Behind The Iron Curtain

ELIE ABEL May 15 1946

Behind The Iron Curtain

ELIE ABEL May 15 1946

Behind The Iron Curtain

In her campaign to communize Germany Russia wields a mighty weapon — food


BERLIN (By Wireless)ߞEvery road leading out of this shattered capital is commanded by a Russian sentry box.

Berlin is a four-power island washed by a Russian sea. North, south, east and west lie the provinces of Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg—all firmly occupied by the Red Army. It takes gilt-edged credentials and a fluent Russian guide to get past any of the sentries into Soviet Germany.

It was the almost unanimous impression of seven correspondents, who, after six weeks of waiting for clearance, spent five days in Mecklenburg as guests of the Soviet military governor, that the Russians have little to hide in their zone. Methods are typically Russian, which should surprise no one, and objectives clearly staked out. Russia wants a Soviet Germany as her beat guarantee of future peace. In her own zone at least, she seems well on the road to getting just that. The seat of the Military Government for Mecklenburg is Scherwin, a pleasant feudal town, virtually unscratched when it fell to the U. 8. Army last year. We were quartered at a hotel on what is

now called Karl Marx Strasse. Twelve months ago the same street was known as Horst Wessel Strasse. Before Hitler it had been Alexandrenen Strasse, and the U. S. Army restored that name when it captured the town. As soon, however, as the zonal boundaries were set and Schwerin became Russian, the street was renamed for the father of modern socialism. Schweriners expect it will remain Karl Marx Strasse long after the Red Army has gone home.

“How long do you expect to occupy Germany?” I asked the Russian colonel who was our host at an excellent performance of La Traviata in the Schwerin opera house.

“We shall remain as long as is necessary. Long enough, I think, to raise a new generation of Germans with a sound democratic outlook,” he said.

We might have argued the definition of democratic outlook, but, instead, I caught myself wishing the Western Allies were as determined as the Russians to do a thorough job in Germany, regardless of the clamor to bring the boys home. The colonel’s words strengthened the impression that Russia at least will not fling away her blood-precious victory.

To secure the victory Russia is enforcing a policy that cuts two ways—first, to root out Germany’s war arsenal as the Western Allies are doing in their zones; second, to destroy the power of Prussian Junkerdom by breaking up their vast estates. This phase of the occupation is now almost complete, and will not soon be erased from history’s pages.

Mecklenburg is a province of lakes and thinning forests, broken up by clearings of sandy soil. Sixty per cent of the population Jives on the land or by the land, on farms or in market towns. For centuries the peasants have been plowing, seeding and harvesting the great estates without owning a square foot of land. For decades German politicians talked land reform—Bruening Liberals and brown shirt Nazis alike. Nothing was ever done about it because the Junkers were always strong enough to look out for their own interests.

Today, under the Soviet occupation, the estates have been carved up and parcelled out into small holdings. There are, in fact, more farms than farmers, because of insufficient housing to accommodate all the new German

set! Iers, many of

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Behind the Iron Curtain

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whom were evicted from Silesia and Pomerania, which now belong to Poland. This is the most significant thing the Soviet Military Government has achieved in Germany.

Serfs Mistrust Their “Liberators”

It is curious that land reform, the need for which is almost universally recognized, has been received with scant enthusiasm even from the peasants who have now graduated from virtual serfdom. We asked dozens of the new settlers how they felt about it, and the reply was invariably a cautious “wait and see.” It was our impression that under different auspices the longdeferred liquidation of the Junker estates would have been joyously acclaimed, but the Germans still fear and mistrust their Russian conquerors.

All the farmers are uneasy about

meeting the quotas set by the Military Government. The quota varies, according to the size and fertility of a farm, but the man now plowing his new acres never forgets that he must turn over a set portion of his produce, come harvesttime, to the central administration. Whatever remains after the quota is delivered he can keep for his own use or for sale on the open market. With the shortage of manpower, fertilizer and horses, and the weather never wholly predictable, many are fearful of what the Russians might do if the quotas are not filled.

The carving up of vast estates is now going on in Poland and Hungary, too. In Germany, however, this is merely a prelude to outright collectivization. The civil officials now doing the carving are aware that they are countering the historical trend toward cultivation of large tracts in a scientific way. They point out that where the land is not rich the new settlers are not getting enough plots for efficient, intensive cultivation. The average size in Mecklenburg is less than 20 acres, and the vice-president of the province, a Communist named Johannes Warncke, who was six years in a concentration camp, told us, “We certainly expect to collectivize the land, but this must wait until machinery is again available. Without tractors and combines it just wouldn’t work.” The Russians are doing a good deal to help those of the new settlers who never owned land before. Their produce quotas have been set one third less than those for established farmers. They draw the same ration cards as city dwellers, unlike the others, who are considered self-sufficient. In some districts where there has been a shortage, seed shipments have been received from the Soviet Union, and the Red Army recently returned 6,000 horses requisitioned during war—though this is a small fraction of the number taken. To get maximum food production, Military Governor Major-Gen. Skosarov has also assigned Russian troops to help bring in the spring harvest. This was done not without selfish motives, because the Army lives off the land, getting a large portion of the quotas collected; the rest goes to the cities and the less agricultural provinces of the Soviet zone.

Despite these obvious and wellpublicized moves to help the Germans, many of the people we met were blindly hopeful that one day the British or Americans would return. When, for example, our three U. S. Army limousines pulled into the barnyard of a newly broken-up estate we were greeted by beaming faces and muted mutterings against the Russians. A rumor that the Americans were returning had reached the farm before we did. When it was explained that we were newspapermen their faces fell.

Food As Propaganda

Through no particular virtue of the Russians, the Germans in their zone are being far better fed than in the British or French zones, and about as well-fed

as in the U. S. zone. This is being exploited to the fullest by the new political party, Sozialistische Einheitspartei, born of the shotgun marriage between the Communists and Social Democrats, which controls the civil administration. Evangelists of working-class unity point a finger at food riots in Hamburg and unrest in the Ruhr, saying, “See how much better off we are with the Russians in control.” Most Germans are aware, however, that the Russian zone always did produce more food than the western zones, which are more industrialized.

The nominal chief of the Unity party is 70-year-old Wilhelm Pieck, grand old man of German Communism, who spent the Nazi years in the Soviet Union. The actual boss Ls said to be bearded Walter Ulbricht, who also came back to Germany with the Red Army. It is an indication of the handin-glove relationship that Ulbricht is on Marshal Zhukov’s staff as a political adviser.

It may seem paradoxical that the Russians are de-Nazifying less completely than, for example, the Americans in their zone. But this is also explicable in light of the SocialistCommunist fusion, since the new Party does not exclude the so-called “little Nazis,” those who joined through social pressure and took no leading part. The large number of these minor offenders flocking to join the Einheitspartei in the Russian zone are grateful for a chance to regain respectability.

In the ruined city of Rostock we encountered the case of a leading Nazi, director of the Heinkel aircraft works, who retains his position under the Russians and goes on living in an elegant villa, overlooking the Baltic Sea, and driving about in a fancy automobile. Though the Heinkel plant was almost completely destroyed by the RAF, RCAF and the U. S. Eighth Air Force, the Russians have seized as reparations what little escaped. Our Rostock Nazi is in charge of dismantling the plant and shipping it to Russia. Ordinary citizens, puzzled at his going unpunished, recognize his usefulness to the Russians, and are still hopeful that he’ll be dropped when his usefulness ends.

Such a situation is unthinkable in the American or British zones, where a man like the Heinkel director is in the “mandatory removal” class.

Censorship and Safety

Our five days with the Russians proved to be a gruelling yet fascinating assignment. There was first the language barrier, not helped by our stocky young woman interpreter from Leningrad, who had her own ideas about what was and was not important. Two of the reporters understood just enough Russian to grasp that she was doing more editing and censoring than authorized. Then there was the Russian concern for our safety. Most of the reporters had been making their own way around Germany for many months, and had never been waylaid by vengeful Nazis, but our hosts seemed genuinely convinced that we needed protection, and we were therefore escorted every foot of the way. Fortunately, Russian officers don’t start work until midmorning, so we could slip out of the hotel before breakfast and roam the streets unconvoyed. The final obstacle to getting a day’s work done was the characteristic Russian hospitality, which began w’ith vodka for breakfast at 10 a.m. and ended with vodka for dinner at 10 p.m.

In every town we visited we must needs breakfast or dine or lunch with the commandant. The menu was identical at each of these places, and

at any hour of the day or night. It would invariably start with zakuska— hors d’oeuvres without the parsley. These could, and always did, include smoked fish, fried fish, pickled fish, caviar and cold cuts of beef, pork and chicken. At first, not knowing that zakuska was only preface to the meal, we ate as much as we could, and drank innumerable toasts to Truman and Stalin, to Eisenhower and Zhukov, to the undying friendship of the American and Russian peoples and to lasting world peace. Then waiters would trot out a roast suckling pig, and all the guests would groan in unison. To refuse a course or to demur at a fifth tumbler of schnapps was to insult the host, or so we were told. We didn’t dare insult the host, and it will be weeks before any of us recover.

There was singing with each meal, and of all the Russian officers we met only one—the guide we brought from Berlin—would have failed to qualify for the Don Cossack choir. It was all very gracious, but a little overpowering. If the tour had lasted two days longer we should all have broken down. Some correspondents, more experienced than our group in working with the Russians, maintain this phrenetic hospitality is coolly designed to keep the press from seeing what it wants to see by squandering half of every day at the table and the rest of the time in bed with a hang-over. While a plausible case can be made, this is hard to credit. It should be recorded that only on one occasion was our group prevented from seeing what it asked to see.

Two of us had suggested to the Rostock commandant that we go to Warnemünde, a Baltic port 10 kilometres away, where the great Neptune shipyards are located. We’d heard that several Russian naval vessels were in dry dock there. The commandant, who used to teach philosophy at Moscow University, looked pained.

“My authority doesn’t extend to Warnemünde. That’s Navy territory,” he said.

Later we asked a major at the kommandatur for permission. “You can’t go to Warnemünde,” he said. “You’d never get past the road block without specific travel orders in Russian. Besides, there’s nothing to see in Warnemünde.”

Our conducting officer, himself a correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda, came up with the most original objection. “You can’t go to Warnemünde. The place is quarantined because of a typhus epidemic.”

Maybe there was in fact nothing to see at Warnemünde, but we’ll never believe it now after all those clumsy evasions. It would have been more convincing if the three had got their signals straight beforehand.

Without seeing Warnemünde we moved on to Stralsund, a Baltic town that once belonged to Sweden, connected by a causeway with the island of Rügen. Though we did not stay more than a few hours, some of the inhabitants found time to tell us they wished Stralsund would again become Swedish. They were newly impressed with the sagacity of the Swedes in staying out of a war which brought Germany nothing but ruins and hunger.

Chasing a Rumor

Our reasons for going to Rügen were a little obscure, since it is well off the beaten track—a bleak little island with a population of 90,000 people, who scratch at the stony soil for a living or fish in the Baltic for herring. In Berlin we had heard rumors that the Russians had imprisoned thousands of dispossessed Junkers and exiles from Esthonia, Latvia and Lithuania in

concentration camps on the island. The only previous group of correspondents to visit Mecklenburg had been denied permission to see Rügen, which was taken as confirming the rumor. We therefore were astonished when permission was granted, and were convinced there could be nothing left to see.

Warmly received by the quietly competent little colonel named Pavel Maximovitch Ganusevitch, we spent the entire day scouring Rügen, rushing in and out of sleepy grey hamlets like Bergen, Lauterbach, Binz and Putbas, to the consternation of the populace and the amazement of our Russian hosts. The trail ended near Ummanz, where an alert Chicago Tribune reporter tracked down two tired old peasants, a housewife in a greasy apron, and a large pig rooting in a wallow of rich mud. They were refugees from Pomerania, wanting only to be left alone and knowing nothing about Junkers or political exiles. At this point the Red Army officer interjected that if we had asked about the dispossessed landowners in the first place, he could have told us that a small number had indeed been living on Rügen but that they had since been moved to Thuringia.

This tallied with what vice-president Warncke had told us in Schwerin—that in most cases the landowners had been removed to a different province after their estates were broken up, because it would be awkward to have them working and living side by side with their former tenants, who might have difficulty breaking the deeply engraved habit of obedience.

Five days was hardly long enough to size up military government, Soviet style, and strike a fair comparison with the American and British way of doing the same job.

We saw enough to understand that the Soviet is determined not to let Germany starve. This has nothing to do with love or pity for their recent

enemies. The Russians feel that the German masses must be won over to Communism, that this is the only way peace can be ensured. They know that empty bellies breed opposition to any regime, and are doing their utmost to produce as much as possible. In Mecklenburg this spring there is a greater area under cultivation than in any pre-war year. This is a direct consequence of the land reform, since with the quota system it is in the farmers’ best interest to plow up every inch of ground. While much the same thing is happening in the other zones, the Russian is by far the richest agriculturally, and certain to feel the pinch less next winter.

The matter of German unity, once the mystic Nazi rallying cry, is today a question of bread and butter.

The British and Americans have been pressing just as strongly as the Russians for central administration. The French have blocked this repeatedly, insisting that the Ruhr first be internationalized. There is no gainsaying the fact that a paralyzed Germany will paralyze all of Europe, and a minimum of centralization is the only way to distribute equitably what little food there is to go around. The Western Allies have lost one round to the Russians in letting the Socialist Unity Party seize this issue as its own. The very elements in German life that flocked to the Nazis in protest against Versailles are now flocking to the Einheitspartei in protest against the amputation of the Ruhr.

When the first postwar election is called it is certain the Einheitspartei will sweep the Russian zone with the Social Democrats probably winning in the western zones. This, despite all the unity talk, can only lead to the splitting of Germany lengthwise, since the Russian zone is already on the road to being Sovietized. This would be a flat contradiction of the Potsdam agreement, and certain to cripple Europe’s halting recovery.