A Battle of Wits in Post-War Berlin

Western allies in post-war Berlin had never encountered the likes of General Alexander Kotikov, a staunch communist with a velvet touch.

Giles Milton
6-minute read
Episode #99

Frank Howley had grown used to expecting the unexpected in Berlin, but even he was taken by surprise when he attended a meeting of the Kommandatura at the end of April 1946. The Russian team had undergone a radical purge. Lieutenant-General Smirnov had disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again, and his deputy had been removed due to “terrible stomach wounds received during the war.”

The new and incoming team was headed by a pugnacious heavyweight named Gen. Alexander Kotikov, instantly recognizable by his mesmerizing eyes, his quiff of silver hair, and his blunted turnip of a nose, the latter being the result of his having been kicked in the face by a horse when young.

Howley knew nothing about General Kotikov when he first pitched up in Berlin and was unaware that he had been selected by Moscow because he could be trusted to punch hard and low. He was also a committed Communist. At the age of fifteen, he and his friends had ripped off their baptismal crosses as a gesture of solidarity with Lenin’s Bolsheviks. “By this act,” said Kotikov, “we were joining the revolution.” It was the beginning of a blood-and-guts adventure that would see him fight the Nazis at both Moscow and Leningrad before taking part in the capture of Berlin.   

Kotikov was unusually gregarious for a Soviet general and had a flamboyant charm that was wholly absent in the other members of his team. His Berlin office was furnished with an impressive rank of ten telephones, the most striking of which was made from gleaming white Bakelite. “It might have belonged to a Hollywood actress,” remarked journalist Karl Schwarz. “It wasn’t quite like what I had expected a Communist general’s office to be.”

Kotikov was still an unknown quantity when introduced to his three Western-allied colleagues. He certainly made a favorable impression at his first Kommandatura meeting, addressing his fellow members with courteous charm. “I’m new here to the Kommandatura,” he said. “You, my colleagues, are doubtless more familiar with this question. Won’t you let me have your words and advice on the matter?”

A tough-playing fullback whose role was to expel the Western allies from Berlin. His gregariousness only added to the allure.

Howley came close to being won over, but the fact that such words were coming from the mouth of a Soviet official gave him pause. Over the days that followed, he began to wonder if Kotikov was actually a master of dissimulation, sent to Berlin because he “was an expert on conference technique.” This was indeed correct. Kotikov was a highly skilled operator who outclassed all who had come before him.

“In striking contrast to his predecessors,” said Howley, “he brought a new dialectical weapon to the Kommandatura. He was the first to use humility, and use it effectively.” He would feign ignorance, “begging the speaker to expound more fully, please.” Howley soon saw through this deceit and immediately took against him. “His humility was as unctuous as Uriah Heep’s and, being as serpentine, was as poisonous as a sting.”

Yet he remained captivated by Kotikov. It was as if this were the enemy he had wanted all along, a tough-playing fullback whose role was to expel the Western allies from Berlin. His gregariousness only added to the allure: Kotikov was to prove a most fulsome host, throwing lavish soirees at which the vodka flowed as swiftly as the River Don.

“Well[,] we’ve worked, we’ve talked, now let’s eat,” he would roar as he led the others into the adjoining banquet room. American journalist Curt Riess was witness to one of these feasts. Riess was no stranger to excess, but Kotikov’s lavish entertainments outclassed those of everyone else. “Along the whole length of an enormous table stood the slender towers of bottles: vodka, red Crimean champagne, sweet wines, French cognac, Pilsner beers. There were bowls of Strasbourg pâté de foie gras, roast chicken, game, huge glass bowls of red and black caviar. There were lobsters, oysters, turkey with truffles, every imaginable fish, salads, salmon, sturgeon, and mountains of white bread and butter.”

In the midst of the banquet was Kotikov himself, “the personification of jollity,” who repeatedly slapped everyone on the back as a sign of hearty goodwill. By the end of the banquet, the entire room (with the exception of Kotikov himself ) was completely drunk. “Apparently, alcohol did not affect him.”

Frank Howley was convinced that Kotikov had been dispatched to Berlin for a specific mission. “From the volume of notes he carried and his generally aggressive attitude, it was obvious he had been sent by Moscow with definite orders to get the new Communist party going.” Not only that, but he was also there “to control Berlin and to harass the Western allies.”

As the summer of 1946 approached, the heat inside the Kommandatura building intensified. While Brigadier Hinde remained scrupulously polite, the battles between Howley and Kotikov became intensely personal. This was exactly how Howley wanted it to be, for he had long believed that the biggest mouth made the loudest noise. “Personalities,” he said, “determined which nation was most influential.’

It was not long before the atmosphere in the Kommandatura became so poisonous that Howley had to warn the Soviets that they were treading on thin ice. “Throughout the day, General Kotikov made many remarks bordering on insults,” he said at the end of one session. “We no longer are conducting these meetings as gentlemen; they are developing into a series of dog-fights.”

It was not long before the atmosphere in the Kommandatura became so poisonous that Howley had to warn the Soviets that they were treading on thin ice.

He pointed the finger of blame directly at his Soviet counterpart, “my number one antagonist,” who disgusted him on both a personal and professional level. “The epitome and the quintessence of the evil doctrines Moscow preaches,” he wrote. “A big bulky man . . . with a mouth like a petulant rosebud, his mind turned on and off automatically with switches operated in the Kremlin.”

It seemed appropriate to everyone that the final official showdown between the Soviets and the Western allies, on Wednesday, June 16, 1948, should take place in the Kommandatura, scene of so many previous wrangles. Meetings had become so heated over the previous weeks that it no longer functioned as a debating chamber. “It would take a wheelbarrow to bring here all the insults published about the Americans in the Soviet sector,” said Howley at one session. Kotikov’s response was equally combative. “A ten-ton truck wouldn’t be enough to haul all the insanities and calumnies the press carries in your sectors.”

Howley felt that the Soviets were doing everything they could to provoke a definitive crisis. “Kotikov’s attacks seemed all part of the new campaign by the Russians to kill the Kommandatura, blame the West for its demise and then try to drive us all out of the city.”

A regular meeting had been scheduled for that Wednesday, beginning earlier than usual, at 10 a.m. It was an insufferably hot morning, leading one commentator to say that it was as if the weather itself “had a role in the tragedy and the melodrama of things to come.”

The three Western representatives arrived at the Kommandatura for what they assumed to be a regular session, with the usual wrangling over trade unions, city governance, and postal services. The first surprise came when General Kotikov failed to show up. They were told he had an illness and would be represented by his deputy Col. Andrei Yelizarov.

The meeting was angry and ill-humored, with the arguing continuing until around 7 p.m., when something most unusual occurred. The door to the chamber opened, and in walked a strange-looking Soviet commissar. “A man I had never seen before,” said Howley, “and have never seen since.”

He was not introduced, nor was it clear why he was there, but he certainly made an impression, for he was wearing a colorful embroidered Ukrainian blouse. He leaned over the table and whispered furtively to Yelizarov and Maximov. His words had an electrifying effect. “An emotion very close to excitement shook the two usually frozen-faced Russians[,] and Yelizarov asked for a recess.” Howley and his British and French colleagues agreed and headed to the upstairs dining room, leaving the Russians to discuss matters in private. “Something was in the air,” said Howley. “That was definite.”

The meeting continued as before, with another four hours of fruitless argument. By 11:15 p.m., Howley was exhausted and asked General Ganeval, the chairman of that day’s session, if he could be excused. The general agreed, and Howley moved toward the door, unaware of the extraordinary scenes about to unfold.

An English lieutenant-colonel, Harold Hays observed everything that followed. “For a brief moment the talking ceased,” he said, “while all eyes were directed towards Colonel Howley. The interpreters, for once caught completely off their guard, remained silent.”

Hays’s eyes flicked left and right; something was afoot at the far end of the room. As Howley made his way downstairs, Colonel Yelizarov shot to his feet. “I consider it impossible to continue this meeting after an action that I can only claim as a hooligan action on the part of Colonel Howley,” he shouted. “I will not remain here anymore.” Seconds later, the Soviet delegation stormed out of the room. It was later said that the last word spoken by Yelizarov was "nyet." It was the perfect epitaph to the now-defunct Kommandatura.

Later that night, at around 3 a.m., Frank Howley gave a briefing to the American press, which had already picked up rumors of the drama. “If any jokers think they’re going to get the British, French, and Americans out of Berlin,” said Howley, “they have another think coming.”

Yet he was soon to find himself with a battle on his hands, for the great showdown between East and West was about to begin.

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About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.