlin was also on the fault line in the seismic rending of Germany and Europe.

For as the Soviet Zone increasingly diverged from any shared occupation assumptions, so too the western zones branched off into separate development, driven less by ideological imperative than by the urgent need to stop the disastrous drift into starvation and misery and to provide German materials to rebuild Europe.

The impetus to “go it alone” came from the Americans. On 11 July 1946 the US Secretary of State, James Byrnes, told the three other occupying Powers that, pending uniform quadripartite policies for Germany, he was “ready to enter into an agreement with any other zone for the treatment of the two zones as an economic unit”. The Soviet Union, of course, made no response. Nor did France, for whom any prospect of German revival still seemed a threat to her security. The British, on the other hand, agreed to economic union with the American Zone. But Bizonal fusion seemed to have come too late. During the frozen winter of 1946–47, over a thousand Berliners died of cold, 40,000 others were treated for hypothermia and more deaths than births were recorded in the city. The meagre ration in the western zones fell to 900 calories a day, in most areas there was electricity for only a few hours a week, and in every city there were hunger marches and deaths from starvation and cold – all in spite of huge food and fuel deliveries from Britain and the United States. Ex-President Herbert Hoover warned Washington that the food deliveries must be increased immediately “if we want peace, if we want to preserve the safety and health of our army of occupation and if we want to save the expense of an ever larger military force to preserve order”. Not least, he pointed out, “The productivity of Europe cannot be restored without the restoration of Germany as a contributor.”

In spring 1947, the American and British Military Governors agreed that economic fusion did not go far enough to revive the life of their zones. German cooperation and expertise had to be exploited. So in May – with a repeated invitation to the Russians and French to join in zonal integration – they set up a German Economic Council with representatives from all their Länder to take charge of economics, finance, transport, food and agriculture. In July they revised the Level of Industry quotas to nearly 75 per cent of the pre-war level and with emphasis given to exports. From August coal production was entrusted to German management under allied supervision. None of these measures could brake the disastrous economic decline. By autumn 1947 Bizonal industrial production was barely 47 per cent of its 1936 total, only half the pre-war output of coal was being mined, rations were seldom 1,000 calories a day; an anguished occupation official knew that the western zones were “living from ship to ship” of food aid. The Americans and British fired one of the few remaining shots in their depleted locker: they recommended independent German political institutions to complement the new economic structures and foster a German will to fight for reconstruction. The two Military Governors of the Bizone insisted that their policy was merely a remedy for economic malady, and that it permitted Soviet participation whenever wished. The SMA (Soviet Military Administration) recognised the political lurch to a separate west German state and responded in kind. They, too, set up a German Economic Commission for their Zone.

Clearly quadripartite government of Germany had become meaningless and the split between the western and eastern zones was becoming institutionalised. The West was developing on parliamentary and capitalist lines and the East into a single-party state with nationalised means of production. A sudden stream of refugees arriving in western Germany from the Soviet Zone was a vote between the two systems. The prospects were alarming: two rival power blocs confronting each other across the German divide and Berlin a potential battleground.

Perhaps the collapse of wartime aims and the breakdown of the peacetime coalition in Germany could have been averted had the four Powers been able to reach any agreement at the level of heads of government. In fact the Potsdam conference in 1945 was their last meeting for ten years. In between times they handed responsibility for Germany and a post-war settlement to their Foreign Ministers. A series of meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) from 1945 to 1947 merely exacerbated the growing antagonism between governments. There was stalemate on all the basic issues. The Soviet Union adamantly blocked any progress by demanding $20 billion of reparations and a share in four-Power administration of the Ruhr. The French played off both sides in the hope of a favourable settlement of the Saar and Rhineland until the Moscow meeting in 1947 when Russians would give them no more backing. Thereafter France threw in her hand with the West and began negotiations for a Trizone in Germany – to a volley of Soviet accusations that the western Powers were turning their zones into a base “to take over Europe”. Each CFM had rapidly descended into acrimony and had closed in sterility. No one expressed disappointment when the final meeting in London from November to December 1947 adjourned without fixing a date for another.

By then this façade of four-Power unity had long been unable to conceal the harsh reality of two hostile blocs in a divided Europe. As the Red Army advanced into Germany in 1945 it positioned troops in all the countries of eastern Europe. In its wake, the Soviet Union built up Communist parties, fostered them in elections, and finally supported their seizure of power. By late 1947 Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary were one-party states and the democratic leader of Poland had been forced to leave the country, in February 1948 Czechoslovakia would be taken over by the Communists. In a speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946, Winston Churchill had warned that the Russians had set up an Iron Curtain across the Continent. Their ambitions, in his opinion, would not be satisfied with the absorption of eastern Europe; the Russians did not want war but they did want “the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines”. US President Harry S. Truman had by then lost his early belief that he could “do business” with the Kremlin and abandoned hope of Soviet collaboration: “I’m tired of babying the Soviets,” he exploded.

On the most sympathetic of interpretations, the Russians had created a buffer zone along their western frontier to give permanent security against German attack. By a more sceptical or ideological analysis they had carried out their Marxist-Leninist duty to world revolution. The western Powers finally decided that the Russians were more interested in expansion than security when the Soviet Union supported the Communists in the Greek Civil War from September 1946 and began to increase their influence in Turkey. In March 1947 President Truman told the US Congress: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure.” His Doctrine was a gauntlet thrown down to the Soviet Union.

The United States had not yet, however, abandoned all hope of Soviet cooperation in Europe: if they could not win it, perhaps they could buy it. General George Marshall, Byrne’s successor as US Secretary of State, saw at first hand the helpless misery of Europe and the Soviet Union in the spring of 1947 and was aghast. On 5 June he announced his Plan for American aid to any state “willing to assist in the tasks of recovery”. He was at pains to emphasise that this assistance was “directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos”. His munificent offer was seized on eagerly by the west European states; it was denounced by the Soviet Union as a weapon of imperialist expansion and turned down flat – not just on its own behalf but that of all the Soviet satellites of eastern Europe.

This was one of the major decisions of post-war Europe and the repercussions would be felt for more than two generations. Thanks to Marshall Aid, the west European states now had the hope of prosperity and a chance to preserve free, democratic institutions under the protection of the United States; the eastern states had been denied a sorely needed transfusion of capital, cut off from the liberal, parliamentary West, and even more tightly bound by Moscow’s control and the closed market of the Soviet bloc. The political division of Europe was doubly underlined by this economic split. “This really is the birth of the western bloc,” whispered the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, at a conference to decide how Marshall Aid would be deployed; the Soviet bloc set up Cominform in September 1947 “to take the lead in resisting the plans of imperialist expansion and aggression”. And the difference was deeply scored across Germany. The western zones and sectors were included in the European Recovery Programme. They had a chance to revive, thanks to the aid and the developing markets of the West; the Soviet Zone would remain the milch-cow of the Russians.

The demarcation line of divided Europe ran through Berlin. As the western sectors of the city became a showcase for capitalism and democracy, could the Soviet Union tolerate this advertisement for alternatives in the centre of its zone of occupation? From the end of 1947 western observers thought not. Bevin warned that the Russians would soon apply pressure in the city: the western presence was “fatal to any plans which they may have for the political assimilation of the Eastern Zone”. He was uncomfortably aware that any attempt to “squeeze us out by direct pressure on our communications or by cutting off our supplies in Berlin would be very risky and might even lead to war”. Yet as the American ambassador in Moscow pointed out: to “think in terms of appeasing the Russians in order to maintain our position in Berlin seems to me to ignore what experience in dealing with [the] Soviet government should have taught us”.

In spite of the alarming certainty that an attack on Berlin was inevitable the western allies were not deterred from pursuing their contentious policies in their zones of Germany. As Clay was well aware: “Appeasement of [the] USSR will continue the present unsatisfactory administration of Bizonal Germany and make economic reconstruction difficult if not impossible.” Reconstruction was vital: a public opinion poll in the British Zone in January 1948 revealed that 46 per cent of the inhabitants believed that “starvation and wrecking the economy” were the deliberate objectives of allied occupation (though in the British Sector of Berlin only 19 per cent of respondents took that view and 44 per cent reckoned the allied aim was “building democracy and fighting communism”). Overhauling the administrations and staffing them with Germans now seemed more urgent if good use were to be made of Marshall Aid.12

So in January 1948 the American and British authorities in the Bizone recommended that the German Economic Council be given the right to levy taxes and that an elected Legislative Council and a High Court be established. West German politicians were frightened by the prospect of a nascent government and by the reduced chances of a united nation. Soviet-controlled newspapers gave ominous warnings that such flagrant violation of the Potsdam agreement on running Germany as a single unit must lead to changes in the running of Berlin. To bring home that message, the Soviet military drew attention to the precarious foothold of the western Powers in the city: they held up western trains bound for Berlin or turned them back at the border of the Soviet Zone.

Still undeterred, the governments of the United States, Britain and France decided to hold a conference in London on the future of Germany. They invited Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg to take part, but emphasised their will to continue with separate west German development by excluding the Soviet Union. On the agenda were all the issues thought most necessary to revive Germany, but also most likely to inflame the Russians: French merger with the Bizone, west European control of the coal and steel of the Ruhr, and the setting up of a German government. The Communist coup in Prague in February edged these same six western states into discussing other matters. In March they signed the Treaty of Brussels, promising mutual assistance against any armed aggression, and they began talks with the Americans and Canadians on extending that union into an Atlantic pact.

The Russians again reminded the western Powers of their vulnerability in Berlin, this time by interfering with German civilian traffic across the Soviet Zone. Freight for the city dropped to a quarter of its usual total, and food was soon in short supply. The moment it became clear that the London talks would reach agreement on a German constituent assembly to draw up a constitution for a West German state, the Soviet Union replaced warnings with a body blow. On 20 March 1948 the Soviet Military Governor announced to his western colleagues in Berlin that the Allied Control Council “no longer exists as an organ of government”. He walked out of the ACC and ended quadripartite government of Germany.

In the three months that followed, the Soviet occupation authorities gradually tightened a noose around Berlin. Allied access to the city was interrupted by insistence on examining individual travel documents of every car or train passenger, western supplies were not allowed through unless each item had a separate Russian permit; rail traffic was turned back when western military guards refused to let Soviet soldiers on board to inspect travellers’ papers and remove German passengers. A stranglehold was put on German traffic: coal barges with cargoes for Berlin were tied up awaiting “new Soviet transit regulations”; food lorries were held up for days on end while drivers applied for “new special permits” and their meat and vegetables rotted before they were inspected at Soviet checkpoints. In the city’s factories goods piled up for lack of transport to the western zones and future production was threatened by shortage of raw materials. All the while, Berlin politicians with known western connections were kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Sector – forty-nine of them from the American Sector alone in March and April; Soviet Zone politicians who tried to keep contact with West German headquarters were threatened with loss of their homes and had their ration cards downgraded.

The crisis culminated in June 1948 when three strands of western policy were woven together. First the London talks agreed that a West German constitution would be drawn up. Then on 11 June the US Senate approved the principle of American association with European defence pacts. The Soviet Commandant walked out of the Berlin Kommandatura and ended four-Power administration of the city. Finally, on 18 June the western Powers announced currency reform in their zones: the inflated Reichsmark was to be replaced immediately with a new West mark, the Deutschmark.

That was the last straw for the Russians. They themselves issued a new East mark and commanded that it should be the sole legal tender for the whole of Berlin. When the City Assembly met on 23 June to back Mayor Ernst Reuter’s call for a united city under quadripartite control with both currencies in circulation, a mob of SED (the Socialist Unity Party of Germany) and Communist trade unionists howled down the debate and beat up members as they tried to leave. And in the early minutes of 24 June the SMA stopped all traffic in and out of the western sectors and cut their electricity supply. West Berlin, with an allied garrison of 12,000 men, was under siege by a force of 300,000 Soviet troops. Two and a half million Berliners in the western sectors were hostages; the price of their survival was a western ransom – the abandonment of all the policies for West Germany and western Europe which would mean collapse into political and economic disaster. The only alternative seemed to be a new world war, with Berlin as the flashpoint.

No one at all expected the western sectors to hold out for more than a few weeks under the Berlin Blockade. They depended on 12,000 tons of supplies a day, brought along the one road and one railway from the western zones; even for bare subsistence, they needed 4,500 tons. There were, however, stores of food for thirty-six days and coal for forty-five. That gave the western Powers a month to find a diplomatic settlement with the Russians – yet in four years since the war negotiation with them had achieved nothing.

There was perhaps one way to gain a little more time for talking: an airlift. But that seemed little better than a counsel of despair. In the whole of Germany the British had only six transport aircraft – Dakotas; the Americans had a hundred of their equivalent – the C-47. Each aircraft could carry merely two and a half tons. They could not fly round the clock, because they would have to be serviced, and they would be grounded by bad weather. Their route to Berlin crossed 120 miles of Soviet-controlled eastern Germany and was confined to the three air corridors which had been allocated to the western Powers by the Soviet Union in 1946. Each corridor was just twenty miles wide; they converged on Berlin where there were only two short runways for landing. The air transport experts of the United States and Britain were unanimous: it was impossible to supply the western sectors by air. The United States Air Force thought the scheme folly: a “diversion from planning for the war which might well develop from the current crisis” and a misuse of aircraft which would then be needed anywhere in the world. President Truman’s Chief of Staff warned that an airlift was, in itself, “a dangerous enterprise” and could well “spark military conflict” with the Soviet Union; the British Chiefs of Staff agreed that anything but quiet diplomatic activity “would almost certainly lead to an incident and the opening of World War III”.

The air force professionals, however, were overruled by the politicians. First Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, then Harry Truman, the President of the United States, decided that an airlift must be set up and they would commit every available aircraft to it. They knew they could not supply the western sectors indefinitely nor provide an acceptable standard of living, but they calculated that every hour would strain Soviet determination to maintain the Blockade, every day give a chance to try negotiation. They knew that they were risking war but backed their hunch that the Soviet Union was no more willing than they were to face renewed fighting and destruction. They were certain that if the western Powers were driven out of Berlin the embryonic recovery of western Germany would be aborted and hopes for European reconstruction would die. They were intent on staying in Berlin: Bevin told the House of Commons that Britain could not “abandon those stout-hearted Berlin democrats who were refusing to bow to Soviet pressure”; Truman decided that the United States was “going to stay – period”, and Marshall added “we are not going to be coerced.” Britain and America would refuse all concessions over currency, constitutions or the Ruhr, but they were well aware that their right to stay now depended on Berliners’ willingness to endure suffering.

The West staked everything on the Airlift and they won – but only just. It took from June to September 1948 before the basic 4,500 tons a day could be delivered to Berlin. During that time there was filthy weather and a desperate shortage of aircraft, let alone the machinery and tools to keep them airworthy; there were no proper procedures to control take-offs and landings or movement along the air corridors; there were too few dispatch airfields, little or no connection between them and the west German roads and railways which delivered the goods, and the runways in Berlin were too short and were cracking up under the heavy traffic; world stocks of dehydrated food (which was lightweight and took up less room in the holds) had been stripped and factories had still not geared up to provide new supplies; there was not enough capacity to carry the minimum amount of coal needed in the western sectors, not even an adequate supply of bags to pack it in (dust corroded aircraft controls and electric connections) or lashings to stop it shifting during a flight (so it upset the trim of an aircraft and could well cause a crash). By September Clay knew “we are not quite holding our own”. Even after only a couple of months of siege, the average Berliner was 8.5 pounds underweight and struggling along on 1,600 calories a day; the British Military Commandant warned that it was “highly improbable that the western sectors could hold out through a winter on this basis” and that given yet more hunger, dark and fear the people “would prefer to have the Russians”.

At last, in October, big capacious American C-54S began to arrive and brought a brief spurt of hope that they could carry enough to sustain life in the western sectors. (A young pilot asked: “Will the C-54 ever replace sex?”) Yet it was January 1949 before there were enough heavy transport aircraft plus the organisation and supplies to lift 5,500 tons a day and guarantee a daily ration of merely 1,500 calories. Berlin only survived that winter thanks to a meteorological freak: there was little frost or snow and clear visibility for three months so that every aircraft that could fly packed supplies into the city round the clock.

And, in the final analysis, the success of the Airlift and victory over the Soviet Blockade was a triumph of Berliners’ morale: if the people had not found the endurance to stand up to privation, the western allies would have been obliged to hand over their sectors to the Russians. Berliners’ courage never wavered. “Faith”, said a taxi driver, “came by our ears”: as long as they heard the steady drone of allied aircraft they could fight on. They withstood a year of siege – the Blockade which began in June 1948 was finally lifted in May 1949. They never tasted fresh fruit or vegetables; they clogged their tonsils with dried potatoes (and Berliners love a real potato). They had only four hours of electricity a day, so if power came on in the middle of the night that was when the cooking, washing and ironing had to be done; they shivered in front of twig fires but refused to chop down the city’s trees (Berliners love their woods as much as their potatoes). They darned socks by the light of a candle stump; turned the collars and cuffs on shirts for the umpteenth time; cut bands of cloth from old dresses and stitched them on to the bottom of skirts for growing children; made wooden clogs because there were no nails or leather to repair shoes; and they had their teeth filled by dentists who worked by candlelight with foot-pedalled drills. They laughed, mordant Berlin laughter: “Have a cup of Blumenkaffee” – coffee so thin you could see the flower at the bottom of the cup; “Things could be much worse. Think if the Americans were blockading us and the Russians were running the Airlift”.

Through the dark, cold, frightening months, West Berliners resisted any form of pressure to surrender. They refused Soviet offers of rations. They fought off repeated attacks on their democratic institutions. In August the City Assembly, which met in the Soviet Sector, was invaded by Communist agitators; in September it was besieged for over twenty-four hours by a mob backed by Soviet Zone police. City officials worked with Soviet officers at their desks; their phones were cut off, their staffs sacked; they were threatened with loss of home and ration card; some were kidnapped, others were interrogated by East Sector police night after night, several were slapped into solitary confinement for weeks at a stretch. Until December they clung on to their posts in the East and to the principle of a single administration for a united city. Then, one by one, departments moved to the western sectors taking their files, desks and typewriters with them. When the city’s university – on Unter den Linden in the Soviet Sector – could no longer maintain freedom of thought and scholarship against a relentless Soviet campaign of “purging” liberal teachers and compulsory lectures in Marxist dialectics, the students moved west too. They took their books and laboratory equipment stuffed into their overcoats and trousers, and in two rooms they founded the Free University.

In response to every assault, freedom-loving Berliners came out on to the streets in hundreds of thousands to demonstrate that they would stand for their rights and would not waver. Their beloved mayor, Ernst Reuter, spoke for them when he told General Clay in the early days of the Blockade that the western Powers could leave if they wished but Berliners would fight to the end. He put their feelings into words when he told a mass meeting that Berliners would “build a dam against which the red tide would break in vain”. He transformed their misery into a battle cry when he said “The struggle for Berlin is a struggle for the freedom of the world.” The world heard the cry and took sides.

By April 1949 the Airlift could carry nearly 8,000 tons a day and was obviously expanding. Stalin, ever the realist, faced the facts. The Blockade of Berlin was lifted on 11 May. The city was now sharply divided – not as a symbol of four-Power occupation as intended in 1945, and not for temporary administrative convenience, but as a reflection of two rival power blocs. The mood was noticeably altered too. East Berliners remained apathetic and resentful; West Berliners had been politicised by the siege, had grown in pride and now regarded the western Powers not as invaders but as allies. One thing remained the same: access to Berlin from the West was still vulnerable. The Soviet Union, in the formal agreement to lift the Blockade, which was signed in Paris in June 1949, had guaranteed unimpeded access, but had conceded no extra roads or railways. Few people had confidence in these paper promises and they had just experienced the ease with which the Russians could cut off the city.

Conspicuous changes had taken place in Germany, too, during the Blockade. On 8 May the Parliamentary Council had approved the Basic Law – a constitution for the western Länder which joined them in the Federal German Republic where Germans would run their own affairs and the three Military Governors would hand residual powers to civilian High Commissioners. The Basic Law had been drawn up reluctantly by the West German politicians: it was a painful admission that a united Germany was now postponed. It had been carefully drafted so that the federal structure could include the five eastern Länder some day; it called on the entire German nation “to accomplish by free determination the unity and freedom of German”. The hope that the division of Germany would only be temporary was emphasised in the choice of a capital for the Federal Republic: Bonn – provincial, geographically peripheral and deficient in facilities – was merely a stop gap for a provisional state. The aim was a united nation with its capital in Berlin.

That, of course, had been the declared intention of all the four Powers in 1945. Yet in the four years that followed they had created a situation in which it was no longer possible, and the projected post-war settlement had collapsed. In its place was a very different makeshift settlement which would, in fact, last for forty years because no one could find an alternative. The coalition against the Nazis, which should have drawn up a treaty with Germany and rearranged Europe to prevent future aggression, had disintegrated. With the split, Germany had been partitioned – in the East, the German Democratic Republic (the GDR) was proclaimed in October 1949 – and Europe divided into two blocs which threatened the peace. The Soviet Blockade of Berlin had acted as a catalyst in bringing the United States and Canada into alliance with the European states who signed the Brussels treaty. On 4 May 1949 they entered into the North Atlantic Pact, promising mutual assistance in case of armed attack on any member – and “on the occupying forces of any party in Europe”. This clause made Germany an inevitable battleground in hostilities between NATO and the Soviet Union. It turned Berlin into the front-line city of the Cold War.

* Such was the importance attached by SHAEF to documents coming from the EAC that Headquarters forgot it had ever received the Commission’s painstakingly drafted terms of German surrender and its staff spent three days and nights cobbling together its own version when Nazi generals were about to arrive and lay down their arms.

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