ôô

The Great Berlin Power Struggle

The opening shots of an ensuing power struggle were fired in the Allied Kommandatura, the four-power body established to run Berlin convened in July 1945. But mistrust and manipulation among the key players threatened the outcome over the most pressing issues: food, looting, shootings, and the arrest of Nazis.

By
Giles Milton
6-minute read
Episode #97

Col. Frank Howley was determined to prevent the Soviets from wresting control of the western-run districts of Berlin, but he knew it would be an uphill struggle. He was increasingly strident in his criticism of official American policy, which he described as “appeasement of the Russians at any price in an attempt to win them over.” He was also irritated by reminders from Washington that his role was to “allay their suspicions and to gain their friendship and cooperation.” He had privately vowed to take a more combative approach, even if it meant crossing swords with the White House and State Department.

“There is only one way to deal with gangsters, Russian-uniformed or otherwise,” he said with a scowl, “and that is to treat them like gangsters.”

“There is only one way to deal with gangsters, Russian-uniformed or otherwise,” he said with a scowl, “and that is to treat them like gangsters.” He would later describe lying awake at night “trying to think up ways to keep the Russians from stealing the city from under us.”

The opening shots of the ensuing power struggle were fired in the Allied Kommandatura, the four-power body established to run Berlin. It had been officially convened in the first week of July 1945, but it had proven near impossible to find a building in which it could meet. The Americans eventually suggested the half-ruined headquarters of the Nazi Labour Front, in their sector of the city. Within days it was reglazed, replastered, and repainted by 250 American workmen.

The main meeting room was sober and functional, furnished with a long banqueting table, twenty blue upholstered armchairs, and several rows of smaller seats for the advisors, stenographers, and interpreters. This wood-paneled chamber was to be the stage set for events that were, in the words of Frank Howley, “as portentous in world implications as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.”

The key players in the Kommandatura included Colonel Howley (for America) and Brigadier Hinde (for Britain). They represented their respective areas of western Berlin and it was they who were to fight tooth and nail with the Soviets over the city’s destiny.

If his clothing and boots sent an unambiguous message that he was on the warpath, his blunt tongue would do even more to turn the Kommandatura into a bear pit.

Colonel Howley sat next to his Soviet counterpart, with Hinde opposite him and his soon-to-arrive French comrade in the adjacent chair, all of them surrounded by advisors. Howley regarded himself as the first among equals of this four-square phalanx, a do-or-die warrior who attended meetings in full combat dress. If his clothing and boots sent an unambiguous message that he was on the warpath, his blunt tongue would do even more to turn the Kommandatura into a bear pit.

His American compatriots had a sneaking admiration for the bellicose fashion in which he represented his country’s interests. Among the admirers was William Heimlich, a senior figure in U.S. intelligence, who listened in jaw-dropped amazement as Howley fired off one of his explosive tirades.

“Well, of course, I don’t expect you to tell me the truth” was a typical opening salvo to his Soviet counterpart. “You lie. You always lie, and no matter what you’re going to tell me it’s not going to be the truth.” Heimlich averred that Howley’s approach won the grudging respect of the Soviets, but it also earned their deep-seated enmity. It was not long before they viewed him as a formidable enemy, with Berlin’s Soviet-backed newspapers variously describing him as a “terrorist” and “provocateur of civil war.”

“Well, of course, I don’t expect you to tell me the truth” was a typical opening salvo to his Soviet counterpart. “You lie. You always lie, and no matter what you’re going to tell me it’s not going to be the truth.”

Howley’s lack of decorum was viewed with disquiet by the British team, who felt he was inflaming an already tense situation. Harold Hays had enjoyed Howley’s ebullient spirit during their time in Barbizon, but he now found him “thrustful, intolerant and impetuous, with a great love of showmanship and publicity.” Above all, he thought him “extremely self-centered and individualistic.”

Seated opposite Howley at the Kommandatura table was the scrupulously fair-minded Brigadier Hinde. He came equipped with enough old-school British charm to disarm even the frostiest of Soviet interlocutors. Less combative than Colonel Howley and more attuned to the conventions of diplomacy, he attended meetings in immaculate service dress, all “white flannels and shiny leather belts.” It was his way of showing that there was a “right way” of conducting the weighty affairs of state.

Brigadier Hinde’s negotiating style was that of an even-handed cricket umpire, with Colonel Howley noting that the British team “was inclined to show great annoyance at anything smacking of twisted truth.” The Soviet team on the Kommandatura was led by an incoming lieutenant-general named Dmitri Smirnov, who made a good impression on everyone at the first meeting. Howley described him as “a very charming man with a skin of detachment,” but he soon discovered that this detachment was used to devastating effect. Smirnov was in the habit of smiling placatingly before launching verbal assaults in which, said Howley, he would “wade in and cut us to pieces.”

Smirnov arrived in Berlin with a team of commissars whose grasp of facts and figures astonished the representatives of the other powers. He was also aided by a team of shadowy political officers, probably NKVD, whose roles and identities were never fully explained. “The most senior of these,” said Howley, “was a sallow, chain-smoking commissar aged about thirty-six, introduced as Mr. Maximov, whose true identity was so shrouded in mystery that Western minute-takers were not even allowed to know his first name.”

Colonel Howley took relish in writing about his Kommandatura colleagues. Three years of studying fine art in Paris had honed his powers of observation, and he produced scores of witty pen portraits tainted by personal prejudice. His description of the Soviet deputy Col. Andrei Yelizarov was particularly colorful. The colonel was described as “a big, powerful bruiser who had married a sister-in-law of Lenin and had forthwith become the father of an astonishing sixteen-pound baby . . . Yelizarov was more Russian than caviar. He seldom smiled[,] and when he did smile it was like ice breaking up on the Yukon in spring.”

Turning to his Soviet counterpart, he said, “You can’t kick a lady when she’s down.” The Russian flashed him an indulgent smile. “Why[,] my dear Colonel Howley,” he replied, “that is exactly the best time to kick them.”

Those early sessions of the Kommandatura were dominated by the problem of feeding Berlin’s inhabitants. All agreed that the neediest should get the most calories, but there was no consensus over who was most in need. The Soviets said it was the professional classes, including political leaders, while Howley insisted it was the elderly and infirm. Turning to his Soviet counterpart, he said, “You can’t kick a lady when she’s down.” The Russian flashed him an indulgent smile. “Why[,] my dear Colonel Howley,” he replied, “that is exactly the best time to kick them.”

Another bone of contention was the continued dismantling of factories and power plants. Howley and Hinde were dismayed to see Soviet trains arrive daily at Tempelhof freight yard and load up with dismantled equipment, far more than had been sanctioned by the Potsdam Agreement. “So savage was their cannibalizing of power plants and so wholesale their theft of generator equipment that only the strongest representations saved Berlin’s remaining power supply.” In what Howley described as “a hot session,” he expressed his outrage at their organized looting. The Soviet team answered with shrugs, telling him their orders were “from a higher authority.”

The British officer, Harold Hays, left a very similar account of Soviet tactics to that of Frank Howley. “Words in common use are given a sinister twist,” he wrote after one heated meeting, “and an interpretation which only a warped mind could conjure up. Simple phrases are distorted or torn from their context.” The Soviet team was equally mistrustful of the Westerners, accusing them of eavesdropping, espionage, and dirty tricks. “Cunning” was the terse assessment of one Soviet official.

Over the course of that autumn and winter, the four deputies wrangled over all the most pressing issues: food, looting, shootings, the arrest of Nazis.

“No matter how friendly they may have appeared or how friendly they wished to be,” he said, “Communism was the goal.”

The Soviet delegation won most of the battles in those early months. Then, once they had got what they wanted, they would invite the other three delegations into the adjoining dining room, where the tables were charged with smoked meats, caviar, and vodka. Howard Hays felt that the Russians’ conviviality masked a plot to force their will on the Western allies. “No matter how friendly they may have appeared or how friendly they wished to be,” he said, “Communism was the goal.”

Frank Howley agreed. Although, as ever, he used rather stronger language. “It is all very well poking our heads in the clouds and saying the Russians are misunderstood,” he said Howley, “[but] such rationalizations fail to alter the fact that by our standards, or by any standards of common decency, they are liars, swindlers, and cut-throats.”

He had privately vowed to take them on at their own game... and win.

 

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.