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Labor Action, 13 September 1948


Eugene Keller

German Workers and the Berlin Conflict


From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 37, 13 September 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“It seems that the greatest strength, the greatest resolution, is in the working class sectors. Here are people with terribly little to lose, whichever way the political battle goes. But it is these people, in mean shattered streets, festooned with drying laundry, who speak out, who cheer the orators. It is among them that the realization of what they are doing in defying the Russians is fermenting new visions of the future. ... In these districts you meet many who say: ‘I am a Marxist but not a Communist. What is Communism today? Another kind of Russian imperialism, not a working class movement.’ Or those who say: ‘Yes, I am a Communist but not a Stalinist. Only stupid Germans believe that Russia today is a Communist state. Certainly, I still see hope in Communism, but not in Russian Stalinism.’ ... There is a current of hope running through these people today ...” – Drew Middleton in the New York Times Magazine, August 15.


The imperialist tug-of-war over Britain has obscured the militant and courageous struggle the Berlin workers, in their vast majority, have put up against the Stalinists.

Last June, the introduction by the Western powers of currency reform into their zones in Western Germany gave the Russians a pretext for shutting down all supply lines into Berlin. The unchallenged control of Berlin is, to them, a political objective whose capture is a necessary first step in the Stalinist political control of and eventual imperialist domination over the German masses. For Berlin remains the political heart of Germany, and more particularly the heart of the German working class with its rich socialist traditions. The best working class cadres in present-day Germany reside in Berlin.

Much at Stake

Furthermore, if the Stalinists gain possession of the city, if they are able to atomize its working class, they will have made a great step forward in their campaign (which is, for the present, somewhat abated) for their brand of German unity. As pointed out previously in these columns, unity and independence remain the fundamental political issues among the most decisive sectors of German society. The Anglo-Americans have, with their one-sided introduction of currency reform, consummated the division of Germany and thereby given conclusive evidence that, whatever their spokesmen may profess “officially,” their actual policy does not allow for a reconstituted united Germany. (For example, it is no coincidence that the more reactionary and separatist elements of the Christian-Democratic Union or Party are dominant in the deliberations preceding the convening of the “parliamentary assembly,” scheduled for this fall and charged with creating a de facto Western German state and its basic law.)

The struggle for the city will decide questions far more important than matters of prestige. It is bound to affect Germany’s and thereby, of course, Europe’s future. Those sections of the various foreign offices of the West which favor withdrawal from Berlin on the superficially correct ground that the city is of no practical importance in any sense to the West, have not gained in influence up to now.

Undoubtedly, the position of the Western powers in Berlin would be nearly untenable if the population of the city were as eager to be rid of them (under the present specific circumstances) as the Stalinists make believe it is. The rallies which the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been calling over the past two months have been attended by scores of thousands of workers who evidenced a stubborn militancy in defying the Stalinists and their Russian mentors.

The Social Democratic leadership has been the main spokesman of the Berlin workers in their struggle. In voicing the latter’s protest against the blockade by which the Russians endanger the vital supplies of the city, as well as in their demands upon the Western powers that they continue to occupy the city, these spokesmen have, perhaps, distorted the spirit in which protests and demands have been made. Their reliance upon and subservience to the Western powers has often been evident.

Russian Strategy

In the Russian design, the blockade of the city was to be the prelude to its conquest – a rather obvious case of economically blackmailing the official city, labor and industrial bodies into the Soviet fold. The blockade remains the Russians’ principle weapon, at least until the city’s political situation is consolidated to their advantage. To this end they proceeded to split or force the split of such city agencies as the police and the food and coal allocations. offices. They took full advantage of the currency dilemma the Western powers found themselves in. The latter obviously had no intention of tying their sectors of the city to the economy of Western Germany and what benefits it will derive from Marshall Plan aid. Failing to come to an agreement with the Russians on four-power issuance of Eastern Zone currency in the city, they had to issue their own currency, which, however, they restricted to 25 per cent of Eastern Zone currency circulation, for the simple reason stated above. This made their sectors dependent upon the Russians for 75 per cent of their currency.

The Russians made issuance of this currency, which includes both specie and credit instruments, contingent upon the affiliation of all industrial and commercial firms to the Greater Berlin Trade Commission, an economic body controlled by them and designed to bring the city’s economic life under their tutelage. Obviously, the power of extending or withholding credit is the power of life and. death over any concern as well as, indirectly and under the specific circumstances, over the workers and their organizations. (It is this control over currency which in the past week has been reported as being the major subject of the Moscow negotiations.)

Meanwhile, the Berlin Stalinists, bearers of Russian policy among the population, have become somewhat more aggressive and have begun what appears like a series of mob actions, such as the recent storming of the City Hall (located in the Soviet sector where police gave “passive” support to the action) which forced the discontinuance of the City Assembly sessions. Since these actions are bound to be repeated, they forced the relocation of the Assembly in the Western sectors.

Stalinist Strength

Needless to say, the Stalinists claim to be fighting for the population’s “democratic rights.” The degree of popular support they enjoy, however, may be judged by the October 1946 election returns. Out of an electorate of which 84 per cent (an enormous percentage) voted, 49 per cent of the ballots went to the Social Democrats and a mere 19 per cent to the Stalinist front, the Socialist Unity party. Moreover, the former have boldly demanded renewed elections to challenge the Stalinists’ fake claims of popular support.

It may also be judged by the kind of response they get when they call for demonstrations as compared to the Social Democrats. The Stalinists must exert the same type of pressure and must offer the same bribes as the Nazis once did to get workers to attend a rally, whereas the Social Democrats can depend on almost spontaneous response.

The Stalinists do not, however, as a matter of practical politics, depend upon the politically advanced sections of the working class for a viable mass basis. The type of social layers they have succeeded and continue to attract is evidenced by incidents such as the brutal beating and Jew-baiting of Jeannette Wolff, a leader of the SPD who spent many years in concentration camps, by young Stalinist hoodlums. It is even more evident in the ominous threat made by Herman Schlimme, chief of those Berlin trade unions under Stalinist control, to the city assembly, that “it would have to deal with the 600,000 members of the Communist Youth Front.”

Struggle Indicated

The German Stalinists have large and well-disciplined youth organizations in the Eastern zone and Berlin. The youth has many special advantages. It has greatly expanded educational opportunities, so that, for example, at the universities, at which in the past only students of middle class origin were financially, etc., able to study, youth of working class antecedents is at par with or predominates over the former. The managerial personnel of the industries in the Soviet zone is to a large extent composed of former workers. (In individual plants they average 48 per cent of the total managerial personnel; in the administrative hierarchy – peak organizations, etc., – 27 per cent.) This is an extremely important consideration in giving a perspective to the energetic young worker.

In thus building a mass base among the youth of the Eastern zone, the Stalinists are creating a potential magnet for the youth and younger war veterans of the Western areas. Since these are the most vigorous of the discontented elements in Germany, they pose as a major threat to the German socialist movement unless the latter proves capable of giving them a worthwhile perspective for their future.

Such a perspective would have nothing in common with achieving Schumacher’s and his follow bureaucrats’ pipe dreams of a German Social Democratic government along lines of the wonderful and well-fed British Labor Party. It would have something in common with a fight for the genuine unity of Germany to which the Social Democratic leadership has given no more than lip service; and with a fight for the socialization of the industries of Western Germany along lines truly beneficial to the rehabilitation of Europe, and not with a view to creating a gold mine of little functionary’s posts for the purpose of better service to the “democratic” imperialists.

All the conditions of their existence dictate to the German workers that they must struggle, and they have thus far amply proved their will to do so under terribly adverse circumstances. Whether or not they will eventually fall victim to Stalinism depends to a large degree upon the speed with which they are able to create a capable leadership from their midst.

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