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The Berlin Airlift | Article

Ernst Reuter

Ernst Reuter (1889-1953) and the People of Berlin.

Courtesy: The Harry S. Truman Library

Berliners hemmed in by a blockade and surrounded by thousands of Soviet troops needed more than food and coal for the coming winter — they needed a voice, someone to speak for the city and awake the conscience of those Western powers who would decide its fate. In Ernst Reuter, the citizens of Berlin found their man.

Coming to Power
 Long before thw Soviet blockade, Reuter knew the feeling of imprisonment. Son of a sea captain, he had attended various German universities but lacked the money to finish his education. Turning to politics, Reuter joined the Social Democratic Party. He was drafted during World War I and captured by the Russians in 1916. Converting to Marxism, he met Lenin and was made commissar of a worker's commune and then secretary of the German Communist party, but Reuter soon quit in disgust at Moscow's directives.

Rejoining the Social Democratic Party, he became a member of the German Parliament and was arrested three times after the Nazis came to power, eventually escaping to Turkey where he spent World War II as a university professor. Reuter returned to Berlin in 1946 and saw his Social Democratic Party win municipal elections, but Reuter's own selection as mayor was blocked by the Soviets.

Elected but Unconfirmed
 Undaunted, he had business cards made that read, "Ernst Reuter, the Elected but Unconfirmed Lord Mayor of Berlin." To those who counseled accommodation with the Russians, Reuter replied, "It is not my business to act like a terrified rabbit staring at a snake." Instead he snuck out blueprints of utilities and other vital services from City Hall in the Soviet sector to West Berlin, preparing for the day when the confrontation would come. At a rally in March 1948, he declared that Berlin would never give in to the Russians, and added, "If the world knows this then we will not be abandoned by the world." When the blockade began, Reuter made it his business to let the world know his city's resolve.

Rallying the City
 In June 1948, Berliners already faced great privation. The rubble created by 70,000 tons of Allied bombs still littered the city, milk and sugar were rare commodities, and some citizens subsisted on boiled roots. Nonetheless, when General Lucius Clay summoned Reuter in late June to announce that he was going to attempt an airlift, the unofficial mayor said that his people would make "all necessary sacrifices." You "take care of the airlift," Reuter told Clay, "I'll take care of the Berliners."

"You Cannot Abandon This City"
Speaking hope to his city and demanding help from the West, Reuter kept up the people's spirits during demanding times. After a communist mob took over City Hall in September, Reuter led a massive counter-demonstration on the steps of the Reichstag. Rejecting any compromise with the Soviets, Reuter declared, "Today no diplomat or general will speak or negotiate. Today the people of Berlin will make their voice heard. People of America, England, France, Italy -- look at this city. You cannot abandon this city and its people. You should not abandon it."

 For their part, the citizens of Berlin did what they could to help their own cause. About 18,000 labored on the construction of a new airport, Tegel, in the French sector; it opened in November 1948, just in time for the onset of winter. Neighbors pulled together and made the most of the four hours of electricity they received per day, and newspapers continued to publish. Though the Soviets offered food to any West Berliners who would submit their ration cards, only 1 in 10 accepted. And when Reuter learned of a plan to cut down 350,000 cubic meters of wood from the city's parks and forests, he scaled it back to only one-third that. Better to shiver than destroy the city's scenic heritage.

We Will Never Forget
When the blockade ended on Mat 12, 1949, Berliners poured forth in celebration. One resident and her boyfriend ordered cocoa and two pieces of cake, only to discover they "could not eat so much because our bodies were not used to it." And at a farewell ceremony for airlift architect General Lucius Clay, Reuter declared, "[W]e will never forget what he has done for us." As for Berlin's mayor, he would win reelection in 1951, refusing to work with communists "foolish enough to believe that ideas can be stopped by roadblocks and ditches." Reuter died in office of a heart attack in 1953.

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