INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES WHEELER
INTERVIEWER: Monday, 13th May '96, interview with Charles Wheeler for the Cold War series and thank you very much for making a contribution. Can you start off by telling us why you were in Berlin in the summer of 1953.
CHARLES WHEELER: I'd been in Berlin for three years in '53, I was the German Service... BBC German Service correspondent there, so I'd been covering Eastern Germany, as far as one could cover Eastern Germany, from West Berlin, living there, but visiting East Berlin quite often, but never beyond, because you couldn't go into the Soviet Zone of Germany, that was totally forbidden to correspondents. So I knew the place fairly well.
INT: With having been there for that period of time, what was the atmosphere like in the summer of '53, compared with what it had been before?
CW: It was still very much a police state. I mean East Germany, as I could see it, because I had lived in Nazi Germany before the War, was really in many ways as totalitarian as Nazi Germany had been, if you deduct the concentration camps. So it was a very, very tough Stalinist regime, which after Stalin's death did relax to some extent. The government decided and admitted publicly that it had been pushing Socialism too hard. So the heat was taken off the farmers, who had been pushed into the collectives and so on. The churches, various concessions were made, people with short sentences for political crimes were being released and so on. So there was a feeling that the East German government was uncertain of where to go next and was, in fact, on the defensive, and I think that led to increased propaganda from the West, anti-Communist propaganda and a feeling that you could undermine the regime with propaganda, particularly the American radio station in West Berlin, which was very strongly pushing the Cold War from the American point of view, the Western point of view. And then they, in a sense, the government, the East German regime retraced its steps. It started bearing down on the workers, demanding more work for less pay, or at least the same amount of pay and this hit the building workers in the Stalinallee, which was a big prestige project, house-building, particularly hard. And they were probably anyway the most rebellious group of workers, or potentially rebellious group of workers in East Berlin. And what happened was that we were covering... we were writing, all of us in West Berlin, were writing really about the relaxation when reports began to appear in the East German newspapers, which had until that point been very close to the party line, that there was restive, there was agitation among the workers against these norms, the government's intention to make people work harder for less money. I was having lunch in an open-air restaurant in West Berlin on the sixteenth of June, when a friend of mine, who was in military government and probably in (unintelligible), drove past and said to me, 'Charles, you ought to be in East Berlin'. So I got into my car and I went over and ran into the building workers, who by that time had left the building sites, were on strike and were marching through East Berlin and where I caught up with them was near the Friedrichstraßebahnhof station, the main station right in the middle of East Berlin. And by that time, striking in itself was a political act, was an act of rebellion, but marching through the streets was something more. It was almost kicking off a revolution. And that was the atmosphere, because they were calling not for a reinstatement of wages, they were calling for free elections in all Germany and this was really radical. And traffic stopped, a People's Police car, I remember, appeared and immediately went into reverse and backed off and went away, 'cos here were, you know, five or six hundred building workers marching through the centre of East Berlin and people were joining them, they were getting off the trams and so on and joining in and they marched all afternoon, until about six or seven o'clock in the evening, when they began to disperse, announcing, telling everybody that they were going to call for a general strike throughout East Germany on the following day. And that's what happened, on the sixteenth.
INT: So what happened on the following day, the seventeenth?
CW: Well, on the following day, I went back very early in the morning. The sixteenth had been a lovely sunny day, the seventeenth was raining and rather grey and cold, and joined a relatively small procession which was making for Herman Goering's old Luftwaffe headquarters, which was the seat of government. And there was a line of People's Policemen in blue uniforms, with truncheons, and as the leaders of this quite small march reached the People's Police, there was an immediate confrontation. The people at the back were pushing, The people at the front were trying to stop and the People's Police started hitting them with truncheons. That was the first clash. But more and more people came in from outside, from factories in the suburbs and so on and gradually a very large crowd was roaming around the centre of Berlin, all round the government area and then suddenly we saw the first Soviet tanks. And I remember saying to some... little group of people I was with, don't worry, they're firing in blanks and at that point a brick fell off a wall behind me, they were not firing blanks, they were firing live ammunition, but not at the demonstrators at that point, over their heads. And then about an hour later, a large crowd assembled in a large square, where they used to hold the May Day demonstrations and the regime used to organise loyalty demonstrations by maybe as many as five or six thousand people, very big square. And they were trying to elect a strike committee from the leaders of the workers, when four Russian tanks drove into the square, four abreast, and went straight for the crowd. And I remember one man got caught and was run over by a tank and everybody stampeded and people were knocked over. But they didn't fire at that point at all. So the crowd dispersed into side streets and then on the Luzgarten, which was the main street running down from the Brandenberg Gate into the heart of East Berlin, the tanks moved up and there were maybe half a dozen young strikers that climbed on to the top of the Brandenberg Gate and were trying to take the Red Flag down and they pulled it down and threw it in the crowd below and at that point the Russians started firing at these people on top, you know, of the Brandenberg Gate from the tanks, but they lay down. And they were in fact firing towards and into the British Sector and at that point the British army arrived, not to engage the Russians, but to prevent the strikers from moving into West Berlin, where the Russians couldn't reach them. The British commandant was worried, obviously, that the thing would spread and would create an incident. So British infantry lined that point at the border by the Brandenberg Gate and the strikers stayed on the East Berlin side. By that time there was quite a lot of burning going on, the Potzdammerplatz, which again is on the border, they set fire to an office of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party. There was quite a lot of action there. But then the Russians imposed martial law and it was announced and people... there were loudspeakers saying any assembly of more than two or three people would immediately be arrested and everybody had to be in their houses by, I think, six or seven and gradually the thing dispersed. And then the People's Police, the East German Police, the Russians pulled back, the East German People's Police sealed off the border completely, so that it was no longer possible for East Berliners to move into West Berlin or West Berliners to walk into East Berlin. They erected barbed wire barricades and sealed off the border and it was sealed off for, I think, more than a week.
INT: What were the grounds for thinking that there was any Western intelligence support for the uprising or how much spontaneous was the nature of the uprising?
CW: I think it was totally spontaneous. the first place, I don't think it was in the intof West Berlin or of the Western allies to start any trouble in Berlin, because our position there was pretty precarious anyway, always had been, since the blockade, even before then. So it was very much in the Western interest to keep Berlin quiet. Also, I don't think anybody anticipated that there might be this kind of eruption. I mean, East Berlin, remember, there hadn't been a strike in that part of Germany since the 1920s, because all through the Nazi period there were no strikes and here was the Communist period, almost ten years of Communism after twenty years of Nazism. So that there was just no way anybody could anticipate this kind of thing. There probably were activists, anti-Communist activists. There were one or two organisations in West Berlin which would probably exploit a situation like this or try to once it had happened, but then the whole thing, it didn't last more than twenty four hours from the sixteenth of March to the end of the rising on the seventeenth, it was only twenty four hours, so there really wasn't any time for the West to get involved, even if it wanted to.
INT: What sort of use did the radio stations make of a major uprising in a Soviet controlled territory?
CW: Well, to begin with we reported it. I went back to West Berlin and reported on the BBC's German Service what I had seen, that the building workers were marching through the town and calling for free elections and so on. And RIAS, the American radio station, which had a much bigger audience than we had, because had a stronger signal, RIAS in West Berlin, the American radio station broadcast very full accounts, not so much about the sixteenth, but of the seventeenth. But what was interesting were the accounts of what had happened in East Berlin on the sixteenth were heard by virtually everybody in East Germany and so at nine o'clock the following morning, when that general strike was proclaimed, everybody went out on the streets and we discovered much later that this had not been just an East Berlin rising, but an East German rising and that was the power of radio.