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Road to Confrontation
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin ---  The Berlin Crisis of 1948,  its Origins and Aftermath 
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
© 1988
(Used with permission)

German refugees moving west, Bamberg, 13 July 1945.

German refugees moving west, Bamberg, 13 July 1945.

Whoever has Germany has Europe-Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

  The geographical location of Germany in the middle of Europe, with its industrial base and its hard working people, has long been the key to the control of the continent. Since German unification in 1870, the other European powers had attempted to hold Germany in check by a series of alliances. The breakdown of the "balance of power" and other factors had led to World War I. Despite a tremendous loss of manpower and territory, Germany had been able to recover sufficiently within 20 years to conquer most of Europe before going down to defeat by the combined forces of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Under the proper conditions, who could assure that Germany could not rise again?

  At Teheran in 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin all advocated some form of partition of Germany into three to five separate states. By the time of the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the strategic goals of the war-time allies had changed. The Soviet Union had annexed portions of eastern Germany territory. Although the United States and Great Britain maintained these annexations could not be recognized until a German peace treaty was signed, they acknowledged that little could be changed by this fait accompli.

  Although the Soviet Union had agreed to allow France to participate in the German occupation, Great Britain and the United States were not even consulted about the fact that Poland was also, in effect, granted status as an occupying power. The 10.7 million Germans residing in the territories annexed by Poland and the Soviet Union were forced from their homes with another 2.9 million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia. Most ended up in the US and British zones of occupation after suffering incredible hardships during their flight west. Nearly 2.2 million died of starvation and exposure along the roads, as the fighting ran over them, and at the hands of vengeful Poles and Russians.(1) These refugees further aggravated the problem of feeding the German population which had traditionally received

US equipped troops of the French First Army advance cautiously into the town of Colmar, France, 2 February 1


US equipped troops of the French First Army advance cautiously into the town of Colmar, France, 2 February 1945.

most of their foodstuffs from what was now the Soviet Zone of occupation and the territories now annexed by the Poles and the Soviets.

  The French were the one power whose policy from 1945 to 1948 remained constant for German partition. Based on its experience of three wars in the previous 70 years, France continued to fear a potential resurgent Germany even after the threat of a Communist Europe became the greater danger. The policies of the United States and Great Britain on one side and the Soviet Union on the other changed gradually (or radically depending on one's viewpoint) to advocating a unified German state, however, only on the condition that such unified state be aligned in their respective camps. Because neither side could permit the other to gain such an advantage, the partitioning of Germany became inevitable, but not as proposed by any of the wartime plans.

  The Soviet Communists, being good students of Lenin, set out to insure that, if possible, Germany would eventually be a Communist state. Their theorists did not believe this would be immediately possible during the occupation period, but they believed that the United States and Great Britain would not support a long occupation. When the United States and Great Britain pulled out, the Communists believed they would come to power, perhaps in a coalition with the Socialists, but as the dominant force with the powerful armies of the Soviet Union on Germany's eastern borders exerting the necessary pressure.(2)

  The Communists had good reason to believe they would be successful in Germany. Prior to 1933, the German Socialist party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD) had been two of the largest political parties in Germany. But how could the two worker's parties, whose views on the proper methods of attaining socialist goals were so different, possibly coexist, much less unite?

  Socialism in Germany can be traced to the Revolution of 1848 and the teaching and writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In 1863, Ferdinand Lassale founded the first German worker's political party, forerunner of the SPD. Because this party basically came to support Bismarck's policies, a dissident faction led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht formed a rival party in 1869. Persecution by German police and courts brought the two rival factions together in 1875 when the unified SPD was born.

  Prior to 1914, the SPD was outlawed at various times, but gradually gained strength and by 1912 was the largest single party in the German Reichstag. Although the SPD proclaimed its belief in Marxist revolution, a majority faction came to believe and advocate "social democracy" and attainment of power by the electoral ballot. When the majority of the Socialists, if somewhat reluctantly, supported the war credits of the German Imperialist government in 1914, a minority led by Karl Liebknecht, the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Rosa Luxemburg broke party discipline and voted no. In 1916, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were expelled from the SPD and formed the Spartacus League and the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

Karl Liebknecht orating at the graves of followers killed during a failed coup attempt in January 1919. Seve

ral days after this photo was taken, he and colleague, Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered.

Karl Liebknecht orating at the graves of followers killed during a failed coup attempt in January 1919. Several days after this photo was taken, he and colleague, Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered.

  In December 1918, one month after the armistice ending World War I, Liebknecht and Luxemburg withdrew from the USPD and formed the KPD. With the German capitulation in November 1918 and the Kaiser's abdication in December 1918, the majority SPD, as the leading party in the Reichstag, inherited the German government. During the period from December 1918 to June 1919, Germany was rocked by political strikes and armed insurrections fomented by the Communist policy of civil war. In Berlin, the Communists attempted to overthrow the SPD government which was forced to call for military support. The revolt was brutally put down. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered. Another leader, Wilhelm Pieck, was arrested but later released.

  With the death of its two principal leaders, the KPD split again over policy and tactics, but eventually its left wing reorganized under Ernst Thaelmann, the leader of the abortive Communist uprising in Hamburg in 1923. Other, more conservative elements drifted back to the SPD. During the entire history of the German Weimar Republic, the major aim of the KPD was to destroy the SPD. Stalin set the policy on February 5, 1925, when he wrote in Die Rote Fahne, the KPD newspaper:

  It is most essential for the German Communist Party to represent the majority of the working class and it is, therefore, the prime task of German Communists to smash the Social Democratic Party and to reduce it to an insignificant minority. . . .If there are within the working class two rival parties of equal strength then the lasting and firm triumph of the revolution, even under the most favorable conditions, is impossible. (3)

  After the Reichstag fire in February 1933, which Hitler pinned on the Communists, the KPD and the SPD were banned. Leading Communists and Socialists were swept into concentration camps or forced to flee to other parts of Europe. Thaelmann perished in a German concentration camp in 1944, Pieck and Walter Ulbricht eventually made their way to the Soviet Union, and a young Communist organizer, named Erich Honecker, was thrown into Brandenburg prison where he remained until freed by Soviet troops in 1945. From 1933 to 1945, the "Popular Front" and later "National Front" strategies became Communist doctrine. These strategies basically called for the unification of all "anti-Fascists" to defeat the Nazis and the Fascists.

  In 1939, the KPD held its last party congress

Bread being distributed from a trailer in the residential Zehlendorf section of Berlin. The ration was two-thirds of a pound per day for employed persons and one-half pound for the unemployed.

Bread being distributed from a trailer in the residential Zehlendorf section of Berlin. The ration was two-thirds of a pound per day for employed persons and one-half pound for the unemployed.

before World War II in Bern, Switzerland. The final resolution adopted was "that a unified revolutionary party of the German working class must be organized" and both the Communists and Social Democrats were called upon "to organize the future unity party of the German working class."(4) Of course, the KPD, without saying, wanted this unity on their terms and under their leadership. The SPD remained cool to any such unification on KPD terms.

  During the closing days of World War II, on Monday, April 30, 1945, ten German Communists led by UIbricht and including Wolfgang Leonhard* were transported from the Soviet Union by airplane to join Zhukov's army just outside Berlin. Another ten German Communists under Anton Ackermann were detailed to Marshall Konev's armies then approaching Dresden. A third group was detailed to the Soviet armies in Mecklenburg. Each of these groups had the mission of setting up local German government in their areas as soon as the fighting stopped. The Ulbricht group was responsible for Berlin and the surrounding areas.

*Evidence of the Soviet Union's plans for Germany after World War II came to light in the early 1950s with the publication of Wolfgang Leonhard Die Revolution Entlaesst Ihre Kinder. Leonhard, the son of a German Communist mother, grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, returned to Germany in 1945, and defected to Yugoslavia in 1948. His first hand account gives us insight on Communist plans and policy during the 1945-48 period.


  On Wednesday, May 2,1945, the very day of Berlin's surrender, the Ulbricht group, accompanied by Soviet Army political officers, entered Berlin. Each group member was detailed to one or two Berlin boroughs to assist the Soviet commanders and to lay the groundwork for a local German administration. Several days later, Ulbricht directed the installation of local German mayors and other officials for all Berlin boroughs. Ulbricht ordered "anti-Fascist bourgeois" be installed as mayors in all districts other than the worker's boroughs of Wedding, Neukoelln, Friedrichshain, and Lichtenberg. In the other boroughs, a Communist was selected to be first deputy mayor. In addition, Communists were installed as heads of education and the police in each district. Ulbricht stated: "It is crystal clear: It must appear democratic, but we must have all the strings in our hands."(5)

  By mid-May 1945, a German language radio station had been set up under Communist control and a city-wide government was installed. Dr. Arthur Werner, an independent "anti-Fascist" was named Lord Mayor of Berlin, but Karl Maron, a veteran German Communist and one of the Ulbricht group, was named as First Deputy Lord Mayor. Of the 18 city officials named, nine were former KPD members.

  In early June 1945, Pieck arrived from Moscow with instructions. There would be no unified Socialist party. The KPD and the SPD would be reorganized as separate parties. At least two "bourgeois center" political parties would be

Under the direction of Soviet soldiers, civilians clear rubble away from the Unter den Linden 4 May 1945.

Under the direction of Soviet soldiers, civilians clear rubble away from the Unter den Linden 4 May 1945.

formed and all political parties would form an "Anti-Fascist Democratic Bloc." A land reform would be administered during the summer of 1945 in the Soviet occupation zone.(6) Ulbricht and Pieck also tasked Honecker to form the Free German Youth (FDJ), a group that would later form the vanguard of Communist mob actions. (7)

  On June 10, 1945, Zhukov issued Soviet Military Order No. 2 which permitted the organization of "anti-Fascist democratic" political parties at a time when the United States, Great Britain and France had prohibited all political activity in their own occupation zones. The very next day, June 11, the KPD issued its organization proclamation and on June 15 the SPD was formed, even though most of its elected leaders were still in exile in England. This was followed by the formation of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the German Liberal Party (LPD).

  As it pertains to Berlin, all of these actions had been instituted before the Americans, British, and French arrived in Berlin during the first week of July 1945. Even though the Soviet Union knew and had accepted in 1944 that Berlin was to be jointly governed by all occupation powers, they and their German communist allies had unilaterally installed a pro-Soviet city government. On Wednesday, July 11, 1945, at the first meeting of the Berlin Kommandatura, all previous appointments and ordinances approved by the Soviet Army were unanimously agreed upon. It is evident the Western members of the Kommandatura did not fully understand the significance of this agreement made in the flush of victory celebrations and the spirit of Allied cooperation. They soon learned to regret their hasty decision.

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