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75 Years Ago – The End of World War II in Europe, East & West; March-May 1945: The Battle for Berlin & Eastern Europe.   Leave a comment

The Collapse of the Reich:

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The final year of the war in Germany saw state lawlessness and terror institutionalised within the Reich. The People’s Court set up in Berlin to try cases of political resistance, presided over by Roland Freisler, sat ‘in camera’, while the prosecutors bullied prisoners into confessing political crimes, as in the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. In February 1945 the courtroom was demolished in a bomb attack and Freisler killed. In the last weeks of the war, the SS and Party extremists took final revenge on prisoners and dissidents. Thousands were murdered as Allied armies approached. Thousands more died in the final bomb attacks against almost undefended cities, crammed with refugees and evacuees. Ordinary Germans became obsessed with sheer survival. There was no ‘stab in the back’ from the home front, which Hitler had always used to explain defeat in 1918. Soldiers and civilians alike became the victims of a final orgy of terror from a Party machine which had traded on intimidation and violence from its inception.

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Above: Berlin, 1945

Crossing the Rhine:

By the beginning of March, Hitler must surely have known, as Göring had intimated to Albert Speer in February, that the Reich he had created was doomed. The German front in the west cracked. For the final assault on Germany, the western Allies had eighty-five divisions, twenty-three of which were armoured, against a defending force of twenty-six divisions. In the east, the Soviet forces fielded over fourteen thousand tanks against  4,800 German and put 15,500 aircraft in the air against just fifteen hundred. A series of carefully organised military punches brought Soviet armies to within thirty-five miles of Berlin. On the 2nd, criticising Rundstedt’s proposal to move men south from the sector occupied by the 21st Army Group, Hitler perceptively pointed out: It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another. 

Five days later, an armoured unit under Brigadier-General William M. Hoge from the 9th Armored Division of Hodge’s US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen intact, and Eisenhower established a bridgehead on the east of the Rhine. Hitler’s response was to sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west and replace him with Kesselring. The latter was handed a poisoned chalice in this appointment, with American troops swarming over the bridge into Germany, and Patton crossing on 22 March, telegraphing Bradley to say, For God’s sake tell the world we’re across … I want the world to know the 3rd Army made it before Monty. 

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Montgomery’s crossing of the Rhine, codenamed ‘Operation Plunder’, watched by Churchill and Brooke (above), established a six-mile-deep bridgehead within forty-eight hours.

Poland & The Red Army Marshals:

Also in March, having tricked them into attending a meeting, the Soviets arrested and then imprisoned former members of the Polish underground council. Both the American and the British governments found it hard to reconcile the oppressive Soviet actions with the business-like leader they had seen at Yalta. So they fell back once more on what had by now become their standard excuse. Stalin himself was trustworthy; it was the other powerful but shadowy figures in the Kremlin who were preventing the Yalta agreement being honoured. Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen, the prominent American diplomat and Soviet expert, recorded that by May 1945 the view of those in the State Department who had been at Yalta was that it was the ‘opposition’ that Stalin had encountered ‘inside the Soviet Government’ on his return from the conference that was responsible for the problems. Even those in Moscow deduced that it was ‘Red Army Marshals’ who were somehow trying to pull the strings in the Kremlin. But there was no-one behind Stalin pulling the strings. His occasional inconsistency of approach, including the tactic of sending a conciliatory telegram simultaneously with an accusatory one, was deliberately designed to keep the West guessing. In reality, his overall strategy was clear enough: He had always wanted the states neighbouring the Soviet Union to be ‘friendly’ according to his definition of the word, which meant eliminating anyone whom the Soviets considered a threat.

But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt would recognise that Stalin was simply being consistent. To begin with, each of them had had too much political capital wrapped up in the idea that they could deal with the Soviet leader. Laurence Rees has pointed out:

Each of the two Western leaders came to believe that they could form a ‘special’ bond with Stalin. Both were wrong. Stalin had no ‘special bond’ with anyone but in their attempts to charm him they had missed the fact that he had, in his individual way, charmed them instead. 

It was Churchill who felt most upset at the perceived Soviet breaches of Yalta, something that bemused Stalin. After all, Churchill had let the Soviets have a free hand in Romania without any problems, just as the Soviets had let the British use force to quash the revolution in Greece. For Stalin, that meant that Churchill supported the concept of ‘spheres of influence’. He thought that Churchill’s protest over Poland, regardless of the precise wording of the Yalta agreement, was a case of double standards on Churchill’s part. For the British PM, however, as he wrote in March, in a lengthy and emotional telegram to Roosevelt, Poland was the…

… test case between us and the Russians of the meaning which is attached to the such terms as Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government and free and unfettered elections. … He (Molotov) clearly wants to make a farce of consultations with the non-Lublin Poles, which means that the new government in Poland would be merely the present one dressed up to look more respectable to the ignorant, and also wants to prevent us from seeing the liquidations and deportations that are going on, and all the restof the game of setting up a totalitarian régime before elections are held, and even before a new government is set up. As to the upshoot of all this, if we do not get things right now it will soon be seen by the world that you and I, by putting our signatures to the Crimean settlement, have underwritten a fraudulent prospectus.

Roosevelt, whose telegrams were now being drafted by his advisers, Byrnes or Leahy, replied to Churchill’s message on 11 March, saying that the ‘only difference’ between the British and Americans on this key issue was ‘one of tactics’; Roosevelt’s ‘tactics’ were not to escalate their protests over the issue before diplomatic channels in Moscow had been exhausted. But this attempt to calm Churchill down failed, as he replied in even more emotional terms on 13 March:

Poland has lost her frontier. Is she now to lose her freedom? That is the question which will undoubtedly have to be fought out in Parliament and in public here. I do not wish to reveal a divergence between the British and the United States governments, but it would certainly be necessary for me to make it clear that we are in the presence of a great failure and an utter breakdown of what was settled at Yalta, but that we British have not the necessary strength to carry the matter further and the limits of our capacity to act have been reached.

Roosevelt, convinced that Churchill was over-reacting, subsequently pointed out that the agreement at Yalta could be read in such a way that Stalin could deflect many complaints. So why was Churchill so upset? Churchill, unlike Roosevelt, re-elected the previous year, had an election coming up, and the British electorate would not take kindly to accusations that Poland, the country over which Britain had gone to war in September 1939, had finally been the victim of wholesale betrayal. Moreover, Churchill’s own expansive rhetoric about Poland and Stalin meant that this was no ordinary issue of foreign policy, but a principle that had come to define the latter part of his war-time premiership. Roosevelt, although gravely ill, was only just starting his new term in office for the Democratic Party, and so was unburdened by such electoral concerns. But Churchill had overplayed the emotional rhetoric, and on 15 March Roosevelt sent him a cold reply:

I cannot but be concerned at the views you expressed… we have been merely discussing the most effective tactics and I cannot agree that we are confronted with a breakdown of the Yalta agreement until we have made the effort to overcome the obstacles incurred in the negotiations at Moscow.

Retreat from the Oder & Roosevelt’s departure:

Hitler visited the Eastern Front on 12th March, at Castle Freienwalde on the River Oder, where he told his commanders that Each day and each hour is precious because he was about to unleash a new secret weapon, without disclosing its nature. This was just another morale-boosting lie, since he had run out of rockets, the last V-2 landing a fortnight later and the new U-boats were also far from seaworthy. By mid-March, he had found a new scapegoat to blame for the coming victory of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik hordes’; it was all the fault of the German ‘Volk’ who had betrayed him by losing the war. By that stage, he positively invited the retribution that the ‘Aryan race’ was about to undergo at the hands of the Russians, believing that it had been the people’s weakness as human beings that had led to the disaster, rather than his own strategic errors. He even said as much, at least according to Albert Speer’s subsequent testimony:

If the war should be lost, then the ‘Volk’ will also be lost. This fate is unavoidable. It is not necessary to take into consideration the bases the ‘Volk’ needs for the continuation of its most primitive existence. On the contrary, it is better to destroy these things yourself. After all, the ‘Volk’ would then have proved the weaker nation, and the future would exclusively belong to the stronger nation of the east. What would remain after this fight would in any event be inferior subjects, since all the good ones would have fallen. 

He thus repudiated his own people as being unworthy of him. The mere survival of the German people would, for Hitler, have conferred an unacceptable Untermensch status on them, and the utter destruction of them would, he believed, be preferable to this and to domination by Stalin. He had only ever referred to the Soviets as ‘barbarians’ and ‘primitives’ and on 19 March the Führer gave his orders that…

All military transport, communication facilities, industrial establishments, and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory that could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the forseeable future for the continuance of the war, be destroyed.

These orders included the destruction of all factories and food stores on all fronts. Fortunately, these orders were largely ignored by Speer and the other Nazi officials. If they had been carried out to the letter, the German people could hardly have survived the winter of 1945/6, which was harsh enough for them as it was. Yet, despite his decision not to act on this one particular order, it was Speer who had commanded the vast army of slave labourers that produced German armaments in barbarous conditions.

Meanwhile, Churchill realised that he had gone too far in his ‘quarrel’ with Roosevelt over Poland and tried to charm his way out of the situation. On 17 March, he wrote to the President:

I hope that the rather numerous telegrams I have to send you on on so many of our difficult and intertwined affairs are not becoming a bore to you. Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world so long as I am one of the builders.

Roosevelt did not reply but later acknowledged in an interchange on the 30th that he had received Churchill’s ‘very pleasing’ private message. But Roosevelt did get angry with Stalin when the latter accused the Americans of deception by holding a meeting with German officers in Berne in Switzerland about a possible surrender in Italy. Stalin saw this as a reason for both the strengthening of German resistance against the Red Army in the East and the swift progress of the Western Allies through Germany. Roosevelt was furious that Stalin had effectively accused him of lying, writing to him on 4 April that I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations. … In his reply, Stalin immediately moderated his attack. But even though he was prepared to give way on this issue, he would not move an inch over Poland. On 7 April, he wrote to Roosevelt, agreeing that matters on the Polish question have reached a dead end. But Stalin was clear that the reason for this was that the Western Allies had departed from the principles of the Crimea Conference. The whole debate about Poland between the Western Allies and Stalin for the last three years and more were now plain for all to see. Stalin stated not just that the Lublin Poles should make up the bulk of the new government, but also that any other Poles who were invited to take part should be really striving to establish friendly relations between Poland and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviets themselves would vet all the applicants for such invitations. Stalin justified this in writing:

The Soviet Government insists on this because of the blood of the Soviet troops abundantly shed for the liberation of Poland and the fact that in the course of the last thirty years the territory of Poland has been used by the enemy twice for attack upon Russia – all this obliges the Soviet Government to strive that the relations between the Soviet Union and Poland be friendly.

Roosevelt recognised that, given the loose language of the Yalta agreement, there was little the Western Allies could do apart from to protest, and there were limits to that given the need for continued co-operation both in Europe and the Far East. Roosevelt left the White House on 30 March 1945 for the health resort of Warm Springs in Georgia, where his office was filled with documents about the forthcoming conference in San Francisco that would initiate the United Nations. Right to the end of his life, Roosevelt never lost his focus on his vision of the UN. Alongside this grand ideal, the detailed question of Soviet infractions in Poland must have seemed to him relatively unimportant. On 12 April he finally fell victim to a cerebral haemorrhage. Churchill paid tribute to the President in the House of Commons but chose not to attend his funeral, perhaps a final statement of disappointment that Roosevelt had not supported him in the last weeks over the protests to be made to Stalin.

The Exodus from the Baltic & the Berne talks:

Meanwhile, on 31 March, Stalin had ordered the assault on the capital. Both the planning and conduct of this final battle in the war in Europe demonstrate further signs of the disintegrating alliance with Stalin. The planning for the operation was conducted at the end of March and the beginning of April against the background of Stalin’s suspicion that the Western Allies were planning some kind of separate peace with Germany via the Berne talks. Stalin met Marshal Zhukov, the most prominent of the Soviet commanders, in the Kremlin late in the evening on 29 March and had handed an intelligence document which suggested that the Western Allies were in discussion with Nazi agents. The Soviet leader remarked that Roosevelt wouldn’t break the Yalta agreement but Churchill was capable of anything. Stalin had just received a telegram from General Eisenhower which, much to Churchill’s subsequent annoyance, confirmed that the Western Allies were not pushing forward immediately to Berlin. For Stalin, this was evidence of Allied deceit: if they had said that they were not moving to take Berlin, then they clearly were. In the spirit of saying the opposite of what one really intended, Stalin sent a telegram to Eisenhower on 1 April that stated that he agreed that the capture of Berlin should not be a priority since the city had lost its former strategic importance.

He may well also have written this because he still had other priorities since there was still fighting taking place across the broader front from the Baltic to the Balkans. It was extraordinary, considering that the war’s outcome had been in doubt since the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into 1945. As many as four hundred thousand Germans were killed in the first five months of 1945. General Schörner’s newly re-created Army Group Centre, for example, was still fighting around the town of Küstrin on the Oder in April 1945. Similarly, the 203,000 men representing the remains of Army Group North, renamed Army Group Kurland, kept fighting into May, showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness and retaining military cohesion until the moment that they were marched off into a ten-year captivity spent rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union that they had destroyed.

Following their seizure of Budapest on 13 February, the Red Army advanced towards Vienna. The Sixth Panzer Army halted the Russian advance down the Hungarian valleys into Austria for as long as its fuel could last out during March 1945, but Vienna finally fell to Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on 13 April. Hitler’s headquarters had by then adopted a policy of lying to the army group commanders, as the commander of Army Group South discovered when he received orders to hold Vienna at all costs. Rendulic was given to telling his troops:

When things look blackest and you don’t know what to do, beat your chest and say: “I’m a National Socialist; that moves mountains!”

Since, on that occasion, this didn’t seem to work, he asked the OKW how the continuation or termination of the war was envisaged, only to receive the answer that the war was to be ended by political measures. This was clearly untrue, and Rendulic surrendered near Vienna in May. In the first five months of 1945, he had commanded Army Group North in East Prussia and Army Group Centre in January, Army Group Kurland in March and Army Group South in Austria in April. After the fall of Vienna, the Soviet troops met up with American and British troops at the River Enns and in Styria. After that, the advance of the Red Army from Pressburg to Prague led to the Czech uprising against the German occupation of Prague on 5 May.

In the north on the Baltic coast, the Germans were in a dire situation because of Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group Kurland (formerly Army Group North) in Latvia. Yet with both  Zhukov and Rokossovsky bearing down on more than half a million trapped on the Kurland peninsula, the German Navy – at tremendous cost – pulled off an evacuation that was far larger even than that at Dunkirk. No fewer than four army divisions and 1.5 million civilian refugees were taken from the Baltic ports of Danzig, Gotenhafen, Königsberg, Pillau, and Kolberg by the Kriegsmarine, and brought back to Germany. Under constant air attack, which claimed every major ship except the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Nürnberg, the German Navy had pulled off a tremendous coup. The Soviet Navy was, surprisingly, a grave disappointment throughout the second world war, though one of its submarines, the S-13, had managed to sink the German liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea on 31 January 1945, and around nine thousand people – almost half of them children – perished, representing the greatest loss of life on one ship in maritime history.

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How the West was won (but almost lost to the V-I):

Nevertheless, in the west, when 325,000 men of Army Group B were caught in the Ruhr pocket and forced to surrender, Field Marshal Walther Model dissolved his army group and escaped into a forest. Having recently learnt that he was to be indicted for war crimes involving the deaths of 557,000 people in Latvian concentration camps, and after hearing an insanely optimistic radio broadcast by Goebbels on the Führer’s birthday, he shot himself on 21 April. A few days earlier, Churchill had proposed a triple proclamation from the Big Three, which now included the new US President, Harry S. Truman, …

… giving warning to Germany not to go on resisting. If (the Germans) carry on resistance past sowing time then there will be famine in Germany next winter … we take no responsibility for feeding Germany.

Churchill was advocating the most extreme measures, but like several others, he put forward this was not adopted. Despite encountering some fierce resistance, the Allied victory in the west was not in doubt in the minds of rational Germans. For the most optimistic Germans, however, Goebbels’ propaganda about the so-called ‘wonder weapons’ kept their hopes alive, but on 29 March, six days after Montgomery’s Second Army and the US Ninth Army had crossed the Rhine, anti-aircraft gunners in Suffolk shot down the last of the V-I flying bombs launched against Britain in the Second World War. Called the Vergeltungswaffe-Ein (Vengeance Weapon-I), they were nicknamed ‘doodle-bugs’ or ‘buzz bombs’ by the Britons at whom they were targetted. The V-I was certainly a horrific weapon, powered by a pulse-jet mechanism using petrol and compressed air, it was twenty-five feet four inches long with a sixteen-foot wingspan, and weighed 4,750 pounds. Its warhead was made up of 1,874 pounds of Amatol explosive, a fearsome mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. Its sister-rocket, the V-2, was equally fiendish, but with the Luftwaffe unable to escort bombers over England due to British fighter protection, the rockets were a sign of Hitler’s desperation rather than his strength.

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As the V-I’s maximum range was  130 miles, London and south-east England were its main targets, and they suffered heavily. Launched from 125-foot concrete ramps and flown by autopilot from a preset compass, the flying bomb contained in its nose propeller a log which measured the distance flown. Once it reached the correct range, the elevators in the wings were fully deflected and it dived, cutting out the engine as it did so. This created a sinister change in the noise created which signified that they were about to fall on those below, bringing a terrifying certainty of an imminent, devastating explosion. It has been estimated that eighty per cent of V-I’s landed within an eight-mile radius of their targets. Between 13 June 1944 and 29 March 1945, more than 13,000 V-I bombs were launched against Britain. They flew too low for heavy anti-aircraft guns to be able to hit them very often, but too high for the light guns to reach them. It was therefore left to the RAF’s radar-guided fighters to intercept them and bring them down. As the Normandy launch-sites were shut down by the invading British Army, some of the V-I’s were launched from the modified Heinkel bombers. In all, more than twenty-four thousand Britons were casualties of the vicious ‘secret weapon’, with 5,474 deaths. Whereas the Luftwaffe had long-since confined its raids to night-time when its bombers could be cloaked in darkness, the pilotless bombs came all through the day and night.

The V-I bombs could also devastate a huge area over a quarter of a square mile, but as more and more were brought down by a combination of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft fire and the fighters it soon became clear that Hitler, who had hoped that the V-I’s might destroy British morale and force Churchill’s government to sue for peace, was wrong about the weapon’s potential. He then transferred his hopes to the V-2, devised in Pomerania as a supersonic ballistic missile, flying faster than the speed of sound, which meant that the victims heard was the sound of its detonation. It was impossible to intercept as it flew at 3,600 mph, ten times faster than the Spitfire. With production at full capacity in the autumn of 1944, Hitler had hoped that London could be bombed into submission before the Allies could invade Germany. Yet it was largely his own fault that the V-2 came on stream so late, so that the first rocket to land on Britain didn’t do so until September 1944 in Chiswick, west London, having been fired from a converted lorry in the Hague. Over the five months of the campaign, 1,359 rockets were fired at London, killing 2,754 and injuring 6,523. Antwerp was also heavily hit by the weapons, resulting in thirty thousand casualties. It has also been estimated that up to twenty thousand people died in the horrific slave-labour conditions while manufacturing the rockets. Life in the factories, which were scattered all over Germany, was nasty, brutish and short: apart from the horrific accidents, there was mass starvation, disease and mistreatment. The concentration of labour, raw materials and technological research engaged in the production of the V-weapons was in no way justified by their results, and their deployment was too late to change the outcome of the war.

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From mid-March, the military situation slipped completely out of Hitler’s control: The Rhine front had collapsed as soon as the Allies had challenged it, and they then swept forward to the Elbe. At the end of March, Hitler again dismissed perhaps the best of his battlefield commanders, Heinz Guderian, and replaced him with the utterly undistinguished General Hans Krebs. Other fanatical Nazi generals such as Schörner and Rendulic were promoted, not so much for their military competence as for their ideological loyalty.

Planning for Nuremberg:

How would the maniacal genocide of these dedicated Nazis be punished after the war? During the ‘lull’ in the fighting on the Western front, On 12 April, at 3.30 p.m. the British War Cabinet discussed how to deal with German war criminals. Antony Eden set out his policy for a large-scale trial. Preferring the summary execution without trial of the senior Nazis, Stafford Cripps argued that either the Allies would be criticised for not giving Hitler a real trial, or they would ‘give him a chance to harangue’ with the result being ‘neither proper trial nor political act’ but ‘the worst of both worlds’. Churchill suggested a ‘Trial of the Gestapo as a body first followed by proceedings against selected members. The Americans, however, had made it clear that they would not agree to ‘penalties without trial’ and Stalin also insisted on trials. The historian in Churchill was unconvinced, and he advanced a ‘Bill of Attainder, not impeachment’, such as that used to execute Charles I’s advisor the Earl of Strafford in 1640 without the need for a trial.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, believed that a ‘mock trial’ was objectionable, and it would be better to declare that they would put them all to death. Churchill agreed, saying that the trial would be a farce. Turning to the wording of the indictments and the defendants’ right to be given access to defence barristers, the PM argued:

All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. … they should be treated as outlaws. We should however seek agreement of our Allies … I would take no responsibility for a trial, even though the United States wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws, if no Ally wants them.

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Above: A scene from the Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals held between November 1945 and October 1946. Twenty-two principal defendants were tried, and Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, was tried ‘in absentia’. Göring (seated, left) kept up a rigorous defence and admitted his support for Hitler, but not his guilt. He committed suicide on the night of his execution when another nine were hanged. Bormann was condemned to death but never caught.  

But Field Marshal Smuts thought that Hitler’s summary execution might ‘set a dangerous precedent’ and that an ‘Act of State’ was needed to legalise Hitler’s execution. Churchill added that allowing Hitler to right to make judicial arguments against his own execution would ape judicial procedure but also bring it into contempt, and Morrison interjected that it would also ensure that he would become a martyr in Germany. Churchill concluded the discussion by saying that Lord Simon should liaise with the Americans and Russians to establish a list of grand criminals and get them to agree that these may be shot when taken in the field. In the end, this expedient was not adopted, and instead, the long process of putting the Senior Nazis on trial was established by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (featured above), which for all its drawbacks did lead to justice being seen to be done.

The Final Assault on Berlin:

On the Eastern front, the Russians didn’t move until mid-April. As he opened the last planning session for the capture of Berlin, Stalin said I have the impression that a very heavy battle lies ahead of us. Yet he had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft to throw into this enormous final assault, and on Monday 16 April around twenty-two thousand guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells at the German lines, which were also blinded by a mass of searchlights shone at them. Zhukov’s troops launched a massive attack on the Seelow Heights outside Berlin, and within four days they had broken through this last major defensive position in front of the capital. The Russian artillery gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fire, in order to stop their eardrums bursting. After a massive bombardment of the far bank, they crossed the Oder and advanced from the Neisse River. The leading Soviet columns joined at Nauen and encircled Berlin by 24 April. In a move calculated both to speed the advance and deny Zhukov the glory of overall command, Stalin had announced to his generals that he was splitting the task of capturing Berlin between two Soviet armies. It was to be a race for the capital between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konyev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Mahmud Gareev, then a major in the headquarters of Soviet 45 Infantry Corps, recalled:

Stalin encouraged an intrigue … When they were drawing the demarcation line between the two fronts in Berlin, Stalin crossed this demarcation line out and said: “Whoever comes to Berlin first, well, let him take Berlin.” This created friction. … You can only guess Stalin was do that no one gets stuck up and thinks he was the particular general who took Berlin. … At the same time he had already begun to think what would happen after the war if Zhukov’s authority grew too big.

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By Hitler’s birthday, the 20th, the Red Army was shelling the German leader’s subterranean refuge, the Führerbunker. For Vladen Anschishkin, a captain in a mortar unit in Zhukov’s Belorussian Front, this was the culmination of years of fighting:

At last it was the end of the war, it was a triumph, and it was like a race, like a long-distance race, the end of the race. I felt really extreme – well, these words did not exist then – but I felt under psychological and emotional pressure. Naturally, I didn’t want to get killed,. This is natural. I didn’t want to be wounded. I wanted to live to the victory, but it was somewhere in the background, and in the foreground were things I had to do, and this state of stress that was in me.

He was sure that the years of brutal warfare had changed him and his comrades:

In the end, in the war itself, people go mad. They become like beasts. You shouldn’t consider a soldier an intellectual. Even when an intellectual becomes a soldier, and he sees the blood and the intestines and the brains, then the instinct of self-preservation begins to work. … And he loses all the humanitarian features inside himself. A soldier turns into a beast.

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The battle for Berlin was one of the bloodiest and most desperate of the war. Within six days, the Red Army was inside Berlin, but desperate fighting in the streets and rubble there cut down their advantages and increased those of the Germans. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas, and hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank weapon that was very accurate at short range. Vladen Anchishkin recalled:

So many of our people died – a great many, a mass. … It was a real non-stop assault, day and night. The Germans also decided to hold out to the end. The houses were high and with very thick foundations and basements and very well fortified. … And our regiment found itself in terrible confusion and chaos, and in such a chaos it’s very easy to touch somebody else with your bayonet. Ground turns upside-down, shells and bombs explode. 

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Above: The ruins of Berlin with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. The city was hit by twenty-four major bomb attacks which destroyed one-third of all housing and reduced the population from 4.3 to 2.6 million as the bombed-out families moved to safer parts of the country. The Soviet offensive in April reduced large stretches of central Berlin to rubble.

Within the chaos of the battle, the rivalry between Zhukov and Konyev was intense. Anatoly Mereshko, an officer with Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, was ordered to find out just which Soviet forces had captured a particular suburb of Berlin first:

I got into my car with machine gunners. Rode up there and talked to the people in the tanks. One said: “I am from the Belorussian Front”, another: “I am from the Ukrainian Front.” “Who came here first?” I asked. “I don’t know,” they replied. I asked civilians: “Whose tanks got here fist?” They just said: “Russian tanks.” It was difficult enough for a military enough for a military man to tell the difference between the tanks. So when I came back I reported that Zhukov’s tanks got their first and Konyev’s tanks came later. So the celebration fire-works in Moscow were in his name.

In the heat of the battle, it was also clear that the race between Zhukov and Konyev had not helped the soldiers to know just which forces were friendly and which were not. Vladen Anschishken recalled:

They were rivals… There was rivalry between two fronts. There was nothing criminal about it… But this rivalry in Berlin did not always have the positive effect because sometimes soldiers didn’t know who was where. … This was on the borders between the fronts, and a lot of people died only because of rivalry between two fronts.

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Despite the difficulties, the Red Army fought with immense conviction in Berlin, fuelled by the sense that they were on a mission of retribution. We are proud to have made it to the beast’s lair, one soldier wrote home: We will take revenge, revenge for all our sufferings. Taking overall command of the great final offensive against Berlin itself, Marshal Zhukov gave up his 1st Belorussian Front to Vasily Sokolovsky and took over an army group combining both that and Konev’s front, reaching Berlin on 22 April 1945 and encircling it three days later.

The Capture & Capitulation of the Capital:

On Wednesday 25 April, units from the US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and from the 1st Ukrainian Front met up at Torgau on the Elbe.

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Although criticised since for his desire to leave the fight to the Soviets, Eisenhower was correct in the assumption that there would be heavy losses in the struggle. It is perfectly possible that Simpson’s US Ninth Army, which was on the Elbe only sixty miles west of Berlin on 11 April, eleven days before the Russians reached it, could have attacked the city first. It had crossed a hundred and twenty miles in the previous ten days, and the Germans were not putting up the level of resistance in the west that they were in the east. But, despite the complaints of Montgomery and Patton that the Western Allies should be taking Berlin ahead of the Russians, the Western Allies did not have to suffer the vast number of casualties in the final desperate struggle, though they would probably have fought it in a less costly manner. Bradley’s assessment, made for Eisenhower, was that a Western attack on Berlin would cost a hundred thousand casualties, which he considered a pretty stiff price for a prestige objective. Konyev later stated that the Red Army lost eight hundred tanks in the battle for Berlin, and Russian casualties amounted to 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded. These figures could have been smaller had Stalin not insisted on taking Berlin as soon as possible, regardless of the human cost involved. They also include all the casualties incurred in the fighting from the Baltic to the Czech border. It has been estimated that twenty-five thousand died within the capital itself.

Despair, Suicide & Resistance:

Meanwhile, in his bunker beneath the Old Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse, Hitler continued to indulge himself in fantasies about the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met. Although he has often been described as moving phantom armies around on maps in the bunker and making hollow declarations of coming victory, this was in part the fault of the sub-standard communications centre. Unlike the well-appointed Wolfschanze, his Berlin bunker had only a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and one radio-telephone which depended on a balloon suspended over the Old Chancellery. Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German. Hitler decided to stay where he was. He held his mid-day conferences, as usual, charting the progress of the Russians across the city block by block. He also composed his political testament, denouncing his oldest friends as traitors all and railed against the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ that he believed had brought him down.

The last time Hitler appeared in semi-public was on his fifty-sixth and last birthday on 20 April, when he congratulated a line-up of Hitler Youth who had distinguished themselves as fighters. One of these children, Arnim Lehmann, recalls the Führer’s weak voice and rheumy eyes as he squeezed their ears and told them how brave they were being. The German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse in the south of Berlin and the Eleventh Army under General Felix Steiner in the north would now try to defend a city with no gas, water, electricity or sanitation. When Steiner, who was outnumbered ten to one, failed to counter-attack to prevent Berlin’s encirclement, he was subjected to a tirade from Hitler. The last direct order to be personally signed by the Führer in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Schörner at 04:50 on 24 April and reads:

I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honorouble fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest. I believe that in this way I shall be rendering Germany the best service. Fot the rest, every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin. You can therefore help decisively, by pushing northwards as early as possible. With kind regards, Yours, Adolf Hitler.

The signature, in red pencil, looks remarkably normal, considering the circumstances. Schörner, who had large numbers of men shot for cowardice, was named in Hitler’s will as the new head of the Wehrmacht, but nine days later he deserted his army group and flew off in a small aircraft in civilian clothes to surrender to the Americans. He was handed over to the Russians and kept in captivity until 1954. In all about thirty thousand death sentences for cowardice and desertion were handed down by the Germans on the Eastern Front in the last year of the war, two-thirds of which were carried out.

The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform, and those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattoed on their left arms. It is thought that it was this knowledge of certain death which kept many formations at their post during the dark days of the battles for Berlin, but, just in case, the military police remained vigilant to the last, ready to hang or shoot suspected deserters. Spreading defeatism was also a capital offence; after a short mockery of a trial by the SS or Gestapo, those suspected of it for whatever reason were hanged from the nearest lamp-post, with signs around their necks stating I have hanged because I was too much of a coward to defend the Reich’s capital, or I am a deserter; because of this I will not see the change in destiny or All traitors die like this one. It is thought that at least ten thousand people died in this manner in Berlin – the same as the number of women who died (often by suicide) after having been raped by the Red Army there.

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Above: Two women lie dead after taking cyanide in Leipzig at the end of the war.

Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation. Yet at Berlin, as at Stalingrad, the indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment created fine opportunities for the defenders, of whom the city had eighty-five thousand of all kinds. As well as the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Gestapo contingents, there were several foreign volunteer forces, including French Fascists, and the desperately under-armed ‘Volkssturm’ (home guard) battalions made up of men over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the three thousand Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen, and some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets. The looting, drunkenness, murder and despoilation indulged in by the Red Army in East Prussia, Silesia and elsewhere in the Reich, but especially in Berlin, were responses of soldiers who had marched through devastated Russian towns and cities over the previous twenty months. Max Egremont has written of how…

Red Army troops loathed the neatness they found on the farms and in the towns of East Prussia: the china lined up on the dressers, the spotless housekeeping, the well-fenced fields and sleek cattle.

The Red Army’s ‘Retribution’:

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Above and Below: A Russian photographer captures the smiles of German women at the Brandenburg Gate in defeated Berlin. The Soviet soldiers were ready to claim the spoils of war and seek retribution for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. There were widespread acts of looting and rape, and the latest research shows that as many as two million German women were raped. The other half of the photo (below) shows a Soviet tank.

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The women of Germany were also about to pay a high personal price for the Wehrmacht’s four-year ravaging of Mother Russia. Antony Beevor, the historian of Berlin’s downfall, at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rapes. In Berlin alone, ninety thousand women were raped in the last few days before the city surrendered. As one Red Army veteran joked, he and his comrades raped ‘on a collective basis’. When the Red Army arrived in Dresden, the Soviets committed atrocities in direct view of the house where twenty-two-year-old American, John Noble, lived with his father, who owned a camera factory, and the rest of his family, all of whom were American citizens. Although not imprisoned by the Nazis, they were effectively interned, reporting regularly to the police. Noble recalled how:

In the house next to ours, Soviet troops went in and pulled the women out on the street, had mattresses that they pulled out, and raped the women. The men had to watch, and then the men were shot. Right at the end of our street a woman was tied onto a wagon wheel and was terribly misused. … Of course you had the feeling that you just wanted to stop it, but there was no possibility to do that.

The open abuse of women and the general looting of the city continued for at least three weeks before a semblance of order returned. Even after this period, the Nobles regularly heard reports that women who worked in their camera factory had been assaulted on their journey to and from work. Far from seeking to stop or even discourage rapes and assaults of German women, the Soviet authorities encouraged them as a legitimate and appropriate form of retribution. This was articulated by Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet propagandist, who wrote: Soldiers of the Red Army. German women are yours! The rapes in Germany were on a massive scale, even more so than in Hungary. Around two million were assaulted. In one of the worst examples of atrocity, a Berlin lawyer who had protected his Jewish wife through all the years of Nazi persecution tried to stop Red Army soldiers raped her, but was then shot. As he lay dying, he watched as his wife was gang-raped. Potsdam, just outside Berlin, was devastated and much of it lay in ruins. Ingrid Schüler, who lived in an apartment block within a mile of the proposed site of the forthcoming conference, was seventeen years old when the Red Army arrived in April. She recalled:

My parents hid me. … we were extremely lucky because my mother was not raped. … women were of huge importance to them (the Soviets). That was the worst thing: the rapes. … I can tell you about a baker’s family in our street. The Russians had gone into their house intending to rape the baker’s wife. Her husband, who happened to be at home, stood in front of her trying to protect her and was immediately shot dead. With their passage to the woman clear, she was raped.

The scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Red Army in Germany in the first six months of 1945 was clearly immense. And the motivational factors were obvious as well. Vladen Anchishkin put it this somewhat incomprehensible way:

When you see this German beauty sitting and weeping about the savage Russians who were hurting her, why did she not cry when she was receiving parcels from the Eastern Front?

Only very occasionally, in their letters home, did the soldiers admit what was happening. One Red Army soldier, writing home in February 1945, commented that the fact that the German women did not speak a word of Russian, made the act of rape easier:

You don’t have to persuade them. You just point a Nagan (a type of revolver) and tell them to lie down. Then you do your stuff and go away.

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It was not only German women who suffered in these last few days before the city capitulated and the Reich finally surrendered. Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, even released Soviet female POWs were raped at gunpoint, often by up to a dozen soldiers. Because Order No. 227 had decreed that Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were traitors, gang-rapes of Russian female POWs were permitted, even actually arranged. Age, desirability or any other criteria made virtually no difference. In Dahlem, for instance, Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were raped without pity. The documentary and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. The Red Army, having behaved so heroically on the battlefield, raped the women of Germany as part of their reward, with the active collusion of their officers up to and including Beria and even Stalin himself. Indeed, he explicitly excused their conduct on more than one occasion, seeing it as part of the rights of the conqueror. He asked Marshal Tito in April 1945 about these rights of the ordinary Russian soldier:

What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?… You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal. And it is not ideal, nor can it be … The important thing is that it fights Germans.

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Stalin with Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February.

Some historians have argued that these atrocities, like those committed by the Red Army earlier in the year during the siege of Budapest, must be seen in the overall context of violent retribution on all sides of the war. After all, they claim, for years the Red Army had been fighting an enemy who had announced that they were fighting a ‘war of annihilation’. As well as for the sexual gratification of the soldiers, mass rape was intended as a humiliation and revenge on Germany. If the men of the Wehrmacht had sown the wind in Operation Barbarossa, it was their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who were forced to reap that whirlwind. Yet it is perfectly possible, given events elsewhere the same year, that the Red Army would have brutalised the Germans even if they had not envied their enemies’ prosperity and sought revenge for the terrible acts of war they had exacted during their invasion, occupation and destruction of vast tracts of their ‘motherland’ and its defenders.

It was not the Red Army alone that indulged in the ‘weaponisation’ of rape against civilians. In North Africa and western Europe, the US Army stands indicted of raping an estimated fourteen thousand civilian women between 1942 and 1945. But though these resulted in arrests, convictions and executions (iniquitously of black GIs), nobody was ever executed for raping a German woman. Nor is there any evidence that Russian soldiers were reprimanded for rape, despite the two million cases in one campaign lasting at most three months. It was no doubt in the context of that ‘campaign of retribution’ against both the Wehrmacht and the German civilian population that Vladen Anchiskin later admitted to committing the ultimate act of revenge in Czechoslovakia when he and some of his comrades were fired upon by a group of retreating SS soldiers. All his pent-up hatred burst through into what he himself described as ‘a frenzy’. Once they were captured, he had a number of these soldiers brought in to see him in an apartment block, one by one, for “interrogation”. He stabbed the first man to death, also cutting his throat. He tried to explain his actions:

I was in such a state. … What could I feel? … only one thing, revenge. … I felt, “You wanted to kill me? Now you have it. I waited for this – you were hunting me down for four years. You killed so many of my friends in the rear and on the front, and you were allowed to do that. But here I have the right. … You asked for it.”

Three Suicides, Two Surrenders & a Celebration:

As Soviet forces approached the bunker under the chancellery on 30 April 1945, at about 3.30 p.m, Hitler simultaneously clenched his teeth on a cyanide capsule and shot himself through the temple. When Winston Churchill was told the next day of the German official broadcast stating that Hitler had died fighting with his last breath against Bolshevism, his comment was: Well, I must say he was perfectly right to die like that. Lord Beaverbrook, who was dining with him at the time, observed that the report was obviously untrue. It had taken units as hardened as Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to force their way into the capital of the Reich, which was defended street-by-street all the way up to the Reichstag and the Reich Chancellery. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the hero of Stalingrad, commander of the Eighth Guards Army and now of Soviet forces in central Berlin, recalled the Germans’ attempted capitulation, which took place at his command post on May Day, with the visit of General Hans Krebs, whom Hitler had appointed Chief of the OKH General Staff in Guderian’s place the previous month:

At last, at 03:50 hours, there was a knock at the door, and in came a German general with the Order of the Iron Cross around his neck, and the Nazi swastika on his sleeve. … A man of middle height, and solid build, with a shaven head, and scars on his face. … With his right hand he makes a gesture of greeting – in his own, Nazi, fashion; with his left he tenders his service book to me.

Speaking through an interpreter, Krebs said:

I shall speak of exceptionally secret matters. You are the first foreigner to whom I will give this information, that on 30 April Hitler passed from us from his own will, ending his life by suicide.

Chuikov recalled that Krebs paused at this point, expecting ardent interest in this sensational news. Instead, Chuikov replied that the Soviets had already heard this news. In fact, this was not true, but he had already determined that he would show no surprise at any unexpected approaches, but remain calm and avoid drawing any hasty conclusions. Since Krebs had brought only an offer of a negotiated surrender with a new government, headed by Dönitz as president and Goebbels as chancellor, Chuikov – under orders from Zhukov and the Stavka – refused and demanded an unconditional surrender. Krebs then left to report to Goebbels, commenting as he left that May Day is a great festival for you, to which Chuikov responded:

And today why should we not celebrate? It is the end of the war, and the Russians are in Berlin.

After Krebs had told Goebbels the news, they both committed suicide, their remains being thrown in with those of Mr and Mrs Hitler. Goebbels’ corpse was identified by the special boot he wore for his clubbed foot. The next day, 2 May, Berlin capitulated and six days later so did all German forces throughout the now-defunct Reich. Soviet attacks in Kurland continued to be repulsed until the day of capitulation, but over the next week, the German armies still in the field surrendered to the Allied forces encircling them. Limited resistance continued until the remaining German forces surrendered on 7 May. In the early morning, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German High Command, signed the document of unconditional surrender. The next day, the war in Europe, which had cost some thirty million lives, was finally over. The capitulation of all German forces became effective on 9 May.

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The famous photograph (above and below) of the red flag being waved over the Reichstag in 1945 was taken by the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian Jew Yevgeny Khaldei with a Leica camera. The flag was actually one of three red tablecloths that the photographer had, in his words, got from Grisha, the bloke in charge of the stores at work. He had promised to return them and a tailor friend of his father’s had spent all night cutting out hammers and sickles and sewing them onto the cloths to make Soviet flags. So it was a tablecloth that was flown, somewhat precariously, over the devastated Berlin that day. When Khaldei explained to Gisha what had happened to his tablecloth, the latter reacted ‘angrily’:

What do you mean, you left it on the Reichstag? Now you’re really going to get me into trouble!

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The Tass picture editor spotted that the young soldier propping up his flag-waving comrade had watches on both wrists, a clear indication of Red Army looting, so he made Khaldei airbrush the supporting soldier out of the photograph, also making the flag-wavers act look more hazardous and heroic. Although Zhukov was relegated after the war by a suspicious and jealous Stalin, his eminence and popularity in the West did at least allow him to escape the fate of 135,056 other Red Army soldiers and officers who were condemned by military tribunals for counter-revolutionary crimes. A further 1.5 million Soviet soldiers who had earlier surrendered to the Germans were transported to the ‘Gulag’ or labour battalions in Siberia. The issue as to how many Soviets, military and civilian, died in during what they called their ‘Great Patriotic War’ was an intensely political one, and the true figure was classified as a national secret in the USSR until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even then, the figures were disputed. Richard Overy has chosen to believe the 1997 Russian figures of eleven million military losses and civilian losses of around sixteen million, giving an aggregate figure of twenty-seven million. In a conflict that claimed the lives of fifty million people, this means that the USSR lost more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The Immediate Aftermath & Routes to Potsdam:

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The fact that it was not until May 1945  that Germany bowed to its conquerors, is testimony to the sheer bloody-minded determination of the German Reich was one reason for the length of time they were able to hold out against the Allies, but the high quality of their troops was the other. The statistics are unequivocal: up to the end of 1944, on a man-for-man basis, the Germans inflicted between twenty and fifty per cent higher casualties on the British and Americans than they suffered, and far higher than that of the Russians, under almost all military conditions. Even in the first five months of 1945, the Red Army’s advance on the Eastern front was very costly because the Germans continued to inflict more losses on their opponents than they suffered themselves. Although they lost because of their Führer’s domination of grand strategy as well as the sheer size of the populations and economies ranged against them, it is indisputable that the Germans were the best fighting men of the Second World War for all but the last few months of the struggle when they suffered a massive dearth of equipment, petrol, reinforcements and air cover. But although throughout the last year of the war the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, this was never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks, especially the final assault on Berlin, were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. From his Nuremberg cell in June 1946, Kleist reflected:

The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment. My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.   

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As the Red Army prepared to celebrate victory in eastern Europe, Roosevelt was replaced by his Vice President, Harry Truman, who immediately brought new energy to the presidency, as George Elsey, working in the White House map room, discovered:

Harry Truman was utterly unlike President Roosevelt in terms of a personal relationship. First of all, our impression of him – here’s a guy who can walk. And he was vigorous, physically vigorous. He was only a few years younger than Franklin Roosevelt but in behaviour, attitude, speech and so on would have thought he was twenty-five years younger. When he first came into the map room he walked briskly around, introduced himself to each of us – “I’m Harry Truman” … and he took an intense interest in what we had in the map room, wanted to read our files. … Truman was open and eager to learn, and was very willing to admit that he didn’t know. Roosevelt would never have admitted that he didn’t know everything himself.

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As for the Soviets, they knew little about him and disliked what they did know. Truman was unaware of the intricacies of US foreign policy; so, in those early weeks of his presidency, he relied on old hands like Harriman and Hopkins. On 25 May, six weeks after Roosevelt’s death, Harry Hopkins arrived in Moscow at Truman’s request. He met Stalin on the evening of 26 May. It was an important meeting, not so much in terms of what was decided, but because Stalin’s behaviour demonstrated that there was no doubt that he – rather than, allegedly, the ‘people behind him’ – controlled Soviet policy. Hopkins emphasised that ‘public opinion’ in the USA had been badly affected by the inability to carry into effect the Yalta agreement on Poland. Stalin replied by putting the blame for the failure squarely on the British, who, he claimed, wanted to build up a ‘cordon sanitaire’ on the Soviet borders, presumably in order to keep the Soviets in check. Hopkins denied that the United States wanted any such thing, and added that the Americans were happy to see ‘friendly countries’ along the Soviet borders. The use of the trigger word ‘friendly’ was welcomed by Stalin who said that, if that was the case, then they could ‘easily come to terms’ about Poland.

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But Hopkins’ remarks were turned to his disadvantage by Stalin at their second meeting on 27 May. The Soviet leader said that he would not attempt to use Soviet public opinion as a screen but would, instead, speak about the views of his government. He then stated his position that the Yalta agreement meant that the existing Lublin government could simply be ‘reconstructed’. He went on to warn that:

Despite the fact that they were simple people, the Russians should not be regarded as fools, which was a mistake the West frequently made, nor were they blind and could quite well see what was going on before their eyes. It is true that that the Russians are patient in the interests of a common cause but their patience had its limits.

Stalin also remarked that if the Americans started to use the issue of ‘Lend-Lease’ as a ‘pressure’ on the Russians, this would be a ‘fundamental mistake’. Hopkins was bruised by these remarks and denied the accusations that he was ‘hiding’ behind American public opinion and attempting to use the issue of Lend-Lease as a ‘pressure weapon’. Stalin was using offensive remarks as a means of probing the strength of his opponent, as he had done with Churchill and Roosevelt in April, by correspondence. But Stalin knew that these negotiations had nothing to do with ‘friendship’ or ‘personal relationships’. He did not care whether he was liked or not. What mattered to him was power and credibility Eden, with all his experience of international relations and negotiations wrote that:

If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.

Stalin was toying with the new President’s envoy, telling Hopkins that the ‘Warsaw’ (formerly Lublin) Poles might be persuaded to concede four ministerial posts in the Polish provisional government to the ‘London’ Poles from the list submitted by the British and Americans. The idea that he had to bow to the wishes of his own puppet government in Poland was also a trick he had used before, but no-one had yet dared to say to his face that it was obvious nonsense. Towards the end of the meeting, Hopkins made an impassioned appeal for the Soviets to allow the three ‘freedoms’ so core to the Atlantic Charter – freedom of speech, assembly and religion – to be guaranteed to the citizens of the newly occupied territories. In his response, Stalin once again played with Hopkins, saying that in regard to the specific freedoms… they could only be applied… with certain limitations. Eventually, a ‘compromise’ of sorts was agreed, with five ‘democratic’ Poles joining the new provisional government, far from the ‘ideal’ that Roosevelt and Churchill had hoped for in the immediate aftermath of Yalta.

The harsh reality, of course, was that the Soviet Union was already in possession of Poland and most of the other countries bordering the Soviet Union and that the Western powers could do little about this ‘take-over’, a reality that was brought home at the Potsdam Conference. By the time of the Conference in July, the British had already considered and rejected the possibility of imposing upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. In the wake of the Soviets’ perceived failure to stick to the Yalta agreement, Churchill had ordered British military planners to consider a worst-case, military option against the USSR. Called ‘Operation Unthinkable’, the final report was completed on 22 May. Its conclusion was stark, if somewhat obvious:

If our political object is to be achieved with certainty and with lasting results, the defeat of Russia in a total war will be necessary. The result … is not possible to forecast, but the one thing that is certain is that to win it would take us a very long time.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, was less bland in his diary, writing on 24 May:

This evening went carefully through the Planners’ report on the possibility of taking on Russia should trouble arise on future discussion with her. We were instructed to carry out this investigation. The idea is, of course, fantastic and the chance of success quite impossible. 

After the experience of Operation Barbarossa, the idea of ‘conquering’ the Soviet Union was something that few would contemplate seriously. In any case, Truman had already recognised that Britain was now very much the minor partner in the triangular relationship with the Soviet Union. The new American President had not even bothered to discuss Hopkins’ mission to Moscow beforehand. He also declined Churchill’s invitation to meet together before the Potsdam Conference, to discuss tactics. Truman had also received a number of impassioned suggestions from Churchill about how the relationship with Stalin should be hardened because of the Soviets’ failure to implement the Yalta agreement. In particular, Churchill suggested that the Western Allies should not withdraw from the area of Germany they currently occupied, which lay within the Yalta-agreed Soviet-controlled sphere. He even sent Truman a telegram warning that an iron curtain is being drawn down on their front. But Truman wanted no dramatic confrontation with Stalin, especially one orchestrated by Churchill. The British PM got the impression that Truman was trying to edge him out of matters still more by asking the British to attend the Potsdam Conference only after the Americans had already spent time alone with Stalin. On that basis, said Churchill, he was simply ‘not prepared to attend’. As a result, the Americans agreed that he should be present from the beginning. So Winston Churchill was there to witness the fall of the Iron Curtain and the beginning of the Cold War in Europe. It took forty-five years for the West to win it, but cost far fewer European lives, though many more American ones.

Appendix:

Article by Max Hastings from The Observer Magazine, 7/7/19:

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Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. London: BBC Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of The Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann (1988), The Penguin Atlas of World History Volume II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

 

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Berlin 1948: Spring Crises, Midsummer Madness, Blockades & Airlifts.   Leave a comment

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By the spring of 1948, the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two capital cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the USSR and the USA each governed a separate sector. Agreements had been formalised in the autumn of 1945, guaranteeing the Western Allies free access to Berlin. The former capital of Germany was a special case in the four-power joint occupation and control of the country, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, and therefore a key strategic point for the Soviets to apply pressure on the Western Allies. Road and rail lines were designated for the supply of those areas of the city occupied by them. Air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the western sectors of Germany had also been agreed, and for three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city. Britain, America and France relied on the road, rail and canal links into the city, but in the spring of 1948, the Soviet authorities decided to make use of this vulnerability by making access from the west more difficult.

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Added to these issues, Berlin had been subjected to an around-the-clock air bombardment in the war and the city had also endured a heavy artillery bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks had been demolished and almost every building in the city bore signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply and the official currency, the Reichsmark, had gradually become worthless. The black market was flourishing, and the cigarette had become the form of currency. The citizens had, literally, to dig into the rubble to find something with which they could barter in order to scratch out a living. They were joined by refugees arriving in the city, who faced an even more desperate struggle for food, warmth and light.

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In January 1948 the British cabinet had discussed the situation in Germany. In the previous year, the three Western Allies had joined their zones of occupation together into one Western zone. Stalin had watched these events with mistrust. The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had presented a paper to his government that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant black market. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation. On 23rd February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating the new state. On 12th March, the Soviet leadership was advised by its spies in the Foreign Office in London that the Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint and incorporating it into a military-political bloc aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.

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007 (2)Worse was to follow on 20th March 1948, at a routine Allied Council meeting, when Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany pressed his US and British counterparts for information about the secret London conference, already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened. When General Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor told him that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what the point was of having a ‘Control Council’ at all. The Soviets then got up and walked out of the meeting, effectively ending joint control of Germany.

As a result, around Berlin, the Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city.

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Restrictions were placed on the use of the ‘autobahn’ between Berlin and the British sector to the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for “maintenance.” The British offered to send engineers to build another to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1st April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the “mini-blockade.” General Clay ordered a “baby airlift” to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.

 

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On 5th April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days, Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on board the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident, but thereafter both sides were more nervous that such accidents could bring open conflict.

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008With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between the Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin’s internal politics. The Berlin City Council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by Ernst Reuter, a powerful orator, and his Social Democrats. Reuter had been forced to leave Germany by the Nazis but had returned in 1946. hoping to rebuild the country as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as Mayor of Berlin (the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets and the East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin, using a combination of intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping to get their way.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, East Germany was Stalin’s by right of conquest; for the West Berliners it was, and remained (until 1972), the Soviet occupation zone, SBZ. The old pre-war Kommunist Partei Deutschlands, boosted by sizeable numbers of Soviet-German agents who had spent the war in Moscow and had been sent back to Berlin as early as May 1945, merged forcibly with the socialists and created a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht. It took over the main offices of state and reduced the civil service and the other political parties which remained to the status of mere figureheads. Its constitution made it clear that all fundamental human rights were subject to the concrete conditions under which the proletarian revolution must triumph (Article 19). 

Although, by 1948, the Soviets had forced the Eastern ‘zone’ of Germany to accept Communism, in the Western zone elections they never gained more than eight per cent support for the Communists, and despite the level of intimidation, the Communists had failed to gain control of Berlin.  Around Berlin, tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down the rail traffic with the West. By 15th June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18th June. Sokolovsky immediately issued a proclamation denouncing their action as being…

against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British and French monopolists … The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions.

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Sokolovsky also prohibited the introduction of the Western Deutschmark (above left) into the Soviet zone and into Berlin. On 22nd June, the Soviets announced that they would be introducing their own currency, the Ostmark (right) for the Eastern zone and, they hoped, the whole of Berlin. The Western military commanders declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter ‘B’, for the Western sectors of Berlin. General Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a technical, non-political measure. But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments:

If they had put in a currency reform and we didn’t, it would have been (our) first move.   

007Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary spate of ‘midsummer madness’. On the evening of 23rd June, at a meeting of the Berlin City Council, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the Assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter’s proposal, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin Assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.

Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him not to, as this might provoke the Western powers into doing the same, and then the only way out of such an impasse would be through military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at 6:00 a.m. on 24th June, the barriers were lowered on all road, rail and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. The reason given was “technical difficulties.” That same morning, electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was “coal shortages.” So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets’ purpose was clear; either the Western Allies must change their policies or be forced out of Berlin altogether. General Clay clearly identified this purpose:

When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened … Communism will run rampant.

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Berlin was effectively cut off from the West, with only enough food and fuel to last six weeks. In both London and Washington, there was a clear determination that the Western powers would hold on to West Berlin. President Truman vowed; We are going to stay, period and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe. It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next. West Berlin did indeed have a symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East, but by an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviet authorities were not obliged to supply the British, American and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of twelve thousand tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their bare necessities. With rail, road and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. However, the American C-47 transport, the military ‘workhorse’ of the day, could only deliver a payload of three tons. Initially, the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.

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On 24 June, the West had introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all raid traffic into eastern Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months, this counter-blockade was to have a damaging effect on the East, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone. On that same day, General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilised. The RAF had come forward with an ambitious plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman’s advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner as it was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. At the same time, Truman had to be seen championing a firm line with the Soviets, so he made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict.

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Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardships; initially, he did not believe that the Allies could fly in more than five hundred tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorised the start of the airlift. On 26th June, the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany, following three narrow air corridors through the Soviet zone. The first flight brought in eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles; to the British, it was Operation Plainfare. To begin with, about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were bringing fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports each containing nine tons, three times the payload of the C-47s. The Allies organised willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin became increasingly confident that the Allies would be able to save their city. They had had few problems delivering bombs, they reminded each other, so why wouldn’t be able to deliver potatoes?

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The Royal Air Force had fewer service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin and provided a team of pilots and engineers as well. As the operation grew over succeeding months, it grew into a ‘crusade for freedom’, with the pilots determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk when flying heavy loads in bad weather. Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise the effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly a thousand tons per day were flown into the besieged city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping it alive.

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In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with President Truman. He still favoured a military a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would back down rather than confronting the West. However, Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let the convoy through, there would be war. Instead, Truman guaranteed more C-54s, and the two men talked of doubling the airlift to two thousand tons daily. The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had two and a half million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. At the same time, they were equally confident that the Kremlin would not sanction direct military conflict with the Western powers, which might provoke the Americans to use nuclear weapons, as they had in Japan. To stop the airlift, the USSR would have had to shoot down British and American planes. Stalin was frightened by the USA’s nuclear capability, since, as yet, the Soviet Union had not developed its own capacity. Perhaps because of this overall military superiority, General Clay remained convinced that the Soviets would not risk a military confrontation:

The chances of war are 1 in 10. The Russians know they would be licked. If they cut our air route, they know it is an act of war.

Besides, the Soviet Union was not yet secure within its own accepted sphere of influence. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its support among its satellites, especially after events in Czechoslovakia in February and March of the same year. On 28th June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Marshal Tito, its charismatic partisan leader who had taken power after the war without Stalin’s help or support. An economic blockade was organised against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the Eastern ‘bloc’, Tito turned, albeit slowly and a little reluctantly, towards the West. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive $150 million in aid from the United States. Threatened with invasion by Stalin, Yugoslavia remained the only independent state in Europe throughout the Cold War and a ‘thorn in the side’ of the USSR. Any attempt of an Eastern bloc country to establish its independence from Moscow was labelled ‘Titoism’, a heresy to be rooted out and purged.

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Back in the ‘Berlin Crisis’ during July, attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement. On 2nd August, the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, together with the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were now two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital, making the Western presence in the city no longer relevant. Stalin stated that the USSR was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from circulation and agreed to reinstate joint four-power rule over Germany. In point of fact, there was little that the Soviets could do in the face of the West’s superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade had only one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.

Pictured Above: On 19th August, A C-47 Dakota comes in for a landing while a huge C-74 Globemaster from Frankfurt unloads 23 tons of flour for the people of Berlin. With some difficulty, the enormous plane landed on a new runway at Gatow in the British zone. Below: Inside the Globemaster.

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Throughout the summer of 1948, the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter; that October was to be the cut-off point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington, the air force commanders were convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail and concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin. The question which arose from this for the administration was whether the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in the developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy emanating from the White House. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were so terribly destructive, atomic weapons could not be treated as conventional weaponry. He urged the military leaders…

to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people.

In September, the US National Security Council produced a secret report designated as NSC-30: United States Policy on Atomic Welfare. This required the military to be ready to utilize promptly a and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interests of national security and to plan accordingly.  However, any decision about the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the president, when he considers such decisions to be required. Truman endorsed NC-30. In a briefing with his chief air force commanders, he…

prayed he would never have to make such a decision, but … if it became necessary, no one need have misgiving but he would do so.

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In a dramatic gesture that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers was flown into the United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air Command in the UK, and the arrival of “the atomic bombers” was widely publicised. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit. After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British Government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain. The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the RAF.

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This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years. I remember going on a CND march to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk to demonstrate against the presence of the US bombers, and their bombs, in 1976. But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be made as NSC-30 directed, by the president of the United States. The planes, in fact, carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas bases.  The British Government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies at the London Foreign Office, Moscow also, almost certainly knew too. The British, German and Russian people, of course, did not.

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Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. By September, aircraft were landing in Berlin every three minutes, day and night. On 18th September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record seven thousand tons in a single day. By this date roughly two hundred thousand tons of supplies had been delivered, the ‘split’ between the USAF and the RAF being about sixty-forty in percentage terms. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical supplies were all brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift would be able to supply the city through the winter, after all. But West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the airlift. On 6th September, another meeting of the City Council in East Berlin had been broken up by Communist agitators with violence and intimidation. The Western representatives decided that the Council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet separately in West Berlin. Three days later, a huge gathering of three hundred thousand Berliners, mostly from the western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag (below). Standing on a pile of rubble, Reuter addressed the huge crowds, calling upon the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.

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By October, many West Berliners were getting desperate. They were allowed only small amounts of fat, spam (tinned meat), potatoes, cereal and bread. Berlin’s people needed four thousand tons of supplies a day to survive. People had got used to the rationing, and even to feeling cold, since electricity was only available four hours a day. But the blockade was not, in any case, absolute, so a minority of West Berliners were able to register for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten of them were, therefore, able to draw food and coal from the East. As there was no restriction on travel within the city, so many West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were well-lit and heated dance halls.

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The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of the total cost of American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December, the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every ninety seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialise.

Below (left): A German child’s drawing commemorates the airlift: “We thank the pilots for their work and effort.” Right: A new game, “Airlift.”

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By the spring of 1949, the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a sufficient level. The airlift ensured that eight thousand tons were being flown in each day. In one twenty-four hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into  Berlin, carrying a total of thirteen thousand tons of supplies. In all, two million tons of supplies had been flown in since the airlift began. As the counter-blockade of eastern Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open to them and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin indicated that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed: The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington, ceasing to be military governor and claiming that, in any case, after the tensions of the preceding year he needed a break. On 12th May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted, and the Western military authorities reciprocated by lifting their counter-blockade. Both sides claimed victory and Berliners were jubilant; many thought this would be the end of the conflict between the Great Powers. In reality, the blockades had resulted in the end of the war-time alliance and in the formation of two Berlins: West and East. Added to that, as the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany was being drafted. Stalin’s attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed. President Truman commented:

When we refused to be forced out of Berlin, we demonstrated to Europe that we would act when freedom was threatened. This action was a Russian plan to probe the soft spots in the Western Allies’ positions.

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Above: RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, American-financed, with a mix of popular music and upbeat news, kept up Berliners’ morale. Presenter and entertainer Christina Ohlsen became a celebrity.

The West did, indeed, secure a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole international community, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light: they seemed to be willing to threaten 2.3 million people with starvation. The Soviet view of the events was, not surprisingly, quite different:

The crisis was planned in Washington, behind a smoke-screen of anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1948 there was the danger of war. The conduct of the Western powers risked bloody incidents. The self-blockade of the Western powers hit the West Berlin population with harshness. The people were freezing and starving. In the spring of 1949 the USA was forced to yield … their war plans had come to nothing, because of the conduct of the Soviet Union.

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The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin privately felt far weaker than was known at the time, but in 1948 many in the West genuinely believed that Stalin planned to dominate the entire European continent. The US policy of ‘containment’ meant confronting Communism at all agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. Old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a “them and us” syndrome had emerged. As US Secretary of State, George C Marshall observed,…

There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue. … The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace.  

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The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union. The Blockade and Airlift was the first open struggle between East and West. The tactics were designed not to start a war, but to threaten to go to war if necessary. This set the pattern for future Cold War conflicts, including further tensions over Berlin. 

Source:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

 

1968 and All That… MLK, LBJ, Bobby, Tet and the Prague Spring.   Leave a comment

The Escalation of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive:

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At the beginning of 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson thought that victory in Vietnam was worth the sacrifice the US servicemen had already made since President Kennedy had committed 16,500 troops to the support of the South Vietnamese in 1961-62. By 1968, Johnson had committed up to half a million men to the conflict. On taking office in 1964, he had said, I am not going to be the President who saw South East Asia go the way that China went. But by the end of February 1968, he was increasingly isolated in Washington. Robert McNamara, who had been John F Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, had left the White House to become president of the World Bank. He said he did not really know whether he had quit or been fired. The new Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford, opposed General Westmoreland’s latest request for another 200,000 men, arguing that there would soon be further requests, “with no end in sight.” He recommended pegging the level at twenty thousand, and Johnson agreed. What had happened in the war, and the response to it, to change his mind?

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In January 1968, just as President Johnson was announcing that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong had launched the Tet Offensive within virtually every town and city in South Vietnam. It was their most spectacular offensive yet. In Saigon, a commando unit even penetrated the US Embassy compound; it had to be flushed out man by man. This feat, which took place in front of television cameras, stunned America and public opinion worldwide. Although the US military had intelligence that an attack was imminent, they appeared to have been caught completely by surprise. But the bitterest fighting in the Tet Offensive took place in Hue, previously a tranquil city, where intense house-to-house fighting and killing went on for several weeks. The photo on the right below shows US Marines call for assistance for those wounded in the bloody fighting which took place in the city on 1st February. The beleaguered president finally accepted that there was a limit to the losses of US servicemen in Vietnam that the American people would accept. The photo below (left) of Lyndon Johnson shows him preparing a speech on Vietnam.

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On the other side, the Tet Offensive was intended to inspire a popular rising across South Vietnam. It totally failed in this, but rather led to massive losses of some of the Vietcong’s best fighters. Nevertheless, in propaganda terms, the offensive was a magnificent victory for them. Before Tet, the American leaders had talked of grave enemy weaknesses and of how the Vietcong had met their match and were desperately hanging on. Now the Vietcong had shown that they could attack at will and could strike even at the very nerve centre of the US presence in South Vietnam. The gap between what the US Government said and what people saw on their television screens had never been greater, nor credibility lower. Support for the president’s handling of the war dropped to an all-time low in the polls. Eighty per cent of Americans felt that the United States was making no progress in the war. Tet was thus a turning point.

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Added to this, there was international revulsion and outrage at the American tactics. The British journalist, James Cameron, reported:

There was a sense of outrage. By what right do these airmen intrude over a country with which they are not formally at war? Who gave these people the sanction to drop their bombs on roads, bridges, houses, to blow up the harvest, to destroy people of whom they know nothing? Would this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

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Despite the bombing, North Vietnam continued to supply the Vietcong in South Vietnam with ever-increasing amounts of aid. Much of it came from the Soviet Union and was driven across the border at night in convoys of heavy, Russian-built trucks. They regularly moved weapons and ammunition into the South, smuggling them right into the hearts of towns and cities. President Johnson had hoped for a ‘quick kill’. But the tactics of America’s land forces in South Vietnam were based on several errors of judgement. First, the soldiers were told to fight for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Yet the GIs simply shot and killed the peasants on sight, often en masse and without discrimination, assuming that they were Vietcong supporters. They also destroyed the land itself, as James Cameron testified (above). Richard Hamer, an American journalist commented, after his visit in 1970, that Vietnam had become a country of refugees … once the rice bowl of Asia, now unable to feed itself. Secondly, the USA believed it could ‘win’ the war and simply could not believe that the US could be defeated by a bunch of guerrillas in black pyjamas. But the reality of guerrilla warfare was very different:

… this enemy is invisible … it is not just the people but the land itself – unfamiliar … frightening … it can be that field ahead littered with land mines … the enemy can be the kind who comes out smiling and then lobs a grenade … or that bent old lady carrying a watermelon.

You walk down a road between rice paddies. Vietnamese are in every paddy. Then a mortar shell lands right in the middle of a patrol. A couple of guys are dead, others are screaming in agony with a leg or arm blown off, or their guts hanging out. Did one of them (the peasants) lob the mortar? If so, which one? Should you kill all of them or none of them at all?

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There was widespread opposition to the American presence in Vietnam, not least from within the US itself. The determined peace protesters outside the White House would not leave Johnson in peace, continuing to chant:

Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!

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In fact, the hostile chanting accompanied him wherever he went and had a devastating effect on him. Senator Eugene McCarthy announced he would oppose Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination; Robert Kennedy also declared he was a candidate and spoke out harshly against Johnson’s foreign policy and conduct of the war. In the second half of March, the ‘wise men’ went into conclave again to review progress and consider their options in Vietnam. By now the civilians in this group were openly critical of the assessments presented by the military commanders. When told that eighty thousand of the enemy had been killed and that the normal ratio of killed to wounded was 1:3, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg calculated that would mean that all of the enemy’s manpower must be dead or injured: “Then who the hell are we fighting?” he asked. Then, on 31st March, in a live television address, Johnson announced that the US would halt all bombing above the twentieth parallel in the hope that peace talks could begin promptly. He then went on to surprise everyone, even his own advisers, by announcing  that he would “not seek … nor accept” his party’s nomination for a second term in the White House. With his crushing triumph over Goldwater only four years behind him, Johnson now recognised the deep unpopularity of his policy of escalating the Vietnam War. He had lost his fight with public opinion.

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Martin Luther King’s Death in Memphis:

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Above Left: Martin Luther King, Jr., waves to the marchers at the Lincoln Memorial, on 30th August 1963, before making his “I have a dream…” speech. Above Right: Lyndon Johnson shakes King’s hand after signing the Civil Rights Bill into law, 2 July 1964.

Four days after Johnson’s announcement, on 4th April, Martin Luther King was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support a workers’ strike, marching with the strikers, who wanted to protest peacefully, singing and holding hands. Most of them were black street-cleaners, who were badly paid. But gangs of young blacks had not wanted to protest peacefully and had begun rioting, breaking shop windows and fighting with the police. One of them had been killed during the fighting.  After the march, King had talked to the gangs and told them that violence was not the answer and that all protests had to be peaceful if they wanted the workers to win. Some of the gang-leaders had argued back, saying that times had changed and that peaceful protests no longer worked. Finally, King had persuaded them to join the workers on their next march, and they had promised him not to use violence. The date for the second march had been set for 5th April.

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On 3rd April, King had returned to Memphis and had made a speech at the Baptist Church prayer-meeting. It had been full of hope about the cause, but also of foreboding for his own life:

I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

On the next day, 4th April, King had told his friends that he needed some air. He went out of his hotel room just after six o’clock in the evening. Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire. His friends ran outside and found him lying on the ground, shot. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s young supporters, held him in his arms while the ambulance was sent for. An hour later Martin Luther King died in hospital. He was just thirty-nine years old.

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The whole world grieved the loss of this man of peace. All the people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were first shocked and then angry. Go and get your guns! Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, told a crowd in Washington DC. Riots swept the American nation; a hundred cities erupted, the rioters fighting the police. There were more than twenty thousand arrests and forty-six more black deaths. Seventy-five thousand troops were called out to keep the peace. For many, King epitomised the dream of racial equality, but for two years his influence had been diminishing. Now the leadership of the black community passed to more radical figures like Carmichael, who wanted to replace passive, nonviolent disobedience to active and violent resistance. The Black Panthers trained as paramilitaries in the ghetto of Oakland, California, for a civil war with racist police. Other black ‘nationalists’ called openly for revolution.

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James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, was arrested and went to prison for King’s murder, though many believed he had not acted alone. Even Coretta King did not believe that Ray had killed her husband. King’s body lay in his father’s church in Atlanta. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to the civil rights leader. Later, his body was buried next to those of his grandparents, and written on his headstone, are the last words of his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial five years earlier:

Free at last, Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, 

I’m free at last!

From Paris to California and on to Chicago:

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Above: Robert Kennedy, campaigning in California.

In May, preliminary peace talks began in Paris. In the face of obdurate North Vietnamese negotiators, the talks soon ran aground. The dispute focused on whether or not the United States would halt all bombing of the North and who could sit at the negotiating table; would the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong sit down with the United States, as well as North and South Vietnam? There was no agreement. With a million college students and faculty members boycotting classes because of Vietnam, the stage was set for the confrontation between McCarthy and Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination. In the California primary, in June, Kennedy won by a whisker. Then, as he was leaving his hotel through a back entrance, he was shot in the head and stomach (below). He died in hospital the next morning. There was no rioting, just silence. The American nation was traumatised by these killings, asking what was wrong with the country to make it so violent.

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Above right: Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters do battle in Chicago.

Everything came to a head when the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its nominee for the presidency – now either McCarthy or Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Chicago was controlled by Mayor Richard J Daley, a hard-liner who ruled the streets through a broad network of ethnic supporters. He promised, as long as I am mayor, there will be law and order on the streets. In the riots following Martin Luther King’s death, he had given his police authority to “shoot to kill” arsonists. Daley was determined to keep order during the convention when rumour predicted that a hundred thousand activists and anti-war campaigners would assemble in Chicago. Only about one-tenth of that number arrived, but Daley had no intention of allowing any marches to go ahead. His police, some out of uniform, attacked a group of ‘hippies’ and ‘yippies’ in Lincoln Park and pursued them – and anyone else who happened to be on the streets – with clubs and batons.

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On the night that Humphrey was to accept the nomination, the police used tear gas to break up the demonstration outside the convention hotel. More than two hundred plainclothes policemen tried to infiltrate the march. Demonstrators, newsmen, and even elderly passers-by were all clubbed and beaten. Tear gas got in the air vents of the hotel, including Humphrey’s suite, as he was preparing his acceptance speech. Live on television, the cameras kept cutting between the convention and the extraordinary scenes outside. Humphrey left feeling shattered, despite having secured his party’s nomination. Chicago was a catastrophe, he said later; My wife and I went home heartbroken, battered and beaten.

According to the to the New York Times, the Chicago police had brought shame to the city, embarrassment to the country. Lawyers defending those charged for their role in the demonstration spoke of a “police riot.” Senator George McGovern denounced Daley and his “Gestapo” for creating a “bloodbath.” Radicals were driven even further outside the political system; they believed that the government was now totally illegitimate and led by war criminals so that only further militancy could win the day. Bring Us Together was the campaign slogan of the Nixon camp, but as the campaign hotted up, there was little prospect of this happening in reality. In fact, Governor George Wallace had declared himself as an independent candidate. Wallace’s plan to stop the trouble on the streets appealed only to the right-wing Republican heartlands:

We ought to turn this country over to the police for two or three years and then everything would be all right.

Meanwhile, Richard M Nixon had won the Republican nomination for president. With conservative Spiro T Agnew as his running mate, Nixon tried to defuse the support for Wallace. He also met with Johnson and agreed not to attack the outgoing president over Vietnam during the campaign, in return for an understanding that Johnson would not abandon Saigon. Nixon tried to come across as the statesman and peacemaker. He spoke of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam and to bring peace with honour. Nixon also agreed that during the campaign he would not call for a pause in the bombing. In October, the Paris peace talks were still deadlocked over the issue of representation, with President Thieu, in Saigon, deeply opposed to negotiating with North Vietnam if the Vietcong were also present. This would imply formal recognition of his hated enemy. With the election only days away, Johnson received FBI reports that Anna Chennault, a Nixon fund-raiser, was acting as a go-between for the Republicans with Thieu. Nixon’s campaign manager had asked her to tell Thieu to oppose the cessation of bombing, and so undermine the peace talks, promising that Thieu would get a better deal under the Republicans. Thieu held out and refused to attend talks at which the Vietcong were present. Despite this, Johnson called a halt to the bombing on 31st October.

Nixon talked of the “tired men” around Johnson and the need for a new team with “fresh ideas”. The opinion polls showed a swing away from Humphrey, who up to this point had had a narrow lead. On 5th November, the American people came out to vote. In the end, the vote was nail-bitingly close: Wallace won thirteen per cent, and Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey with 43.4 per cent of the vote to 42.7. There was to be a new team in the White House, but outside America was split into two nations. But, although the North had set out the terms on which the war would eventually end, the fighting in Vietnam would go on for another five years and cost many thousands more lives.

The anti-war movement clearly boosted North Vietnamese morale and sustained Hanoi’s will to fight on. The hostile chants had almost certainly upset Lyndon Johnson and helped persuade him not to stand for re-election. The movement also affected the atmosphere of decision-making by which it was resolved not to broaden the conflict into a wider war in Southeast Asia. More than anything, the protests against the war exposed a growing cultural divide among the American people and, in the rest of the world, provoked widespread anti-American sentiment on both sides of the Cold War divide. The protest movement was international. In Paris in May 1968, the Fifth Republic was nearly toppled when it came into conflict with a massed combination of workers, students, and intellectuals. In London, police laid into anti-war demonstrators outside the Grosvenor Square US Embassy, in full view of television news cameras. In Northern Ireland, civil rights marches, modelled on those in the American South, sparked a new phase in the long-running confrontation between Irish republicanism and the British State. In Germany and Japan, radicals fought with the police.

Another Year Ending in Eight – The Prague Spring:

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The action of the Chicago police took place just a week after Soviet troops shocked the world by moving into Prague. In Central/Eastern Europe, new thinking had been influenced by the counter-cultural currents in the West, but the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also had their origins in the fight for Czech independence which goes back four hundred years and seems to contain major events in years ending in the number eight. It began with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, following the defenestrations of Prague, when the Bohemian Calvinists refused to acknowledge Ferdinand, a Hapsburg, as their king, inviting Frederick, the Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England, to become their king and queen. This was both a religious and a political challenge to the Emperor. Frederick was overwhelmed by Bavaria and Austria at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, having received no help from the Protestant Union of German princes, or from his miserly father-in-law, James Stuart. Frederick and Elizabeth went down in the annals of Czech history as ‘the Winter King and Queen’ due to the brevity of their reign, and it took another three centuries for independence to be restored, in 1918/19. It was then taken away again in 1938/39, by Hitler, with Chamberlain’s connivance and, after a brief post-war restoration, in 1948 the Communists seized power at Stalin’s insistence.

001Jan Masaryk, the independent foreign minister and son of the first president of inter-war Czechoslovakia, was also defenestrated in 1948, by the Communists. A re-examination of the case in 1968 turned up a document which stated that scratch-marks made by fingernails had been found on the window soon after he had fallen to his death. The ‘Prague Spring’ also had economic roots, in common with other protest movements in the Eastern bloc countries. There was deep concern about declining growth rates and the failure to keep up with Western levels of consumer progress.

In Poland, agricultural output had been dropping year after year, and the régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka, so rapturously welcomed in October 1956, was growing steadily more oppressive. Intellectuals who spoke out against the government were imprisoned and in March 1968 a student demonstration was brutally broken up by the police, resulting in several days of street rioting in Warsaw. Gomulka had lost almost all of his support in the country, but Brezhnev and the Soviet Union stood by him. But the crises of 1968 passed quickly in Poland, and Gomulka remained in power for two more years, until food shortages and rising prices finally brought his régime to an end.

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Above left: Alexander Dubcek in Spring, 1968, promising “socialism with a human face.” Right: He shakes hands with Brezhnev in Bratislava, 3rd August 1968.

In Czechoslovakia, there were also concerns over lack of growth in the economy, and in 1966 the government of Antonín Novotny took the first steps towards decentralising the economy, giving greater power to local managers and greater priority to the production of consumer goods. Profits rather than quotas were made the measure of performance, a practice dubbed market socialism. However, these reforms were too slow, and, against a background of student revolts, Alexander Dubcek was appointed party chairman in January 1968. He was no fiery revolutionary, but as the boss of the Slovak party machine, he was a committed party loyalist. He did, nevertheless, promise the widest possible democratisation of the entire sociopolitical system aimed at bringing communism up to date. His appointment speeded change, as he widened the reform debate to those outside the party. Censorship was eased; freedom of speech was introduced in newspapers, on the radio and on television. Amidst unprecedented debate in the press and on television, in April the party approved an Action Programme with a two thousand word manifesto in June, when writers and intellectuals advocated democratic reforms within a broad socialist context. Dubcek’s reforms became known as socialism with a human face. Above all, Dubcek was trying to improve living conditions in Czechoslovakia:

We want to set new forces of Socialist life in motion in this country, allowing a fuller application of the advantages of Socialism.

Trade with the West was developed; different religions were allowed. Dubcek’s Government, though still Communist, wished to have less control over people’s lives. In this, he had the full support of the Czechoslovak people. The thaw in Czech Communism in early 1968 was therefore known as the ‘Prague Spring’. The Prague leadership tried very hard not to upset the Kremlin. They remembered how Hungary had been crushed in 1956, and Czechoslovakia, unlike Imre Nagy’s Hungarian one of twelve years earlier, had no desire to make changes in its foreign affairs or to leave the Warsaw Pact.

Over these months, Moscow and the other Warsaw Pact capitals became increasingly agitated by the so-called ‘Prague Spring’. They believed that economic reform would inevitably test the party bureaucracy’s ability to maintain control, and would ultimately undermine its monopoly of power. They feared that fervent debate about economic objectives would be contagious. Indeed, in Poland demonstrators did call for a “Polish Dubcek.” Gomulka in Poland and Walter Ulbricht in East Germany led the hard-line against reforms in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek continued to proclaim his commitment to the one-party system and his loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, but other Satellite states grew more and more impatient. Moscow itself despaired over the Prague reforms. Inside the Kremlin, it was feared that Dubcek’s government would dismantle the internal security apparatus and evict the KGB from the country. The Soviet military was also worried about its agreements with Czechoslovakia. In the early sixties, the Soviet Union had agreed on terms with its Warsaw Pact allies for stationing nuclear warheads in Central/Eastern Europe. Under these terms, the weapons would remain under strict Soviet military control. The USSR had large numbers of troops stationed in Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but no permanent garrison in Czechoslovakia. When Prague embarked on its reform programme in the first half of 1968, the Soviets delayed their deployment of nuclear weapons there, fearing that they would not be able to maintain tight control over them. Moscow saw Prague as a weak link in the Warsaw Pact frontier.

In July, Leonid Brezhnev met the leaders of his Central/Eastern European allies in Warsaw. Dubcek’s changes were too much for Brezhnev, and the other Warsaw Pact leaders, who shared their concerns over events in Czechoslovakia. They warned the Czechoslovak leadership not to run the risk of opening up a ‘hole’ in the iron curtain:

The word ‘democracy’ is being misused. There are campaigns against honest Party workers. The aim is to end the leading role of the Party, to undermine Socialism and to turn Czechoslovakia against other Socialist countries. Thus … the security of our countries is threatened.

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Above: Students occupy Wenceslas Square, awaiting the invaders

A few days later Brezhnev, Kosygin, and the senior Soviet leadership met with Dubcek (see the photo above), and made new demands on him to re-impose censorship and tighten control over the media. An agreement at Bratislava appeared to promise a reconciliation between Prague and Moscow, but when Yugoslavia’s Tito was given an enthusiastic reception in Czechoslovakia it seemed yet again that Dubcek was steering the country down its independent road. The Soviet Politburo went into a three-day session on 15 August to consider what action to take. When Brezhnev spoke to Dubcek on the telephone, he shouted at him that the whole Communist system in the Eastern bloc could crumble because of what was happening in Prague. Why were the Soviets so frightened of change in Czechoslovakia? The Czech historian, Zeman, has given us this clue:

Twice in this century the Russians have had to face an onslaught from the centre of Europe. Only they know the extent of their losses in the last war … and the country is still governed by the men who fought in it. The Russians have no intention of dismantling their defences to the west.

The Iron Fist and the Heavy Hand:

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At midnight on 20th August, Ladislav Mnacko awoke. He peered out of his window to see shadowy shapes in line all along Stefanik Street. But the road was closed for repairs; nothing could be driven along it. Then he realised that they were tanks, which could be driven anywhere, and there were a lot of them. Czechoslovakia had been invaded; Soviet paratroopers had seized control of Prague airport. Over the next few hours, half a million Warsaw Pact troops crossed the borders into the country. In marked contrast to the events in Hungary twelve years earlier, the government told the Czech and Slovak people to stay calm and not to resist with arms, but only to offer ‘passive resistance’. There were pockets of such resistance, one led by the young playwright, Václav Havel. This campaign was organised through radio station broadcasts, like the following:

Citizens! – go to work normally … keep calm … do not give the occupation forces any excuse for armed action … show the invaders your scorn in silence.

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But the Warsaw Pact tanks moved against unarmed civilians, and again demonstrated how ill-prepared the USSR and its allies were to allow change or national autonomy within the Warsaw Pact. The West was shocked by the invasion but was no more likely to support Czechoslovakia than it had been to support Hungary in the previous decade, perhaps even less so, since the USA had long-since abandoned its ‘roll-back’ foreign policies, and was still heavily committed to its war in Vietnam which, as we have seen, was increasingly unpopular both at home and abroad. The West spoke out but could not intervene without risking nuclear confrontation, and therefore did not attempt to do so. The most significant critic of the USSR’s action was China, partly due to the already strained relations between the two Communist powers. The Chinese leadership had urged Khrushchev to invade Hungary in 1956, but it was now quick to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of another Warsaw Pact member.

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Many of the Soviet soldiers were told they were being sent to protect Czechoslovakia from invasion by the Germans and Americans. As they learned the truth, some sympathised with the demonstrators. A few defected to them and were executed when they were caught. As the Soviets took control, arrests of Dubcek and the other leaders began. The invading troops tried to find the radio stations and close down their transmitters:

We do not know how long we will be able to broadcast. If you hear an unknown voice on this station, do not believe it.

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The Russian troops were surprised to see how much the Czechoslovak people hated them. They had believed Soviet propaganda:

‘Tass’ is authorised to state that the leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and allied states to render the Czechoslovak people urgent assistance. This request was brought about by the threat which has arisen to the Socialist system, existing in Czechoslovakia.

(Tass, 21 August 1968)

There were continual rumours that key Czechoslovak party officials invited the Soviets to invade their country to reimpose hard-line law and order. The key documents were locked away in a top-secret folder in the Moscow Communist Party Archives, and have only recently (c 1998) become available. They prove that this was indeed the case. It is now known that the anti-reformist Slovak Communist Party chief, Vasil Bilak, wrote to Brezhnev a direct letter of invitation “to use all means at your disposal,” including military force. to “prevent the imminent threat of counter-revolution.” Bilak warned that “the very existence of socialism in our country is in danger.” Rather than risk sending the letter directly to Brezhnev, he passed it to a Soviet intermediary in a men’s lavatory.

When the Politburo began its three-day meeting to review its options on Czechoslovakia, Bilak dispatched another message to the Soviet leader, on 17th August, not only encouraging the Soviets to act quickly but also offering to form an alternative government that would oust Dubcek and seize control in Prague when the Warsaw Pact troops arrived. It is doubtful that this was a decisive factor in the Soviet decision to invade, but it must have boosted the pro-military faction in the Kremlin, and it helped to provide a pretext for the Soviets to claim that they were acting on behalf of a legitimate alternative government. In reality, the anti-reformists were entirely unable to deliver a government, and the Soviet Union ended up having to reinstate Dubcek’s, which survived for several months. In any case, Brezhnev’s own justification for the intervention was based on the common security of the Warsaw Pact countries, not just on the Tass statement:

When forces that are hostile to Socialism try to turn the development of some Socialist country towards capitalism … it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem of all socialist countries.

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Others among the satellite countries took careful note of this concept, which came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Of the Warsaw Pact nations, only Romania refused to participate in the invasion. Nikolae Caecescu had visited Prague during the ‘Spring’ (above) and had become an unlikely ally of Dubcek, since he also wanted to pursue a more independent line within the Soviet bloc. János Kádár (pictured below), the Hungarian leader whom the Soviets had installed after the 1956 Uprising, and was to survive in power for another twenty years, had tried to caution Dubcek not to fall too far out of line with the Kremlin. In spite of Kádár’s desperate effort to mediate between the Kremlin and the Czechoslovak leadership, whose experiment was not very different from what was happening in Hungary at the time, Hungary’s foreign policy was marked by unconditional loyalty to Big Brother on all accounts (Kontler, 2009). This meant taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to avert a counter-revolutionary takeover. That was a decision which lost Hungary many of its remaining ‘friends’ in the west and led to a further worsening of its bilateral relations with the US administration. Martin J Hillebrand, a skilfull career diplomat who had been appointed as the first US Ambassador to Hungary in September 1967, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement  of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely-publicized mediatory role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

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In any case, it was already too late for mediation by the time the invasion was underway. Alexander Dubcek was flown to Moscow and for days, the Czech and Russian leaders talked. He was forced to accept the end of Czech moves towards democracy. On 27th August the Czech leaders returned from Moscow and the Czech President Ludvik Svoboda announced the ‘mixed’ news:

Dear fellow citizens … after four days of negotiations in Moscow we are back with you. Neither you nor we felt at ease.

Dubcek added the bad news:

… to normalise the present complex situation … it will be necessary to take measures limiting freedom of expression as we have become accustomed to it.

In addition, Soviet troops were to stay in Czechoslovakia and censorship was brought back. Yet, for a time, at that time, after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia, there had seemed to be a feint possibility that the reformists could stay in power and the reforms of the Prague Spring would continue. Dubcek, though taken to Moscow in chains, returned as Chairman of the Communist Party still. President Svoboda (his name means ‘freedom’) was still the head of state of the People’s Republic. Together, they promised that nothing would change, but everything did change, though they resisted for as long as they could; virtually every change that had been made during the Prague Spring was overturned within a year.

The heavy hand of Moscow once more gripped Czechoslovakia. A Czech student, Jan Palach, set fire to himself in the centre of Prague as a protest. Over the next year, hard-line Czechoslovak officials replaced their reformist predecessors at all levels. An experiment in political pluralism had come to an abrupt end. The orthodoxy of one-party rule was restored. In April 1969 Dubcek was forced to resign; his idea of making Czechoslovakian Communism more human lay in ruins. He was sent to Turkey as an ambassador, where he was a virtual prisoner in his own embassy. Svoboda died shortly after being replaced by Moscow’s nominee, Gustav Husák, obedient to the central authority in Moscow, who remained in power for the next twenty years until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1970, Dubcek was expelled from the party and the people of Czechoslovakia, eager for freedom, were either purged or effectively ‘buried alive’.

Throughout the Prague Spring the secret police, the Statni Bezpecnost (StB), had continued to operate for their old masters, not their new ones. Photographs existed of everyone who had spoken at every important public meeting throughout the short interlude of freedom. Large numbers of people in the crowds had been photographed too, and notes were taken of everything that was said. All this had been carefully collated. The tribunals began to sift through the StB’s material. Every member of the government, the civil service, the management of factories and businesses, was investigated to see what line he or she had taken during the Prague Spring. It was a long and careful business, carried ou with obsessive attention to detail of a new Inquisition. As with the original Inquisition, the purpose was not to rescue the individual soul of the heretic but to preserve the integrity of the faith. Active supporters of the heresy were dismissed. Usually, they could find only menial jobs. The applications of young men and women applying for places at universities were examined with the same care. No active supporter of the reform movement was accepted.

Lethargy, Legacy and the ‘unhoped-for moment’:

The caretakers, road sweepers, stokers and maintenance men of Czechoslovakia were the best educated in the world. Distinguished academics, senior civil servants, leading journalists and economists tended furnaces, washed steps, and cleaned out lavatories. The men and women who took their jobs in the Party, the government and the economic life of the country were less well-educated. The looking-glass world was well represented in Czechoslovakia. There was no let-up in the tight control, not just of the Party, but also in the group that headed the Party – the group which took power in 1968 and 1969. Gustav Husak, Milos Jakes and the others remembered the last months of the old Party leader, Antonín Novotny, in 1967, and how the hope of greater liberalisation had split the Party and forced even the liberals to go much farther than they intended. Husak and the others knew that if there were the least easing up, they would be swept away. Under such tight control, it remained difficult for the Party to generate any enthusiasm or activity even among its own members. Three days after the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, the Party newspaper Rude Pravo complained, on the 24th August 1983:

It is a serious matter that our Party members live in near-anonymity. They cannot be formally rebuked for this, because they pay their membership dues, regularly attend Party meetings, and take part in agitprop sessions. However, they have nothing to say on serious matters under discussion, they never raise their hands, and they never speak their mind. They never oppose others, but they never fight for their Party.

John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, likened this state of mind to that of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Czechoslovakia, he said, had undergone a kind of lobotomy. People had been encouraged to express their political opinions in 1968 and then had suffered for doing so. It was rare to find anyone, during his visit in 1983, who was prepared to make the same mistake again. Czech journalists who did try to talk to Simpson about 1968 found the awakened memories too painful to share and, perhaps more significantly for that time, they saw no “point” to “raising” them since it would just remind them of the way things used to be, just for a bit … We’ll never be like that again! The authorities demanded quiescence and offered in return a decent material standard of living. The shops were well stocked with food and every weekend in the summer people would head out of the cities to the dachas which were made available in large numbers. It was, Simpson wrote, a sleepwalker’s existence.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia came at a crucial time in the rebuilding of relations between the USA and the USSR. The Americans knew that any serious action on behalf of the Czechs and Slovaks would, at the very least, set back the slow process of improving East-West relations. So, in 1968 the Czechs were left to their fate by the West, as they had been in 1948 and 1938. However, there is a comforting, if comic, codicil to this story. The following year, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team secured a rare win over their Russian rivals. They became world-wide heroes literally overnight, but in the real global power-play, they were still the victims rather than the victors.

Global, ‘regional’ and ‘local’ events in 1968 blurred the distinctions in the images of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to view the United States as freedom’s ‘sheriff’ in the world when at home, its police were clubbing civil rights and anti-war protesters, and abroad its GIs were being made to commit war-crimes in an escalating and undeclared war in south-east Asia. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed its own people with grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a form of government which claimed to rule on behalf of its ‘proletariat’. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended, for decades at least, a possible third way in Central/Eastern Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the Soviet bloc.

On the morning of 23rd October 1988, I was standing with a group of British Quaker teachers, at the Esztergom Basilica on Hungary’s ‘Danube Bend’. Looking down to the river, we could see a ruined bridge which, until the Second World War, had connected Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We were excited, together with our hosts, about the changes taking place in Hungary, two of which had been announced on the radio that morning, the thirty-second anniversary of the beginning of the 1956 Uprising. The first was that those events would no longer be referred to as a ‘counter-revolution’, as they had been, officially, ever since. The second was that a phased, but complete withdrawal of Soviet troops would begin the next year. Our excitement was tinged with sadness when we looked across at what, today, is Slovakia. Our host, a fellow historian, expressed her view that Husak’s hard-line régime would be the last of the Warsaw Pact to liberalise. Almost exactly thirteen months later, Husak and Jakes had gone, and Alexander Dubcek was back in Wenceslas Square, addressing crowds of 300,000. Yet in 1988, he was still, officially, the ‘disgraced leader of the Prague Spring Movement’. His granddaughter had told him:

Grandpa, don’t be sad. We never take any notice when our teachers say what a bad man you are. I always leave the classroom and the teachers never say anything. I know that you’re good.

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Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

 

 

 

Posted June 11, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Cartoons, Civil Rights, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, democracy, Egalitarianism, Europe, France, Germany, guerilla warfare, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Ireland, Journalism, Marxism, Militancy, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Renaissance, Resurrection, Russia, Satire, Second World War, terror, terrorism, Trade Unionism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, World War Two

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