"Operation Vittles" Gets Organized
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin --- The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
(Used with permission)
The success of the airbridge and the failure of the Western Powers to withdraw from Berlin as predicted by the Soviets and their German Communist allies seemed to incite the Soviets to take more drastic action. Using the German Communists, they initiated actions to disrupt City Council meetings in the Soviet Sector. They attempted to intimidate the non-Communist members in a classic Communist maneuver, ala Petrograd, November 1917. If they could force the non-Communist majority to withdraw or resign, the Communists could quickly elect a mayor, select a Magistrate, and declare themselves the legitimate government for all of Berlin.
Even if this tactic was unsuccessful, their actions might incite the democratic Berlin majority to rise up in anger, causing disturbances and anti-Soviet actions beyond the ability of the small Allied garrisons in Berlin to control. The Soviets would then be able to claim they had been forced to take control of the city to restore order. Both scenarios were played out in Berlin during August and September 1948; however, neither resulted in what the Communists' hoped for.
Because elected mayor Ernst Reuter (SPD) had been unable to assume his post because of Soviet opposition, Louise Schroeder (SPD) had served since 1947 as Acting Mayor. Schroeder, a frail woman, had been an ardent Socialist since the Weimar Republic era. She was quiet, unassuming, completely dedicated to democratic government, and refused to be intimidated by the Communists. Affectionately called "Tante Louise" (Aunt Louise) by Berliners, her health broke down in mid-August 1948 and she was forced to take a leave of absence to recuperate. She was succeeded by Deputy Mayor Ferdinand Friedensburg, a Christian Democrat. Under the Berlin provisional constitution, if Friedensburg was forced out, his replacement would be the next deputy in seniority who happened to be a Communist SED official.
The Soviets wasted no time in putting the pressure on Friedensburg. On Wednesday, August 25, 1948, Communist newspapers in Berlin called for a "popularly elected" Magistrate and "direct action" to change Berlin city government. The following day, the Berlin City Council was scheduled to meet in the City Hall in the Soviet Sector when they were confronted by some 5,000 of the SED's Free German Youth and Communist union members who had been transported to the meeting place by Soviet licensed trucks. Carrying banners and shouting Communist slogans, they broke into the assembly chamber and disrupted the meeting which had to be adjourned. The Berlin Soviet Sector police stood idly by and made no effort to restore order.
On Friday, August 27, Otto Suhr (SPD), Chairman of the City Council, wrote a letter to General Kotikov, the Soviet Berlin commandant, requesting adequate protection for City Council meetings, but Kotikov's reply was evasive and non-comittal. A scheduled City Council meeting set for Tuesday, August 31, had to be called off when Communist demonstrators again gathered at City Hall.
In an effort to continue an all-city government, the City Council scheduled another meeting for Monday, September 6 and took along approximately 50 Western Sector policemen in civilian clothes to maintain order. Each of the four powers maintained an office in the Soviet Sector City Hall which was used by accredited US, British, French, and Soviet liaison officers representing the four city commanders.
Again the Communists disrupted the meeting and, when the Western Sector police attempted to restore order, uniformed Soviet Sector police under direct command of a Soviet Army officer started to arrest the Western Sector police. The Western Sector police took refuge in the offices of the three Western Powers liaison offices. Soviet Sector police broke into the US liaison office late that evening, leading off 20 of the Western Sector police,(14) and, breaking an agreement made with French officials, arrested 26 more the following evening as they were leaving the Soviet Sector.(15)
The Berlin City Council was forced to adjourn to a new meeting place in the Berlin Technical University in the British Sector. The SED Communist faction members refused to participate, claimed the City Council was proscribed by law to meet in the City Hall, and the de facto split of the city began. A formal protest by Clay through Howley, the US Commander in Berlin, to General Kotikov, the Soviet Berlin Commander was basically rejected.(16)
Reuter, Neumann, and other non-Communist Berlin political leaders called for a protest demonstration on Thursday, September 9, near the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate in the British Sector, but bordering the Soviet Sector. The avowed purpose was to demonstrate to the Soviets and the world the Berliners support for democratic government in their city. Although Clay had reservations about the demonstration because it would be provocative, Robertson, in whose sector the demonstration was to be held, decided to authorize it.(17) General Herbert, the British Berlin commander, decided to deploy some 500 troops in the ruins of the Reichstag in the event the Berliners decided to storm the Soviet Sector.
At 5:00 pm, a crowd of some 200,000 to 300,00-much larger than any of the organizers had predicted-massed in the Platz der Republik outside the Reichstag under the watchful eyes of Soviet officers with binoculars observing from the Soviet side of the Brandenburg Gate. Speaker after speaker came to the platform to address the crowd and castigate the Communists and the Soviets for attempting to subjugate them and destroy their city government. The final speaker was Ernst Reuter, the elected Lord Mayor who had been unable to assume his position because of Russian opposition.
According to newspaper reports of the time, the crowd was relatively peaceful, but there was a current of electricity in the air. Reuter could have incited the crowd to do just about anything, but perhaps realizing the danger and futility, plus his responsibility, Reuter chose to appeal to the conscience of world opinion. Reuter stated: ". . . this demonstration gives Allied statesmen an opportunity to find out what the Berlin people really stand for. We cannot be bartered, we cannot be negotiated, we cannot be sold. All political discussions in Berlin are backed by the will of the people determined to maintain its freedom. Whoever would surrender this city, whoever would surrender the people of Berlin, would surrender a world, more, he would surrender himself. . . . People of the world. Look upon this city! You cannot, you must not, forsake us! There is only one possibility for all of us: to stand jointly together until this fight has been won."(18)
After thunderous applause, the meeting began to break up peacefully. However, some youths became unruly and shouted epithets at a truck carrying Soviet soldiers.
They also confronted the Soviet guard detail proceeding to the Soviet War Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate just inside the British Sector. This potentially flammable situation was defused by a British Army officer. However, a group of youths then scaled the Brandenburg Gate and tore down and burned the Red flag that had flown over Berlin since May 1945. Shooting broke out in another location where youths had stoned Soviet Sector police, resulting in the fatal wounding of a young 16-year-old Berliner. Finally, the crowd drifted away as more police arrived. Five Berliners, four of them teenagers, arrested at the scene were promptly tried by a Soviet Military court on September 13 and each was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for "Assault on the Occupation Forces" and "Injuries to Public Order."(19)
On Sunday, September 12, the Communists staged a counter-demonstration in the Soviet Sector. The danger of this situation was summed up by Clay in a cable to Draper:
The anti-Communist demonstration held in the British sector is being matched tomorrow by a Communist demonstration in the Soviet sector and we are in the midst of a dangerous game. Obviously, western military governments had nothing to do with the anti-Communist demonstration except that the British military government issued a permit. The huge attendance was I am sure a great surprise even to the Germans and led the German political leaders into inflammatory speeches. However, careful documentation of charges indicates some advance planning to this end.
It was difficult if not impossible for the British to refuse the permit in view of the planned Communist mob actions, but to my mind we are playing with dynamite. Mass meetings directed against Soviet military government can easily turn into mass meetings against other occupying powers and can develop into the type of mob government which Hitler played so well to get in power.(20)
Under the provisional Berlin Constitution of 1946 approved by the Four Powers, a City Council election was required during the Fall of 1948. During September 1948, the City Council, now meeting in the British Sector, petitioned the occupying powers to call the required election.