The most infamous historical battle of the 20th century is one most people know only from images of the Berlin Wall that separated the city. While we may not be able to predict the future, this much is clear: the Cold War and the Berlin Wall were but two points in a long history of conflict between the Soviet Union and its allies and the West.
The city of Berlin has a long and storied history. It has been the capital of Germany for more than a thousand years and the center of European music, art, and culture for a hundred years of that time. But what has this city done to mark its place in the world? Well, it was the site of the first Nazi regime in the 20th century, where Hitler began his effort to construct a new Aryan society, and it was another home of the Cold War, where the Soviet Union began its effort to dominate Europe and the world. But it was not only a place where Nazi and Soviet influence was strong; it has also been home to multiple revolutions, uprisings, and terrorist attacks that have helped to define the modern
The city of Berlin, Germany was ravaged by the war. It was unrecognizable, as it was bombed by the allies and a few cities were intentionally destroyed by the Nazis. Yet the city remained a battleground for much of the time after its liberation at the end of World War II.. Read more about why did the soviet union blockade west berlin? and let us know what you think.
When the victorious Allies took Berlin, the fighting ceased, and the focus shifted to politics.
Frank L. Howley (second from left), an Army civil affairs officer, represented the United States on the four-power Kommandatura that controlled postwar Berlin. (Wisconsin State University)
THE “THOUSAND YEAR REICH” HAD JUST ONE MONTH TO LIVE BY THE FIRST DAYS OF APRIL 1945. From the west, American soldiers had stormed the Rhine and conquered large cities like Frankfurt and Kassel. Northern Germany was being invaded by the British. The Soviets would shortly strike Berlin and become the first Allied nation to take Germany’s capital, moving relentlessly from the east. The German resistance was crumbling, and the country was on the verge of collapse.
Frank L. Howley, a 42-year-old colonel at the time, was intended to lead the American occupation forces in Berlin as the director of military administration. Howley was sure that he could work effectively with the Soviets, the ally that he and the other Americans understood the least about. “We still had no contact with the Russians” until April 1945, according to Howley’s account, Berlin Command, published in 1950. “I optimistically lifted my glass and proclaimed great confidence that we were going to be firm and quick friends with our allies,” he said as his detachment prepared to leave its temporary base in France and march east. It had never occurred to me that it may be different.”
His hope had faded after a year. Relations between the Western Allies and the Soviets had deteriorated. Howley was a member of the Kommandatura, the ruling body in charge of occupied Berlin. After a “long, uncomfortable meeting,” he writes in his memoir, “I find in my journal for May 1946 the following comment: ‘If this type of conference is to continue, we should admit the failure of the Kommandatura and find some other manner of controlling Berlin.’ Regrettably, this type of gathering has persisted. We couldn’t put the brakes on since we were speeding downhill.”
Disagreements regarding the proposed Berlin municipal elections caused the “unpleasantness” in that meeting. Those elections, the first in Berlin since Nazi Germany’s surrender, sparked one of the first significant postwar tensions between the Soviets and the West. The election campaign was lively, often enraged, and even fatal at times, and it resulted in numerous disagreements among the occupying countries. Despite initial hopes for a peaceful new world order following the elections, relations between the Soviets and the Western occupying powers, both in Berlin and around the world, would only deteriorate.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (left, above) and his Soviet counterpart Marshal Georgi Zhukov (middle, above) became “very cordial” early in joint Allied administration, according to Ike’s deputy, Lieutenant General Lucius D. Clay (below). (Getty Images/William Vandivert/The Life Picture Collection)
(Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Pictorial Parade)
The European Advisory Commission (EAC), a negotiating body made up of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, had created plans for jointly ruling Berlin after Germany’s expected surrender in 1944. The city was divided into occupation sections by the EAC, with the Soviets in the east, Americans in the southwest, and the British in the northwest. (The French were later given their own sector, which was derived from the British zone.) Each occupying power would be in charge of a separate sector. However, the Allies would create a “Kommandatura”—a Russian name for a military command post—where the French, Russians, Americans, and British would work together to control the city. (The Allied Control Council, a four-power ruling body, was in charge of all of occupied Germany.)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt “had faith in Soviet-American cooperation,” but “considered Germany as the proving ground,” according to Robert Murphy, principal State Department counsel to the American military administration in Germany, in his 1964 memoir. According to Murphy, “Roosevelt’s mandate” was to “get along with the Russians because Germany, particularly Berlin, was to be the test of whether postwar collaboration between the US and the USSR was possible.”
The wartime Allies created plans for a new postwar organization—the United Nations—at the Dumbarton Oaks [Washington, D.C.] Conference in September 1944. If the United Nations, which would be created in October 1945, was to maintain world peace, FDR required Russian assistance. “Roosevelt saw the United Nations as a replacement for old-fashioned alliances,” Murphy wrote, adding that Roosevelt “believed that the troops of Russia, Britain, and other European nations could be trusted to protect against future German aggression.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, the military governor of Germany’s American Zone, and Lieutenant General Lucius D. Clay, the deputy military governor, were adamant about carrying out Roosevelt’s instructions to the best of their abilities. In his 1950 book, Clay stated, “We were earnest in our desire to [create] quadripartite administration, which we felt would foster deeper understanding and solve many problems.”
President Harry S. Truman dispatched Harry Hopkins, a valued FDR assistant, to Moscow in late May 1945, a month after FDR’s death, to consult with Stalin. Both Washington and London were concerned that Stalin would break his promises made at the Yalta Conference the previous February over UN administration and other disputed issues. Hopkins, on the other hand, “sent an enthusiastic message…. [He] had persuaded the dictator to accept satisfactory compromises,” Murphy reported from Moscow. “We expected few complications with the Soviets” because of Hopkins’ favorable report on Stalin’s attitude.
“We were entering the Allied Control Council with no illusions, and we understood that the path ahead would be riddled with obstacles,” Clay explained. Percy Knauth, a wartime journalist for the New York Times, Time, and Life magazines, questioned Clay in 1945 “how he felt about the prospects of success in the experiment of ruling Germany.” “It has to work,” Clay replied. How are we going to join together in an international organization to rule the world if we can’t get together to run Germany now? It is possible because it is required. Patience is required. It’ll be difficult…. The exam is RIGHT HERE.”
On July 4, 1945, the Americans took command of their occupying sector. The Stars and Stripes were raised above a former SS compound as bands played the Russian and American national anthems as General Omar Bradley and the Soviet commandant of Berlin looked on. The West had great expectations for their new relationship with the Soviets. According to New York Times journalist Drew Middleton, “many serious and honest Americans and Britons had respected Russia for her struggle” against Germany. “Good-willed men hoped that defeating Germany and Japan would usher in a new era of international collaboration based on cooperation between the major powers of East and West.” They “counted on a good amount of assistance from the Soviet Union,” he added.
Things appeared to be going well at first. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the supreme Soviet commander in Germany, and Eisenhower got along swimmingly. Clay writes, “General Eisenhower and Zhukov became fairly friendly.” Clay’s Soviet military equivalent, [General Vasily] Sokolovsky, said, “I was quite friends with Zhukov, and especially friendly with [General Vasily] Sokolovsky.” Officers from the United States and the Soviet Union routinely socialized. Eisenhower and Zhukov even tried to hum along to a group of African American vocalists singing “Old Man River” at a party on June 10, 1945. When Japan surrendered, joyful (and presumably intoxicated) Americans joined the Soviets in singing “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” a traditional Russian folk tune.
On July 30, 1945, the Allied Control Council met for the first time in Berlin. After the meeting, Eisenhower wrote to Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, saying that he found Zhukov “most pleasant and [was] rather hopeful” that he would help in making the Berlin organization a successful machine. One month later, Clay sent Washington a similar message. He claimed that the Allied Control Council was already “running smoothly.” “While acknowledging that truly difficult issues need to be addressed, I am heartened by the general attitude of collaboration and the obvious desire, particularly on the part of the Russians, to engage with us in solving the many problems,” he observed. Colonel Howley admitted that the Soviets were “hard dealing, hard playing, hard drinking, hard bodied, and hard headed,” and that they “cooperated on 95 percent of all matters.” You should keep away from them if you are a softie. You’ll get along great if you’re skilled, informed, fair, and ‘fearless.’”
Members of Berlin’s Marxist SPD party decided in March 1946 to remain an independent party, free of Soviet influence. (Getty Images/ADN-Bildarchiv/Ullstein Bild) )
In October of that year, the Communist SED party, which was campaigning in the city, faced off against the SPD and other Western-leaning parties in a citywide general election. (Photo Krueger, Erich O., Bundesarchiv Bild 183-r98185.)
MANY OF THE IMMEDIATE PROBLEMS IN POST-WWII BERN were practical rather than ideological. The Kommandatura had to restore a shattered city while also preventing malnutrition and sickness among the populace. In August 1945, half of the babies delivered in Berlin died. When Jewish American soldiers congregated in a Berlin synagogue four months after the city surrendered, the canal next to it “still stank of rotting bodies,” according to a Chicago Sun writer. According to Drew Middleton, Allied occupiers “were thinking of the coming winter and the possibility of famine, sickness, and utter suffering.” The four powers were prompted by a mix of good impulses and necessity to create policies and initiatives that helped distribute food, clear the rubble, and restore essential services.
According to Clay, the Allied Control Council’s offices “soon became a beehive of activity.” “In the Control Council building, an Allied mess was run. It was always fascinating to see Russians, British, French, and Americans eat together and communicate through interpreters, either in sign language or in a mutually spoken language (typically German), in which few were competent…. Outwardly, there was a lot of good will and good intention. Most of us began to believe that this worldwide collaboration experiment might work. Perhaps it will lead to the understanding that is required for long-term peace.”
Authors Donald Carter and William Stivers document the army’s tenure in Berlin from 1945 to 1949 in The City Becomes a Symbol, a 2017 book published by the US Army Center of Military History. Much of the early cooperation, according to Carter and Stivers, was due to the lack of dogma in the Kommandatura’s difficulties. “In January 1946, Colonel Howley defined the military government as an administration of ‘specialists,’ whose mission it was to control diseases, clean pollutants from waterways, chlorinate the water, restore utility services, weatherproof homes, and reopen banks,” they write. Politics, on the other hand, had little bearing on their work.” Early in 1946, this began to change.
Lieutenant General Clay directed the US commandant in Berlin to push for citywide elections to elect representatives to the Berlin City Council in late February. Clay wanted to shift the burden of administering Germany from the Allies to the Germans, and he needed to re-establish German civilian administration to do so. “I didn’t know how long the United States would be willing to support an occupation,” he said. The US Army quickly reduced its presence in Germany after the war ended. Colonel Howley arrived in Berlin in July 1945 with 150 officers; a year later, only he and three others remained. “During the war, President Roosevelt often stated that American troops would not be required to remain abroad for lengthy periods of time or in significant numbers once military victory had been accomplished over Germany and Japan,” Robert Murphy recounted. The people of the United States desired their men and women to return home. It would have to be taken over by Germans.
The Americans were also compelled to seek elections for another reason, which was unique to Berlin. The Soviets placed municipal authorities throughout the city, not just in the Soviet sector, when they took the city in May 1945. Many of these authorities were close with the Soviets and their friends, the German Communists, or were easily intimidated by them. Frequently, occupation officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France discovered that German public personnel in their own areas were more loyal to the Soviets than to them. (Some of these officials’ credentials were dubious.) One glaring—and amusing—example: a man selected as a chief judge by the Russians was a locksmith, not a lawyer.) However, a new crop of Berlin legislators might choose different public officials, reducing the Communists’ power in the city’s governance. The Soviets, predictably, were not in a hurry to install a new government and remove favorable officials from power.
Any election had to be approved by the Kommandatura, and any party that wished to participate had to be approved by the Kommandatura. (In reality, in 1946, you could be jailed if you ran a political party in Berlin without Allied approval.) In early 1946, Berlin had four authorized parties. The Communists and the Social Democrats were both on the left. In Berlin, the Social Democrat Party (abbreviated as “SPD”) was the most popular political party. It had Marxist foundations but had never embraced totalitarianism in the Soviet way. Stalin wanted the SPD and the Communists to join to become the Socialist Unity Party, or SED in German. When the national SPD leadership declined, Soviet-friendly SPD officials went forward with plans for a hasty merger regardless.
The rank-and-file of the Berlin SPD revolted. Over 1,000 members of the old party convened at the State Opera House on March 1, 1946, and decisively voted to leave the new party. According to a State Department telegram, when a leader of the merger campaign tried to speak in favor of it, he was “repeatedly stopped by boos, hisses, and calls from the floor.” The “whole audience shouted with laughter” when the same official asserted that the German Communist Party was independent of Soviet supervision.
On March 31, anti-merger forces organized a citywide poll of SPD members. According to Carter and Stivers, approximately 24,000 Social Democrats voted in western Berlin, accounting for more than 72 percent of all registered Social Democrats. Meanwhile, elections in the Soviet sector opened on time but were closed by the Soviet authorities after only one hour, claiming that election organizers had broken various “strange norms,” as Howley phrased it in his biography. The Soviet blundering failed to avert the impending blow. Members of the Berlin SPD voted 19 to 2 against the merger.
The anti-merger forces asked permission from Kommandatura to campaign for the SPD in the city elections. Meanwhile, the German Communists and their SPD partners finalized their merger and submitted the new SED party for approval to the Kommandatura. A flaw in both the Allied Control Council and the Kommandatura’s operational protocols produced complications at this point. Neither group could operate on the basis of a majority vote. Any one of the four Allied powers might veto any measure, therefore all decisions had to be unanimous.
The Kommandatura couldn’t agree on allowing both the SPD and the SED to run in the elections, therefore the four commanders of Allied military authority in Germany forwarded the matter to the Allied Control Council for a decision. General Sokolovsky, the Soviet military government’s chief, could have vetoed any plan, leaving the Western Allies with little recourse. Sokolovsky, on the other hand, did not do so. Both the SPD and the SED were allowed to run for election within Berlin by the Allied Control Council (alongside the two more centrist parties, the Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats). The date for the elections has been fixed for October 20.
At first glance, Sokolovsky’s decision to allow the SPD to split and run against the new SED seemed perplexing. The Soviets were well aware of how much the Berliners despised them for plundering and rape as they took eastern Germany. However, there were good reasons for the Russians to believe (or at least hope) that they could win the votes of Berliners. According to Clay’s account, “communism gained strong indigenous backing.” He added that Marxism “was a significant political movement with profound roots in Germany’s past,” and that it “did not rely simply on the bayonets of the Red Army.” Prior to the Nazi era, the combined vote of the Social Democrats and Communists—both with Marxist roots—“approached 40 to 50 percent of the electorate,” according to Clay.
On election night (above), it was evident that the SED, the Soviets’ preferred party, was losing badly. The Allied powers’ deteriorating relations worsened further, culminating in the construction of the Berlin Wall (below) in 1961, a literal division between East and West. (Getty Images/Ullstein Bild) )
(Image courtesy of DPA/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
SOVIET POLITICIANS and campaign propagandists bragged about the Soviet Union’s desire to reunify Germany as quickly as possible. They accused the Western Allies of aiming to divide Germany into two sections for all time. They referred to the French, who demanded permanent control of the coal-rich Saar region and the internationalization of the industrial Ruhr. Drew Middleton said in 1945 that there were few Germans who did not “look forward to the reunification of eastern and western Germany” and “few who do not believe that this is important to the restoration of Germany to something akin to her old position of affluence and importance in Europe.” “The Russians and German Communists, who have made numerous errors in Germany, have chosen ‘German unification’ as their main slogan.”
To win the election, the Soviets went all-out. They put posters and banners all over their sector. “With Red banners and enormous slogans hanging across the streets, the entire area reminded me of a newsreel version of Red Square celebrating the October Revolution,” Howley recalled. “A number of pre-election meal parties were organized at SED headquarters,” with “supplies coming from [common Allied] food stocks,” according to the report. “With the compliments of the SED,” they delivered cakes, biscuits, and notebooks to the students.
In the Soviet sector, SPD campaigners were treated harshly. Speakers were disallowed and rallies were canceled at the last minute by the Russians. In the western areas, the Soviets posed a threat to SPD members—as well as ordinary civilians. The NKVD, the Soviet Interior Ministry’s secret police, had the ability to reach anyplace in the city, and people frequently vanished from the streets, never to be seen or heard from again. The Soviets also hinted that the Americans would leave Berlin soon. Howley had to tell concerned west Berliners that the Americans “were staying in Berlin, and would stay there for twenty years if necessary.”
The Berlin elections were watched by the entire globe, without hyperbole. Colonel Louis Glazier, a U.S. military government representative, described them as a “sounding board for the German people’s response to the diverse notions of democracy and administration provided by the four jointly occupying nations.” “Only in Berlin have the residents of one German city had firsthand experience with the various types of democracy and administration for which the various Allied countries advocate…. Many Berliners will vote not for or against any party, but knowingly and seriously for one particular concept of democracy when they go to the polls.”
With 89 percent of eligible citizens voting, the election was a resounding success. The SED was obliterated. The SPD received 48.7% of the vote, with the three right-wing parties (the SPD, Christian Democrats, and Liberal Democrats) winning more than 80% of the vote. With 19.8% of the vote, the SED came in third in the city. The election results were a “huge personal defeat in a campaign they had led with such deceptive intensity,” said Howley, adding that Russian officials “were downcast.” The findings “must have startled the Soviet authorities,” Clay said, “and made them realize that typical political techniques of acquiring control of Germany were hopeless.”
Although the 1946 Berlin elections were not the catalyst for the eventual break between the Soviet Union and the West—a separation that would result in the Berlin Blockade and Airlift two years later and the Cold War two years later—the seeds were planted. In his memoir, Clay concluded, “I’m not convinced we could ever have made four-power government function over a long period of time.” “There were simply too many contrasts between our systems.” Unfortunately, the Soviet and Western agendas were incompatible. Clay, Howley, and the rest of the crew realized that 1945’s high promises had been destroyed. From October 1946 onwards, the Berlin Cold War would only intensify.
This story appeared in the World War II magazine in June 2023.
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Frequently Asked Questions
When did the Battle of Berlin end?
The Battle of Berlin ended on May 8, 1945.
What was the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin?
The Battle of Berlin was the final battle in World War II. It took place from April 16 to May 2, 1945, and resulted in the complete destruction of Berlin by bombing.
How long was the battle for Berlin?
The battle for Berlin lasted from April 16th, 1945 to May 2nd, 1945.
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