- Black Market, Cold War: Everyday Life in Berlin 1946–1949
This book attempts ambitious objectives: On one level it is a detailed Alltagsgeschichte, an analysis of everyday life in Berlin from 1946 through the end of the Berlin Blockade in 1949. Paul Steege chose 1946 as a starting date because by this stage Berliners [End Page 141] had settled into life among the ruins and emerged as actors in their own right. By tracing in meticulous detail events and developments “on the ground,” Steege also aims to demonstrate how local conditions and actors influenced the emerging Cold War.
The book is based on an impressive trove of material, particularly Steege’s close reading of contemporary sources. He discusses a wide range of issues and succeeds in offering new perspectives on many known facts. From the outset, Berlin’s economic situation was desperate, with 50 percent of its housing stock completely destroyed. Surprisingly, until the Soviet Union began systematically dismantling industrial facilities, 65 percent of industrial capacity in Berlin had survived the war in working order (p. 30). Even so, the recovery of the city was hindered by the disappearance of entire industries. In 1946 Berlin’s gross industrial production remained at only 37 percent of 1936 levels. The important electrical engineering sector was operating at only 26 percent. As late as 1950, Berlin’s mechanical engineering production was at only 30 percent of 1936 levels. (In the western zones comparable figures were 155 percent and 106 percent—see p. 31). This helps explain why food and daily necessities assumed such great importance for the citizens of the city and also for political developments. Steege shows in detail how this worked particularly against the Soviet Union and the East German Communists (SED). Their priority was essentially political, believing in their own propaganda of 1945 as the “zero hour,” the beginning of a new, anti-fascist Germany. But they miscalculated not only the degree of political continuities in German public opinion with its radical rejection of Communism—as expressed in the elections of autumn 1946. More importantly, Berliners were disillusioned by the failure of the SED and its Soviet backers to “deliver” on their promises of food and other vital necessities. The concerns of the German population with survival undermined SED policies and the party’s attempts to establish overall control (p. 191). These priorities also meant that the isolation of the city during the blockade was never as complete as suggested in studies that focus on the international aspects of the Cold War. Although the Rosinenbomber did much to bolster the morale of the Berliners, the residents’ own efforts to provide for themselves need to be acknowledged. Not only did individuals go on hamster tours in the surrounding countryside, but deliveries were formally organized: “the extent of supply and trade traffic that the Soviets or their German partners officially authorized to pass in and out of the western sectors’ needs to be recognized” (p. 221). The image of the completely isolated city thus needs to be revised. The book provides extensive detail on the impact of the introduction of different currencies in the city, the breakdown of the administration for the whole of Berlin, and the problems surrounding the policing of the black market.
The book is full of illuminating information and gives excellent insight into the multilayered events that together formed the background for the emerging Cold War. However, Steege is more ambitious in that he attempts to establish a wider theoretical link between developments in Berlin and the impact and relevance of these events for the Cold War itself. “Everyday history elaborates not only ‘history from below’ but engages the tension between every day lives of ‘ordinary’ people and the symbolic meanings that they shape, engage and contest in the spaces through which they move.” But did “everyday Berliners” really become “vital shapers of an international Cold War” [End Page 142] (p. 15)? Traditional interpretations of events in Berlin see local developments more as a consequence of Allied disagreements. Although Steege rightly emphasizes...