Divided City: A Portrait of the Two Berlins


IN BERLIN, the chief reality of life today remains the barrier which splits the city in two. To be sure, much has been accomplished in the Western sector in the ten years since the war. West Berlin is once again a bright, gay metropolis, colorful and clean, a city like the wonderful Berlin of other years that captured the heart of the world. It’s a miracle, in a way. The crushed buildings, the grotesque monuments of rubble, are gone; sometimes the West Berliner catches himself wideeyed in surprise. But then, to remind himself of what he has been through, he needs only look eastward, across the barrier, to the bleak image that refuses to disappear.

What is it like over there in East Berlin? A city somehow gone to seed. The people’s clothes are shabby; even the well-dressed ones wear ill-fitting, cheap coats and suits. The buildings have a look of gloom about them —no decorations, no ornaments. Much of the war damage remains, huge scars ripped through the city’s fabric, becoming now worn and accustomed like a habitual grimace. The fact is, East Berlin has changed its face only slightly since the end of the war. True, there has been a little rebuilding and some replacement of the enormous industrial stock which was sent to the Soviet Union as reparations. And, as East Berlin officials tirelessly point out, there is Stalin Allee, the somberly pompous housing project which was erected six years ago to replace the ruins of the old Frankfurter Allee. But Stalin Alice is only a facade; a block behind it is desolation. The visitor’s impression is one of unrelieved drabness; even where the city is clean it looks dirty. A hard background for human life, and the great numbers who have fled to West Berlin must have thought so too. The city has witnessed the arrival of more than a million refugees from the Eastern zone of Germany, a steady stream of victims of tragedy, many of whom had suffered beyond endurance.

Only in the cultural field does East Berlin offer some relief from the daily tedium. The Communists have emphasized theater and opera, and within the rather narrow limits enforced by their doctrinal view of the arts, they have done a good job. This emphasis on the arts is intended, of course, to please East Berliners, but it has another purpose too: to impress some in the West who might think that a good basso or a fine symphony orchestra is an indication of democratic freedom or at least a substitute for it. One remembers that there was excellent theater and music under the Nazis also. But, fortunately, cultural institutions have a way of defeating the intentions of those who use them for propaganda. The multitudes of Berliners who listened to Eurtwangler’s orchestra during the Nazi period did so to escape for a moment the ugly realities of a police state and to regain some semblance of human dignity and beauty; the same thing happens in East Berlin today. Even Soviet art keeps alive sentiments which find no other outlet in an oppressed society.

But theater and opera on the Western side are as good, and the shops, the boulevards, the restaurants, the houses, the fashions, the newspapers, the automobiles, are far better. The travel folders speak in lustrous terms of West Berlin, and they are not wrong. The West Berliner lives in half a city, the fine half, where he can smile each day at his good fortune and where the tourists come each season to enjoy his good things and add to his income. The other half lives on the Eastern side of the barrier, and neither side is able to forget the other for long. Berliners are reminded in many ways that the division in their city, though painfully apparent, is recent and artificial; it is, so to speak, only skin deep.

The municipal subway and railroad system — one system for both sectors — stands as a kind of symbol. It is under Soviet direction because the main technical installations happen to be in the East. But trains pass uninterruptedly across the line and thus serve as the symbolic arteries which circulate through the whole organism of Berlin. However, these trains offer a danger ton; a West Berliner who falls asleep on a train is likely to wake up in an East Berlin police station. Consequently, West and East Berliners alike have taken to waking up sleepers, especially those who look fairly well fed and well clothed, before their train reaches the border; this gives the Westerners time to get off in safety. This basic unity has been demonstrated in many other, more dramatic ways. But let me go back in time for a moment.


As A RESULT of Soviet delaying tactics, after the city’s fall to Russian troops early in May 1945, British, French, and American forces entered Berlin only at the beginning of July. The Soviets had used the two months of their exclusive dominion to establish a local government for Greater Berlin which was nothing more than a Communist city regime, subservient in every detail to Soviet occupation authorities. A condition for Western Allied “admission” to Berlin was that the British, French, and Americans should supply their sectors with food, transporting it through the hundreds of miles of Soviet-occupied territory by which Berlin was — and, of course, still is — entirely surrounded.

The Allies were given the use of only one highway and one railroad upon which to transport provisions for their own military personnel and for the civilian populations of their sectors. Thus, at the very beginning the groundwork was laid for the alternating threats of starvation and tempting promises of food which the Soviet officials would use as levers of “moral persuasion” to intimidate Berliners.

On October 20, 1946, the first and last city-wide council elections after the war were held. Two main parties appeared on the ballot, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Socialist Unity Party (SED). The SED) enjoyed strong Soviet backing, and its propaganda was artfully reinforced by promises of Russian food to relieve the near starvation which had been caused in the first place by Soviet interference with the movement of Allied transport. Yet when the votes were counted, the SPD had won a sweeping victory. Thus, the people of Berlin, East and West, showed that they were strongly united in their opposition to Communism, even — or especially — after more than a year of Soviet occupation and propaganda.

The Soviet response was a cold war of attrition against Berlin’s unity as a city, fought by means of arrests and abductions of countless civilians, hindrance of duly elected officials, and organized mob violence in the city parliament which, at that time, was still housed in the old Rathaus located in the Soviet sector. Finally, of course, the city council was forced to give way to these crude pressures. It moved to the Schoneberg Rathaus in the American sector. The next election, held on December 5, 1948, was restricted to the Western sectors; already the Soviets had promoted an arbitrary Communist government in their half of the city. The division became a fact; the barriers were erected.

The supreme expression of Russian determination to subjugate Berlin had come earlier in the same year. The blockade, a stoppage of all rail and motor traffic to and from the city, had begun in earnest in June. The result, as we all know, was the Allied airlift. A year later, in May 1949, the blockade was lifted after a complete failure. The Soviets had expected the blockade to succeed in a few weeks, and they had been ready with plans for the creation of an East German Republic. The airlift, certainly one of the most exciting and spectacular accomplishments of modern history, completely upset the Russians’ calculations.

Since then, the cold war has waxed and waned and waxed again, but very little outward change has occurred in Berlin’s perilous situation. In the West sector, there has been rapid progress toward economic stabilization and recovery. The city government has functioned freely and on the whole wisely. In the East sector, all the apparatus of Communist officialdom was set in motion. Berlin was the administrative center for the whole Soviet zone, and the Eastern sector seemed sometimes so crowded with uniformed personnel that ordinary citizens virtually disappeared from the scene.

But the signs of the Berliners’ essential unity have continued. Even today, men and women from the East still slip over the border into free territory, asking asylum and bringing with them assurances that the Germans of the East zone still cherish the hope of freedom. Perhaps the most compelling demonstration of this occurred in June 1953, when striking workers at the steel mill in Henningsdorf, near Berlin, marched into the Eastern sector of the city to protest against their steadily deteriorating living conditions. It was a spontaneous uprising. Young men and women who had been organized in Communist youth groups spoke up for freedom. A truck driver climbed the Brandenburg Gate and tore down the red flag, while thousands of hungry people below flooded against Soviet troops and tanks. The soldiers fired, of course, and a few days later there was a somber funeral. But the Henningsdorf workers had spoken in a voice audible throughout the world. So far as we know, this was the first eruption of outraged feelings behind the Iron Curtain, but it was not the last. Poznan followed, then Warsaw, then Budapest. The people of Berlin are confident that eventually their great city will somehow be made whole again in freedom; and what can happen here, they feel, can happen elsewhere too.


THE airlift was, of course, the central experience of lift in modern Berlin. In retrospect, it has lost none of its drama. The Western sectors, comprising 2,250,000 people in all, were completely cut off from all the necessities. Supplying them solely by air would have been considered utterly out of the question only a few years earlier, and even in 1948 there were many who doubted that it could be done.

At the peak of the airlift, planes were arriving and departing in Berlin at intervals of thirty seconds. General Lucius D. Clay, who commanded the American forces in Berlin, has described it: “My home in Berlin was directly under the approach to Tempelhof, and I learned to sleep well under the steady drone overhead, waking only when there were no planes in the air to wonder at the cause.” Millions of Berliners shared his experience and were grateful for the noisy sky. When the blockade was lifted, the planes had brought in nearly one and a half million metric tons of food, coal, and other supplies. This was life itself to the citizens of Berlin.

What the Berliners themselves contributed was the maintenance of a spirit of freedom and a will to live in the face of grave dangers. Those were the days when Berliners and Americans discovered a great mutual respect and even affection; the airlift was its most eloquent expression. Friendships became real, close, and cordial. The situation itself appealed to the Berliners, though it frightened them too, and it appealed even more to the Americans. Here was a crisis which called for the utmost ingenuity and courage. It was tremendously attractive to the American character, which, at least as the Europeans understand it, loves to improvise, to act dangerously, forthrightly, and above all quickly.

This rapport between Americans and Germans left its mark on Berlin, as it has on other German cities* For a number of years, Americans were particularly in evidence in West Berlin, and close relationships naturally developed. Today the good taste of American cigarettes still lingers in many a Berliner’s memory, and a remarkable number of its adolescents can speak facile English — in the accents of Brooklyn and Texas — though their vocabularies contain a good many expressions which will not help them in studying English literature. In fact, the whole American manner, modes of dress and movement, of speech and gesticulation, impressed itself on the German sensibility and still influences the customs and aspirations of Berliners.

The truth is that, in some respects, Berlin has a closer cultural and historical affinity with, say, New York than it does with the other capitals of Europe. Paris and London, Madrid and Rome, have been cultural and national centers for centuries, but Berlin, like New York, is a fairly new city. To be sure, a town has existed on the site of Berlin since the beginnings of German civilization, but not until the unification of Germany, in the last century, did it assume the proportions of a metropolis. Only a small minority of Berliners today can trace their ancestry to Berlin’s earlier inhabitants; the rest are children of parents who came from other parts of Germany and Europe. Berlin’s cultural traditions are old, of course; her music and art derive from the roots of European civilization. But the newness of their city gives Berliners an additional pride, independence, and freshness of spirit which is more characteristically American than European.

Visitors naturally wonder what Berlin was like before 1945. These Berliners who are so eager for freedom today — what were they doing during the Nazi tyranny? What about the torchlight parades, the mass hysteria, the spectacles of Prussian arrogance? The fact is that Berlin was never the stronghold of Nazi sentiment and remained to the very end of Hitlerism a center of opposition. The Nazis knew this and did everything they could to counteract it. But they failed.

Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. Three months later, in March, the last general free election in the Third Reich was held. Only six out of nineteen Reichstag members elected from Berlin were National Socialists. Five were Social Democrats, two represented center parties, and six were Communists - whose supporters did not so much consider the unholy alliance between right and left (which contributed largely to the fall of the Weimar Republic) as the immediate threat of National Socialism. In other words, loss than a third of the people of Berlin supported Hitler, even in those days when bitterness and despondency gripped the nat ion.

Perhaps this was shown most strikingly in the help and protection which Berliners gave to their Jewish friends. On the long September night in 1937 when I escaped to Prague, I noted in my diary: “Grotesque as it may seem, in Berlin relations between the Jews and the non-Jewish population are good, mostly friendly, and often more than neighborly, in every case much too close for the government’s comfort.” Next to this, place the passage in Goebbels’ diary which he wrote in 1943 in the midst of the war: “We are now definitely pushing the Jews out of Berlin. They were suddenly rounded up last Saturday, and are to be carted off to the East as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, our better circles, especially the intellectuals, once again have failed to understand our policy toward the Jews and in some cases have even taken their part. As a result, our plans were tipped off prematurely, so that a lot of Jews slipped through our hands.”

Berlin was the scene of many such acts of resistance. It was here that Pastor Niemoller gathered his band of uncompromising Protestants, men and women who kept up his struggle for the conscience of man throughout his long imprisonment. Here Prelate Bruno Lichtenberg asked his parishioners to pray for their Jewish brethren, an act which brought him a martyr’s death. Here Rabbi Leo Baeek, with unparalleled courage, stood by his Jewish community till the last moment and won the admiration of Berliners throughout the city. In Berlin, Social Democrats like Gustav Dahrendorf and Julius Leber established common ground against the regime with military men like General Beck, and thousands of obscure citizens translated their hatred of the regime into sympathy and help for its victims.

What is life in Berlin like today? Much as it is anywhere, of course. Berliners are joyous and sad, bright and stupid, sick and well. If life in a divided city occasionally offers opportunities for the display of ideological resoluteness, sometimes it merely brings out native cunning. East Berliners invade the Kurfürstcndamm, West Berlin’s shopping center, to buy shoes, clothing, whatever they can’t get at home, and they will go to extraordinary lengths to bring their purchases safely over the line. Girls from the East will come to the West wearing long coats and very little else besides, so that they can return home fully clothed. In the same way, genuine Malossol caviar and vodka are plentiful in the West, though you do not ask your host where he obtained his supply, and the professor who teaches at the anti-Communist Free University of West Berlin may be grateful for a chance to buy a fine old book cheaply somewhere in the Soviet sector. Men who risk their lives one day to place a “Freedom for Hungary” wreath on the Soviet War Memorial will risk them again the next day to make a few quick marks on smuggled goods.

In Berlin, the mayors of the two cities never meet, and a telephone call from the Eastern sector to a party half a mile across the border usually takes four hours, for it must be placed long-distance, via Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, 55 miles away.

A good barometer of the cold war in Berlin is Totensonntay, the day when Germans honor their dead. As it happens, most of Berlin’s cemeteries are in the Soviet sector, and each year West Berliners wait anxiously to find out whether international relations will incline the Soviets to let them visit the graves of their loved ones.

Berliners are tough and realistic. When I arrived in the city not long ago, I asked the taxi driver at Tempelhof airport how things were going. “What would you like to hear?” he said. And Berliners are proud. Their definition of a Breslauer is “someone who couldn’t find an apartment in Berlin,” and they mean it. Berlin, the frontier city of the cold war, forces one to find answers, and the Berliners have found theirs. They have a fine city, a good life, and they will not give up either to the darkness beyond the barrier. This is what they have resolved.