Interviews:

Bowie,
Robert

Khrushchev,
Sergei

Kiraly,
Bela

Lowis,
Flora

Pongracz,
Gergely

Vajda,
Anika

Wheeler,
Charles



     
   


INTERVIEW WITHCHARLES WHEELER

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INT: Just going back to the scene, before the uprising, you talked about propaganda, but West Berlin itself was propaganda as far as the East was concerned. What was the contrast in lifestyle between West and East?

CW: In those days, the contrast between East Berlin and West Berlin was really marked. East Berlin had done nothing really to clear up the War damage, except to clear the streets. There's been very little rebuilding. The standard of living compared with the West was extremely low, wages were low, Russian reparations made a great deal of difference. The Russians were still exacting tribute from East Germany in a big way. What production there was, was either going to the Soviet Union or being exported in the interests of the Soviet Union. There were very few consumer goods and because West Berlin had been built up under the Marshall Plan and because any East German could go to West Berlin at any time, by simply crossing into West Berlin, the effect of West Berlin was perhaps the most powerful propaganda, the effect of things in the shops, a much better life, better dressed people, freedom to travel, all these things...

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INT: Charles, could we just go back over that question of the contrast in standard of living between East and West Berlin. Could you describe that please.

CW: It was really two worlds in those days. East Berlin had barely recovered from the War and from the Russian occupation and the reparations and everything else. What building there was, they were building some prestige projects like party headquarters and things, but there was no house building, there was a frightful housing shortage, there were no consumer goods in the shops. If you went to East Berlin, you'd see in the food shops just endless jars of pickles and things, whereas West Berlin then was really like West Berlin today. It was a prosperous Western city. Germany had been rebuilt by the Marshall Plan. There was not much unemployment, it was a Western city and any East German at any time could go by train or whatever it was to East Berlin, then get on a local underground train and end up in West Berlin, have a look at the contrast and then go back home again. And hundreds of thousands of people over that period simply emigrated to West Berlin, as refugees. They decided they would have a better life in the West and so there was this constant stream of people coming into West Berlin. In 1952, for example, which was one of the periods when the East German regime was bearing down on the population very hard, over fifty thousand people were coming over every month and that was quite a big exodus, particularly because it was the young people, it was educated people, it was people like doctors and scientists and so on. So the drain on the East German economy, even back in the fifties was very strong and very serious for them economically and, of course, politically.

INT: To what extent were you getting people going from East Germany to East Berlin to West Berlin and out, as well as people from East Berlin to West Berlin? Were there any restrictions if you had the will to go?

CW: There were none, unless you were carrying contraband for example. I mean, if you wanted to bring out with you as a refugee more than just a suitcase, you would be stopped and probably arrested. But if you were willing to leave everything you had in East Germany and whatever it was, your clothes, your house or your wife, you family, you could cross over with impunity, there was no way you could be stopped, because there was this traffic. There were also a lot of people who were living in East Berlin and working in the West, working in factories and shops and so on in West Berlin, quite legally, and crossing over. So there was... it was one city, but one city divided with a huge contrast in the standard of living between the two, but people could move from one to the other and as long as you could move from cities like Leipzig, Dresden, all these towns in East Germany to East Berlin, which was their capital, then you could go to West Berlin. And once you were in West Berlin, you could travel to Western Germany by air, you couldn't go by train or by car, because you would have to go through Russian and East German checkpoints, but there was that degree of freedom of movement until the Berlin Wall in 1961.

INT: How much were you conscious that this was a... a sort of open sore as far as Ulbricht and the Soviet Union were concerned, the drain of people?

CW: I think the refugee story was one of the biggest stories in the early fifties, in '51 and '52, because it was beginning to worry West Berlin, what are we going to do if this refugee stream really increases and it begins to get out of hand? Where are we going to put these people? How is West Berlin going to cope? But obviously, the most damaging effect of this was on the East German economy itself and what was called 'Flight from the Republic' was a criminal offence, even in those days.

INT: Let me just stop you there...

INT: Can you tell us how quickly news got out to uprisings elsewhere in East Germany?

CW: By the night of the seventeenth, the East German People's Police had sealed East Berlin off, they'd put up road blocks, there was just no way you could cross into West Berlin or the other way round. But then, after about two or three days, rumours started coming to West Berlin that there had been sympathetic risings in East German cities and then they began to get hard information. I had a friend in East Germany who lived in Leipzig, for example, who was a BBC listener for the German Service, he managed to get through to West Berlin, actually came to my office, by going to a street called the Bernarstrae, where the frontage of the houses forms the border, so that if you could get into the back garden of these houses...

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INT: How quickly did the news of the risings elsewhere in Germany get o?

CW: It took a few days for the news to come through to West Ber, because the People's Police had sealed off the border on the night of the seventeenth. We began to get reports that there had been trouble in other cities, but the real confirmation of this came, in my case, when a friend of mine in East Germany, who lived in Leipzig, managed to work his way through to West Berlin and called at the office and brought documentary stuff. He brought, for example, a copy of a poster declaring martial law by the Soviet commandant. And gradually the news came through to West Berlin that virtually every town and village in East Germany had been affected, you know, prisons had been stormed, political prisoners had been released, there tank battles in Leipzig, in Dresden, in Karlmarxstadt with people throwing bricks at tanks and so on and there was shooting in many places as well, so it did turn out to be virtually a national uprising, even though it only lasted less than twenty four hours.

INT: What about the attitude of the British military government to what was going on?

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CW: The British, the American and the French were all for a quiet life. Their concern was to have security of the access routes to West Berlin, but they wouldn't get into difficulties with the Russians, that was all they were interested in. They did not want to get involved. Now, there was anti-Communist propaganda, the Cold War was at its height, but nobody wanted this rising, to spread into West Berlin, which was why the allies were extremely relieved when in twenty four hours the whole thing was over.

INT: If you, to sum up, what was the primary cause of the uprising, would you say it was political or economic or what?

CW: Well, you can't really disentangle the politics from the economics of it. What was happening was that Germany was divided, one half of Germany had an extremely high standard of living and was free and the other half of Germany wasn't. And this was a constant problem, that the people of East Germany never settled down as, to some extent, people in countries like Czechoslovakia settled down to Communist rule, because they always believed that something could be done, that somehow Germany could be reunited and they would have a better life and that was what it about. It took many years before it actually happened, but there's no question that the desire for this was always there, from the moment the Western allies ended the War in Germany and occupied West Berlin. West Berlin was always a magnet and East Germany could never settle down as long as West Berlin existed.

INT: I'm going to move on to Hungary now, considerably shorter. Can you start off by describing how you happened to be there, for what programme and so on in '56?

CW: I'd been trying to get a Panorama team into Poland, where the action actually was. Poland was seething, Poland was... Let me start again.

INT: How did you come to be...

CW: Yeah...

INT: ...in central Europe...

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