Back | Print

Berlin in Defeat, 1945
The war came to Berlin in earnest in 1943 when the British and American air forces began a combined air assault on the city. With the Americans bombing by day and the British by night the allies constructed an airborne assembly line that delivered death and destruction to the city.

What the British and Americans started, the Russians finished. The final battle for the city began in April 1945 when the Soviets launched a massive offensive designed to totally annihilate any opposition. It was a brutal fight - house-to-house, street-by-street - with no quarter given on either side. (See the Battle of Berlin, 1945) The agony of the battle ended only with the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945. The city was in ruins, its population wandering the rubble-filled streets searching for food and shelter.

" elderly woman and a little girl were foraging for fuel in another wrecked house."

Joel Sayre was an American reporter who visited the defeated city in July of 1945. We join his story as he and some friends make their way along Berlin's main thoroughfare:

"With some friends, I walked one day down the short, narrow Oberwallstrasse, which runs off Unter den Linden. What we saw there can, with a few variations, can be seen today in hundreds of Berlin side streets. A wrecked American half-track with S.S. license plates lay keeled over to starboard, and other military vehicles were strewn along behind it. Half of one large dwelling house had been sheared off, leaving four stories of rooms exposed to view. In one ground-floor room stood a small lathe which had doubtless been used to make parts of military instruments; during the war there was a great deal of parlor manufacture, in Berlin.

Halfway up the street, an elderly woman and a little girl were foraging for fuel in another wrecked house. A sign on one wall of it said, in German, 'Warning! As per order of the Herr Police President of Berlin, this property has been strewn with a highly poisonous rat exterminator. Children and domestic animals are to be kept at a distance.' The old woman and the little girl hadn't read the sign or, more likely, didn't care. Under a fallen joist the child found a man's left shoe, in fairly good condition, and this she put into her rucksack. Single shoes are a commodity on Germany's black market.

My friends and I walked back to Unter den Linden. A pale, bald man with protruding black eyes pedaled slowly by on a bicycle with no tires on its wheels.

A hunchback, whose legs accounted for three-quarters of his height, trudged past in a blue windbreaker and checked trousers, pushing a handcart loaded with three empty barrels.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate a pretty Russian Wac, with the help of two flags, was directing what traffic there was. Above the gate's arches hung a Russian banner inscribed 'Long live the Soviet Armies that planted their victory standards in Berlin!' On top of the gate, the outside right horse in the famous sculptured team of four steeds pulling Victory's chariot badly needed a veterinary.

A thin old man, who must have taken us for Russians, approached and said in a whining voice, 'Guten Tag, comrades. Can you spare me a little tobacco?' He wore a black homburg that almost covered his ears, a wing collar and a string tie, a dark suit and overcoat that were very neatly brushed and pressed, and beautifully shined black shoes. We turned him down, and he sorrowfully walked on with his hands clasped behind him.

A curly-haired, actorish-looking fellow in his thirties, wearing plus-fours and a canary pullover, came up to us and offered to pay cash for cigarettes. We said that we had all the cash we wanted, and he too went away.

Next we got talking with a pale youth who was carrying a portfolio. He told us that he was a Jew and showed us his card to prove it. Jews and half-Jews in Berlin have identification cards issued by the Russians. Each card has the bearer's photograph, declares that he is a victim of National Socialism, and asks that he be given special consideration. This youth didn't mention tobacco. When one of us handed him a cigarette, he was overwhelmed.

No tobacco has been sold legally in Berlin since May 2nd. On the black market a single cigarette costs from fifteen to twenty marks (a dollar and a half to two dollars, at the official rate of exchange), depending on its quality. American cigarettes are considered the best, and the standard black-market price for a pack of twenty is three hundred marks, or thirty dollars. The value of a pack of Chesterfields can run as high as seventy-five to ninety dollars.

I'd conservatively estimate that at least two million of the three million Berliners left in the city that was once home for nearly four and a half million are now engaged in butt collecting. The butt collecting in Berlin, I do not hesitate to say, is the most intensive on earth. Remain stationary on a Berlin street while you smoke a cigarette, and likely as not you will soon have around you a circle of children, able-bodied men, and whiskered old men, all waiting to dive for the butt when you throw it away.

Butts are legal tender in the economic system that prevails in Berlin. The other afternoon I was at the home of a woman who was having some glass put in the blown-out windows of her apartment. The glazier had been on the job all day, using old bent nails instead of putty. The woman's fifteen-year-old daughter came into the living room to say that the glazier had finished and was waiting to be paid. 'Come now, where have you put the butts?' the mother asked the child, who went out and shortly returned with a silver bowl containing twenty butts. Her mother took the bowl into the next room, where the glazier had been working, and through the open door I could hear him expressing his ecstatic thanks. Plainly he was more than satisfied with his day's pay."

   Joel Sayre's account was originally published in the New Yorker Magazine on July 28, 1945, republished in The New Yorker Book of War Pieces (1947); Ryan, Cornelius, The Last Battle (1966).

How To Cite This Article:
"Berlin in Defeat, 1945," EyeWitness to History, (2006).