Schroeder, Louise (1887–1957)

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Schroeder, Louise (1887–1957)

German Social Democratic leader who as deputy mayor of West Berlin was a symbol of defiance against Soviet and Communist pressure during the Berlin blockade of 1948–49, one of the tensest periods of the Cold War. Name variations: Luise Schröder. Born Louise Dorothea Sophie Schroeder in Hamburg-Altona, Germany, on April 2, 1887; died in West Berlin on June 4, 1957; educated in Hamburg; never married.

Appointed acting Oberbürgermeisterin ("lord mayoress," May 8, 1947); stepped down from mayoral post (1951); remained active in politics in West Germany (1950s); City of Berlin began to award an annual Louise Schroeder Medal (1998).

Louise Schroeder was born into a working-class family in the Hamburg suburb of Altona in 1887, and experienced privation from her earliest years. Her father was an unskilled worker whose modest wages from toiling in a brickyard were insufficient to support his large family (eight children, four of whom died in infancy). Her mother had little choice but to supplement the domestic income by working long hours selling vegetables in the neighborhood. Louise's father was a class-conscious proletarian and trade-union member as well as a dedicated Social Democrat, and she sometimes accompanied him to local meetings of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party, or SPD). In 1910, when Schroeder became a member of the SPD, she was particularly concerned about the growing danger of a major war in Europe. She was shocked in August 1914 when Europe plunged into World War I, with Germany's participation given the full support of the ostensibly antiwar SPD, whose Reichstag deputies voted unanimously to finance the conflict. Despite this disillusionment, Schroeder remained in the party, becoming chair of its local Altona branch in 1915.

One of the immediate consequences of Germany's defeat and the collapse of its monarchy in 1918 was the achievement of women's suffrage. In January 1919, Schroeder was one of the 41 women elected to the National Assembly that had the task of writing a new, democratic constitution for the German Republic. The nascent state, known as the Weimar Republic, was born in turmoil. As a convinced Social Democrat, Schroeder believed that democracy could only succeed in Germany if it brought social justice and economic stability to the vanquished, embittered nation. She paid attention to the needs of her constituency, which became permanent when her National Assembly seat turned into a Reichstag seat. Her power base in Hamburg-Altona was her position as director of the welfare office in that region. Nationally, Schroeder became an important personality in the SPD when she and Marie Juchacz founded the Social Democratic Arbeiterwohlfahrt (Workers' Welfare) organization to address the many problems of social distress resulting from the WWI defeat, as well as the resulting inflation and economic instability.

As a Reichstag deputy, Schroeder developed expertise in the area of social-welfare legislation. She was particularly concerned with the problem of venereal disease and prostitution, and proposed legislation that would reform and modernize the nature of state intervention in this area. A skilled bridge-builder and crafter of coalitions, Schroeder worked with some of her political adversaries,

including Christine Teusch of the Catholic Center Party and Marie-Elisabeth Lüders of the middle-class German Democratic Party, to help pass legislation improving state support of mothers and children, even unmarried mothers and children of illegitimate birth.

Schroeder's successful political career ended abruptly in the first months of 1933, when the Nazi Party, having come to power "legally" with Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany on January 30 of that year, quickly initiated a reign of terror and proclaimed a totalitarian state, the Third Reich. In March 1933, Schroeder and other Social Democratic Reichstag deputies voted against the Enabling Act that provided Hitler with the pseudo-legal basis for his dictatorship. Soon after, all Social Democratic elected officials in Germany lost their posts. Many were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Others, like Schroeder, became unemployed and were denied unemployment assistance because of their "un-German" allegiance to the ideals of democratic socialism. Schroeder became an "unperson," and her 1925 guide to social legislation, Mutter und Säugling in der Gesetzgebung, relating to women and infants, was placed on the Nazi Index of Prohibited Literature.

Under police surveillance, Schroeder struggled to survive, taking over a small bread shop in her old neighborhood of Hamburg-Altona. Even there, she remained loyal to her Social Democratic ideals, responding pointedly with a "Guten Tag" to any customer who entered her shop with a salutation of "Heil Hitler." After some time, she had to abandon the shop, the target of a boycott by the local Nazis and a business which many former Social Democrats avoided because they feared that the store was under police surveillance.

In 1938, Schroeder moved to Berlin where she found employment as a secretary in a construction firm. Living in the capital of Hitler's Greater German Reich was not only psychologically difficult but physically dangerous, once World War II began in 1939. The target of ever-increasing Allied bombing raids, Berlin would be largely reduced to rubble by the end of the war in 1945. On three separate occasions, Schroeder had her dwelling destroyed in air raids. After one such raid on her district of Friedenau, she had to be rescued from under a pile of rubble. She survived the unrelenting bombings, as well as the bloody battle for Berlin in the spring of 1945, and within days of the end of hostilities embarked confidently on the second stage of her political career. She was 58.

By that summer, Soviet occupation authorities had given permission for the democratic parties of the Weimar period, including the SPD, to be reconstituted. Schroeder was elected to the governing board (Vorstand) of the Berlin SPD, and by August 1946 had advanced to the post of vice-chair. At the same time, she served as director of the SPD's recreated social welfare organization, the Arbeiterwohlfahrt. She was also a senior editor (along with Otto Suhr) of the SPD monthly journal, Das Sozialistische Jahrhundert (The Socialist Century), a job she held from November 1946 through February 1950. Besides the misery and privation of living in a shattered city, by the end of 1946 Berliners found themselves increasingly at the center of the rapidly emerging east-west conflict that would be known to history as the Cold War. As a four-power occupation zone within the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) of defeated Germany, Berlin took on important symbolism in the struggle between the Soviet Union and the Western nations, led by a triumphant and prosperous United States. Tensions grew markedly after the municipal elections of October 1946, in which the Social Democrats ran strongly, with the Communist-controlled Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED) winning 26 out of 130 seats in the City Assembly (Magistrat).

By December 1946, the new governing coalition of the city of Berlin was in place, consisting of Felix Ostrowski of the SPD as Oberbürgermeister (lord mayor), and with Ferdinand Friedensburg (Christian Democratic Union, or CDU), Heinrich Acker (SED), and Schroeder (SPD) as his deputies. Most of the other key posts of the municipal government were occupied by non-Communists, which outraged the SED and its Soviet backers. In June 1947, the Berlin City Assembly elected SPD member Ernst Reuter, a strongly anti-Communist Social Democrat who had once been a Communist and had solid anti-Nazi credentials, as the city's Oberbürgermeister. Soviet occupation authorities in Berlin regarded Reuter's election as a provocation, refusing to recognize it and blocking him from assuming the post. Consequently, to keep the city functioning and as a Western response to this Soviet step, the Allied occupation authorities authorized Schroeder to perform his functions as amtierende (acting) Oberbürgermeisterin (lord mayoress), a job she began on a de facto basis on May 8, 1947. To allow her to officially take on this highest position in the municipal government, in June 1948 First Deputy Mayor Ferdinand Friedensburg, recognizing the prestige of both the SPD and Schroeder, whom Berliners had taken to their hearts, stepped aside. That same month, the Berlin Blockade began, with the Soviets closing all land and water routes to the non-Soviet zones in Berlin. In response, the Western allies instituted the famous Berlin Airlift, flying supplies by cargo aircraft to the people in their occupation zones. During these tense months, Schroeder enjoyed the support and respect of the beleaguered city's women, who turned out en masse on July 3, 1948, to protest the Soviet's blockade. Never before had a German woman been entrusted with such a prestigious and important political post, and never before in European history had a city the size of Berlin been governed by a woman.

Supported both by the Allied Kommandatura that controlled the Western sectors of Berlin and the overwhelming majority of Berliners in that part of the city, Schroeder symbolized the determination of non-Communist Berliners not to surrender to Soviet might. Starting on June 23, 1948, and on many occasions after that, she presided cool-headedly over municipal council meetings that were disrupted by Communist demonstrators. As a result of her resolve, Schroeder became the best-known and most-beloved woman in Germany in the late 1940s, a position she continued to enjoy in West Germany throughout the 1950s up to the time of her death. During the blockade of Berlin, which lasted from June 24, 1948 until May 13, 1949, Schroeder resisted Soviet and German Communist pressures on her adopted city. Despite her frail health, she refused to be intimidated either by the Soviets, the SED, or the Allied military authorities. Schroeder also served as a member of the Berlin Municipal Parliament from 1948 through 1950 and continued to live modestly, subleasing a small apartment from a friend at Boelckestrasse 121 in the Tempelhof district. In her leisure hours, she collected and read books. Some Berliners talked of Schroeder only as "Königin Louise," a reference to Louise of Prussia , the heroic Prussian queen of the Napoleonic epoch. Although Schroeder never married or had children, many affectionately called her the "Mother of Berlin."

Only in December 1948 did Schroeder step back from her post as acting Oberbürgermeisterin of West Berlin, relinquishing duties to Ernst Reuter, who with the informal division of the city was now able to take his elected position. Until 1951, however, she would retain her position as one of West Berlin's deputy mayors. When the blockade finally ended in mid-May 1949, a massive rally of thanksgiving was held at the Schöneberg Rathaus in West Berlin. Reuter, Konrad Adenauer, and other political luminaries made well-received speeches, but one of the high points of the celebration was the appearance on the podium of Louise Schroeder, for whom the crowd of 500,000 West Berliners chanted in unison, "Louise! Louise!"

Because of her courageous stand during the Berlin Blockade and her decades-long defense of democracy and human rights, Schroeder was immensely popular not only in West Berlin but throughout West Germany for the final decade of her life. In 1948–49, she served as president of the German Conference of Cities (Deutscher Städtetag). For a time in 1949, her name was often mentioned as a strong candidate for the post of Bundespräsident (Federal President) of the nascent West German state, the Federal Republic of Germany, although in the end Theodor Heuss was chosen. Schroeder served as a Social Democratic member in the West German Parliament, the Bundestag, from 1949 until her death in 1957. Beginning in 1950, she also represented West Berlin in the Council of Europe. Other honors included being a member of the governing board of the German Red Cross, and, in the final months of her life, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cologne and the award of the freedom of the City of West Berlin. She died in West Berlin on June 4, 1957.

Louise Schroeder has been honored by Germany in many ways, including two postage stamps issued by the West Berlin postal authorities. The first of these was a 20 pfennig stamp issued on June 3, 1961, to mark the fourth anniversary of her death, followed by a 50 pfennig stamp released on February 12, 1987, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. She has also been honored by having a gymnasium named for her in Munich, as well as a street in Berlin, Louise-Schroeder-Platz in the Reinickendorf district. Beginning in 1998, the municipal government of Berlin has awarded a Louise Schroeder Medal to honor individuals whose lives personify Schroeder's lifelong goals of working to bring about a world based on democracy, social justice, freedom, and equality between women and men. The first two recipients of the award were the author Carola Stern , in 1998, and the former president of the Berlin Parliament, Hanna-Renate Laurien , in 1999.


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John Haag , Associate Professor History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Schroeder, Louise (1887–1957)

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