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Russia's Secret Revolutionaries

When Frank Howley first arrived in Berlin in July 1945, he had no idea that the Russians had spent the last ten years training a small but dedicated group of German revolutionary communists. Their role was to wrest control of all the key institutions in Berlin, setting the stage for a violent struggle between East and West.

By
Giles Milton
6-minute read
Episode #96

When Frank Howley first arrived in Berlin in July 1945, he had no idea that the Russians had spent the last ten years training a small but dedicated group of German revolutionary communists.

The role of this group, which had spent a decade of exile in Moscow, was to wrest control of all the key institutions in Berlin. Working in secret, they were to place every institution under Communist control, while keeping up the pretense that power was being shared between the four occupying powers.

The leader of the German revolutionaries was Walter Ulbricht, a Communist who had impeccable revolutionary credentials. “I seldom saw him laugh,” said one in his circle, “and I do not remember ever having detected any signs of personal feelings.”

The leader of these German revolutionaries was Walter Ulbricht, a Communist down to his fingertips, who had impeccable revolutionary credentials. He had fled to the Soviet capital eight years earlier, when life in Hitler’s Germany grew too tight for comfort, and he was soon smuggling anti-Nazi agents back into Berlin. In Moscow, Ulbricht became known as “Comrade Cell,” on account of his gift for organizing networks of underground agents.

Some questioned if he was the right man for a mission that would require charm and charisma. Attired in the shapeless suit of a party apparatchik, Ulbricht was chillingly deficient in both. “I seldom saw him laugh,” said one in his circle, “and I do not remember ever having detected any signs of personal feelings.” Another concluded that he was “not a nice man . . . [and was] a tireless weaver of intrigues.”

This intriguing had left Ulbricht a loner: “from his schooldays onwards, he never had a single personal friend.” He had managed to acquire himself a wife, known as “Comrade Lotte,” but she was loathed by everyone at the Hotel Lux.

Ulbricht had the dogmatic asceticism of a desert monastic. He didn’t drink, didn’t socialize, didn’t eat meat or fish. His mealtime preference was for raw vegetables, a dietary regime that even his most diehard comrades found hard to stomach. According to one, “he never gave cocktail parties, never had affairs and even gave up smoking as a drain on his revolutionary activities.”   

He was the prototype for so many future leaders of Eastern Europe: grim, ashen-faced, and entirely devoid of humor.

When he spoke, he did so in a curiously high-pitched voice, dispensing revolutionary wisdom in his singsong Saxon dialect. His judgment was final and irrevocable. “He has the last word always, interrupting everybody [and] heckling speakers he dislikes.” He was the prototype for so many future leaders of Eastern Europe: grim, ashen-faced, and entirely devoid of humor.

Ulbricht and his fellow revolutionaries had arrived in Berlin on the tail of the victorious Red Army and had displayed a steely sense of purpose since the very first day, focusing their energies on gaining mastery of the police, the mayoral offices, and the trade unions. Ulbricht had done this with the active support of the Soviet Military Administration, but his work was now complicated by the arrival of the Western allies.

Frank Howley’s agents were keeping a close eye on the Soviet-trained revolutionaries, reporting back each new piece of intelligence. The first alarm bell sounded when it was discovered that Ulbricht’s police chief, Paul Markgraf, was a Nazi turned Communist. “In this way,” said Howley, “the Berlin police force was added to the Communist ranks, giving them a powerful weapon.”

Next, it was discovered that Ulbricht had placed the judiciary in the hands of a Communist activist named Mittag. Herr Mittag had no legal training—he was a locksmith by profession—but he had years of experience in coercion. Howley’s assessment of the chief judge was scathing. “In the United States, I doubt if Mittag, controller of all courts, would have got through grammar school.”

Ulbricht had also created a Free German Trade Union Federation, a body that was anything but free, given that all union members were required to join. “It bore no resemblance to the unions of the United States,” observed Howley, who was told it was “an organization with dictatorial powers.”

As each new snippet of intelligence reached Howley’s desk, a clear pattern began to emerge. Something deeply sinister was taking place under his very nose.

As each new snippet of intelligence reached Howley’s desk, a clear pattern began to emerge. Something deeply sinister was taking place under his very nose. All the institutions established in the first weeks of the Soviet occupation had the veneer of being democratic, but whenever Howley’s agents looked at them more closely, they were found to be nothing of the sort. The city was in the hands of “a puppet Communist body headed by Moscow-trained Germans.”

No less disquieting was the discovery that the mayor, Arthur Werner, had no authority whatsoever. “Real power was in the hands of Soviet tools like Deputy Mayor Maron,” one of the Moscow-trained revolutionaries. Frank Howley’s liaison officer witnessed a graphic display of Karl Maron’s ruthlessness while visiting the mayoral headquarters. Throwing a batch of papers onto Werner’s desk, Maron ordered them to be signed.

“But I haven’t read them yet,” Werner protested. “You cannot expect me to sign them without reading them.”

The British intelligence agent, Wilfred Byford-Jones trailed the German revolutionaries with the assiduousness of a private detective, aware that he was witnessing the opening moves in a secretive power grab. “The real political battle in Berlin was at first underground,” he wrote. “One could live there as a foreigner and not be aware that a classical struggle between an international Communism and the forces which will ever oppose it was in progress.” He was dismayed by the policy emanating from London, whose politicians seemed entirely ignorant of the situation on the ground. “[They] watched developments a little puzzled as to where the Russian bear was heading,” he said, “ever hoping for the best.”

Ulbricht’s revolutionaries represented an existential threat to the Western sectors of Berlin. British official Harold Hays was increasingly convinced that Berlin would be the stage set for a violent struggle between East and West.

The British official, Harold Hays, had also been keeping a close eye on Walter Ulbricht and was increasingly convinced that Berlin would be the stage set for a violent struggle between East and West. He had seen enough to conclude that Ulbricht’s revolutionaries represented an existential threat to the Western sectors of Berlin. “Communism to them is not just a political dogma,” he said, “but a holy crusade.” He felt they would be prepared to use force to achieve their goal, although he added an important caveat: “They are led by cunning leaders who prefer to attain their victory by other means . . . propaganda, falsehood, calumny and every evil which can be stirred up by the written or spoken word.”

Frank Howley agreed with Hays, having already concluded that American policy toward Berlin was as misguided as that of the British. Stalin’s apparatchiks were simply not playing by the same rules. Howley was equally aware that when it came to dealing with the Soviets, the traditional American way of doing things was wholly inadequate. “They will promise anything, sign anything, provided it benefits them, and will scrap the pledge the moment it doesn’t.” It was a world away from life in Philadelphia, where Howley had his advertising business. “American business life is carried on by checks, which imply trust. The Russians are ideologically incapable of such a system because they would dishonor their signatures the next day if it happened to be expedient.”

Howley’s first weeks in the German capital had opened his eyes in a way he had never thought possible. “I had come to Berlin with the idea that the Germans were the enemies,” he wrote. “[But] it was becoming more evident by the day that it was the Russians who really were our enemies.” This realization placed him in a dilemma. Should he continue to follow Washington’s misguided policy, or should he develop his own, more combative approach, one that risked rousing the fury of Joseph Stalin? It didn’t take him long to find the answer. But he knew he had to tread with extreme care, for one false step could lead the United States into a terrible new war – this time, with the Soviet Union.
 

Image under Creative Common Licensing 

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.