The Troubled Politics of Berlin

Brass Tacks

Heinrich Albertz was mayor of Berlin for somewhat less than a year. He is, by all reports, an affable man: a pastor fond of saying that "besides the Bible a rail-road schedule is the only book that doesn't lie." When, last month, his own Social Democratic Party (SPD) forced him to resign, he became the first victim of a political struggle which may reshape German politics.

The immediate issue was the decay of Berlin. Of the 17,000 business concerns operating in the city in 1938, 3,000 are left. Some 21 per cent of the 2.2 million population is over 65 (nearly twice the percentage in the entire Federal Republic). Of that legendary popular unity nothing remains. The city's 30,000 students, who three years ago cached arms in their dormitories for nightly assaults on the wall, are now the irreconcilable enemies of Berlin's middle class.

Berlin could have saved its economy by turning to the East, to the 60,000 skilled workers sealed away by the Wall, to the supply of foodstuffs that must now be trucked in from West Germany to the East German market. But tied from the first to Bonn's strident anti-Communism and embittered by the Russian campaigns of the late 40's and late 50's, Berlin kept to itself. So stiff had this policy become that in January Albertz was forced to break off negotiations with East Germany (DDR) over the possibilities of travel between the Zones. He was afraid to answer an East German letter for fear of offending Bonn.

Months later he agreed to draft a reply, but it was too late. A Senate commission was investigating reports that the police had been unnecessarily brutal during a June demonstration during which one student was shot dead. When the commission declared last month that the police and the city administration had in effect attempted to conceal a murder, Albertz was lost.

He fell at a time when the Federal government under Kurt Keisinger and Willy Brandt, Albertz's predecessor at the Schonberger Rathaus, seeks frantically to expand its contacts with the East. Bonn has sent delegations in recent months to most of the Eastern European states to work out trade agreements and to pave the way for an exchange of ambassadors. The Germans must move carefully in this, for they must not in their eagerness suggest to Russia that they are competing for the favor of the East European states. Nor can they forget, however appealing forgetfulness on this point might be, that they do not recognize the DDR.

It is not at all certain that this new but still moderate Ostpolitik will in itself revive Berlin. What is more likely is that the city's Social Democratic Party (SPD), once one of the most progressive and daring political forces in Germany, will take action on its own. If that happened, and there are signs that it will, party politics, and the very definition of party could be changed in Germany.

The outlines of Berlin's present political geography were sketched during the early post-war years. At issue then, as now, was the relation of the city to the Bundes-republic. The leftist faction, led by the party head, Franz Neumann, a dedicated socialist, looked at the Bonn government as the seat of reaction. Neumann wanted Berlin to be able to make its own laws, fashion its own institutions from courts to schools. Opposed to him was Ernst Reuter, the first post-war mayor of the city, who sought, successfully, to integrate Berlin with the rest of West Germany.

Reuter's successor was Brandt. Brandt's men introduced the file card and the Kennedy-style tactics into German politics. By 1959 the leftists were so outman-euevered that Brandt was receiving support from the heavily working-class district of Wedding. There was only one leftist delegate to the party conference that year.

The result of this homogenization, made all the more complete by Brandt's strong personality and the publicity he was then receiving, was a de-politicization of the SPD. An oligarchy ruled the party; personal ambitions were given more attention than issues. The SPD became one more example of the German adage that an electoral party can tolerate no factions.

But in the last two years a left has begun to form again. It has drawn men from both sides of the old dividing line, men united by a sympathy for the students and an increased willingness to look across the Wall. By the end of his abbreviated term Albertz depended on leftists for support; it was the right-wingers, angered by his indecision and economic problems who overthrew him.

The party elite has already accepted the existence of the leftists by lifting the previous ban on inner-party groups. But, as Rudolf Augstein, publisher of Der Spiegel, points out, the Socialists were so enervated by Brandt's domination that, other than him, they had no men competent to hold major office. Proof of this was supplied two weeks ago when Brandt delegated Klaus Schutz as the new mayor of Berlin. Schutz organized Brandt's anti-leftist battle in the 50's and followed him to the Foreign Ministry in Bonn. He seems to have been reluctant to take the Berlin post, but agreed when Brandt was adamant.

The leftists quickly demanded guarantees that the new mayor would work with them as Albertz had. Schutz, feeling himself publicly challenged, refused to make any commitments. The leftists then caucused and several small groups did vote against accepting him as mayor; the majority was, inevitably, for him. The alternative, which Brandt presented with some glee, was to turn the city over to the Christian Democrats.

This much, however, is clear today. The once-placid SPD will be torn by internecine warfare for some time; Berlin's economic problems will not be solved soon. But there is some chance that Germany's most fundamental political questions will be treated with far more dispatch and directness than the foundering Grand Coalition in Bonn can now provide. For the debate within Berlin could produce skilled and forthright Parliamentary leaders hardened by the travails of intra-party maneuvering. More important, it is certain that this development will stimulate the Federal Republic's now-sterile political debate. All Germany will be the better for it.