The People of East Berlin

by Otto FreiFor several yearsOTTO FREIhas been the correspondent in Berlin for one of Switzerland’s leading newspapers, theNEUEZURCHP;R ZEITUNG.He has had ample opportunity to observe the changing life and the rise and fall of the political thermometer in the East zone.

THE Berliners on both sides of the Wall have a common past, speak the same language, and feel themselves to be inhabitants of the same city. They are a determined people. Even under the crippling conditions of a totalitarian economy, more than one million East Berliners accomplish a productive effort which compels respect. The East Berlin workers and engineers in the precision equipment and electrical industries, which are concentrated in the Soviet sector of Berlin and look back on a proud tradition, are very capable. From 1958 to 1960 thousands of new apartments went up in the Soviet sector, especially in the pleasantly situated outer suburbs, at a rate of construction which came close to matching that in West Berlin.

The rural spaciousness of the East Berlin suburb of Köpenick gives one the feeling of being in the most peaceful corner of the March of Brandenburg. On fine Sundays most East Berliners gather on the banks of the broad Müggelsee or in Treptow Park, where after the fall of Berlin the Soviets put up monuments to the glory of the Red Army. In the lakeside restaurants, patient waiters carry cups and cakes daringly balanced over the heads of the many customers. Potsdam with the Palace of Sans Souci lies at the gates of the city; people flock to the Spree Forest and the lakes of Mecklenburg; in about four hours the Baltic coast can be reached. East Berliners enjoy an extremely pleasant natural habitat.

How deceptive are appearances? Does worry lurk in the peaceful shadows of the chestnut trees? Thousands of East Berliners have relatives and friends in West Berlin and in West Germany, separated from them by the Wall and the barbed wire. In many cases mother is separated from son, husband from wife, boy from girl. The Communists are doubtless aware of the real mood. It was not by chance that the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, which is published in the Soviet sector, admonished its readers some time ago that they should not always stare at the brightly lit facade of the Hilton Hotel on the West side of the Wall. The Americans — so the paper said — are by no means resolved to stay in West Berlin, and almost all the rooms in the Hilton Hotel are empty; the American manager has the lights lit only to mislead East Berliners. So the citizens of the “capital of the German Democratic Republic” — which is what the Communists call the Soviet zone of Germany — should avert their eyes from West Berlin and fix them on the socialist present, which also has its attractive side.

The Communist Party leader, Walter Ulbricht, and his colleagues are forever complaining that young painters in East Berlin use dark tones, that young authors write pessimistic novels, that young artists portray the socialist present in “gray on gray.”Looking at a picture of the barricade fighters of the Paris commune, Ulbricht exclaimed that the young artist had created tired, hopeless figures and that the convinced, optimistic, fresh, and forwardlooking element was absent from art as a whole. He accused sculptors and graphic artists of allowing themselves to be corrupted by the influences of “Western decadence.” Recently he appealed to the members of the Communist youth organization to have more confidence in the state. A young Communist woman author wrote that the young people who once believed that the new socialist order was rising on the flaming red horizon were now full of the weariness and cynicism of the angry young men whose dispiritedness had extinguished the glow of hope.

Moral depression is especially pronounced in East Berlin intellectual circles, which enjoyed a privileged position before the Wall; because of the freedom of movement prevailing throughout the city and their importance for the regime, certain intellectuals were able to attend meetings in West Germany and in other Western European countries. Separation from the West hit hardest those who have preserved a capacity for independent thought. Conversations with doctors, scientists, artists, and authors in East Berlin produce a shattering picture of intellectual and moral distress.

Western acceptance of the closing of the border and the military occupation of East Berlin by the illegal Ulbricht regime came as a tremendous shock to the entire population of the Soviet sector. Prior to August 13, 1961, the East Berliners were halffree men. They had, of course, to work during the day in state-owned enterprises in an unfree society and were subject to an arbitrary legal system. But in the evening, at the close of work, they came over to West Berlin to meet relatives and acquaintances, go to the movies or the theater, stroll up the Kurfürstendamm, and read Western newspapers. About eight million theater and movie tickets were sold each year in West Berlin to East Berliners and inhabitants of the outlying districts which are part of the Soviet Occupation zone. About 60,000 people from the East came daily to West Berlin to work in factories and workshops. Thousands of them had been with the same firms for decades. In 1948, Berlin was divided politically, economically, and administratively, but for thirteen years the people could move fairly freely in both parts of the city and meet whenever they wished. Some 200,000 Germans from East Berlin and the Soviet zone visited West Berlin every day. West Berlin could play the role of meeting place because the Soviet Occupation authorities respected the most important condition of the quadripartite agreements on Berlin, freedom of movement within the city. Thus Berlin, despite political division, was still a special area under the administration of the four victorious powers.

On August 12, 1961, East Berliners went to sleep as usual with the feeling of being relatively free men, at least partially protected from Ulbricht’s arbitrary rule. In fifteen minutes the subway or the elevated could bring them to West Berlin for twenty pfennigs. When boarding trains for the West, they saw Communist placards in the East Berlin Friedrichstrasse Station with the warning: “Don’t go to West Berlin! Don’t fall into the clutches of the slave dealers!” They looked away contemptuously or cracked jokes about it.

THE Wall led at first to a power psychosis among fanatical Communist officials in East Berlin. Ulbricht had his regime’s flag — a black, red, and gold banner with hammer and compass enclosed in wheat sheaves hoisted on the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of the power of the former German Reich, and he proclaimed in the style of Adolf Hitler: “Our boys in uniform brilliantly fulfilled their combat mission. From now on we are the ones who plot the course of German history!” The regime encouraged feelings of revenge. Ulbricht, who before August 13 had been forced to take the popular mood into consideration because of the prevailing possibility of flight, formed an organization called “Worker’s Fist,” whose members drew private citizens into political discussions. When those spoken to showed that they were opponents of the regime, they were beaten up. The appearance of goon squads recalled to the population the worst period of Nazi rule.

The courts in East Berlin and in the Soviet zone passed terror sentences on an assembly-line basis against opponents of the regime. Many, including former “border crossers” — East Berlin and Soviet zone workers who were employed in West Berlin factories — were deported from East Berlin and its outlying districts. The government passed decrees restricting freedom of movement and assigning people to compulsory labor. Fanatical members of the Communist youth organization clambered up on the rooftops and dismantled TV antennas oriented toward Western stations. There was a rash of bellicose headlines in the statecontrolled press: “A clenched fist for the enemy!” “The enemy will lose both hair and teeth!” “The worker’s fist smashes the snout of the militarist beast!” “We have the best rockets!” Along with the consolidation of the system of political control went a forced militarization of society, which took on almost wartime forms.

The bright dreams once harbored by Ulbricht and his entourage have since withered on the vine. In the winter of 1958, after the opening of Khrushchev’s offensive against West Berlin, officials in East Berlin repeatedly announced: “By spring at the latest we’ll take over in West Berlin!” At that time the East Berlin radio stations played the old Berlin hit tune “Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht” (“When the White Lilac Blooms Again”) in bold anticipation of things to come. When Ulbricht fell short of his goal, since Khrushchev had to change his timetable, the East Berlin Communists announced: “The separate peace treaty will come one way or another, but it will come soon, and it will give us complete control of all communications routes to and from West Berlin, including the air corridors!” That too was a hope that was not fulfilled. Ulbricht built the Wall in August, 1961, to save his state from bleeding to death and to protect it from the corrosive winds from the West, but West Berlin continued to exist as a free community, thanks to the commitment of the Western allies. Since then the Communists have not advanced an inch further on the Berlin question. In October, 1962, shortly before the climax of the Cuban crisis, Ulbricht had to eat his own words in front of leading Party comrades. In view of the setback in Berlin and the retreat in Cuba, a tendency toward discouragement, depression, and resignation has spread among Communist officials in East Berlin. The power-psychosis phase was followed by a sobering-up process, and the latter by outright disappointment.

This mood in the ranks of Party officialdom naturally does not remain concealed from the population. So long as the struggle for Berlin remains undecided, and so long as the Western powers maintain their troops in the city, the people of the Soviet sector will not give up hope for a freer life. However, the mood continues to be fairly somber. The Communists continually demand from the intellectuals not only public statements of support for the state, but also active cooperation and education of the youth to be active “class fighters.” One official, speaking before artists, authors, doctors, and scientists in East Berlin, declared, “The time of drifting between two worlds is finally over. We now demand commitment to socialist construction !”

The industrial workers of East Berlin are also faced with continuous pressure, especially on the thorny question of work norms. The Communists and the state-controlled trade union organization want to abandon the old norms system, which makes it possible for the worker to overfulfill job time rates and thus earn relatively high and stable wages. The slogans are: “Raise labor productivity!” “More production for the same wages!” Since, however, the officials still remember the shock of the workers’ revolt of June 17, 1953, which broke out as a result of increased labor norms, they proceed cautiously and flexibly. When the workers in a factory stubbornly resist, the Party as a rule retreats for the time being on the norms question, and then later makes a new attempt.

Another source of discontent is the erratic nature of purchasable supplies — notably, household goods and foodstuffs. East Berliners, like the other inhabitants of the Soviet zone, are ever at the mercy of a totally inelastic system of economic management which is designed to satisfy not individual needs but the requirements of the Party plan. For the most part, sufficient quantities of foodstuffs and consumer goods are available to cover minimum daily needs, but the range of choice is drastically limited, while the supply may fluctuate wildly, A store may find itself with a sudden shipment of bathing suits in December. Visitors from the West often think they are filling an urgent need when they bring East Berliners chocolates or cakes; in fact, such gifts, though much appreciated, are unnecessary luxuries compared with such hard-tocome-by necessities as elastic bands, safety pins, paper napkins, or bicycle chains. Simple things, like drinking straws, which East Berliners used to buy at West Berlin’s leading department store, the KDW (Kaufhaus des Westens), are unobtainable beyond the Wall. Meat, eggs, butter, fats, and milk are often in short supply, while coal and potatoes can be obtained only with ration coupons.

THESE vexations are by no means apparent during a short stay in East Berlin or in a quick look around the streets. The bus excursions which start on the Kurfürstendamm in the West and include a lengthy tour of the East offer a characteristically deceptive view of the real situation, even in the areas of building and reconstruction. The center of Berlin still remains largely bombed out, with jagged blocks of undestroyed buildings and acres of cleared-off wasteland. Little attempt has been made to rebuild the old Prussian heart of the city, where the eighteenth-century Stadtschloss of the Hohenzollern kings, which had been damaged during the war, was torn down by the Communists to make room for the utterly featureless Marx-Engels Platz, where the May Day parades are held. It is likely that Ulbricht and his colleagues for years felt so sure of one day being able to take over the urban facilities available in the West that they deliberately postponed the ambitious plans drafted by East German architects which called for, among other things, a new Central Committee skyscraper dominated by a tower four hundred and fifty feet high.

The one major piece of post-war reconstruction involved the rebuilding of what was once the Frankfurter Allee before becoming the Stalin Allee and, more recently, the Karl-Marx Allee. It is a dreary mile of bathroom-tile facades plastered here and there with gingerbread ornaments and birthday-cake pinnacles. Few visitors get beyond this monotonous row of proletarian cliff dwellings to the far more modern and multicolored apartment blocks built in the eastern suburbs of the city.

Otherwise, the Soviet sector may seem perfectly normal to a superficial observer: the streets are neatly kept; the traffic, such as it is, is well regulated; in the store windows there is a choice of goods which, although it may be meager in comparison with that in West Berlin, is still relatively rich and colorful compared with what is available in other cities in the Soviet bloc. People are well dressed, and children laugh and play as loudly as anywhere else. The moral distress and the intellectual pressures which lie heavy on the inhabitants strike the visitor only when he is received in Fast Berlin families, treated as a friend, and included in conversational circles where intimate worries can be aired.

What does an outsider know of the conflicts which confront parents in East Berlin as a result of the atheistic state philosophy and its claim to total control of youth? Rake one East Berlin family as an example. The father, an engineer in a stateowned electrical plant, has a good salary and can give his family a life free from material worry. He owns a small car and is able to take a vacation once a year at the Black Sea or Czechoslovakia’s Tatra Mountains. The family lives in a goodlooking modern apartment in the outer green belt of the city. But the totalitarian state philosophy casts a blight over this material prosperity. The son of the family, a lively, intelligent boy, has to take part in the atheistic youth-dedication ceremony instituted by the Communist regime a ceremony curiously in contrast to Marxist doctrine, since it represents a direct borrowing from religious rites. During the ceremony the young people must declare their loyalty to the Communist stale and Walter Ulbricht’s “Ten Commandments of Socialist Morality” (worker discipline, collective consciousness. proletarian internationalism, the spirit of comradely self-sacrifice, and so forth). The parents find themselves in a dilemma. They wish to remain true to their convictions and have their son confirmed in the Evangelical Church. However, if they do not let him take part in the youth dedication, the lather not only can expect difficulties in his professional life, but he also runs the risk that his son will not be allowed to continue his studies. Many parents seek a way out of the dilemma by letting their children take part in the youth dedication and then later having them confirmed, assuring their pastor that the children have remained true to Christian teaching despite their compulsory acknowledgment of atheistic materialism.

The view is often heard in the West that East Berlin youths today follow red flags as readily as they once followed brown flags during Hitler’s time. Nothing is more misleading than this oversimplified generalization. Old Communist officials have often complained to me that they are helpless in dealing with the problem of skeptical cynical, and hypocritical young people who have learned the formulas of Marxism-Leninism by heart without believing in them. Lip service to socialism has to be paid as a means of admission to more advanced schools. College students especially, according to veteran Communists, accept state allowances and other aid as a matter of course and carry on a game of playacting with the Party. The Communist regime itself, whose leading figures were dishonest in their treatment of the de-Stalinization problem, bears the chief responsibility for this state of affairs. For many young people who had believed in Stalin, the dethronement of the dictator destroyed a complete world. Ulbricht, however, dismissed the matter with a few cynical remarks. I have gained the impression, on the basis of long observation, that the regime has not succeeded in really winning the majority of youth to Communism and the collective way of life — which is all the more surprising since totalitarianism has been the rule in East Germany without interruption for thirty years, ever since the establishment of Hitler’s rule of force, in turn replaced by the Red dictatorship. There was no breathing space for youth between the two, no possibility of taking part in any kind of truly democratic life.

No doubt the Wall solved some of Ulbricht’s problems. So long as the road to West Berlin was open and a gap existed in the barbed-wire border running clear through Europe, East Berlin Communists could not systematically exploit the labor potential available to them, and the whole economic planning system was vitiated accordingly. During my visits to East Berlin and the Soviet zone prior to August 13, 1961, state officials repeatedly told me that so long as people could go to West Berlin, the Communist state would never flourish, since visitors to West Berlin were corrupt and only paid lip service to Communism. Now that the Wall is up it seems that the Communist Party continues to be confronted by the same basic popular psychological-political situation. The Communists may have stopped the refugee flow, but they have not won the heads and hearts of the people.