Unknown History: The Great Berlin Power Struggle

Posted on January 9, 2022

We teamed up with the Unknown History podcast on Quick and Dirty Tips to bring you their latest series based on Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin. Episode 6 discusses the power struggle in the Allied Kommandatura, the four-power body established to run Berlin convened in July 1945. Mistrust and manipulation among the key players threatened the outcome over the most pressing issues: food, looting, shootings, and the arrest of Nazis.

Col. Frank Howley was determined to prevent the Soviets from wresting control of the western-run districts of Berlin, but he knew it would be an uphill struggle. He was increasingly strident in his criticism of official American policy, which he described as “appeasement of the Russians at any price in an attempt to win them over.” He was also irritated by reminders from Washington that his role was to “allay their suspicions and to gain their friendship and cooperation.” He had privately vowed to take a more combative approach, even if it meant crossing swords with the White House and State Department.

“There is only one way to deal with gangsters, Russian-uniformed or otherwise,” he said with a scowl, “and that is to treat them like gangsters.” He would later describe lying awake at night “trying to think up ways to keep the Russians from stealing the city from under us.”

The opening shots of the ensuing power struggle were fired in the Allied Kommandatura, the four-power body established to run Berlin. It had been officially convened in the first week of July 1945, but it had proven near impossible to find a building in which it could meet. The Americans eventually suggested the half-ruined headquarters of the Nazi Labour Front, in their sector of the city. Within days it was reglazed, replastered, and repainted by 250 American workmen.

The main meeting room was sober and functional, furnished with a long banqueting table, twenty blue upholstered armchairs, and several rows of smaller seats for the advisors, stenographers, and interpreters. This wood-paneled chamber was to be the stage set for events that were, in the words of Frank Howley, “as portentous in world implications as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.”

The key players in the Kommandatura included Colonel Howley (for America) and Brigadier Hinde (for Britain). They represented their respective areas of western Berlin and it was they who were to fight tooth and nail with the Soviets over the city’s destiny.

Colonel Howley sat next to his Soviet counterpart, with Hinde opposite him and his soon-to-arrive French comrade in the adjacent chair, all of them surrounded by advisors. Howley regarded himself as the first among equals of this four-square phalanx, a do-or-die warrior who attended meetings in full combat dress. If his clothing and boots sent an unambiguous message that he was on the warpath, his blunt tongue would do even more to turn the Kommandatura into a bear pit.

His American compatriots had a sneaking admiration for the bellicose fashion in which he represented his country’s interests. Among the admirers was William Heimlich, a senior figure in U.S. intelligence, who listened in jaw-dropped amazement as Howley fired off one of his explosive tirades.

“Well, of course, I don’t expect you to tell me the truth” was a typical opening salvo to his Soviet counterpart. “You lie. You always lie, and no matter what you’re going to tell me it’s not going to be the truth.” Heimlich averred that Howley’s approach won the grudging respect of the Soviets, but it also earned their deep-seated enmity. It was not long before they viewed him as a formidable enemy, with Berlin’s Soviet-backed newspapers variously describing him as a “terrorist” and “provocateur of civil war.”

Howley’s lack of decorum was viewed with disquiet by the British team, who felt he was inflaming an already tense situation. Harold Hays had enjoyed Howley’s ebullient spirit during their time in Barbizon, but he now found him “thrustful, intolerant and impetuous, with a great love of showmanship and publicity.” Above all, he thought him “extremely self-centered and individualistic.”

Seated opposite Howley at the Kommandatura table was the scrupulously fair-minded Brigadier Hinde. He came equipped with enough old-school British charm to disarm even the frostiest of Soviet interlocutors. Less combative than Colonel Howley and more attuned to the conventions of diplomacy, he attended meetings in immaculate service dress, all “white flannels and shiny leather belts.” It was his way of showing that there was a “right way” of conducting the weighty affairs of state.

Brigadier Hinde’s negotiating style was that of an even-handed cricket umpire, with Colonel Howley noting that the British team “was inclined to show great annoyance at anything smacking of twisted truth.” The Soviet team on the Kommandatura was led by an incoming lieutenant-general named Dmitri Smirnov, who made a good impression on everyone at the first meeting. Howley described him as “a very charming man with a skin of detachment,” but he soon discovered that this detachment was used to devastating effect. Smirnov was in the habit of smiling placatingly before launching verbal assaults in which, said Howley, he would “wade in and cut us to pieces.”

To learn more about the history of World War II, visit Unknown History on Quick and Dirty Tips. Or, you can listen to the podcast below. 

Listen to Episode 5:

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