Friday, February 10, 2017

Black Market, Cold War: Everyday life in Berlin, 1946-1949

Steege, Paul. Black Market, Cold War: Everyday life in Berlin, 1946-1949.

Steege argues that the beginning of the Cold War in post-war Germany did not take place in a vacuum as it commonly appears.  The post-war crisis in Germany, pre-war German domestic politics, and German identity all influenced the competing superpowers in unexpected and unexamined ways to set the stage for the division of both Germany and Berlin.  Focusing on superpower diplomatic wrangling deprives Germans generally, and Berliners particularly, of agency in determining their own fates.  The Black Market of post-war Berlin provides the analytical lens needed to examine Berliners’ influence on the developing Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.

In surviving the material crisis threatening them, Berliners developed a wide range of strategies to survive, relying on both official distributions of supplies based on age and employment, but also on illegal and quasi-legal bartering on the grey and black markets.  The official ration levels, which were themselves rarely met, were too low to allow Berliners to survive indefinitely, requiring them to find alternate means to fill needs for food, shelter, and other critical supplies.  Travel through the largely destroyed city was difficult, meaning that Berliners faced long trips to work sites, to get ration cards, or to foraging locations.  Berliners foraging and marketing activities increasingly frustrated occupation authorities to exert control over the city, and hampered the Soviet-aligned Socialist Unity Party (SED) from gaining control over the economy of the surrounding Soviet-zone provinces.

The requirement to fill material needs on the black market and through foraging had multiple consequences for Berlin and the occupying authorities.  These secondary activities were a direct cause of Berliners’ absenteeism from their jobs, as they were forced to choose between cash payments and the availability of foodstuffs in stores.  Foraging and black marketing interfered with both Soviet and SED efforts to control the economies of both the Soviet sector of Berlin and the Soviet sectors of occupied Germany as producers in the surrounding areas smuggled goods to Berlin in exchange for cash.  Currency reform, particularly the creation of separate west and east marks caused the SED and Soviet authorities to begin the blockade as a measure to keep the west marks from circulating in the Soviet zone.  Exchange rates between the two currencies skewed highly toward the west mark, allowing Berliners from the Western zones of the city higher purchasing power when venturing into the Soviet zones.

Steege argues that the blockade was never the airtight cordon of popular conception.  The largest black markets were located in the intersections of the Soviet, English, and American zones at locations like the Potsdamer Platz, which allowed access between the zones.  The city borders were crossed frequently by individuals and by vehicles.  In many cases vehicles and people passed without a full search, utilized false compartments, or simply broke through barricades on the roads.  While Berliners certainly faced privation and Allied aircrews made a heroic effort to supply the city, both industrial and agricultural products continued to pass into the Western zones.

Berliners played a positive role in forcing the official division of the city despite their desire for a unified Berlin and unified Germany.  Steege contends that despite the structural power held by SED functionaries placed in the city government by the Soviet occupation authority immediately following the occupation, Berliners resisted their attempts to draw the city wholly into the Soviet sphere by repeatedly voting for opposition parties in large majorities.  In their desire to escape Soviet domination, and fear that the Western Allies might sacrifice them in order to gain currency reform and other agreements, Berlin’s anti-Soviet politicians forced the issue by proposing that the Western sectors rely solely on the new west mark, refusing to accept or pay salaries using the SED backed east mark.  The Western Allies eventual acquiescence in this currency reform measure forced the division of the city.

The concepts of “between-ness” and “liminality” or “liminal space” play an important role in Steege’s analysis.  Steeg places his history of Berlin in the grey area between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, and argues that this typifies the experiences of Berliners from 1946 – 1950.  Similarly, he argues that the Cold War was an extended temporary period of ambiguity extending from the end of World War II through the establishment of peace and reunification in 1990.  The fluidity of the Cold War phenomenon typified Berliners existence – they were “betwixt and between” the two ideological extremes of Communism and Capitalism, war and peace.  This idea of “between-ness” or “liminality” occupies the central role in his analysis.

With this analystical base, Steege interprets events in post-war Berlin through the lens of the everyday life of regular Berliners.  By looking at history “inside-out”, Black Market, Cold War examines the influence ordinary Berliners and Berlin’s political leaders brought to bear on the beginning of the Cold War.  The year 1946 marks the beginning of the analysis serves to illustrate the development of the Cold War in the tension between international politics and “Berliner’s material battle to survive.”  This allows Steege to focus on the agency of Berliners in defining the Cold War and their place in it.

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