Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Stalin’

The Battle of Berlin Ended WWII

Monday, July 17th, 2017


The Battle of Berlin was the last major European battle fought during World War II. It pretty much ended the war, but at a huge human cost. It was primarily fought between the Soviet and the German armies. Altogether, nearly 200,000 soldiers died during the last three weeks of World War Two, almost as many as the United States lost during the entire war.

Seelower Hoehen – preceding the Battle of Berlin

The Red Army considered Seelower Hoehen (Seelow Heights) – a region located about 56 miles east of Berlin – the “Gates to Berlin.” Soviet leaders speculated that breaking German positions at Seelower Hoehen would clear the path to the capital. To that end, on 15 April 1945, Russian forces launched one of the most powerful artillery barrages in history. After three days, the German Army was all but crushed, and mainly old men and the Hitler Youth were left to defend the area. German resolve to continue to fight was largely due to fear of Russian retributions. On 19 April 1945, the Red Army defeated the German forces once and for all and advanced on the capital.

The Battle of Berlin

The road to Berlin now lay open. By 20 April 1045, the Soviets began to bomb the city, and within a few days, the Red Army had completely surrounded Berlin. The Soviets completely outnumbered the Germans in terms of men and equipment.  Once they entered Berlin, the fighting became fierce. The city was taken street by street and building by building. Casualties on both sides were high. Over a three-week period, the Red Army fired more than two million artillery shells into the already devastated capital, a city that had been continuously bombed by British and American aircraft since 1943. The total tonnage of ordnance fired by the Russians during the Battle of Berlin exceeded the tonnage of all allied bombing of the city during the rest of the war.

Why did the Russians fight so hard for Berlin?

A generally accepted explanation is that Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union, was desperate to get to Berlin before the Americans did. Why? Stalin wanted to seize the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut, a German nuclear research center in the southwestern part of Berlin. Stalin knew of the American atomic nuclear program and also knew that the Russian nuclear program – Operation Borodino – was lagging behind. It was Stalin’s hope that Soviet scientists would find information at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut that could advance the Russian program. As it turned out, Soviet scientists discovered three tons of uranium oxide at the institute, which facilitated the work on their first nuclear weapon.

Where was Hitler during the Battle of Berlin?

Cut off from the reality of the fighting above, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, was holding out in his underground bunker beneath the Chancellery. On 30 April, he committed suicide together with his mistress Eva Braun. They had married only hours before. Their bodies were partially burned in the rubble outside the bunker.

The End of the Battle of Berlin

On 2 May 1945, Germany surrendered. A Russian infantry soldier, Sergeant Shcherbina, raised the Red Flag on the top of the Reichstag The war was over. The final count was:


82,000 Russians killed during the battles of Seelower Hoehen and Berlin,

275,000 Russians wounded or missing in action,

2,000 Russian tanks destroyed,

2,100 Russian artillery pieces destroyed.

100,000 Germans killed,

200,000 Germans wounded,

480,000 Germans captured,

the City of Berlin reduced to rubble,

100,000 German women raped.



For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Karl-Marx-Allee – post-WWII Flagship Project

Monday, October 31st, 2016


The Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, Germany, was East Germany’s post-WWII flagship reconstruction project. The majestic 1.25 mile-long boulevard is almost 300 feet wide. Between 1951 and 1965, 8-story to 10-story buildings were constructed on both sides of this grand boulevard. Shops, restaurants and cafés were built to line the ground floor. Around 5,000 apartments were constructed above. Today, all of the buildings have been restored to their former glory, and the entire street is a designated historic site.

Typical apartment building along Karl-Marx-Allee. photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015,

Typical apartment building along Karl-Marx-Allee. photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015,

Naming the Karl-Marx-Allee

In the Golden Twenties the boulevard was known as the Grosse Frankfurter Strasse, a notoriously poverty-stricken locale. During World War II, the Red Army turned the area into a wasteland of rubble. In the aftermath, some 2 million volunteers cleaned up the debris with bare hands. They picked thirty-eight million bricks out of the rubble and prepared them for reuse so that 70% of the project’s bricks were salvaged ones. http.//

In 1949, the Grosse Frankfurter Strasse was renamed Stalinallee in honor of the Soviet leader’s 70th birthday. Two years later, a 16-foot-high bronze statue of Stalin was unveiled, but during a November night in 1961, that statue vanished. It was melted down as part of the East German government’s de-Stalinization process. When residents awoke that morning, they saw brand new street signs, and the Stalinallee had been renamed Karl-Marx-Allee, after the German philosopher and revolutionary, Karl Marx.

Purpose of the Karl-Marx-Allee

The post-WWII reconstruction project was conceived not only for the purpose of building apartments, shops, a movie theater, public offices and schools, but the boulevard was also supposed to reflect the new social order. Therefore, in October 1952, a special commission was formed for the “artistic decoration of the Stalinallee,” as the boulevard was still called at that time. Elements were developed to give the boulevard its unique appearance: Huge candelabras, columns, balustrades, Meissen porcelain facings, fountains, clocks and other elements. Dual towers were constructed at both ends of the boulevard, the Frankfurter Tor and the Strausberger Platz. During 1966/67, a floating ring fountain was added in the center of the Strausberger Platz. The fountain, made of copper sheets welded together, gives the impression of crystals floating in the air above the water.

Famous Floating Ring Fountain at Strausberger Platz. photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015.

Famous Floating Ring Fountain at Strausberger Platz. photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015.

High Quality Living in the Karl-Marx-Allee Apartments

For the times, the Karl-Marx-Allee apartments offered workers a fairly high quality of living. Rents were affordable. The apartments were spacious and equipped with modern amenities such as hot water, central heating, elevators, tiled bathrooms, bathtubs, built-in cupboards, balconies, even garbage chutes and house phones.

Therefore, the Karl-Marx-Allee became a source of great pride for the people of the former East Germany. In 1953, however, when the production norms for laborers on the project were raised by 10% without a correspondent pay increase, it was also the site of a massive uprising.

Rent Levels in the Karl-Marx-Allee Apartments

1953 – For an 860 square-foot, three-room apartment with kitchen and bath, as described above, the original tenants paid 78 DDR Mark (East Mark) in monthly rent. That amount represented 21% of the average resident’s income.

1979 – The rent was still 78 DDR (East Mark) per month. It had not changed in 26 years and now represented only 10% of the average tenant’s income.

1990 – Following the 1:1 currency exchange to DM (West Mark), the monthly rent remained fixed at 78 DM, which amounted to a mere 6% of the average renter’s income.

1991 – Following reunification, rents rose to 620 DM (West Mark), a shocking 51% of income for many.

2000 – Following repair and renovation of the apartments, rents rose to 931 DM, which represented 40% of income.

2013 – Following the adoption of the Euro, rents settled at 650 Euros for original tenants and at 720 Euros for new renters, representing 48% of the average income.

Today, Berliners of all ages still scramble to secure one of the bright, spacious apartments on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Rents are still rising, but potential tenants value the broad sidewalks, the public gardens and the proximity to cafés and restaurants. They might even catch a movie at the Kino International, a popular spot for viewing international films.

Kino International on the Karl-Marx-Allee, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015.

Kino International on the Karl-Marx-Allee, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Walter Ulbricht was a 20th century East German politician who always knew which side his bread was buttered on. By instinctively understanding whom to defer to and which efforts to pursue, he became East Germany’s postwar leader. Loyal to Leninist and Stalinist principles, he was described by peers and populace alike as an inflexible, dull and unlikeable man. It didn’t help that he spoke with a squeaky falsetto voice due to a childhood diphtheria infection. Still, he remained East Germany’s chief decision maker until 1971 – a period of more than twenty years. A joke made the rounds in East Germany during those years. It went like this: An airplane crashes carrying the presidents of the United States and France and the British Queen. They all perish. Which country mourns the most? The answer: East Germany because Ulbricht wasn’t on the plane.,postext,herbst89,artikel_id,12915.html

Who was Walter Ulbricht?

Walter Ulbricht came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1893 to a tailor in Leipzig, Germany. After graduating primary school, Ulbricht trained as a cabinetmaker. Since both his parents were active in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), young Ulbricht joined the party as well. He was 19 at the time. Eight years later, in 1920, he left the SPD and joined the newly created KPD, the Communist Party of Germany. By aligning himself with the “right” people he rose swiftly through party ranks.

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman 1950-1971

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman

Walter Ulbricht’s political life

Walter Ulbricht quickly became an important member in the party. In 1923, he was elected to the Central Committee and five years later to the Reichstag (German parliament). He remained a member of the Reichstag until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. When they imprisoned other KPD leaders in connection with a high profile murder, Ulbricht fled to France, Czechoslovakia and finally Spain. Between 1937 and 1945, he settled in Moscow and resided in the famous Hotel Lux. While there, he worked on a variety of communist causes.

Walter Ulbricht – leader of East Germany

In April 1945, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, chose Walter Ulbricht to lead a group of party functionaries into Germany to begin reconstruction of the Communist party in Germany. Within the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin, Social Democrats were pressured into merging with the Communist party to form the new Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). After the founding of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949, Ulbricht became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. In 1950, he became General Secretary of the SED Central Committee and First Secretary in 1953. After the death of Stalin that same year, Ulbricht’s position was in danger. However, the East German Uprising of 1953 helped him to gain the Kremlin’s support. With Moscow’s backing, Ulbricht suppressed the uprising and secured his position in East Germany. From that point on, Walter Ulbricht was East Germany’s chief decision maker.

Ulbricht continued to plot his course. By 1952, he had nationalized 80 percent of the industry, which resulted in an economy that was short of consumer goods and often produced goods of shoddy quality. When his economic measures proved flawed, millions of East Germans fled to the west. Aware of the possibility of a total collapse of East Germany, Ulbricht pressured the Soviet Union in early 1961 to stop the outflow or workers and to resolve the status of Berlin. This led to the construction of the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans when he stated, “No one has any intention of building a wall.” The Berlin Wall became a public relations disaster for Ulbricht and the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, Ulbricht found himself more and more isolated, both at home and abroad. His refusal to work with West Germany on Soviet terms infuriated Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1971, Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions. He was only allowed to remain head of state as Chairman of the Council of State in an honorary capacity.

Walter Ulbricht was a survivor

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht came close to being toppled several times, but he always landed on his feet. His private life was beset with difficulties as well. Next time, I will write about his relationship with his wife, Lotte, and their daughter, Beate.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Schloss Cecilienhof – Cecilienhof Palace

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Schloss Cecilienhof became international known as the site of the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Prior to the end of World War II, the palace had served as the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm, his wife, Duchess Cecilie von Mecklenburg-Schwerin and their six children. Located southwest of Berlin, Germany, the English Tudor-style building resembles a Grand English Country Manor with its half-timbered walls, bricks and many chimneys. With a total of 176 rooms, Cecilienhof is considerably larger than it seems.

Schloss Cecilienhof - Cecilienhof Palace

Schloss Cecilienhof – Cecilienhof Palace

Schloss Cecilienhof’s Pre-1945 History

The castle was the last palace to be built by the Hohenzollern, a dynasty that ruled Prussia and Germany for 500 years. The German Emperor Wilhelm II had Schloss Cecilienhof built for his eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm. Construction began in 1914 and was completed in 1917. After only one happy year together in their new home, the royal couple remained separated for the rest of their lives. Even before the revolution of 1918, the Crown Prince rarely found time to be with his family. The Duchess and her six children continued to live at the palace from time to time until 1920 when Schloss Cecilienhof was confiscated. The royal couple’s two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Louis Ferdinand, remained at castle to attend public school in Potsdam. But when the Red Army drew close to Berlin in February of 1945, the Duchess and all of her children fled without being able to salvage many of their possessions. At the end of World War II, the Soviets seized Cecilienhof, which was located within the Soviet Zone of Germany.

Schloss Cecilienhof and the Potsdam Conference

From July 17 to August 2, 1945, US President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee Joseph Stalin convened at the Schloss Cecilienhof to decide the future of Germany. The three Allied powers decided to meet at the palace because the capital itself was too heavily damaged.

Prior to the Potsdam Conference, thirty-six rooms and the Great Hall were renovated and furnished with furniture from other Potsdam palaces. The Hohenzollern’s furniture had been removed by the Soviets and stored elsewhere. Cecilie’s music salon and writing room, Wilhelm’s smoking room, library and breakfast room as well as the Great Hall (where the Potsdam Agreement was signed) were among the rooms that were renovated and used during the Potsdam Conference. The various delegations were housed in the suburb of Potsdam-Babelsberg.

The Great Hall at Schloss Cecilienhof where the Potsdam Agreement was signed

The Great Hall at Schloss Cecilienhof where the Potsdam Agreement was signed

Schloss Cecilienhof’s Post-1945 History

After the Potsdam Conference had ended, Soviet troops used the palace as a clubhouse for a while. Later, Schloss Cecilienhof was handed over to the state of Brandenburg. In 1952, a memorial for the Conference was set up in the former private chambers of Crown Prince Wilhelm and Duchess Cecilie. The East German government used the palace for state receptions and other important meetings. In 1960, part of the castle was turned into a hotel. Today, part of Schloss Cecilienhof still serves as a museum. The hotel is temporarily closed for renovations and expects to reopen in 2018.

Since 1990, Schloss Cecilienhof is part of the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin UNESCO World Heritage Site.



For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.





Stalin Note

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

The Stalin note was a diplomatic paper. On March 10, 1952, Joseph Stalin’s deputy foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, delivered three identical documents to his postwar Allies–the United States, France and Great Britain. The Stalin note was the first of four pieces of correspondence on the same subject, all initiated by Marshal Stalin. The paper proposed a peace treaty between the four Allies and the East- and West-occupied Germanys to end the country’s artificial division.

Content of the Stalin Note

In this diplomatic note, Stalin proposed German reunification but attached several stipulations. Aside from other requirements, he proposed reunification of East and West Germany, providing that the occupying powers withdraw their armed forces and liquidate all of their bases in Germany. He further demanded that once reunited, Germany would be required to forfeit her right to enter into a military alliance with any power, that had taken part in WWII. Stalin suggested a four-power conference to act on his proposal by signing a peace treaty with Germany.

Four-power conference

The conference never took place. Germany and the three Western Allies feared that a peace treaty of this nature could result in the reunited Germany’s inability to protect her borders. They also recognized that signing this peace treaty would mean that the reunited Germany would be barred from aligning herself with the Western powers. As history shows those interpretations prevailed. The Cold War continued to heat up over the next three decades, and East and West became more firmly entrenched in their respective blocs. Germany remained divided until the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) collapsed in 1990.

The question remains

Historians have been divided ever since on the intent of the Stalin note. The questions remain (1) Did the West German, Western European, and American leaders miss a much earlier opportunity for German reunification? (2) Were the Soviets offering a sincere path toward German reunification in 1952 or was the Stalin Note a ploy to facilitate the incorporation of Germany into the Eastern bloc? Opinions differ to this day.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.



Did Churchill coin “Iron Curtain”?

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

In the United States it is often erroneously believed that Sir Winston Churchill coined the phrase “iron curtain,” when he travelled to Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946. It had been a mere ten months since World War II had ended in Europe. Only one of the three signatories of the Potsdam Agreement was still in power: Soviet Union’s Marshal Joseph Stalin. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed away and been replaced by Harry. S. Truman. Sir Winston Churchill had lost the British election to Clement Atlee. At this point in time, the U.S. and Great Britain were mainly concerned with the state of their own post-war economies and remained grateful to Russia that she had taken a prominent role in ending the war.

“The Sinews of Peace” Speech by Churchill

On this day in early March 5, Churchill gave an address at Westminster College in Fulton. His speech was entitled, “The Sinews of Peace.” He began by speaking of his admiration for the Soviet Union and by welcoming her into the circle of leading nations. He expressed understanding for Russia’s need for security on her western frontiers. But then he cautioned, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organization intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytizing tendencies.” He went on to say, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

Following the speech, the phrase “iron curtain” became widely known. To read Churchill’s speech in its entirety, visit.

“Iron Curtain” became a household word

Although it is still widely held that Churchill coined the term “iron curtain” during his 1946 The Sinews of Peace speech, that belief is inaccurate. He had used the term for decades already. The phrase was first used in 1920 by British author and suffragette Ethel Snowden in her book Through Bolshevik Russia. In 1945, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the term in his 25 February 1945 speech entitled The Year 2000. But after Churchill’s post-war speech in Fulton, the phrase became synonymous with the way the West viewed the East. The phrase became so popular that I, a post-war child growing up in Berlin, Germany, remember it as one of the givens in my vocabulary. To me at that young age, “iron curtain” meant Cold War, and I was convinced that Sir Winston Churchill had coined it.



Sir Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill’s view on the Berlin situation

Sir Winston Churchill also foreshadowed what, indeed, ended up happening in Berlin a couple of years later when the Russians blockaded all ground access routes to West Berlin. In his speech, Churchill said, “An attempt is being made by the Russians in Berlin to build up a quasi-Communist party in their zone of Occupied Germany by showing special favors to groups of left-wing German leaders. At the end of the fighting last June, the American and British Armies withdrew westwards, in accordance with an earlier agreement, to a depth at some points of 150 miles upon a front of nearly four hundred miles, in order to allow our Russian allies to occupy this vast expanse of territory, which the Western Democracies had conquered. If now the Soviet Government tries, by separate action, to build up a pro-Communist Germany in their areas, this will cause new serious difficulties in the British and American zones.”


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.