Louise Schroeder at her desk
© Archives Gerda Schimpf, Berlin

Louise Schroeder

From an early age, Louise Schroeder displayed a keen interest in social policy and equal opportunities. After the Second World War, she became Berlin’s first governing female mayor.

by Dr. Martina Weinland

Louise Schroeder was born on 2 April 1887 in what is now the Hamburg district of Altona. She comes from a modest background; her father is a builder and her mother sells vegetables in order to contribute towards the family income. Nevertheless, her parents ensure that she receives a good education and thus, after leaving secondary school, she manages to find employment as a clerk with an insurance firm. 

Helping people to help themselves

Her father awakens her enthusiasm for social democracy. In 1910, at the age of 23, Louise Schroeder joins the SPD, where she is involved specifically in social welfare policy and women’s rights. In 1919, after the November revolution and the end of the monarchy in Germany, when women also get the right to vote, she becomes one of the first female MPs in the Berlin Reichstag. In the same year, she is instrumental in establishing the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AWO) [Workers Welfare Institution], a self-help organisation for the working classes, determined to alleviate the prevailing hardship following the First World War.

When the National Socialists seize power in 1933, eliminating the democratic parties and banning the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, Schroeder retreats to Hamburg because an employment ban makes it impossible for her to continue working as a lecturer at the Arbeiterwohlfahrt school and the Berlin Academy for Politics.  She is repeatedly subject to politically motivated harassment. Finally, she secures work with a Berlin building firm, on whose behalf she travels to Denmark in 1944. This is where she remains until the surrender of the Nazi dictatorship in May 1945. 

A symbolic figure in difficult times

After the war, Louise Schroeder returns to Berlin. The staunch social democrat’s political engagement is still fresh in many people’s minds and she is appointed mayor in the Berlin Magistrat in order to assist in the reconstruction of the destroyed city.

In May 1947, when Otto Ostrowski (SPD), the first elected post-war mayor of Berlin, tenders his resignation following a vote of no confidence by his party, Schroeder assumes office as his deputy. In June, Ernst Reuter is elected new mayor, but the Soviet occupying power denies the erstwhile communist the role on account of his now anti-communist sentiments. Louise Schroeder remains governing mayor.

By the time the Western allies introduce the Deutschmark in their entire German area of control, including West Berlin, the Soviets impose a blockade over the western sectors of the city in June 1948. The “island” within the Soviet occupation zone can now only be supplied by airlift. In this difficult situation, Louise Schroeder is seemingly tirelessly on hand, helping the residents of her city in any way she can. Despite serious illness, which makes it necessary for someone to stand in for her for a few months as of that August, she becomes a symbolic figure for the people in Berlin. 
Berliners in the western sector of the city exchange their money for Deutschmarks, 1948
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Walter Schulze
Louise Schroeder, photographed by Rolf Goetze on 1 May 1954
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Rolf Goetze

Political to the very end

Effectively cut into two parts by the blockade, Berlin soon also becomes a politically divided city. On 30 November, the city council of East Berlin dismisses the entire Berlin Magistrat and elects a new mayor. A few days later the citizens in the Western sectors elect their own mayor and the successfully re-elected Ernst Reuter replaces Louise Schroeder. She acts as his deputy and member of the senate until 1951, in 1949 she enters the Bundestag and in 1950 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In recognition of her services to the city, on 2 April 1957, her 70th birthday, Louise Schroeder is given the freedom of the city of Berlin. The first woman to have been recognised in this way. She died on 4 June 1957, without ever having retired from politics.