January 30, 2017

1948. The East-West Standoff Shakes Berlin

The Most Nervous City in the World
A crowd of about 300,000 gathers in front of the burned-out Reichstag building in Berlin to protest the Soviet blockade as Mayor Ernst Reuter and other leaders deliver speeches, September 9, 1948 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

September 15, 1948

It's a cold, gloomy day and probably the start of what will become the greatest sport of this blockaded city: weather watching. I remember back in the days of the London Blitz we used to pray for the gray, muggy skies that we have now. The bombers wouldn't be able to see their targets.

But the situation is reversed in present-day Berlin. Bad weather means a slowing down of the airlift and the vital supplies needed to keep us going. However, the Air Force says that so far deliveries are up to schedule, with planes continuing to land by GCA—ground control approach.

One encouraging bit of news: The two American fliers who parachuted from a cargo plane yesterday have been returned to the American zone by the Russians.

Temperatures might have dropped today, but tempers have not. The struggle between the Democratic West and the Communist Eastern sections of the city now are being underlined by a series of protests.

General Kotikov, military commander of the Russian zone, has sent a letter of protest to the British Commandant demanding that the persons involved in last Thursday's rioting at Brandenburg Gate be punished. The note is loaded with charges of fascist gangs, dishonor to the Soviet War Memorial, fascist provocateurs, and says such activities are contrary to the Potsdam Agreement. The British have replied rejecting the charges. Incidentally, Kotikov addresses the note to the "Chief of the British Garrison," and signed himself as "Military Commandant of Berlin."

From the Western side, the democratic leaders are doing some protesting of their own over the extremely heavy sentences given five young Germans arrested by Communist-led police during the Thursday incident. American and British officials have joined in branding the twenty-five years at hard labor ordered by the Soviet military court as infamous. The five Western-section Germans incidentally were tried in secret without defense lawyers.

The mother of one of the youths involved says she believes her son was convicted because of the credentials he was carrying showing that he was working for American military establishments.

However, the Russians are having their troubles too. Thirteen officials of textile manufacturing firms in the Russian zone of Germany have been arrested for withholding some eight and a half million marks worth of cloth and selling it on the black market. An official Russian report calls for further centralization and intensified control of the clothing industry in their zone.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

September 16, 1948

American authorities this morning are reported to be taking extraordinary measures to protect anti-Communist Germans here in Berlin as rumors spread throughout the city that the Soviet-dominated police force is preparing to act against pro-democratic organizations and leaders here.

Ne protective moves are in the making to prevent repetition of such arrests as that of some forty-seven Western zone policemen taken during the troubles at city hall and the arrest of Dr. Curt Muckenberger, former head of the Berlin coal organization. American authorities charge that Muckenberger was taken illegally. He is now being secretly tried by a Soviet military tribunal on charges of sabotage.

The rumor now spreading among Germans is that a Communist blacklist is in the making with probable kidnappings across zonal boundaries to follow.

The reaction to the recent sentencing of five young Germans involved in last week's riots has been strong here. The youths got the maximum penalty under Soviet law—twenty-five years at hard labor for participating in the Western zone demonstration. General Clay said yesterday in Frankfurt that, while it is unusual for us to interfere in another government's court procedures, it is possible that the United States will make a protest against the severity of the sentences.

However, there are two stories this morning that serve to bring this Berlin picture into perspective. One of our airlift pilots who parachuted into Russian territory when his C-47 failed was immediately turned to American authorities by Soviet officers. His is Lieutenant Clarence St√ęber. The pilot of the plane, Captain Kenneth Slaker, just walked back to the Western zone without Russian interference.

And the other story is more significant. One of the best places to access morale in this messed up postwar Europe is in the money exchange market. The big news from the Berlin Exchange this morning is that the West mark, sometimes called the "Clay mark," is exchanging at the highest rate for Soviet marks in the history of this present economy.

The story is this. When the blockade was clapped on and the Four-Power monetary talks began, Berliners wanted to get rid of their Western marks, thinking that we would yield to Soviet control of the currency and only East marks would be good. At that time, the exchange was about one West mark for two Soviet marks. However, with continuation of discussions, the airlift, and a stiffening Western attitude, financiers now believe we mean what we say. So today the Exchange went up again. And now you can buy about four and a half Russian marks for one Western mark. Maybe things are not so bad after all.

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

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

September 17, 1948

It has been a full week now without any major violence in crisis-ridden Berlin, but the so-called peace in the battle between the East and West here is the kind of peace that exists between rounds of a prize fight.

Typical of the inter-zonal tension was an incident yesterday on the Russian-American sector border. Private David Ruffner of Cleveland was on a normal military police patrol when he went to investigate a group of Russian soldiers tinkering with a broken down Soviet automobile. Ruffner was carrying a Tommy-gun un-slung in his hands. As he approached the group, a Russian soldier pushed a Soviet gun in Ruffner's stomach. The American retaliated and did the same.

The two soldiers stood there with guns leveled until a Russian officer interceded and ordered the Soviet soldier away. There the incident ended.

However, there were more rumors last night that Soviet patrols were crossing into the American zone. There was nothing to these reports, either.

There is no doubt that this is the most nervous city in the world. Western zone papers are still printing reports that the Communists plan a putsch to take over the entire city. This unconfirmed story says that the move has been temporarily postponed on orders from Soviet officials who say the time is not ripe for such a daring move. It is said the Russian leaders want to wait until Western Berlin is colder and hungrier than it now is.

Even the Germans are shocked at the news from Munich that the notorious Ilse Koch has had her life sentence reduced to four years. The red-haired Frau Koch was the "Mistress of Buchenwald" who ordered subordinates to make her gloves and lampshades from human skin.

The life sentence was officially commuted last June on recommendation of the American Army's Judge Advocate office. Since the sentence is retroactive, the woman is expected to be released sometime in October 1949.

Another German received a sentence the other day. He is a former Luftwaffe pilot who was caring for an American plane. The German flier couldn't resist the temptation. He climbed in and took an unauthorized ride. He was sentenced to one month in jail.

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