CAN WE AVOID A SHOOTING BATTLE FOR BERLIN?
The new battle for Berlin, now opening on the diplomatic front, is a tougher challenge in some ways than the bloody campaign of 1945. Just back from Germany, a seasoned reporter weighs the West’s chances in this crucial Cold War clash
When the Great Powers’ foreign ministers meet this month to plan a summit conference, they launch the most hazardous diplomatic venture the West has undertaken since World War 11.
East-West confrontations are nothing new, nor is their failure remarkable. Since VE-day there have been two at the summit, a dozen at foreign-minister level, hundreds at lower rungs of the official ladder, and all but one or two have failed. But up to now these failures have done little actual harm. This time it may be different, Chances of success are as dim as usual if not dimmer, and chances are high that a failure will be a calamity.
At one extreme is the danger of war, a truly preposterous war. Widows of men who died to capture Berlin would be asked to send their sons to fight, in order that one half of Berlin should be spared the fate of the other half. The men closest to the problem don’t really think it will come to this (they don’t believe Khrushchev wants war over Berlin any more than we do) but they cannot rule out the possibility.
The other extreme is a danger less grave but more probable, the collapse of the Western alliance. West Germany is the strongest NATO partner on the continent of Europe, the only one capable of putting up a real fight. To the Germans, Berlin is a test case. The allies are pledged to fight if West Berlin is attacked; if they don't stand by their word, in spirit as well as in letter, Germany will have no more faith in the alliance. Neither will anyone else in the long run.
Between the two extremes lies a welter of pious confusion. For all the talk about unity and solidarity the allies are not in fact united on any substitute for the status quo — the continued, precarious existence of West Berlin as a free island in a Communist ocean. But the nearest thing to a certainty in this uncertain region is that the status quo cannot endure. Khrushchev has pronounced it intolerable, and Khrushchev has the power to upset it by a wide variety of means. Not all of these means require open violence on his part.
In this alarming situation the West Germans have a special cause for alarm. They believe (rightly, 1 think) that outside their own borders, the ordinary citizen in Western countries knows little and cares less about the impending crisis in Berlin. The Germans feel like the little man in the advertisements of the Philadelphia Bulletin, vainly pointing out the approach of disaster u'hile “nearly everybody” goes on reading the sports page. In the hope of correcting this the West German government has been inviting platoons of foreign journalists (a dozen from Canada alone) to come to Berlin and write about what they see and hear there.
Unhappily the problem looks just as difficult at short range as at long. None of us came back with any answers—and our German hosts, to their credit, made no attempt to force any down our throats. What we did get was a clearer view of the questions, and a clearer idea of how important Berlin is to both sides in the cold war, and why.
We could see, for example, why Khrushchev
finds West Berlin unbearable, “a bone in my throat.” West Berlin provides both a focus and a stimulus for the burning hatred of communism and all its works, for their state of captivity and for their Russian masters, that any visitor can find among the East Germans.
Standing in the rain on the main square of Leipzig, listening to Nikita Khrushchev speak in Russian to twenty thousand people who had marched there behind banners and bands, I was surprised to teel a nudge in the ribs. A German standing beside me said quietly: “Listen well. Only on the microphone is coming the cheering. The people do not cheer.”
It was true. Every few minutes as the Khrushchev speech was translated, roars of applause came over the loudspeakers, but as far as I could see or hear around me, nobody was making any noise at all. They stood glum and silent, the rain dripping off hats and umbrellas. Real applause came only when Khrushchev said, as he did several times, “Our objective is peace, peace,” and, “There must be a peace treaty with Germany.”
What amazed me was nothing Khrushchev said, but the fact that a German would make such a remark to a stranger. Notebook in hand and wearing an English topcoat, I was obviously not only a Westerner but a Western reporter. This German wanted the crowd’s true reaction to be known
abroad and was not afraid to speak his mind.
Four days later, walking away from another Khrushchev meeting in East Berlin, a woman I had just met said: "Khrushchev himself is not unpopular with us. We think he is a clever man, cleverer than your Eisenhower. It is Walter Ulbricht (East German Communist boss) who is unpopular. He is really hated. 1 should not be surprised if he were assassinated before long.”
A girl of twenty said: "1 shall never marry in East Germany. All the attractive men go away to the West. Nobody stays here but the timid, the stupid, and a few fanatics.”
(I've disguised these conversations slightly, for obvious reasons, but all the words arc accurately quoted as spoken to me, in English.)
What dictatorship could ignore such bold and open hostility, in a subject people, as the visitor is able to see in East Germany today? It’s a continual proof, to Russian and German alike, how precarious is the Communist grip on this vital sector of middle Europe. And there seems to be little doubt, from what Germans say on both sides of the curtain, that what makes them so bold in their hostility is the avenue of escape through West Berlin. A quarter of a million get away each year.
Escape through West Berlin is fairly easy. Travel in the Soviet zone is not yet rigidly con-
trolled, so it’s not too difficult to get to Communist East Berlin from other parts of East Germany. Once there, all the refugee has to do is board a subway or an elevated tram. Both go back and forth quite freely between East and West Berlin, a traffic that could be cut but not without tremendous cost and inconvenience to both sides.
The decision to run away is still a hard one. The refugee must leave behind all he owns except what he can carry in a not-too-noticeable suitcase. He must also take with him, if he can, every relative whose fate he cares about. The Communists often punish those who stay behind for the “crime” of those who leave.
Not every runaway gets through. One afternoon Frank Swanson of the Southam Newspapers and I were riding back to West Berlin on the subway when a policeman came aboard at the last stop in East Berlin. He spoke to a woman sitting next to Frank; she opened her handbag. He looked into it, then told her to get off with him. It was done so quietly we hardly noticed what was happening.
But the astonishing thing is not that some are caught, escaping or smuggling. The astonishing thing is that so many get through, even when obviously laden with all the portable goods they own. Dr. Karl Zimmer, head of the refugee reception centre in West Berlin, explained why: “Everyone tries to help the one who is running away. The other passengers on the train, the tickettakers, the guards and the conductors—they're all on the refugee’s side.”
Even the police?
“No, not the police, but practically everybody else.”
A few minutes later we got a rather startling indication of how high up, in East Germany, this tacit conspiracy extends. Apparently it even includes the judges and the courts.
By coincidence, one of
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The leaders of a divided Germany await the Great Powers’ fateful Summit decision
Can we avoid a shooting battle for Berlin?
Continued from page 21
“The military plight of West Berlin is hopeless. The 10,000 troops are like a band of hostages”
the people being “screened” at the West Berlin refugee centre on the day of our visit was a British spy—a German, but an agent of the U. K. He hadn’t done much in the espionage line, for he was caught and sent to a forced-labor camp within weeks after he signed on as a British agent, but he told us his assignment. It was to line up a chain of technical informants (he’s an engineer) to send out data on uranium mining. The British wanted to know how much the mines of Saxony were producing and how much of it went to the Soviet Union.
The questions put to the man were interested but friendly. The British authorities had already confirmed that his story was true and that he was entitled to political asylum. (He said he had neither asked nor got any pay for his work; he was opposed to the Communist regime, and “wanted to do something to help.”)
But what struck me as most astonishing, in this astonishing tale, was the sentence imposed by the East German court on this self-confessed traitor and spy. He got three years, no more—and the last nine months of that knocked off for good behavior. He told us he was warned by a friend not to go back to his mother’s home in Leipzig because Communist police were waiting for him with another charge that would doubtless have sent him back to jail. That was why, after pretending to set out for Leipzig, he had taken the first train for Berlin and then the subway to freedom. But the mere fact that such a man could have got away at all, with such ease, in spite of such a record of enmity to the Communist regime, was an indication how widely that enmity must be shared.
No doubt the Russians use the same channel to send their own Communist agents west, and no doubt they succeed in many cases, but the free West Germans are contemptuously indifferent to this threat. Ninety-nine and a half percent of all refugees are admitted with no more than a routine interrogation. The fifty percent who are under twenty-five years old are not questioned at all. The West Germans say it doesn't matter what these young people may think today, when they’ve never even seen a free country; once they do see one they will like it. This tolerant attitude produces results. A considerable number of Communist agents end up by reporting voluntarily to the West German police and asking for asylum.
A lot is said and written about the contrast in material standards of living between East and West Germany. The contrast is there, all right. The Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin’s Fifth Avenue, does indeed look like a gorgeous display compared to the relatively drab shop windows along the Stalinallee in East Berlin. It’s also true that many of those who run away to the West, particularly the young, do so for economic reasons.
But if that were all, Khrushchev wouldn’t need to worry about the presence of West Berlin. For one thing, the material gap is visibly narrowing. The contrast is much less sharp today than it was the last time I saw it, three years ago; East Berlin is still far behind, but relatively it has made more progress since 1956 than West Berlin. For another thing, the gain in coming to West Germany hardly makes up for the loss of every material possession in East Germany—except, of course, for the young men and women who have no material possessions worth mentioning.
Island in Communist sea
The real and permanent inducement, the true reproach that mocks all the pretensions of the Communist regime, is simply freedom. West Germans go where they like, read what they like, say what they like. So long as West Berlin remains an island of freedom in the Communist sea, the Communist regime cannot prevent East Germans from knowing this fact. And so long as they know it, the Communist grip on East Germany is bound to be precarious.
“Walter Ulbricht must have told Khrushchev, ‘I can’t stand this any longer,’ ” a young East German said. “That’s why they are raising the Berlin issue now.”
These are persuasive reasons why the Communists want to be rid of West Berlin. In a politico-military deadlock, the political advantage seems to lie on our side; if the Berlin crisis were a mere bargaining contest, these political assets could be bartered against the obvious military advantage of the Russians.
The military plight of West Berlin is hopèless. Ten thousand American, British and French troops are stationed there, not so much a garrison as a band of hostages. More than a hundred miles inside the Soviet-occupied zone, supplied from the west by roads and canals that could be cut without effort, these men,
in the event of trouble, couldn't hope even for rescue, let alone reinforcements. They could only be avenged—and that would mean all-out war.
Moreover, West Beilin brings no material gain to our side. It costs the West German government two hundred and fifty million dollars a year in subsidies and tax exemptions. Economically as well as militarily, the city is only a burden and a hazard.
So why do we try to hang on to it? Why not sell out West Berlin for the highest political price we can get. and relax?
There are cynics in Bonn (foreigners, but people who live there) who say that when the chips are down. West Germany will do just that. I he Adenauer regime depends, they say, on the fairly even division between Roman Catholic and Protestant in present-day West Germany. Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Union commands practically all of the Roman Catholic vote plus a small but adequate fraction of the Protestant. East Germany is mostly Protestant, and might be expected to vote Social Democrat in an all-German election and turn Adenauers party tint. I bis, according to the cynics, is the true cause of the old chancellor’s notorious "rigidity." He doesn't really want any change, they contend, and so he sticks to terms that he knows the Russians will nev.T accept.
I put this’question one evening to a German MP of Adenauer’s party, who is also a rich industrialist, a friend of Alfred Krupp—just the kind of man one might expect to hold cynically “realistic" views. He answered with every appearance of sincerity:
“I assure you most solemnly that this is not true. We Germans do not feel that
"You must understand that one third of all the people in West Germany have near relatives ,n East Germany—parents, brothers, sons. 1 he rest of us have friends there. These kinfolk and these friends are living in captivity. It is to us unthinkable that we should abandon them, and accept the present division of our country as a permanent thing."
The loss of West Berlin would not in itself, of course, affect the seventeen million people now captive in East Germany. But West Berlin is a symbol as well as an escape hatch. To abandon it would be to abandon hope, and this the
German people are not willing to do.
The other Western allies are clearly and solemnly pledged to stand by the West Germans if West Berlin is attacked. The pledge was implicit from the beginning, and honored as such in 1948-49 when the U. S. defeated Stalin’s Berlin blockade with the Berlin airlift. Since 1954 the promise has been explicit, a solemn engagement in writing, lately reaffirmed by the "stand firm" declarations that preceded and followed the NATO meeting in Washington. If Khrushchev should be so foolish as to take West Berlin by force — our course would be painful but inescapable. We are committed to fight.
But just for that reason, it's most unlikely that Khrushchev will make any such violent move. Much more subtle devices are open to him. The situation in West Berlin is so delicately balanced that the slightest change, even the most reasonable-looking change, will put the Western allies in a painful dilemma.
The presence of an allied garrison in West Berlin, which is the only physical protection against the Communist forces all round, depends on the constitutional fiction that Germany is still an occupied country. Technically the allied troops are occupation troops, present "by right of conquest" in West Berlin like the Soviet troops who hold East Germany.
Khrushchev has now offered to make a separate peace, withdraw the Red Arn\y from German soil, and leave the handling of Berlin to Premier Grotewohl’s puppet government of East Germany. The Soviet draft of a peace treaty, in its Article 25, says: "Pending the restoration of Germany's unity and the establishment of a united German state. West Berlin shall have the standing of a demilitarized free city." To this Khrushchev has added the suggestion that "token forces" of allied nations might be allowed to stay in West Beilin — provided, of course, that Soviet troops were included.
Offering a separate peace can hardly be described as an “attack” on West Berlin, but it creates a problem to which the allies have not yet found an agreed answer: What shall we do if the Russians withdraw and we are compelled, by their default, to deal with an East German government that the West refuses to recognize?
Germans become very worried when any of their allies do as Prime Minister
Harold Macmillan did on his visit to Moscow — take a stand that has not been cleared with the rest of the alliance. They were furious, and they still are, at the Macmillan-Khrushchev suggestion that “a thinning out of forces” might be one goal of East-West talks on central Europe. But they explained that their anger was caused. not by the proposal itself, but by the fact that Macmillan made it without prior consultation. Germany will not even be present at a summit meeting, and the Germans are afraid their position may be given away by allies who don't fully understand it.
But what would the Germans themselves accept? Are they rigidly determined that the present fantastic state of affairs be continued forever?
Not at all. Germans will negotiate as freely as anyone on the whole broad issue of Germany and German reunification. What they don't want is a negotiation on the narrow issue of Berlin alone. There, they can see no possibility of advantage to anyone but the Russians and their East German puppets.
Franz-Josef Strauss. West Germany s blunt and outspoken minister of defense, gave us the clearest outline of his country's minimum requirement:
“Self - determination, that's what we want for Germany. Not in all fields, perhaps. We don't insist upon a free hand to arm ourselves, for example. We don't insist on a free hand in foreign policy, to make whatever alliances we choose. On things like that, we would be willing to accept some restrictions.
“But at the very least, the people must be free to choose their own social and political system at home. If they want a Communist system, all right, let them have it: but they must have a free choice. There is no problem on our side. We have a free choice, we can do as we like. But for seventeen million people in the Soviet-occupied zone, we must demand that they have the right to decide how they want to live."
At the German Foreign Office next day we got a further elaboration from Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano and his senior aides: "We are opposed to any solution that makes Berlin a Russian satellite. That’s what Khrushchev's 'free city' proposal would do.
“We think the Russians have two sets of proposals, a maximum which they'll try to get. a minimum for which they II settle. They have already declared their maximum, the so-called draft treaty that merely perpetuates the present division of Germany with a few adjustments in Russia's favor. What their minimum is. we shall find out by negotiation.
“We too have a maximum and a minimum program. When we make tiny concession away from our maximum, it should be an exchange for a Soviet concession."
What concessions would West Germany be willing to make?
“We’d be fools to reveal them at this stage. But remember, Khrushchev is not sure of himself either. It would be a most dangerous thing to let him think he can break up Western unity by offering one thing here, another there. We must stand together.”
Stand together on what?
That's the question that brings the argument back to where it started. So far, nobody knows the answer.
Some Germans and some Americans would like it to be “Stand where we are. Stand firm against any change whatsoever in the status quo. unless it is a negotiated change." Casual observation made us think that the Americans in Germany are actually more rigid in this view than the Germans are. One junior official of
the German government remarked. o>d a drink: "We're not at all afraid that the Russians will start a war over Berlin, but we're sometimes afraid that the Americans will."
But this is all loose talk by individuals. It is perfectly obvious that we cannot “stand firm" against some purely negative act by the Soviet Union. We cannot, for example, prevent the Russians from walking away from East Germany if they decide to run the risk of doing so. We can't pretend it’s an aggressive act for an East German, instead of a Russian, to
stamp the entry papers of allied trucks bound for Berlin (although there was a time when some people talked as though it were). Once that happens, it will become more and more difficult to deal with the East German authorities from day to day while maintaining, at the same time, that they do not exist. But if these workaday contacts lead to any kind of formal recognition, then we shall be writing off the unification of Germany, anti probably signing the death warrant of the Western alliance.
That's the dark side of the picture. The
bright side, as seen by the British in particular. is that the Russians really do seem in a mood to negotiate about Berlin, which now is a painful thorn in their side. If that view is correct, then presumably the Russians will settle for something less than their published demands. Conceivably, the negotiations of 1959 might settle the problem of Germany and win the peace of Europe.
The real difficulty is not to find the means to shoot our way to Berlin, but to find a common ground for negotiation on which the West can stand united.