Charles F. Pennacchio, "The East German Communists and the Origins of the Berlin Blockade Crisis," East European Quarterly, Vol. 29, no. 3 (Fall 1995)

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Charles F. Pennacchio, "The East German Communists and the Origins of the Berlin Blockade Crisis," East European Quarterly, Vol. 29, no. 3 (Fall 1995)

A combination of long-term and short-term causes resulted in the Soviet effort to isolate and strangulate Berlin's Western sectors three years after the Second World War. Only a joint British-American airlift, which lasted nearly one year and spared extensive starvation and disease(2), averted a potential US-Soviet military showdown. Several ingredients help to explain the onset of the 1948 Berlin blockade. Viewed as the defining event of the early Cold War, some authors point to inept wartime diplomacy, when Washington, Moscow, and London failed to resolve effectively postwar Germany's and Berlin's governance, reparations, and territorial access. Other historians look to trigger events, such as the failed London Conference of December, 1947, or the currency crisis in mid-June, 1948, which immediately preceded the Soviet attempt to drive Western occupiers from the city.(3) While all of these views contribute to our understanding of the blockade's origins, recently opened archives of the former Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (SED)(4), or German Socialist Unity Party, suggest that more basic social, political and economic conditions which came to dominate in the Soviet Zone need to be examined again as a significant causal factor. Confirming previous hypotheses, my argument follows that, failed Soviet and German Communist maneuvers related to reparations, reconstruction, and political control, combined with Allied steps to establish economic and political independence for West German and West Berlin, presented the Russians few choices in mid-1948 short of driving Western occupiers out of Berlin, from deep within the Soviet Zone. Postwar Soviet policies on German reparations, on the one hand, and Russian reconstruction, on the other, made Communist control of East Germany absolutely essential. However, economic and political fallout stemming from "Russia First" reconstruction also made Communist control, via democratic and peaceful means, impossible. Moscow's decision to rebuild Russia at the expense of Soviet-occupied Germany froze East Germany in a state of wartime destruction. As a result, the social fabric which survived the war remained weak and the population became increasingly alienated from the German Communists, associated as they were with the Soviets. For Moscow, the resulting migration of East German workers to the west and electoral setbacks for the Socialist Unity Party in 1946 heightened the dual threat of Western economic absorption and a strong and independent German state to the west. Given Stalin's personal paranoia toward Germany, his diplomatic and military setbacks when previously dealing with the Third Reich, and the longer history of Russian-German hostility, no scenario caused greater alarm for the Soviet leader than a revived German state in the West.(5) The decision to blockade Berlin presented Moscow with great risks, but no risk was so great as a potentially revanchist Germany.



After the Soviet army reached Berlin first, in late April, 1945, and conquered the capital, in early May, Moscow refused to permit Western access to the city for more than two months. The Soviet unilateral squeeze of Berlin for a stretch of eight weeks, following the May 7 surrender, established harsh and intractable patterns down to the 1948 Berlin Blockade. Soviet generals, for example, cognizant of their nation's earlier treatment at the hands of German soldiers, permitted assorted attacks on Berlin's citizens, including murder, rape, and banishment. Second, in the name of reparations, the army stripped clean local factories and offices. And third, the Soviets created and controlled a particularly unforgiving city administrative structure.

Coupled with larger Soviet policy objectives, the Red Army's two-month, unilateral occupation of Berlin, crucial as it was in the short-term, proved even more vital in the long-term. The fact that the Soviet army won the race to Berlin, and denied Western access to the city until July 4, likely determined that Berlin would be a center of international conflict should East-West relations decline.(6) Stalin recognized the special importance of the Soviet occupation zone. He viewed the zone as a temporary entity which, in time, would reunite with the western half. Moreover, he saw the problem of Germany's "democratization" as one of social and economic restructuring. Stalin therefore felt it necessary to expedite Communist control over the eastern half so as to establish as strong a foothold as possible for that time when the German occupied areas rejoined as one.


On the very day that Hitler committed suicide--April 30, 1945--and a week before final German capitulation, two Soviet planes carried from Moscow to a location just outside of burning Berlin a team of German Communist Party (KPD) functionaries. Walter Ulbricht led the first group into Berlin with specific directives in hand to establish a new German order. Anton Ackermann headed a second group into the state of Saxony, and Gustav Sobottka directed a third group into the state of Mecklenburg.(7) Like Ulbricht, Ackermann and Sobottka carried Communist Party plans for remolding their assigned German territories.

The Soviet directive, dated April 5, 1945, charged each group with organizing its: respective population along a pre-determined, uniform course.(8) For the primary purpose of building hatred against Nazism, on the one hand, and cooperation with the Soviets, on the other, the plan ordered Communist groups to establish in their areas a radio, newspaper, and book publishing house. In addition, the three groups received instructions to create local governance units consisting of a mayor, an administrative council, and a yet-to-be-determined number of departments. Anti-Nazis were to head each department. The personnel office was to play an especially important role in recruitment and staff development. Underlining just how valuable this function was considered, the document stated: "The direction of this office should normally be in the hands of a comrade who in the last few years has worked as an anti-fascist functionary outside of Germany."(9) Most often, "outside of Germany" meant Moscow.

Under the direction of Ulbricht and the local Soviet commander, Berlin witnessed the creation of its municipal government, the Magistrat, on May 20, 1945. Dr. Arthur Werner, a former city engineer driven from office by the Nazis, directed the city council from the seat of lord mayor. Among 18 branches of administration, the Communist organizers founded agencies for public health, housing and reconstruction, and food acquisition and distribution. KPD members headed half of Berlin's municipal organs.(10)


The new Berlin government confronted enormous problems. Each of the 87 sewage systems was inoperable. The network of pumps for drinking water had been largely destroyed. As a result, dysentery and typhus quickly spread among the population. Exacerbating the problem was the bleak circumstance that only 2,400 doctors from a previous pool of 6,500 remained on the job, while of the former 33,000 hospital beds, only 8,500 could be used.(11) The food situation was near desperate. A 1946 report from the Berlin SPD found that "for a food supply averaging a calorie count of 1,640 per inhabitant...3,448,000 kilograms of food are necessary each day." Of this amount, Berlin itself produced only 2 percent. Fortunately, the Soviets could draw upon adequate supplies of grain, meat, fats, sugar, and potatoes from within its eastern zone of occupation to spare Berlin initial widespread starvation.(12) The Soviets introduced a rationing systems which based ration amounts on the determined value of a given worker's occupation.(13)

On the surface at least, the German Communists and Soviet military accomplished no small fat. By the conclusion of May, 1945, utilities, food supplies and health care had all been addressed though far from being remedied. Still, additional problems plagued Berlin. Of the approximately 4.6 million prewar inhabitants, 2.8 million had survived the war within the city's limits.(14) 70.1 percent of the available living space was damaged but inhabitable, and additional 9.3 percent available for renovation, while 19.5 percent was seriously damaged or totally destroyed. Apartments in which dividing walls were missing were counted as lightly damaged. Within the S-Bahn-ring (subway circle) in the city center, 70 percent of the area lay in ruins. According to an August, 1945, census, only 42.5 percent of the workplaces endured the war. Only 25.8 percent of the prewar work force remained in, or quickly moved back into, industry. An estimated 30 percent of those involved in trade resumed their function. The majority of the population simply cleared away the rubble, hoping that they could soon return to their homes and places of work.(15)


At the same time, beneath the statistical facade, Russian revenge visited Berliners of virtually every rank and class. Thousands of women suffered rape; citizens by the tens of thousands faced immediate death or deportation to work camps; industrial plants, office buildings and homes were heavily looted.(16) Nazi Party members and common citizens did not suffer alone; Soviet loyalists, too, joined the plundered masses. A remarkable series of letters to SED Chairman Otto Grotewohl, from E.F. Werner-Rades, reveals how even upper echelon Communist operatives fell victim to the Red Army's mass plundering. Werner-Rades, a longtime associate and later assistant to Grotewohl for Berlin's reconstruction effort, wrote numerous letters seeking relief from his personal difficulties. Beginning with a handwritten note dated August 9, 1945, but not received until November 16, Werner-Rades pleaded for Grotewohl's intervention on his behalf. In this first instance, Werner-Rades "wish[ed] to return to Berlin with my wife, the painter," as he had already requested in a letter to the Russian commander's office in Ness Silerngab. Without Mr. Grotewohl's support,

Mr. Marshal Zhukov shall determine whether we should go to Moscow to work. The Russian commander's office has already secured graphic works and 54 oil paintings of my wife and a number of my books, and they opened a special file about it and handed copies of it with pamphlets and catalogues to Mr. Marshal Zhukov.... Other Russian officials have taken our art work and literary valuables. Can you. help us?... as I feel Marshal Zhukov will come back again....(17)

On November 16, 1945, Grotewohl's secretary responded in proxy form, saying that Grotewohl "is away for 2 weeks." The subsequent evidence suggests that Mr. Grotewohl did assist Werner-Rades in his March 15, 1946, return to Berlin, but never in terms of his material circumstances.(18)

Werner-Rades' status as of April, 1946, had changed on paper, but not in terms of his personal poverty. Despite his appointment as Grotewohl's aid, and his efforts to reconstruct Berlin, Werner-Rades could not manage to rebuild his own life. Or at least this was the distinct impression he repeatedly gave to Grotewohl. Starting once again in April, 1946, and stretching into late 1947, Berlin's leading organizer for reconstruction chronicled for the SED chairman his personal problems with money, mortgage, and the Russian occupiers. One such letter, date May 13, 1946, requested a "loan on the basis of an old mortgage--10,000 gold marks." A note of August 13, 1946, was more blunt: our situation is still rather desperate; but step by step I hope to work ourselves out of this hole. Of the 7000 marks altogether which I have received from the publisher and from which I already had to pay 4000 marks in professional expenses, I now have to pay almost 3000 marks in taxes. This does not make it difficult to figure out what is left.(19)

The publication to which Werner-Rades referred was entitled Berlin, die Hauptstadt Deutschlands Baut Auf (Berlin, the Capital of Germany Rebuilds). The book addressed an assortment of public questions related to Berlin's future development. Hopeful that royalties from the book could allow him and his wife to rebound some from earlier setbacks, Werner-Rades once again met with disappointment.(20)

The commonly-held assumption that German Communist apparatchik enjoyed inordinate advantages is at least questioned by this evidence. Werner-Rades' personal losses in 1945 are understandable: given the state of lawlessness and Russian vengeance which prevailed in the war's early aftermath. Not so understandable, however, is a well-positioned party loyalist receiving, by all appearances, such shabby treatment. No record was found to show conclusively that Grotewohl ever helped Werner-Rades alleviate his difficult circumstances. However, it should be noted that Grotewohl highlighted in red marker along the margin of the above passage, which begins " our situation." So the SED chairman presumably took note of his assistant's plight. In any case, during 1946, when Werner-Rades often corresponded with Grotewohl, Berlin's general circumstances did not allow for much generosity on anyone's part.


It is difficult to determine the precise date on which the Socialist Unity Party effectively claimed all power over its competitors, but it certainly preceded the formal fusion between the Communist Party of Germany and the Soviet Zone's Social Democratic Party on: April 21-22, 1946.(21) More important than pinpointing a date of triumph, however, is understanding how control devolved to the Communist-dominated SED. The process may perhaps best be described as a "gradual strangulation" of the opposition, with the direct involvement of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD).22 Three developments, on three successive days in June, 1945, proved highly crucial in driving the later fortunes of the Socialist Unity Party. The first occurred on June 9, when Moscow created the SMAD to administer the Soviet Zone. Second, on June 10, the SMAD allowed the formation of anti-fascist parties and free trade unions in East Berlin and East Germany. The final of the three events, on June 11, 1945, involved the rebirth of the Communist Party of Germany. At the moment of its reconstitution, the KPD seized the opportunity to issue not only its first public pronouncement in Germany since 1933, but the first political declaration by any group of Germans since the Third Reich's collapse one month prior.

The Communist Party statement astounded sympathizers and opponents alike for what it did not promulgate, namely the creation of a Soviet system over East Germany. By instead calling for "the establishment of an anti-fascist, democratic regime, a parliamentary democratic republic," democratic rights, and individual freedoms, the KPD pre-empted its opponents and secured a more formidable political base than could have been imagined.(23) Playing on the cooperative spirit that ran high among the defeated Germans, KPD leaders called for creation of antifascist parties, and the confiscation of property held by absent factory owners, Nazis, war criminals, and Junkers.(24) Finally, the "leading role of the working class" would insure the "progressive character" of the new republic by means of a political alliance among anti-fascist parties and within reconstructed economic and social institutions. In reality, this meant Communist Party dominance.(25)

In a pattern repeated throughout the Soviet Zone, the KPD encouraged the birth and rebirth of non-Communist parties with which it could work. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany (LDPD) quickly emerged alongside the KPD, and developed programs which resembled those of the Communists. The SPD Central Committee issued its appeal on June 15, just four days after the KPD.(26) The Social Democrats, like the Communists, called for nationalizing the energy, banking, insurance, and mining industries; dividing and distributing large land holdings; and compensating nations victimized by Nazi aggression, The SPD embraced as well the KPD's invitation to build an anti-fascist democratic republic. Where the SPD differed from the KPD for a period of several months was in the Social Democrats' deep commitment to socialism and working class unity.(27) However, in October, 1945; the KPD reversed its position on working class party unity and so began the movement toward SPD-KPD fusion. The merging process between Soviet Zone Socialists and Communists culminated, again, in April, 1946, with the Socialist Unity Party's founding.

In terms of Communist strategy, local calculations, in addition to Moscow directives, helped to alter the KPD's treatment of the less powerful Christian Democrats(28) and Liberal Democrats. The CDU and LDPD figured prominently in the early going, but faced increasing repression as their usefulness diminished in the eyes of Communist tacticians. In the case of the Christian Democratic Union, its June 26 public appeal underscored the party's commitment to private property, but also conceded the necessity for state control of strategic industries and central planning "to build up our economic life."(29) On July 5, the Liberal Democrats' statement established them farther to the right than any other party. But despite the LDPD's call for private property protection and a "free economy," they too acknowledged that in some instances state control should prevail.(30) Basic agreement on at least a nominally active state function, coming as it did from the two more conservative parties, proved crucial in building the KPD's desperately needed credibility.


The four Soviet Zone parties, given life by the SMAD between June 11 and July 5, 1945, shared a common desire for an anti-fascist democratic republic. All of the parties recognized to some degree the necessity for state control and economic intervention. The KPD, SPD and CDU supported a united trade union movement. All four groups confronted the questions of war crimes, reparations, and reconstruction. Despite ideological variations and emphases, an apparent spirit of cooperation infected the clustering of parties and gave rise to the four-way "United Front of AntiFascist Democratic Parties" on July 14, 1945. The Front's founding declaration called for building a unified approach to problems and solutions. A special working committee consisting of five seats for each of the four parties was to facilitate agreements and directives. Lastly, "All decisions were to be unanimous."(31)

Communist strategy sought to expand the party's authority throughout Germany so as to control the processes building toward eventual German reunification. The first step, therefore, meant forging the antifascist front.(32) This temporary goal of a front seemed to promise the broadest possible support base and political impact. The Communists calculated that the anti-fascist front promised maximum influence in the Soviet Zone, and the prospect of at least minimal influence in all four zones.(33)

The second step in Communist power consolidation, beginning in October, 1945, required political merger with the SPD. Despite the Social Democrats' initiative for Socialist unity with the Communists in June, and the Communists' initial resistance to the overture, October proved to be a more advantageous time for the KPD to pursue "working class" unity. Again, the pattern emerged throughout Eastern Europe, where the Communists embraced Socialist unity at the opportune time and place of their choosing. But this also raised suspicion among many in the Social Democrats' camp, especially in the Western zones. Under the circumstances, considerable arm-twisting on the part of the Communists would prove necessary either to bring recalcitrant SPD leaders under the Socialist unity banner or banish them altogether.

Working closely with the German Communists, the Soviet military command took measures in the late fall of 1945 to suppress political party activities in Berlin. In a document which the KPD issued to the American commander in Berlin, the Communists reported the occasion of a meeting between a Russian Captain Ivan Serov and the chairmen of the four established parties in the Soviet Zone. The memo indicated that Serov wanted to "inform the gentlemen about American politics." Anticipating elections in the near future, and clearly reflecting Moscow's nervousness with independent political power, Serov "prohibit[ed]" the parties from "influencing" the municipal offices. This meant that party politics would no longer be tolerated in the workplace. The military government would now determine "all appointments and dismissals." The order was "not to be discussed." And, finally, any violation of the order would result in "severe punishment."(34)

Serov's order, plus additional Soviet military steps, effectively squashed CDU and LDPD activities in the East as of November, 1945, and cleared the way for a Communist-Socialist merger. Moreover, commands against specific political conduct not only chilled free expression and restrained political dissent, but such orders also demonstrated the tight zonal control upon which Moscow increasingly insisted. Finally, Serov's message underscored the Russian fear of Western, and especially American, political influence within the Soviet Zone.

With the Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats now neutralized, the German Communists could turn their full attention to the difficult task of absorbing the Soviet Zone German Social Democrats into a Socialist unity party. In short, the consolidation process continued into 1946 as the result of a December, 1945, meeting between the KPD and the Soviet Zone SPD. The Conference of Sixty, so-called because it brought together thirty representatives from each party, began inauspiciously. Bitter feelings ran especially high among Social Democrats who distrusted recent Communist policy changes and apparent collaboration with the Soviet military. At one point, Otto Grotewohl, a leading SPD member and, as we have seen, later chairman of the SED, charged that the KPD remained as "centralist and undemocratic in its party structure as before," and he argued that unification on a local level would make "unification of the German workers' movement impossible."(35) Despite the fact that Grotewohl's assessment resonated with many Social Democrats, only one individual dissented from a KPD resolution that organizational work continue toward constructing a Socialist unity party. The vast majority of SPD members reasoned that if they wished to have any influence over the development of policy during the Soviet occupation, and perhaps beyond, working class party unification offered the only real hope. Notably, the SPD leadership in the West recommended SPD dissolution in the Soviet Zone, rather than the course Grotewohl and others ultimately chose. Western SPD fears that their East German counterparts would face Communist manipulation, while lending legitimacy to the KPD, came true.


East Germany's and East Berlin's prospects of short-term recovery suffered much the same fate as did political freedoms under Soviet occupation. In each case, the East German people lost out to the Soviet and East German Communist agenda. Competing interests stalled East German economic and social developments for about three years. Working against each other from 1946 to 1949 were, on one side, Soviet reparations demands and the Socialist Unity Party's drive for German unity, and on the other side, the public's push for immediate reconstruction, sometimes joined by lower level SED members. The resulting conditions of East German economic weakness undoubtedly fed the Soviet decision to blockade the city in June, 1948. Stalin's military response to the West introducing a second currency, in the immediate term, and Western steps to create a separate West German state, in the longer term, is best understood within the context of a stagnated recovery. To Moscow, a Western currency threatened to expose and exploit the frail social and economic circumstances in which the East found itself in mid-1948; a sovereign Federal Republic posed much the same threat of revanchism as a reunified and revitalized Germany.


Soviet reparations concerns overshadowed all early efforts to rebuild East Berlin and East Germany. Moscow's draconian attitude on the German war debt received initial sanction at the Potsdam meeting of Allied leaders, in July-August; 1945. According to the protocol, each occupying nation was to take reparations primarily from its own zone and sector, as well as international German assets within their reach. As far as reparations seizures in the Soviet area of Germany, it is difficult to calculate the total of all lost goods. Between the Red Army's booty, German property grabs in the East, stripped factories in West Berlin during May and June, 1945, and nullified German bank accounts, postwar East Germany lay in far greater economic ruin than its Western half. In addition, the Americans and British agreed to grant Moscow an additional one-sixth of any surplus production in the Western occupation zones.

The Soviet drive for further debt claims in 1945 and 1946 made reconstruction prospects for East Germany even more bleak. Soviet Military Order No. 11 of July 25, 1945, required that all foreign currency, international property, and silver and gold be given to the Soviet military authorities no later than October, 1945.(36) Beginning also in October, 1945, the Russians assumed control and management over approximately one-quarter of Soviet Zone productivity.(37)

Finally, October 21, 1946, marked the initiation of "Operation Ossavakim," which forcibly transferred to Soviet soil thousands of German technicians, managers and skilled personnel, along with their family members and the industrial tools they would operate. Order No. 140, dated May 10, 1946, and signed by Marshal Georgi Zhukov, had given previous sanction and direction for necessary "training of qualified workers and retraining of workers for critical occupations."(38) The Soviet operation dramatically affected Berlin in particular, claiming, for instance, the AEG plant at Oberspree.(39)

There can be no question about the primacy of Soviet reconstruction at the expense of occupied Germany. An August 8, 1946, planning paper by Nikolai Solofnenko, Director of the Soviet Union's Institute for City Planning, underscored the marriage between German reparations and Soviet revival. The memorandum, a copy of which was directed to Grotewohl's attention, outlined the steps for rebuilding 36 Soviet cities as a central component of two successive five-year planning cycles. The planning memo addressed as "urgent" the "transformation of terms of architecture, town planning and technology" in all areas ravaged by the German war. Solofnenko confidently concluded the directive statement as if to invoke Stalin's personal authority: "Planning of this kind is possible in the Soviet Union because all economic measures are planned by the government."(40) All "possibilities" aside, Russian reconstruction would have been impossible without commensurate German suffering.

German sacrifices also had their unpredictable and far-reaching side effects with which the Soviet occupiers had to grapple. A bluntly-worded set of military orders from Lieutenant-General Ivan Smirnov, Commanding Officer of the Garrison and Military Commander of the City of Berlin, to Lord Mayor Dr. Arthur Werner reveals some of the policy consequences which confronted the Red Army. Smirnov's military directives, dated October 30, 1945, December 8, 1945, and April 13, 1946, admitted difficulties covering a wide range of political, social, and economic topics. At the conclusion of the first order, a ten-step approach regarding "the confiscation and temporary possession" of German property, Smirnov conceded that the German people still "view the politics of the anti-fascist-democratic parties as rather negative" and confrontations with the Red Army soldiers caused citizens to "hate the communists." Smirnov allowed,

That this opinion is not entirely wrong can be seen from the fact that there are more Communists in the Western part of the country, which have not been in touch with the Red Army, than in Berlin. Here in Berlin the KPD tries to force the population through different means to become Communist.(41)

Lack of soldierly discipline, training, and experience only perpetuated the cycles of random violence, crime, and resistance begun with the initial Soviet Army invasion of Berlin. The political cost of the harsh military occupation could not help but reach epidemic proportions.

The particularly repressive and inhumane conditions of Russian labor camps fostered as well German resentment against their military occupiers. Smirnov's December 8, 1945, order to Werner, once again, admitted the circumstances that stimulated disorder on the part of the workers. Inequitable "distribution of foodstuffs," arbitrary enforcement of rules, and unsanitary living, Smirnov acknowledged, "leads to plundering and illicit sales."(42) Despite the Soviet commander's analysis, however, he directed Werner to treat law beakers as "idle[s]" and "negligent[s]", and to have the Berlin attorney general "take task with the plunderers" through swift and effective retribution. Lastly, Smirnov ordered the Russian district commanders to "check the condition of all installations" by December 15, and to "carry out, on the spot, effective measures" to correct the squalid conditions in the camps.(43) However, unless or until the Soviet leadership committed human and material resources, and demonstrated a willingness to punish abuses within their own ranks, social chaos and mutual suspicion would continue.

Soviet reparations gains notwithstanding, the practice of forced debt extraction carried with it an economic price. The Russian attempt to control completely a fearful and insecure German population caused untold numbers of workers to flee from the Soviet Zone into the West. Moreover, failed efforts to moderate previous work conditions, for example, let to more desperate measures to stem the westward migration of alienated laborers. SMAD Order No. 116 sought to establish "collective agreements in the gasoline and mining industries" and the "Free German Federation of Trade Unions" in East Germany.(44) The measure addressed worker hours, pay, vacations, safety, and arbitration. But the previous history of Soviet abuse had created such a climate of distrust that any progressive statement received a skeptical German reception, at best. Predictably, Order No. 116 did not succeed in curbing the labor exodus. The Russians conceded defeat when, on June 30, 1946, they introduced severe restrictions on worker movement.


Adding to Moscow's reparations drag on East German reconstruction efforts was the Socialist Unity Party drive for German unification. Nearly all major initiatives aimed at economic and social recovery received little or no support from the Soviets and the SED. Similar to the rest of occupied Eastern Europe, the delay in rebuilding East Germany and Berlin ran approximately three years.

At a May 17, 1946, meeting of the Central Committee of the SED, one month after the Communist-Socialist union resulted in the SED, Otto Grotewohl delivered a paradoxical address which seems to capture the middle of Socialist Unity politics, one price of which was postponed East German reconstruction from 1946-1949. Caught between Soviet reparations policy and his new party's determination to reunify Germany, Grotewohl engaged in rhetorical contradiction and obfuscation. "Walking through the ruins of Berlin," began Grotewohl, "one cannot avoid a feeling of pain." The lifelong Socialist and SED co-chair called upon all in attendance to devote themselves to a "detailed job..., the rebuilding of Berlin." Grotewohl then described what appeared to be his main objectives.

During the next days we will make such an attempt and we will approach the Berliners with a call to get started with rebuilding work in all areas of practical life...for example, questions about food, housing, traffic, clothing, and fuel, price regulations, and so on.

To realize these accomplishments, however, he admitted there must be a "unified leadership." Now, suddenly, Grotewohl's emphasis had shifted away from physical reconstruction to national reconstitution. With the twist of a phrase, he shifted from stark reality to political metaphor. Grotewohl said:

Rebuilding is a national task. This wording is very important because it brings about a certain political coloring which actually touches [my emphasis] on Germany's fate. If pulling together all of our forces does not enable us to rebuild a unified state, we will probably never be able to build a tolerable future for the German people.

Professor Hans Scharoun, director of Berlin city construction, sought to refocus Grotewohl's thinking back onto social initiatives within the Soviet Sector of Berlin: "We have the right to ask for certain changes today and to try to reconstruct...." But Scharoun was unable to finish, as Grotewohl interrupted him, saying, "social questions and concerns should be treated separately, at a later time...."(45)

This is a revealing document, one which allows the reader to see more clearly not only an ideology rampant with inconsistencies and rationalizations, but one which penetrates the question of historical origins of the first Berlin crisis. Without the work of German Communists and the compliance of select German Socialists, perhaps the atrophied conditions which informed Stalin's decision to blockade Berlin would not have prevailed. But history tells us that by mid-1948, East German lay stagnant and the East German Stalinists had long solidified political power.



In order to effect the proper development of "democracy" and the "class struggle" in East Germany, the Communists required that all political and social institutions be "in our hands," in the words of Walter Ulbricht.(46) Most important among the institutional groupings were workers, peasants, businessmen, artisans, shopkeepers, and, of course, licensed parties. Between the bitter December, 1945, conference of the KPD and the Soviet Zone SPD [p. 301-02], at which the two-party organizational merger received a formal boost, a heated political struggle occurred among the Social Democrats. Rank-and-file SPD members in Berlin and Rostock immediately demanded a popular vote on the proposed political merger. SPD chairmen from the states of Thuringia, Saxony, and Mecklenburg responded by threatening unilateral mergers with the KPD if the Soviet Zone:SPD leaders, divided themselves, did not expedite unity with the Communists.(47) British and American authorities in Berlin, for their part, joined with anti-merger Social Democrats in sponsoring a March 31, 1946, referendum for SPD members in the Western sectors. Predictably, the Soviets did not permit a vote in the Soviet Sector. In West Berlin 23,755 out of 32,547 Social Democrats, a remarkable 72.95, participated, while 19,529 balloters, an astounding 82.2 percent, voted against immediate KPD-SPD unification.(48) The Soviet Zone SPD reacted to the political setback on April 19 by hosting a pro-merger party conference. The Otto Grotewohl-led Social Democrats claimed to speak for all German Social Democrats despite the presence of only a handful of Western Social Democrats. The KPD simultaneously held a congress of their own at which they, too, agreed to the fusion. On April 21 and 22, 1946, before a gathering of some 3,000 party functionaries at the former Admiralspalast theater, the KPD and the Soviet Zone SPD formally joined to become the Socialist Unity Party. The unity congress elected Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl as co-chairmen of the new organization, but Grotewohl and his colleagues soon found out that power did not rest equally with the two former parties. The Communists had now cemented a clear path to absolute political control within the Soviet Zone of Germany. Through means of systematic coercion and suppression of dissent, in the name of democracy, the SED solidified its hold on political power while the Communists increased their control over the SED.

The salient difference between Western and Communist concepts of democracy is well captured in Walter Ulbricht's public statement on the eve of Western local elections in January, 1946:

Some are of the opinion that elections should measure the relative strength of all parties. From the standpoint of democratic progress...we regard this concept as false. Elections should be a means of influencing the masses in an anti-fascist direction.(49)

In Western thought, elections are seen as a core component of democracy, but to the Communists, democratization meant fighting fascism by a variety of methods, including canceling elections, suppressing free speech, and denying civil liberties. The Communists maintained that democracy could well be "imposed from without" to achieve anti-fascist ends; for the West, however, democracy could be achieved only from "within the German people themselves."(50)

Radical differences in ideology and perceived security interests prompted the West to challenge the Communist efforts at power consolidation in the Soviet Zone. Two days prior to the March 31, 1946, election in West Berlin, which predictably measured heavy opposition to the SED merger, the American military governor of Berlin reiterated the Western position against an unpopular fusion. In a letter forwarded to SPD leaders Max Fechner and Otto Grotewohl, Major General R.W. Barker strongly Objected to any SPD-KPD merger which "did not reflect the free choice of the majority of the party members, as opposed to the action of a group of party leaders."(51) Barker's letter reinforced an earlier press statement from Deputy Military Governor of Germany General Lucius Clay, who had made the additional point that the fusion question must "be held in all of Berlin, and in the American sector, according to the recognized democratic procedure."(52) Fechner and Grotewohl responded to Barker on April 4, 1946, with comforting language but with a different meaning than the reader might assume. "We took notice of all the points in your letter," wrote the SPD heads, "and assure you that we are also very interested in absolutely ensuring the expression of all SPD party members" on the issue of political unification.(53) Because the Communist conception of democracy did not entail popular expression, as the SED party leadership spoke for all SPD and KPD party members, the Fechner-Grotewohl letter proved illusory. Fechner and Grotewohl were now virtual captives of their German Communist counterparts as well as prisoners of Communist ideology. At the same time, Western suspicions of Soviet and German Communist intentions, and Communist suspicions of Western actions, grew steadily, and culminated in the Berlin blockade crisis.


The two year period prior to the Soviet blockade of Berlin reveals a pattern of increasing distrust and separation between East and West. The Soviet and German Communist insistence on total control over East Germany's economic and political systems appeared unjustified and threatening to Western eyes. Western demands for free elections and competitive markets seemed equally unnecessary and dangerous to Moscow and the SED.

Results from the October 20, 1946, Berlin municipal election represented a political setback to the SED that would not be tolerated in the future.(54) Of the 2,085,359 votes case in the all-Berlin plebiscite, the Social Democrats received 48.7 percent, the Christian Democrats 22.2 percent, the Socialist Unity Party a mere 19.7 percent, and the Liberal Democrats 9.3 percent. In contrast to concurrent elections in five East German states under direct Soviet military control, the Berlin campaign proved to be a debacle.(55) In nineteen of Berlin's twenty districts, Social Democrats sat as mayor. In the remaining Zehlendorf district the mayor was a Christian Democrat. Of the twenty deputy mayors, eight came from the SPD, seven from the CDU, and five from the SED.(56) Having now experienced the negative fallout from competitive elections, the SED decided it would not chance them again. All subsequent Soviet Zone and German Democratic Republic elections followed a non-competitive format which insured SED control, but which aroused Western insecurity.

The year 1947 witnessed the further decline in East-West relations and the acceleration of Germany's and Berlin's division. In an effort to boost economic efficiency and recovery in the West, the British and Americans formally consolidated their zones on January 1, 1947.(57) Continual wrangling between Soviet and Western occupying powers prevented the seating of a permanent lord mayor for Berlin. The Foreign Ministers for France, the U.K., the U.S., and the U.S.S.R., who met in Moscow in March, 1947, and again in London in November-December, 1947, found little common ground for agreement. Topics included reparations, control of the Ruhr, the boundary line between Germany and Poland, and the basis for Germany's and Berlin's governance. The London Council of Foreign Ministers concluded in mid-December with an array of accusations and counter-accusations, and with no agreement to meet again. Filling out the broader picture, the Americans had announced the Truman Doctrine in March and the Marshall Plan in June as steps to "contain" suspected Soviet expansion into the West. Moscow responded in September by integrating and consolidating the states under its influence through the creation of the Communist Information Center, or Cominform.

The Soviets constructed an East German society and system between 1945 and 1948 that insulated itself from internal opposition but became increasingly vulnerable to Western pressures, especially in Berlin. Stalin's dual demands for Russian reconstruction at German expense and absolute Communist control in the Soviet Zone placed Berlin on a collision course with Western security interests. The Western determination in early 1948 to promote West German prosperity as the centerpiece of West European recovery raised the stakes precipitously for the Berlin question.(58) Even an SED report on Western conditions in Germany and Berlin found "bleak living conditions and sickness" and the "sinking morale of the workers."(59) Sensing the imminent threat of Western moves to advance West German economic power and political sovereignty, the Soviets gradually tightened a noose around the neck of Berlin. Beginning on March 10, 1948, with severe restrictions on German traffic from the Soviet Zone to Berlin up to the complete blockade of all ground travel to Berlin, which ran from June 24, 1948, until the May 12, 1949, diplomatic settlement, the Soviets fought the danger of revitalized West Berlin deep inside East Germany.(60)

The prospect of Communist authority being challenged from within the Soviet Zone raised considerable fear among SED and Soviet leaders. Prior to the Berlin blockade, Walter Ulbricht, the real power behind the SED, often spoke of "economic planning." It is not clear precisely what the SED deputy chairman meant by the phrase, but he certainly did not mean East German reconstruction or self-determination. For regardless of what SED officials intended by one statement or another, one thing was always clear: economic reconstruction in the Soviet Zone would have to await Stalin's approval. During a December, 1948, meeting in Moscow with German Communist officials, the Soviet Premier reminded his visitors of the stakes in Berlin. At the height of the Berlin blockade and airlift, Stalin sharply preempted any consideration of issues beyond the current crisis. "Discussions on how Germany is to be organized are stupid," Stalin instructed. "First you must win."(61) By this, of course, Stalin meant the unification of Germany along Communist lines. Failing at this, however, the Western effort to establish a sovereign Federal Republic of Germany had to be undermined by all measures short of war.


1. I would like to thank Cyril Buffet, Bob Lawrence, Mel Leffler, and Jim McAdams for their invaluable comments on previous drafts. Any mistakes in this article are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

2. The Soviets severed all land and water routes to West Berlin on June 24, 1948. The Allied airlift brought into the city nearly two-and-one-half tons of food, fuel, and other goods for each of some 277,000 flights across ten months and twenty-three days.

3. Eric Morris's Blockade: Berlin and the Cold War (London, 1973) argues that the West allowed a city partition favorable to Moscow because wartime negotiators thought in terms of military, not political, considerations. Avi Shlaim's The United States and the Berlin Blockae, 1948-1949: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making (Berkeley, 1983) asserts that the 1948 Berlin crisis originated in the "progressive deterioration" in East-West postwar relations, and more specifically over issues concerning the German and Berlin questions. Daniel J. Nelson's Wartime Origins of the Berlin Dilemma (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1978) maintains that the American and British failure to collaborate in making Berlin's physical division contiguous to the boundaries of German zonal occupation gave rise to Berlin's "special area" administrative status, separate from Germany's joint governance. Berlin's physical and administrative isolation, therefore, gave the Kremlin ultimate control of all land and water access to the city. Martin Kessel, Westeuropa und die deutsche Teilung: Englische und franzosische Deutschlandpolitik auf den Aussenministerkonferenzen von 1945 bis 1947 (Munich, 1989), points to the failed London Council of Foreign Ministers gathering in December, 1947.

4 The technical name is Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR- im Bundesarchiv (The Foundation for the Archive of the GDR's Parties and Mass Organizations). For abbreviation purposes, I will use "SED" when referring to this collection.

5. See Adam Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence, Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1973, second edition (New York, 1974, pp. 281-82, 286) for Stalin's wartime fear of Germany; ibid., p. 287 ff. for Stalin's shocked reaction to the June, 1941, invasion of the USSR; ibid., p. 381 for Stalin's suspicion of a Western Allied separate peace with Germany; ibid., p. 392 for Stalin's postwar concerns about German recovery and resurgence; ibid., p. 442 fo Stalin's apprehension over Western influence in Berlin and West Germany.

6. The Unied States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had decided by the London agreements of September 12 and November 14, 1944, that Germany should be occupied jointly and divided into three zones, with Berlin divided into three sectors. The Yalta conference of February, 1945, allowed for a fourth, French zone and sector. These agreements notwithstanding, the Soviet army dominated Berlin for a period of two months, while the Western Allies awaited Moscow's permission to enter the city. President Truman's personal request to Premier Stalin, on May 14, that Western troops be permitted into Berlin at an earlier date met with a negative reply. Stalin answered, on June 16, that "regretfully" this would be difficult. Marshal Zhukov and other military commanders had been called back to Moscow for meetings, and "moreover." Stalin declared, "some of the districts of Berlin have not yet been cleared of mines, nor can the mine-clearing operations be finished until late June." By this time the Western armies had already withdrawn from locations in the Soviet Zone, in accordance with Moscow's wishes. For a copy of Truman-Stalin correspondence, see George C. Marshall Papers, Box 81, Folder 37, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, VA.

7. Walter Ulbricht, et al., Geschichte der Deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, vol. 5 (East Berlin, 1966), p. 433.

8. Henry Krisch, German Politics Under Soviet Occupation (New York and London, 1974), p. 38.

9. Ulbricht, Geshichte, pp. 618-23.

10. Otto-Friedrich Gandert, et al., Heimatchronik Berlin (Cologne, 1962), p. 59.

11. David Childs, The GDR: Moscow's German Ally (London, 1983), p. 6

12. Zentralkomitee der SED (Central Committee of the SED), hereafter abbreviated as "ZK SED," File no. IV/2/13/528, "SPD Yearbook, 1946 German Social Democracy Today and Tomorrow," d. 2, Stiftung Archiv der Parteien and Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv (Berlin).

13. Exceptions were made for artists and intellectuals, whose productivity was difficult to measure. Erich W. Gniffke, Jahre mit Ulbricht (Cologne, 1966), p. 59.

14. By the end of 1946, Berlin's population swelled back to 3,170,000--1,285,000 men and 1,885,000 women. ZK SED, f. IV/2/13/528, "SPD Yearbook, 1946 German Social Democracy Today and Tomorrow," d. 1.

15. Ibid.

16. For a vivid and detailed description, see, for example, Richard Bret-Smith, Berlin '45,: The Grey City (New York, 1967).

17. SED NL 90/260, d. 4. Marshal Georgi Zhukov was Russian commander of the Soviet Zone.

18. A reflective letter from Werner-Rades to Mr. Otto Grotewohl, dated August 13, 1946, reads: Dear Comrade Grotewohl! When in the evening of 15 March of this year my wife and I stood exhausted, tired and emotionally destroyed in the bombed out half of the Stettin train station after agonizing hours, weeks and months, we both were overcome by one feeling: to stand on German soil again.... SED NL 90/260, d. 5.

19. Ibid., d. 12.

20. Werner-Rades wrote again at other times in 1946 on April 13, May 27, May 29, June 6, August 20, August 22, August 23, and November 20; and in 1947 on September 9 and October 29. Once again the content of the letters concerns financial problems and Soviet occupation forces, but most often the letters are about the business of rebuilding Berlin. Nachlass 90 (Grotewohl Papers), SED NL 90/260.

21. Gniffke, Jahre mit Ulricht, p. 167, describes the elaborate ceremony at the former Admiralspalast theater, where the KPD leader 60-year-old Wilhelm Pieck, and the Soviet Zone SPD leader, 52-year-old Otto Grotewohl, officially fused their parties.

22. Ben Fowkes, The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (New York, 1993), pp. 24-26.

23. Wolfgang Leonhard, Die Revolution entlasst ihre Kinder (Cologne and Berlin, 1955), p. 348 ff., argues that a Soviet system was eschewed in an effort to ease SPD anxieties concerning the KPD's relationship with Russia, and to allow for the later establishment of the Socialist Unity Party. Leonhard participated directly in KPD deliberations during this time. On the other hand, Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (New York, 1967), pp. 542-43, points to the serious Communist Party study of Lenin's "people's democracy" concept in the forties as evidence that this third path between Socialism and Communism was genuinely embraced. Deutscher notes, moreover, the fairly common interpretation among party students and officials in 1945 that the international worker struggle more closely approximated the bourgeois-democratic phase preceding the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

24. German noble class, typically possessing large land holdings.

25. Gregory W. Sandford, From Hitler to Ulbricht. The Communist Reconstruction of East Germany 1945-46 (Princeton, 1983), pp. 3-4.

26. The Central Committee of the SPD, led by Max Fechner, claimed that a 1933 SPD Executive mandate granted them the authority to conduct secret activities during the Nazi reign, and, as such, they also "represented the true inheritance of Weimar Germany's Social Democracy." See Krisch, German Politics, pp. 61-71 and 237 for biographical footnote. Dr. Kurt Schumacher, soon to become the Western SPD head, challenged this belief. In reality, Central Committee power claims stemmed from their ability to attract more than 1,000 followers to its inaugural session at a time of great political apathy. Fritz Kopp and Gunter Fischback, SBZ von 1945-1954 (Bonn and Berlin, 1961), p. 10; Childs, The GDR, p. 7.

27. The Communist political program in this early phase went no further than a "National Front" of anti-fascist parties, which it achieved on July 11, 1945. Ossip K. Flechtheim (ed.), Die Parteien der Bundesrepublik Deustchland (Hamburg, 1973), pp. 212-15.

28. Three different factions comprised the Christian Democratic Union in Berlin's Soviet Sector: former members of the German Democratic Party (DDP), the Catholic Center Party, and the Christian and white collar trade unions. J.B. Gradl, Anfang unter dem Sowjetstern: die CDU 1945-1948 in der Sowjetischen Besatzungszone Deutschlands (Cologne, 1981).

29. Flechtheim, Parteien der Bundesrepublik, pp. 153-56.

30. Childs, The GDR, p. 8.

31. Kopp and Fischback, SBZ von 1945-1954, p. 13.

32. Constructing a front was standard Communist policy throughout Europe at this time. Because the Communists used this prescription world-wide, and because of subsequent developments in Eastern Europe, it was assumed by many in the West that the Soviet Union had a clear, fixed plan for the domination of Europe. George Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (1967), p. 403; November 6, 1947, report from the Policy Planning Staff, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, II, pp. 771-77.

33. Childs, The GDR, pp. 10-11.

34. ZK SED, f. I//2/053, d. 15.

35. Rolf Steininger, Geschichte der DDR 1949-1985 (Frankfurt, 1986), p. 155; Ben Fowkes, Rise and Fall, p. 25.

36. ZK SED, f. IV/2/13/528, d. 16.

37. Childs, The GDR, p. 13.

38. ZK SED, f. I/2/053, d. 19. Order No. 140 directed the study for, and creation of, vocational and technical schools to service the recruitment and training of 180,000 workers to be distributed throughout occupied areas.

39. Eric Morris, Blockade Berlin and the Cold War (London, 1973), p. 79; Kopp and Fischback, SBZ von 1945-1954, p. 45; Childs, The GDR, p. 14.

40. SED, NL 90/260, d. 4.

41. ZK SED, f. I/2/053, d. 13.

42. ZK SED, f. I/2/053, d. 18. Smirnov adds, "It is dirty in many camps, rooms for bathing and disinfection are missing, the resettlers have lice. and sanitary supervision and examination of the sick is missing.... On 9 November only 624 of 904 men received the full ration of food, while the others were given only one piece of bread."

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., d. 20 and d. 21.

45. SED, NL 90/260, d. 3.

46. Sandford, From Hitler to Ulbricht, pp. 227-18.

47. Steininger, Geschichte der DDR 1949-1985, p. 143.

48. Childs, The GDR, p. 18.

49. Walter Ulbricht, "Offene Antwort an sozial-demokratische Genossen," Deutsche Volkzeitung, January 16, 1945, p. 5; Arnold Sywottek, Deutsche Volksdemokratie. Studien zur politischen Konzeption der KPD, 1935-1946. "Studien zur modernen Geschichte." Dusseldorf: Bartelsmann Universitatsverlag, 1971.

50. Sandford, From Hitler to Ulbricht, pp. 228-29.

51. SED, NL 90/260, d. 7.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid., d. 9.

54. ZK SED, f. IV/2/13/520, d. 1. Five months of negotiations and compromise, including Western recognition of the SED merger, had allowed an all-Berlin vote to move forward.

55. Elections for regional parliaments of the states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, and Saxony showed the SED taking 47.5 percent of the vote, the CDU garnering 24.6 percent, and the LDPD 24.5 percent. Outside critics accused the SED of impeding CDU and LDPD electoral work by such means as limiting the publication and dissemination of campaign literature, to striking candidates from the ballot. In some places candidates were arrested. No dissident SPD candidates were permitted to stand. Kopp and Fischback, SBZ von 1945-1954, p. 44.

56. ZK SED, f. IV/2/13/520, d. 1.

57. The Anglo-American bizonal agreement received initial impetus with Lucius Clay's merger proposal back on May 26, 1946, and Secretary of State James Byrnes announced the decision in a major foreign policy address in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946.

58. Meetings between the three Western powers and the Benelux countries, which took place in London from February to June, 1948, forged agreement on West German recovery and eventual independence. U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 87th Congress, 1st Session, Documents on Germany, 1944-1961 (Washington, 1961), pp. 87-89.

59. ZK SED, F. IV/2/13/602, d. 3. The SED later explained the Western introduction of a new currency in Berlin as the decision of the "reactionary majority of the municipal authorities."

61. Fowkes, Rise and Fall, p. 26.

Copyright East European Quarterly Fall 1995

©1995 UMI Company; All Rights Reserved. Only fair use, as provided by the United States copyright law, is permitted. UMI Company makes no warranty regarding the accuracy, completeness or timelines of the Publications or the records they contain, or any warranty, express or implied, including any warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose, and shall not be liable for damages of any kind or lost profits or other claims related to them or their use.

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