General Articles

WE TRAPPED OURSELVES IN BERLIN

The air lift feeds Berlin but proves nothing. Our diplomats’ mistakes made the city a futile symbol. Now a fateful decision lies before us

L. S. B. SHAPIRO September 15 1948
General Articles

WE TRAPPED OURSELVES IN BERLIN

The air lift feeds Berlin but proves nothing. Our diplomats’ mistakes made the city a futile symbol. Now a fateful decision lies before us

L. S. B. SHAPIRO September 15 1948

WE TRAPPED OURSELVES IN BERLIN

The air lift feeds Berlin but proves nothing. Our diplomats’ mistakes made the city a futile symbol. Now a fateful decision lies before us

L. S. B. SHAPIRO

Maclean's European Correspondent

BERLIN The night, sky in Berlin is dark and it throbs with the low and urgent moan of airplane engines. Below, the streets are dimly lighted and almost completely deserted. The flicker of candlelight may be seen from the windows of dwellings, as though the people of the stricken city lay quietly listening to the wail of the sky machines. In truth, the people are the prisoners of the machines, because if the machines ceased to function the people would also cease to function.

Berlin, surrounded by the best farmlands of Europe, must depend on the air for its subsistence. It is a sardonic commentary on the technological

and political progress of our civilization that, in peace, half of Berlin must import its food by air over 500 miles when everything the city needs is available by oxcart in half an hour.

The lights are out and the city sucks in the sound of airplane engines like the very breath of life. Such is the dread atmosphere in which the capital exists, for it has become the centre battlefield in the great political struggle between the western powers and the Soviet Union.

Twice in our lifetime the skill and blood and treasure of the English-speaking nations and their allies have been bent toward fulfillment of the

slogan Berlin or bust. We didn’t succeed the first time, after the armistice of 1918. Bickering among the victors covered with confusion our desire to put the heel to German military pride and we halted at the Rhine and thence began a slow retreat which ended on the beaches of Dunkirk 22 years later.

We made it in 1945. The British, Americans, French, Russians, and, for a time, the Canadians pushed into Berlin. At long last the slogan had been fulfilled. Today, three years later, the slogan must be altered. It is: Berlin and bust.

Of all the places that have touched fire in the devilish political history of the postwar period— Turkey, Greece, Trieste, Czechoslovakia—Berlin is by far the most explosive. It has brought us frighteningly close to war with the Soviet Union. It has cost us dearly in money and nervous tension. It has drawn us into a diplomatic trap in which we are squirming to extricate ourselves—and cannot. In the story of our times the name of Berlin threads through the most desolate of all the patterns of human behavior.

“They Took Him Away”

EARLY in July, 1945, shortly after we joined the Russians in Berlin, I was riding through the capital in the company of an anti-Hitler German. Our jeep bumped and lurched over seas of rubble. A sour smile played on the lips of my companion as he surveyed the prostrate Continued on page 70

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We Trapped Ourselves in Berlin

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city and he muttered, “This is not enough—not enough. The city should he razed to the ground until not a stone stands one upon another. Even in the best of times Berlin was politically and morally a filthy capital. As long as a building stands, Berlin will > remain a curse on humanity.”

The man’s bitter words may yet embrace the full truth. Berlin today represents the full insanity of our times. The city bristles with armed soldiers who eye one another across the sector lines with controlled hatred. A strategically aimed rifleshot could set off a world holocaust—and somehow this ultimate tragedy seems a reasonable, even logical consequence of the madness of the place.

You walk along a street on a quiet evening and suddenly you hear the sound of struggle and a violent sobbing and then the roar of an automobile. You come upon the scene. The automobile has disappeared in the night and a knot of people surround a distraught woman who keeps moaning, “He’ll never come back—they took him away and he’ll never come back . . Who took him away? People shrug their shoulders and are afraid to speak. These abductions take place often in Berlin.

There are two police chiefs in this lawless city—Paul Markgraf for the Russian sector, Johannes Strumm for the western sectors. Each issues orders countermanding the other’s. There are two sets of currency. If you want to buy bread or get a haircut, you’ve got to pay 25% in west marks and 75% in east marks. Now and again the Russians freeze the issuance of east marks in the western sectors and the people wonder how they can buy bread. The lack of coal has cut down the power and the pumping machines cannot drain the sewage pipes, with the result that paratyphoid has become a major threat to publichealth. The coal shortage has closed factories and now shops are shutting down and there is spreading unemployment.

In this city there are restaurants where thick steaks and fresh sea food may be purchased for American dollars or Swiss francs; there are cabarets serving fine French wines, where German women, comely and coldeyed, await the flick of your finger. And there is hunger and there is terror

and such abject hopelessness that people don’t care any more if war does start. Anything is better than this.

It is an evil city, this postwar Berlin. We and the Russians have made it so. We and the Russians have manufactured the terror and the hunger and the confusion. They are all part of the world conflict between the great powers of east and west, crystallized in its purest, naked form in this ill-starred city.

We Asked For It

By the time this article sees publication, the four-power conference on the future of all of Germany, including Berlin, may be in session; the blockade may well be lifted. But the realists here know this represents merely a breathing spell, for it settles nothing. As long as we remain in Berlin, the Russians have us in a steel-fingered stranglehold—and they are not the kind of people who will release us except on their own terms.

We—by “we” I mean the United States, Britain, a reluctant France and all the nations associated with them— have fallen into a diplomatic trap which we ourselves baited. Laboriously and conscientiously we built up Berlin as the keystone of our European policy. We advertised our intention to remain in Berlin. We pledged our prestige on our determination to share in the government of Berlin. We did this in spite of our awareness that postwar diplomacy is based on bare military power, in spite of our certain knowledge that the Russians have 20 battle-ready divisions within hailing distance of the city.

Having done this, we began to get tough with the Russians on the question of the future of Germany. We decided to ignore the Russians and go ahead with our own plans. Bevin and Marshall snapped their fingers contemptuously when Molotov suggested another conference. We held our own conference in London, decided on a western German state. We were going to do this thing on our own and to blazes with the unco-operative Russians. And all the while we continued to advertise our presence in Berlin as the keystone of our European policy.

The Russians, being realists, must have smiled. We were crawling deeper into our own trap, even while we were baiting it. On June 20 the Russians sprang it. They closed the rail and land lines which connected us with our responsibilities in Berlin. The snap of the trap was heard around the world.

On the morning of June 21 the great resourcefulness of the military machines of the U. S. and Britain began t,o pump air into our badly deflated diplomacy. Calls went out to air stations as far off as Africa, Hawaii and Alaska. Planes came winging in to the airfields of Hamburg, Hanover, Weisbaden and Frankfurt. The great air lift to feed our sectors of Berlin was begun.

The air lift settled nothing. It was a delaying action, a breathing spell—but it was also a magnificent human and technical achievement. I know because I flew to Berlin one August morning in a U. S. freight plane.

Straight Down the Middle

At Rhine-Main airport, just outside of Frankfurt, the air churns with wartime activity. Security guards, fully armed, patrol the approaches to the field. An endless procession of supply trucks winds into the loading areas. Every yard of space on the field seems occupied by planes, trucks, mountains of supplies, temporary workshops. The planes warming up are of every variety from war-battered, discolored two-engined C-47’s to sleek, stainless four-motored jobs. There are European transport command planes, troopcarrier command planes, Atlantic sea rescue and Alaska snow rescue planes. All sorts, all warming up. In the operations room, pilots gather around a notice board which is headed “Danger areas.”

Here I was introduced to the pilots of the plane which would take me to Berlin. They were Lieuts. John Watkins of St. Louis and Lawrence Broschart of New York, their youthful faces lined with fatigue. For six weeks their schedule had been “16 hours on, 16 hours off.” This means four trips through the corridor no matter what the weather each day, half of the trips at night, some of them involving blind flying and instrument landing.

Ordinarily the Frankfurt-Berlin trip is simple, but now it had become filled with hazards. The pilots, lacking navigators (“We simply haven’t got the personnel”), had to chart their course exactly down the centre of the corridor or risk being “dusted off” by Russian fighter aircraft. The threeminute intervals between take-offs both in Frankfurt and Berlin, by planes of different makes and varying flying

speeds, made collision a grave possibility in murky weather.

There were other hazards. As we walked out to the circle in Frankfurt where the planes were warming up, 1 asked Watkins, “What plane have we got?” He replied unhappily, “I don’t know. We just take the first one that’s ready to take off. We get a different one every time.”

When we reached the circle we found that we had drawn a very old C-47. It was loaded with 1,200 quarts of fresh milk in one-quart bottles. Over the door of the plane some wag had scrawled a sign, “Baldy will get you yet.”

“What’s that?” 1 enquired as I hitched on a set of parachute harness. It seems that. “Baldy” is the fliers’ name for a 1,500-foot mountain a few miles north of the airport. A week before a plane on the Berlin run had crashed into it, killing the crew.

At the take-off point we received instructions to fly at 6,000 feet. Visibility was good but there were layers of cumulus clouds at 4,000 feet which meant that we would have to fly most of the way through “soup.”

Forty-five minutes after the takeoff, Watkins motioned me into the pilots’ compartment. “We’ve just passed the last American check point,” he yelled. “We’re in the corridor— dead centre, I hope.” We were flying through cloud and the windshield was wet with swirling mist.

A few minutes later we came out of a cloud and saw another plane a few hundred yards below our starboard wing tip. It was the C-47 which had taken off ahead of us. The pilots glanced at each other, then at me and shrugged their shoulders.

The weather cleared as we approached Berlin. Watkins charted our position from landmarks below. “We’re right on the nose, dead centre,” he said happily. We flew within sight of a Russian military airfield. I counted 40 fighter planes parked in close formation. An hour and 40 minutes after take-off we saw the shells of Berlin’s bombed buildings in the distance. We passed over the stadium where the 1936 Olympics were held and circled for a landing. As we came into Tempelhof Airdrome we flew low over a blackened apartment house where, the night before, a C-47 had crashed and burned.

As we taxied to the parking area, the milk bottles clattering in their

mesh-steel containers, Watkins mumbled, “A milk wagon could do the job better and a whole lot cheaper.”

By this time the British and American combined air effort was bringing more than 4,000 tons of food and coal into Berlin each day—more than the minimum subsistence standard. Stock piles of food were building up, but coal was in scarce supply, factories were closing and people were being thrown out of work.

Around the airports one encountered the sort of boyish enthusiasm reminiscent of wartime operations, “Hell, man, the Russians can’t starve us out of Berlin. Well be flying 8,000 tons of stuff into the city before long.” “So the Russkies thought they had us in the pocket, did they? Well, they got another think coming. They didn’t figure on the air force.” “it’s just like war, buddy. The difficult we can do right away. The impossible takes a little longer.” This was the spirit of the airports.

Coal By Air?

But the realists knew this was cheerful whistling to brighten up the light!ess nights in Berlin. They knew that the Russian strangle hold was merely being held static; it wasn’t being loosened. They knew that when winter weather comes the air lift cannot supply Berlin.

To be sure, by a Herculean effort the planes might bring in enough food to provide a minimum diet to the 214 million persons to whom we have pledged subsistence. But there was no way we could bring in enough coal for home heating and for industry. The realists knew, too, that it was only a matter of time before the Berliners, who were cheering us with full hearts, would weary of a lightless, heatless, jobless existence. It was easy to be brave in the pleasantness of summer, but the winter day would come when the shivering Berliners would say to us: Why don’t you get out and let the Russians give us coal? We are perishing for want of heat and jobs.

The Russians, anticipating this, played a diplomatic trump card when they offered to feed and heat all of Berlin. Even Washington had to admit the Russians had scored a resounding political victory by their simple offer to supply the city from their own stocks.

In Berlin there was a clear realization that the air lift—even the four-power conference and the expectation of a temporary lifting of the blockade— was merely a postponement and not a solution of the problem. This had brought a certain bitterness to the military men who may find themselves faced with the dilemma into winch our diplomacy has led them.

The trained soldier instinctively hates an untenable position. He abhors a salient which has no solid lines of supply. To him the western sector of Berlin is a ridiculously vulnerable position and he deplores the diplomacy which placed him there,

A Different Point of View

An officer of general rank said to me, “We should have pulled out of Berlin 18 months ago when we began to see clearly what the Russians are up to. It may have been proper for us to enter Berlin as a gesture, as a signal to the world of Germany’s unconditional surrender, but there was no substantial reason for us to remain here after a token occupation of our sector of the city.

“It’s too late to pull out, now,” he continued bitterly. “I thoroughly agree that we’ve got to stay come hell or high water, because Berlin has become a

symbol throughout Germany and Europe of our strength and determination. But who built it up as a symbol? Our politicians did.

“Eighteen months ago Berlin was just a pile of ruins. As a symbol it was as dead as Hitler. We could have got out without loss of face. We can’t any more. We’ve only succeeded in staking our whole diplomatic and military prestige in Europe on an utterly untenable military position.”

Another high-ranking officer said to me, “Call it hindsight if you like, but we should have realized a long time ago that Russian diplomacy is based on force or the threat of force. Why, even the division of Germany back in ’45 was made on the basis of military dispositions, not on international obligations or diplomatic negotiation. Here in Berlin we’re over a hundred miles from our nearest base. Militarily, we’re helpless and diplomatically the Russians have got us over a barrel. Why do you think our people are standing cap in hand in the Kremlin waiting room negotiating a conference which we’ve consistently said we don’t want? I’ll tell you why in a dozen words. Because we've got to stay in Berlin and we can't stay unless the Russians lift the blockade."

Here, it seemed to me, was a point of view radically different from the one we are accustomed to. At home we

enjoy the notion that our presence in Berlin is a thorn in the side of the Russians; we revel in the air lift and, like a lot of mischievous boys, we fondly believe our persistence in remaining in Berlin is a great embarrassment to Uncle Joe, But the on-thespot view is something else again. Uncle Joe enjoys our presence in Berlin, so long as he can cut our supply line at will and use us, as he is doing now, as a diplomatic hostage.

To one in Berlin who watches the air lift, who sees the people of our sector scanning the darkening autumn sky with trepidation, who knows the Russians for the ruthless realists they are, the way ahead is clear and sharp and dangerous as a razor’s edge.

In a four-power conference we must be prepared to accept at least some of the Russian demands on the future of the whole of Germany. This is clearly appeasement.

If we refuse, we must be prepared to evacuate our sectors of Berlin. This is clearly retreat.

If we decline to evacuate Berlin, we must be prepared to break the blockade by the only possible method the Russians will respect: a naked ultimatum setting a time limit and accompanied by general mobilization.

Whether the Russians reject the ultimatum or retreat before it is the most fateful question of our time. ★