When the Berlin Wall was built during the Cold War, one neighborhood was trapped in the middle. American occupation forces faced many difficulties as they weighed how to respond to East Germany’s attempt to take over the village of Steinstuecken, a West Berlin neighborhood that was part of the American Occupation Sector in the city — but physically sat one kilometer outside the city boundary, with no West Berlin owned street or strip of land that connected it to the rest of Berlin.
As for the realities on the ground, the Russians held many of the better cards. They could ignore West Berlin public opinion. They could wave off American claims to the village by saying that Four Power agreements on Berlin boundary lines were vague or incomplete. They could argue that Germany’s total defeat made Steinstuecken’s past ties to Berlin irrelevant.
Millions of ethnic Germans were evicted from their homelands after the war ended. (Eastern European nations essentially cleansed themselves of residents with German ancestry.) The victorious Allies changed German borders and took German territory. The Allied Control Council even abolished an entire German state — Prussia! In 1947, the Allied occupation authorities dissolved Prussia, the Land that symbolized the country’s aggressive past. Calling the state “a bearer of militarism and reaction,” the Allies distributed Prussia’s lands among other Laender. Considering all that, why make a huge fuss over one small neighborhood in one city?
Another problem for the Americans: Steinstuecken was a de facto island. No strip of West Berlin territory connected the village to the rest of the American Sector. No Allied or West Berlin authorities disputed the fact that the territory in between Steinstuecken and Zehlendorf belonged to Brandenburg. If the Americans wanted to send troops to rescue Steinstuecken, they’d have to cross Soviet Zone territory. That might lead to Americans and Russians pointing guns at each other.
[West Berlin mayor] Ernst Reuter was willing to risk a confrontation. On the afternoon of October 19, the mayor paid a visit to Major General Lemuel Mathewson, the US Commandant of Berlin. The USCOB was the senior American military commander in Berlin. Copies of two messages from Mathewson to HICOG headquarters in West Germany, which describe the meeting, are in the National Archives. One appears to be a quick summary of Mathewson’s conversations with Reuter. The other is more detailed and is addressed personally to “Hays and Handy.” Presumably this is General Thomas Handy, the commander of US European Command, and Major General George Hays, the Deputy HICOG.
“The mayor,” Mathewson wrote in his note to Hays and Handy, “urges prompt and strong counteraction on the part of U.S. authorities. He has even suggested that I should cross the narrow strip of the Soviet Zone with a military convoy and occupy the Steinstuecken community in force.” In the summary message, Mathewson said that Reuter called for the “marching of a military column into Steinstuecken.” Reuter also proposed that the Western Allies seize two Soviet-occupied buildings in West Berlin — the Reichsbahn (railway) offices in the US Sector or the Rundfunkhaus (Radio Berlin offices) in the British Sector. Reuter called these “Soviet enclaves in West Berlin.”
In his personal message to Hays and Handy, Mathewson commented on the village’s predicament within the context of the overall geopolitical situation in and around Berlin:
Steinstuecken is a small enclave in the Soviet Zone, lying about 500 meters south of the U.S. Sector-Soviet Zone boundary. It has always been administered by, and considered to be a part of, the district of Zehlendorf, a major subdivision of the U.S. Sector. While its legal status was fairly clear in 1945, it has been since then subject to such contradictory actions and conflicting opinion on our side, that our position today is somewhat indeterminate. Community today only contains about 200 residents and, from a practical point of view, might well be absorbed by the Soviet Zone. However, it represents another encroachment by the Soviets on the territory of Greater Berlin, and weighs heavily on public opinion.
“Reuter states that the West Berlin population is extremely concerned by the Steinstuecken incident,” wrote Mathewson, “and is wondering how long the Soviets will be permitted to take unilateral action without retaliation.”
Mathewson told Reuter that he “agreed that retaliatory action was desirable.” However, the Western Allies “must refrain from any move which they could not be sure of following through to a successful conclusion.” Any action against Soviet-held buildings in West Berlin required British and French approval. The American general didn’t send a column of troops to Steinstuecken. Instead, he told Reuter that he would send a note to the Russians “protesting the Soviet action, and was considering other means of making clear to the Soviets that we would not tolerate continued Soviet encroachment on the territory of Berlin.” Mathewson told Reuter that he would meet with the British and French commandants the next day, October 20, to discuss the situation.
Ernst Reuter was mayor of an occupied city, but he wasn’t someone the Western Allies could simply dismiss. Ernst Reuter was a Cold War hero. Great leaders can help people make it through the most difficult of times. In the years immediately after World War II, the people of West Berlin desperately needed a great leader. Fortunately, they had one in Reuter.
A former communist, Reuter had been mayor of the East German city of Magdeburg. When the Nazis came to power, Reuter had to flee Germany, settling in Turkey during the war. At war’s end he returned to Germany, eventually emerging as a leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), the primary West-leaning political party in Berlin. The French were unfriendly to Reuter — they distrusted any strong German leaders. The Soviets, unhappy that Reuter had abandoned communism, criticized him constantly, calling him an American lackey.
The Americans, though, found him impressive. “Dr. Reuter is a courageous political leader, a man of powerful intelligence and an experienced and capable municipal administrator,” wrote General Frank Howley, the USCOB during the Berlin Blockade. Karl Mautner recalled Reuter as “an extremely astute man, very intelligent, and obviously a leadership figure.” He “had a political sense that held everything together,” said State Department official Martha Mautner (yes, the wife of Karl).
Reuter’s leadership was at its most powerful when the Allies most needed it — during the Berlin Blockade. In Berlin Command, Howley’s book about his time in Berlin, he recalled when Reuter met with John Foster Dulles early in the blockade. Dulles, who would be Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, was visiting Berlin to gauge whether the West Berliners could hold up under the strain of the blockade:
‘Will the Germans stand fast during the winter?’ Dulles demanded, wasting no time on preliminaries. ‘Or will they give up, accept Russian aid and get us out of Berlin rather than take more suffering?’
Reuter’s reply was emphatic and had the unmistakable ring of sincerity. ‘The people of Berlin are accustomed to suffering,’ he reminded Dulles. ‘We are willing to suffer a great deal more to escape Russian domination.’ Dulles seemed impressed.
On September 9, 1948, hundreds of thousands of Berliners rallied to show their determination to resist the Soviets and endure all the hardships of the blockade. Reuter was one of many Berlin leaders to address the crowd. His speech, though, is the one most people remember. It was, arguably, his most dramatic public accomplishment as the leader of free West Berliners.
“Ihr Völker der Welt, ihr Völker in Amerika, in England, in Frankreich, in Italien!” thundered Reuter to the thousands gathered around the Reichstag. (“People of the world, people in America, in England, in France, in Italy.”) Then, Reuter raised his palms to the sky.
Schaut auf diese Stadt! Und erkennt, daß ihr diese Stadt und dieses Volk nicht preisgeben dürft und nicht preisgeben könnt!
(Look upon this city! And recognize, that you cannot, you must not forsake this city and its people.)
“Reuter was more than just a mayor,” said Martha Mautner. “He was a symbol.”
Reuter was strongly pro-American. During the Berlin Blockade he toured the US. “The American public and American government will not abandon us in this struggle,” he reported to the Berlin city government upon his return. “This is the firm conviction I gained after numerous contacts in the United States … We shall not be abandoned, and we shall not be surrendered. We shall be and remain a free city.”
Two years later in May 1951, Reuter visited America again. Afterwards, he wrote an article for a HICOG monthly information bulletin. Titled “As I See America,” Reuter shared his impressions:
Some of what I saw and experienced in the United States is as certain and solid as a rock. This country, the size of a continent, is not only great from the geographical point of view or because of its economic potential, not only because it is about to develop great military strength in all fields: no, this country is great because it has realized its task and it is determined to tackle it.
This perception and this determination are what I encountered wherever and with whomever I spoke. The people of this country are open-minded; whenever opportunity offers, they endeavor to learn from experience, both past and present. America has gained immense political maturity, through her historical development and through her bitter experiences in two world wars. This impression, of all that I gained during my stay on the other side of the ocean, stands out. It is a fact that is all the more important since America is a real democracy and boasts a public opinion that is shaped neither by propaganda nor by pressing a button to make people follow a given line. In the United States, people strive to comprehend significant problems. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, concern themselves with economic and political questions; they discuss them, they try to hear the views and opinions of other parties, and then they judge and form their own opinion.
For the Western Allies, who were trying to convince West Germany to align itself with the West in the Cold War, Reuter’s words must have sounded like pure gold. Now, five months after that article appeared, the man who had said those wonderful words demanded that the Americans save Steinstuecken. Ernst Reuter was not a man that the HICOG wanted to disappoint or disillusion. Millions of West Berliners and West Germans heeded his words.
“We are at present considering what retaliatory steps are available to us,” Mathewson said in a message to HICOG headquarters. Based on what the messages said, Mathewson felt his options were limited.” My immediate decision is to address a strong letter of protest to the representative of the Soviet Control Commission in Germany in Berlin, which I am doing this afternoon. While I see no other course of action available to me with respect to Steinstuecken, I do feel that we should resort to some form of retaliation in the immediate future.”
The village [of Steinstuecken, meanwhile] remained surprisingly calm. No reign of terror fell on the hamlet. No NKVD or Vopo teams stormed into houses or rounded up “revanchists” or “bootleggers.” In fact, no one was arrested [and] the Vopos never blanketed the neighborhood with troops. One West German newspaper reported that some Vopos and Soviet soldiers had shopped in the village’s store, looking for chocolate and cigarettes. But the East German police stayed mostly on the outskirts of town … Things were tense, to be sure. Vopos walled off the town and the path to Zehlendorf with barbed wire. They cut the phone lines to West Berlin. The villagers, scared and uncertain of what might happen next, mostly stayed in their homes. Outside the village limits, in full view of the residents, Soviets set up anti-aircraft guns and conducted battle drills.
“Steinstuecken: A Little Pocket of Freedom” is available to purchase now.
Don Smith is a retired Army Reserve officer who served in Germany from 1986-89. He visited Berlin (West and East) three times. On one of those trips, he saw Steinstuecken and never forgot it. Smith has a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Strategic Intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College (now the National Intelligence University). He has been published in Military History magazine, World War II magazine, Civil War Times magazine, and the Army Intelligence Center’s Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin. He is a Geographic Information Systems Instructor for USAIC at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Don lives in Tucson.
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