Peoples of the world, look upon this city – Ernst Reuter (1887-1953)

About 70 years ago Ernst Reuter gave what was probably his most famous speech before the Reichstag in Berlin. Berlin's first mayor, Reuter was already able to look back on an eventful life at that time. This text commemorates one of post-war Germany's most important social democrats.

Photo: Ernst Reuter 60th birthday by Sammlung Telegraf / Archiv der sozialen Demokratie

Read this text in German.

On September 9, 1948, in the midst of the Berlin Blockade, Ernst Reuter appealed to the "peoples of America, England, France, Italy" not to capitulate over Berlin in an address to 300,000 people. It made him an international symbol of Berlin's will and desire for freedom.

"[...] a brilliant and clear head, but a little too independent"

By that time - the 59-year-old was speaking in his capacity as Lord Mayor of Berlin, elected by the City Council, although not confirmed by the Allied Commander - he already had an eventful life behind him: member of a Christian student fraternity, a travelling social democratic orator and educator, a committed pacifist, soldier and Russian prisoner of war in the First World War. As chairman of an international prisoner-of-war committee, the Bolsheviks did not fail to notice his talent for organisation and speaking: Reuter was appointed People's Commissioner on the Volga with the task of making German colonists loyal citizens of the Soviet state that was being formed. At the end of 1918 he returned to Germany. Lenin's assessment of him: "The young Reuter is a brilliant and clear head, but a little too independent". With this recommendation, he became a functionary in the Communist Party of Germany and set about building a party organisation in Berlin. In 1921, the so-called "March Revolt" triggered fierce internal party conflicts, resulting in Reuter's expulsion from the party in January 1922.

Berlin – "a hideous city"

Ernst Reuter regained a foothold in Social Democracy surprisingly quickly: The very same year he became head of the editorial office for "Vorwärts", where he frequently addressed local political topics in his articles. In 1913, during his first stay in Berlin, he wrote letters to his parents and his brother Karl calling Berlin "a hideous city" and "extremely unappealing". In ensuing years, he focused on the local traffic situation, both as a journalist and as a member of the Berlin City Council.

In 1920, the "Greater Berlin" agglomeration was made up of eight towns, 59 rural communities and 27 manor districts, which subsequently grew to 4 million inhabitants. The parallel operations of private, municipal and wealthy inhabitants' owned transport companies as well as enterprises with mixed private-municipal participation produced chaotic competition over transport lines and fares.

Ernst Reuter strove to ensure mobility between the newly built residential districts (for workers) on the outskirts of the city and inner-city workplaces by means of efficient local public transport. In 1926, he began buying majority shares in private companies in his capacity as member of the City Council in charge of transport. In 1927 Berlin introduced a fixed fare of 20 pfennigs with the right to change to another line and means of transport: For the first time, Berliners could use the same ticket to travel by underground, tram and bus—something we take for granted today, but at that time a small revolution.

On 1 January 1929, the Berliner Verkehrs-Aktiengesellschaft (BVG) [Berlin’s public transport company] went into operation. With 89 lines, a network encompassing 634 kilometers, over 900 million passengers transported per year and up to 28,000 employees, it was the world's largest local public transport company. Ernst Reuter was the first chairman of the supervisory board.

"[...] I'm not very good at taking orders."

In 1931 Reuter left the big city to become mayor of Magdeburg on 29 April. In 1932 he was elected to the Reichstag for the SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany], where he voted against Hitler's Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) on 23 March 1933. In June 1933, Reuter, who was still a mayor, was arrested and removed from office. He was subjected to severe ill-treatment and abuse in Lichtenburg concentration camp near Torgau. After his release and convalescence, he was arrested again, but thanks to British intervention the prominent social democrat was allowed to leave for England in January 1935. He searched in vain for a job there. Thanks to the efforts of the Society for the Support of Refugee Scholars (Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler), he succeeded in being appointed as an expert in collective bargaining in the Turkish Ministry of Economics. In 1941 he was appointed professor of municipal science at the university for public administration in Ankara.

In November 1946 Ernst Reuter was finally able to return to Germany with his family. Kurt Schumacher persuaded him to come to Berlin and become the Berlin City Council member in charge of transport and utilities once again. The situation was catastrophic—it was virtually impossible to manage a city in ruins divided up between the four victorious powers. Conflicts were unavoidable. Finally, due to his lack of subservience, a request was made to remove him from office (although the procedure was not carried through to a decision). His self-assured demeanor vis-à-vis the victorious powers contributed significantly to his popularity among the population.

Ready to "[...] make any sacrifice imposed upon him."

In June 1948, the Berlin Blockade began: On 24 June 1948, the Soviet Union closed all roads, railways and waterways leading to the western sectors of Berlin; the power supply was also cut off. Reuter, a brilliant orator, exhorted Berliners to resist falling under the Soviet yoke, and to stand up and struggle to keep the city free. The USA also heeded his call, setting up the so-called "Airlift". The Western Allies supplied the Berlin population with coal, food and building materials until 30 September 1949.

In the period until the blockade was lifted, Reuter gave countless speeches at rallies and on the radio. On 5 December 1948, the inhabitants of the western sectors elected a new City Council. The SPD won a landslide victory, receiving 64.5 per cent of the vote. On 7 December, Ernst Reuter was unanimously elected Lord Mayor of West Berlin.

The problems with which he had to struggle as leader of the city were wide-ranging and scarcely possible to cope with: Berlin's economy was in shambles, resulting in rampant unemployment. There were disagreements with Federal Chancellor Adenauer over the relationship between West Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany as well as internal party conflicts over social reforms such as the replacement of civil servants by salaried administrative staff or "classless" uniform insurance for all employees in Berlin. The steady influx of refugees from East Germany posed additional major challenges for Berlin. The city faced gargantuan tasks.

Following a heart attack, Ernst Reuter died at the age of 64 on 29 September 1953. The city of Berlin has commemorated him with various awards and stipends. Numerous public buildings bear his name, and a central traffic junction in Berlin-Charlottenburg was named after him as far back as 1 October 1953, only a few days after he passed away.

The collection of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung contains numerous publications by and about Ernst Reuter (link in German). A film about Ernst Reuter (link in German) can be found on the website of the Bürgermeister-Reuter-Foundation.


Gabriele Rose works at the Library of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bonn. Visit the library website to find out more on the available collections and research possibilities it offers.

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