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“Unease in Berlin,” Bill Downs, CBS Berlin.

September 13, 1948

Berlin this morning is in that uneasy and uncertain condition that passes for normal here. The expected fireworks from yesterday’s Communist demonstration did not develop. The shooting incidents during last week’s mass meeting in the Western zone are being pushed in the background. Right now everyone is waiting for the next development in this lukewarm war of blockade, words, and threats between the East and West.

Any official action here—namely further meetings of the four military governors of the city—must await more conferences in Moscow. It is expected that another round of negotiations between General Clay and his opposite numbers in the British, French, and Russian zones will take place, but only after new instructions have been received. Those instructions will have to be agreed upon in the Kremlin meetings which may begin today or tomorrow.

However, rumor has replaced action in this besieged city. One of the Berlin papers this morning carries a big scare story outlining what it claims is the second phase of a German Communist plot to bring about a dictatorship of the proletariat for Berlin. The story, which quotes no sources, speaks ominously of an “X-Day” for kicking the Western powers out; for abandoning parliamentary procedure. This is to follow a series of strikes, disruptions, and demonstrations designed to create such disorder of Berlin life that the so-called “people’s government” will be able to seize power to preserve peace. The story speaks of the Communist training of “workers’ commandos” and says that this second phase of a putsch will begin immediately. But the so-called “X-Day” will be sometime after the November elections in America.

We can expect more and more of these stories in the future. Meanwhile, in assessing the events of the past week, the East and West demonstrations and all, it is clear that the Western powers have a much greater popular support from the Berliners than even they expected—a fact that must give pause to the Soviet side.

But it will only be a pause. The Communist fight to discredit the West—to drive us out of Berlin if possible—will continue unabated.

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

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Lotic, Power. Tri Angle, 2018.

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“So You Can See Who’s Phoning,” Ottawa Citizen. July 27, 1938. Page 01.

The German husband who telephones home from a bierstube and tells his frau he’s ‘detained at the office’ will be out of luck when use of the new television-telephone apparatus pictured above becomes general. It was recently successfully operated over the 650-kilometer stretch between Berlin and Munich. The Berlin operator shown here holds a cumbersome tramission cell which will be eliminated from sets for home use. He can see the Munich operators in the projection window at left. In the wall, next to it, the round ‘eye’ which transmitted his image to Munich.

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Gustav Wunderwald, Fabrik von Loewe & Co. (Moabit). Oil on canvas, 1926. 

Berlinische Galerie, BG-M 0356/77

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amare-habeo:

Gustav Wunderwald (German, 1882 – 1945)

Garden cottages (behind factories) (Lauben (hinter Fabriken)), 1923

Oil on canvas,  62 x 72 cm

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“The leaders of the Storm Detachments-a dozen or so metal workers from the Berlin heavy
industries, whose business it is to organize the fighting squads of the Revolutionaries and to lead
them on -the day of the revolution-have already reached the last item on their agenda. Some are
standing, others seated on garden chairs around a table in the cheerless skittle-alley of a workers’
tavern. When Primelsack enters, the discussion is interrupted.

Primelsack immediately makes his report.

“All O.K. – Ernst has gone over to headquarters in Schicklerstrasse. Uprooted a tree fifteen
inches across! And twigs and branches fell from the other trees over a radius of thirty yards.”

“Boy, but she did make a hole!”
“A thing like that landing plumb on a column…”
”It’s not possible, of course, to pitch it from the street level. We’ll have to get into the houses and throw from the upper windows,” says the leader of the group, a brawny, black-haired fitter.
“What if the people won’t let us into the houses?”
“We must get in. If they refuse, then we must smash in the doors, that’s all.”
“How long does it take to go off?”

“Count to six and then heave it.”
”A hand-grenade takes five, though, doesn’t it?”
“This won’t go off before eight. With our first fuse it took sixteen, but now it’s eight.”
“And how many of them have we?”
“Sixty at present, with explosive for more.”

 The chairman returns to the last point on the agenda and talks with a few of the comrades about the issuing of the stock of revolvers, hand-grenades and ammunition. The rest occupy themselves discussing the progress of the movement in their several factories; new recruits for the fighting squads; their president, Emil Barth; and the likelihood of an early outbreak. A turner from the Kombusch Factory, the Revolutionary Oestreich, is telling Primelsack
how he took a case of rifle ammunition to one of their colleagues at Weissensee.

“You know what a
case looks like of course-like a box of herrings, except that it has handles at both ends. Well, I got
my brother Richard-! knew I could trust him-and then we took the box just as it was, without
wrapping it up or anything, went straight to the station, got into a train and just took it as if it were
any harmless parcel. I don’t understand now how it came off without a hitch, or how we could even
have thought of doing such a thing….”

Oestreich is instancing this casualness and assurance in
taking the thing openly by train under the very eyes of the other passengers as an example of how
blind faith is more important to success than the most deliberate and long-thought-out preparations:

“Go straight at it, that’s always the best way. I simply said to Richard: ‘Have you got your
Browning?’ ‘Sure,’ says he, ‘here in my trouser-pocket. I’ve only to slip the safety-catch and she’s
ready to pump.’”

“It is time we were going over to Schicklerstrasse, comrades.”

Some are already on the stairs, making their way up into the bar.

There they split up, leaving the house casually one and two at a time.

 At No. 5 Schicklerstrasse, on the second floor giving on the courtyard, tucked away among tailoring establishments, hat-makers and paper-bag manufacturers, are the rooms of the training
school of the Independent Socialist Party, the USP In one of the rooms some forty workmen are
wedged in between the narrow school benches. Twenty more are standing round the walls. The
members of the Storm Detachments, arriving one by one, also have to stand.

This is the full session of the Revolutionaries.

The Revolutionaries it was who led the Berlin workers in the strike of January, 1918, protesting
against the iniquitous peace of Brest-Litowsk, and calling for an end to be put to the war on terms of
no annexations and no reparations. This movement developed into the first concerted effort against
the imperialism of the government – then the bureaucrats of the Unions got the upper hand, and
Ebert, Scheidemann and Bauer – all of them members of the Reichstag – took over leadership of the
strike, and under their direction the fight was turned into negotiation. The Minister for the Interior,
who was willing to treat only with the parliamentarians, would have no dealings with the workers
themselves and placed a ban on all mass meetings. The General Officer Commanding the Marches
put Berlin under strict martial law and set up an emergency military tribunal.

Four hundred thousand workers had obeyed the order to strike. After the collapse of the strike
two hundred were imprisoned and forty thousand sent up to the trenches.

After that first failure eighteen of the leaders had come together to rebuild the organization.
Richard Müller, the president, had been called up by the military. But to the first meeting he
brought with him Emil Barth who, on Müller’s departure, assumed the leadership of the
Revolutionary Organization.

Emil Barth is now seated at the teacher’s desk.

He is listening to the chief of the Storm Detachment leaders who is reporting to him on the
findings of the meeting which has just been concluded.

Barth has a different appearance from that of the metal workers seated on the benches. They are
thickset, slow of speech and movement. Barth on the other hand loves fine phrases and will miss no
opportunity for a speech. Richard Müller introduced him to the circle at a time when it was
impossible to have as secretary any man already known to the police on account of his political
activities. Müller later nicknamed him “the windbag”; Haase diagnosed him as a braggart;
Liebknecht, as a “mad revolutionary dilettante”; Duncker of the Spartacist League, as a
“pathological case of a man striving for power out of a sense of inferiority”. But Barth countered all
abuse by denouncing the rest as “the highbrow generals of the workers’ movement”, who sat all day
at their writing-desks apart from the world and had not the faintest idea how revolutions are made.
When he first joined the Revolutionaries he walked with the aid of two sticks and gave himself out
as a shell-shock case. But he is shell-shocked no longer – nor does he instruct others in that art. He
has climbed up from the lowest social stratum, possesses considerable organizing ability and is
consumed with ambition. Every opportunity for political action he has seized upon with fanatical zeal, and his activities as head of the secret organization absorb him completely.

The Revolutionaries are well content with their chief. He gives his whole strength to the cause, and his excessive talkativeness they tolerate as a necessary evil.

Barth opens the meeting:

 “Comrades! I have first a communication to make. We of the Council have invited Karl Liebknecht to the meeting to-night. I am sure you will approve of that. But I should like to remind
you beforehand, that within our circle Liebknecht is to be treated as the representative of any other
political party would be treated – that is, as a guest, and one to whose opinions we are ready to
listen. At the same time I would ask you not to be dissuaded from the straight path of our policy by
the sudden appearance of Liebknecht in our midst. The hour is not far distant when we must fulfil
our task. The confidence of the upper classes in victory is giving place to a wail of disillusionment.
The divinity of the Hohenzollerns, the infallibility of Ludendorff – all that has gone. Hunger,
wretchedness, anxiety, bereavement, poverty have raised in every heart the cry for peace – the cry
for vengeance upon the guilty.”

“Our preparations are complete. The plan of attack has been elaborated and confirmed in every
smallest detail. Arms and ammunition have been distributed by the leaders of the Storm
Detachments to the various factories. At the signal for battle all work will stop; the workers will
march in close column on the centre of the city; workers within the city limits will barricade the
main thoroughfares. Within a few hours Berlin will be swarming with vast crowds of men.”

“And what about the police?”
“Who will the soldiers side with?”
“I shall call upon Comrade Daumig to answer those questions.”

Ernst Daumig – Prussian deserter; French foreign legionary; conductor on a railway sleeping-car; journalist; until the split in the party, editor of the Vorwärts – he speaks briefly and to the point:
“The police are absolutely loyal to the Government, but they will be overpowered by the armed Storm Detachments allocated to the various columns. The second question is more difficult. With
the few weapons at our disposal we could not do much against the military. I have tried to win the
soldiers over to our side in the coming struggle. I have succeeded in establishing contacts in a good
many of the barracks and have gained considerable agreement and support. Many are on our side.
But it is very difficult to form any reliable estimate of their attitude as a whole. Especially so, in
view of the fact that the military authorities are constantly shifting the troops about – during the last
few days, for instance, they have filled up the garrison with men from the provinces who are wholly
ignorant of the political situation. The military must be isolated by the masses coming in from all
sides, and the crowd must then fraternize with the soldiers and win them over to us.”

“When do we get going? That is the main point.”
“We ought not to delay much longer.”
“Delay can cost us all our heads.”

A motor mechanic states that the workers at the Daimler factory have arranged matters with the soldiers in the Dragoon Barracks. “We are to march through Tempelhof and the soldiers will join us
outside the Halle Gate.”

At that moment the door opens. Liebknecht!

The workers turn round. Most of them know him by sight, but it is a long time since they have
seen him – before the war perhaps, at some meeting or other – a few were on the Potsdamer Platz in
1916 when Liebknecht made his appeal to the workers to fight against the war and called for the
revolution. This is not the place for noisy demonstrations; those nearest the door are already shaking
him by the hand, others wave:

“Karl!”
“You have come just in the nick of time.”
“Things are beginning to move. The fun starts soon.”

Barth observes with displeasure that Liebknecht, though he particularly asked him to come alone, has brought along four colleagues
from the Spartacist League – Pieck, who arrived only yesterday from Holland, and the former
travelling secretary of the party, the long-legged professor and private coach, Duncker – the other two he does not know.

Barth cuts short the subdued ovation.

 “I shall now ask Comrade Ledebour to speak.”

Ledebour had been first among the parliamentarians to recognize in the Revolutionaries the vanguard of the coming revolution, and in the interests of the Independent Party he had kept in
close touch with the group. He now endorses Daumig’s view of the situation as regards the military,
and emphasizes the danger, already hinted at, of any delay in coming into action.

After Ledebour a second Independent addresses the meeting:

“It is obvious, of course, that we should not enter upon the conflict before the final preparations
have been made. In Berlin we have to deal with the Government in its strongest position. And we
must make absolutely sure before we begin that we have sufficient strength behind us. Particularly
must we be sure of the military. Everything is at stake. Comrades, beware of too precipitate
action…”

The Independents, so far as the law would permit, have given expression both in Parliament and
the press to the feelings of the mass of the workers and soldiers. In proportion as the masses grew
weary of the war, the Independents dissociated themselves from the policy of the old order. Their
speeches became more and more radical, and they looked about for every legal means of
overthrowing the Government and the leaders of the old Social Democratic Party, and of filling the
ministerial and high official posts with their own people. For the achievement of this purpose the
Revolutionaries might well prove the most convenient lever; but they desired to accomplish that
purpose with the minimum of risk. And so on the very threshold of revolution they drew back.

The Revolutionaries begin to interrupt the speaker:

 “Aha! Got the wind up, have you?”
“Like to put on the brakes, eh? – now that we have come so far.”
“Sail right in, that’s the only way – same as me and Richard with the ammunition box.”
“If we were to listen to the Party leaders, we should still be making preparations in our graves.”

Liebknecht signals the Chair.

Karl Liebknecht – son of Wilhelm Liebknecht. But he is more than that – he has his own history. On August 4th, 1914, when in obedience to the resolution of the Party majority, he voted with the
rest of the Social Democrats in favour of the War Budget, he had come back to the Party committee
room with tears in his eyes. It was then that Rosa Luxembourg told him he must break with Party
discipline and, single-handed and alone, follow the dictates of his own conscience. Ever since then
he has been following the same hard road. He refused to vote for the Second War Loan. Already in
1915 he had gathered about him a small group of revolutionaries. He was ejected from the Party,
called up for the army, and sent to the Front as an infantryman. At the beginning of 1916 he
published an “open letter”, which he signed with the pseudonym: Spartacus. On May 1st, 1916, he
stood on the Potsdamer Platz, the first open accuser of the Government policy, and, surrounded by a
small band of demonstrators, he made a speech against the war. He was arrested and vanished into
Luckau prison.

Karl Liebknecht. Infantryman. Convict. Tribune of the Revolution.

Here he now stands and speaks:

 “…From various sources I have heard of your existence, of the existence of an illegal revolutionary organization. But I must say I am disappointed in your activities. Frankly I imagined
both your action and the pace of it to be other than I find it. I came here on Wednesday last; I then
witnessed a demonstration the like of which, for enthusiasm, has not been seen in Berlin before.
There had been another of almost equal enthusiasm the day before in front of the Reichstag and
Unter den Linden. I have been here three days now and there has been no fresh demonstration!”

The Revolutionaries sit silent in their places, all eyes turned upon the emaciated face of
Liebknecht which under the greenish light of the one solitary gas-flame looks even paler than in fact
it is. Emil Barth has removed his pince-nez; he polishes the lenses and puts them on again. He
watches his comrades anxiously –

Today will decide whether the Revolutionary Organization is to stick to its programme or not. Barth has always been opposed to sporadic action, as a mere frittering
away of strength. He has divided his organization into various sections according to the several
requirements of propaganda, espionage and direct fighting. He has collected money for the purchase
of arms, made journeys throughout the length and breadth of the country in order to spin the web
wider, dashing from one meeting to the next, and putting all in readiness for the one great blow. It is
nine months since he has had a good night’s sleep. Stupefied with schemes and unsuccessful
combinations, reeking of tobacco smoke, he would crawl wearily after nights of sleeplessness from
the kitchen of his apartment at Neukölln to the room in which slept his wife and his two growing
sons. Still half-dressed he would drop down on the bed and sleep a few hours, only to leave the
house again as soon as he awoke and renew his conspiratorial activities. And now, just as the power
of his adversary, Ludendorff is on the point of collapsing; now, when the moment has come for the
realization of all his great schemes – at this critical moment who should appear but Karl
Liebknecht!”

– Theodor Plivier, The Kaiser Goes, The Generals Remain. Translated by A. W. Wheen. London: Faber & Faber, 1933. pp. 38-42

Painting is Heinrich Vogeler, Deutscher Stachanowarbeiter im Erholungsheim Sotschi (Mitglied der Stachanowbewegung).1936. Oil on canvas.  Housed in Berlin at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Inv.-Nr. A III 279.  Actually shows a German-Soviet ‘shock worker’ but it works and I like Vogeler…

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Scenes from the BVG-Streik / Berlin Transit Strike , November 3-7, 1932.

“The most infamous example of KPD-NSDAP cooperation was the parties’ combined efforts in the Berlin transport of November 1032.  One Nostiz KPD-sympathiser even recalled having visited the SA pub in the Kiez, zur Hochburg, and the local SA men returned the favor at Lorenz’s pub during this short-lived ‘cease fire’.  Cooperation was more damaging for the KPD than for the NSDAP.  The strike did not last long enough to hurt the NSDAP’s relationship with industrial interests, and the Nazi claim to be a work-friendly party was made more credible.  For the KPD, the failure of the strike only showed the weakness of their shop floor support and organisational skills, and their cooperation with the NSDAP made the Communists look desperate and confused.  At the street level, the men involved in the strike reportedly had little trouble working together.  A full two years before the strike, a meeting of BVG employees organised by Nazis drew an equal number of Communists.  A police spy reported that the words ‘we belong together’ were heard frequently, and that both sides greeted each other on entering the room.  Although such public cooperation was not repeated in other examples of Berlin labor politics, the police reporter captured the threat this togetherness represented to the republic.  By way of an oxymoronic coupling of terms of solidarity and conflict, he described the atmosphere at the 1930 meeting: ‘The two enemy brothers were of one heart and one soul.’  Two years later the fear remained for conservative Berlin newspapers.  Though the strike only lasted a few days, a reporter for the Berliner Borsen-Zeitung exclaimed during the November events that was becoming increasingly clear ‘that behind the strike lies far-reaching revolutionary political goals.’  Descriptions such as these have been used as proof that these two movements were also ‘brothers’ in their revolutionary opposition to the SPD and the republic. Although this similarity did exist, the two parties should not be equated.  As expected, when their combined efforts in the strike began to fail, the NSDAP newspaper, Der Angriff, was quick to stress the NSBO’s ability to carry on alone.  The Goebbels-edited paper explained cooly that ‘we are men enough to fight for our due rights and need no partnership with any party or group.’  The cooperation among party leaders in this instance was permitted primarily because of each party’s need to show radical support for workers.”

– Pamela Swett, Neighbours and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. p. 209

“The climax of the year’s industrial agitation came with the strike of Berlin’s transit workers, which coincided with the Reichstag elections of November. The concerted walk-out of some 20,000 employees in opposition to a new wage-contract, and against the wishes of the trade-union leadership, was hailed openly [by the KPD] as a revolutionary mass-strike and ‘the most powerful success so far of our turn to revolutionary work among the masses.’ Even this action, however, revealed the limitations of the mass-strike formula.  Attempts to extend the strike to other sections of municipal workers failed, and on 8 November the employer, the Berliner Verkehrsgesellschaft (BVG), announced the dismissal of 1000 employees for ‘sabotage and other excesses.’  To the urgings of the RGO that the pace of strike activity must not be allowed to lapse, the representatives of other municipal workers within the Party answered that they needed four weeks to recover from the transit strike: ‘If the national and district leadership thought they had to throw the workers out on the streets with one strike after another, then they had better not give themselves any illusions; the workers aren’t going to go along with that kind of joke any more.’  Reflecting on the readiness of some Berlin Communists in 1929 to take to the barricades rather than follow the Party’s strike call, the KPD instructor for Neukolln would write: ‘Unfortunately, even the average politically active worker…prefers a one-percent risk of falling in battle…to a ninety-nine percent certainty of being dismissed by his employer for striking illegally and then being put on the blacklist.’” 

– Eve Rosenthal, Beating the Fascists?: The German Communists and Political Violence, 1929-1933.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.  p. 47.

“n the middle of a global economic crisis, the BVG tried to cut wages by as much as 23 pfennigs an hour – the fifth wage cut since 1929. At the same time, the management, including members of the SPD, had raised prices and put whole lines out of service, partly to pay for major corruption scandals. Unemployment had risen to 25 percent, and with limited social welfare, the use of urban transport had gone down by half. And sentiment amongst workers toward the social democratic Bonzen in charge, who pulled in a swagger-worthy 300,000 DM per year, wasn’t running particularly high.

After a series of delegate conferences, all 22,000 employees were called on to vote. With 14,471 yes votes, the strike had a clear majority.On November 3, the strike was solid. Not a single subway or bus went out of the depots – there were only a few trams sent on “demonstrative trips” in order to create the impression that everything was normal. But these trams were mostly empty, since riders were scared of the mobs of strikers throwing rocks and breaking windows. By the second day, the government had declared the whole strike illegal and armed police were riding on the fronts and the backs of these trams.

Nazis and communists unite?!
Two political parties brought out their fighting groups to support the pickets: the Communists (KPD) and, surprisingly, the Nazis. Otherwise mortal enemies, they blocked depots, fought against the police, ripped up track lines and otherwise sabotaged the BVG service – sometimes together, in what would inaccurately be described later as an action of the “Nazis and Kozis” against democracy. On the strike’s 75th anniversary, Spiegel wrote that “Walter Ulbricht, the head of the Berlin KPD and later founder of the GDR, and Joseph Goebbels, the Gauleiter of the NSDAP, were pulling the strings.” This image of a strike provoked by left- and right-wing extremists has gotten a lot of mileage. But does it fit the numbers?

Of the more than 14,000 workers who voted to strike, only 1137 were in the KPD’s trade union organization RGO, and even fewer were in the Nazi union NSBO. Most were older workers with families and a loyalty to the social democratic unions – but they felt they had no other option than to fight. They enjoyed the sympathy of the Berlin population, especially the women. As a secret police report said: “Women are involved” in the street fighting “at a level that has never been observed in Berlin before.”

What was Goebbels doing there?
The Communists had always supported strikes, but for the Nazis – mostly a party of the impoverished middle classes – this was a novelty. Goebbels explained in his diary: “Many bourgeois sectors will be scared away by our participation in the strike. But that is not decisive. These sectors can be won back later easily; but if we lose the worker, he will be lost for good.” In fact, in the elections on Sunday, November 6, the NSDAP vote did go down, but not as dramatically as expected, and less in the working class neighbourhoods. The KPD, at the same time, became the strongest party in Berlin with 31 percent.

But after four days, the strike front broke and over the course of the following Monday, most strikers returned to work. Their wages were cut, as planned, by two pfennings an hour and 2850 workers lost their jobs and were condemned to unemployment. Over 500 people were arrested and four were killed by the police.”

– Wladek Flakin, “Eighty years ago: When the BVG went on strike,Exberliner. November 7, 2012

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