This 'Hateful Thing': The Berlin Wall Crisis, August 1961

What should I have done? More than 30,000 people, in fact the best and most qualified people from the [German Democratic Republic], left the country in July. You can easily calculate when the East German economy would have collapsed if we hadn’t done something soon against the mass flight. There were, though, only two kinds of countermeasures: cutting off air traffic or the Wall. The former would have brought us to a serious conflict with the United States which possibly could have led to war. I could not and did not want to risk that. So the Wall was the only remaining option.

-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev

It was an act of desperation, a “hateful thing,” in Khrushchev’s words, but the East German leadership had been pleading with their Soviet allies for months to take action against the refugee flow, and finally the situation had become intolerable. Berlin had been a breeding ground for crises since the earliest days of the Cold War; this latest round had begun with the Vienna Summit with Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy in early June 1961. There Khrushchev demanded that Berlin be transformed into a demilitarized free city, a move that he considered recognition of the de facto status of Germany in the aftermath of WWII. Kennedy rejected this demand, convinced that an American withdrawal from Berlin would cause devastating harm to the credibility of the United States.

The failure of the summit heightened fears of the East German populace that they might lose the option to cross the border, and so the flow of refugees increased—17,791 in May, 19,198 in June, then an acceleration to over 1000 per day in July and early August. The flow of skilled workers across the border threatened to destroy the East German economy. Finally on July 6, Khrushchev gave in to the long-standing East German plea that the Soviets seal the border to West Berlin. Khrushchev was concerned not just with the American response, but with the East Germans’ willingness to confine the action to East German territory. “Not a millimeter farther,” he emphasized to East German leader Walter Ulbricht.

The decision triggered a remarkable preparatory stage. Closure would require a massive assembly of materiel, meticulous planning, and careful timing, all under conditions of absolute secrecy. Beyond the creation of physical barriers to movement, the East Germans executed planning on shutting down the vast range of transportation systems then active across the city. The Soviets and East Germans adjusted their military posture, both in command relations—transferring the control of the East German forces to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany --  and in a quiet reinforcement and upgrade of Soviet troops in Germany. All was aimed at having the East Germans control the front lines of the borders, with the Soviets providing massive backup.

In early August, at a meeting of the leaders of the Warsaw Pact states in Moscow, the Soviets and East Germans informed their allies of the planned action in Berlin. There Khrushchev offered Ulbricht the opportunity to decide when to close the border. From the first days of planning the action, the East Germans had expected to execute the closure on a Sunday, when Western response would be delayed and many Berliners would be out of the city. Now Ulbricht and Khrushchev set the date for the night of August 12-13. “The date for beginning of border control,” Khrushchev later recalled, “was to be August 13, 1961. We kidded among ourselves that in the West the thirteenth is supposed to be an unlucky day. I joked that for us and for the entire socialist camp it would be a very lucky day indeed.”

Neither of the leaders underestimated the risks they were taking with this dramatic action. Ulbricht feared that the West would respond with an economic blockade; he and Khrushchev pressed the other Warsaw Pact allies to provide aid to the East Germans. In the best traditions of alliance relations, the allies responded unenthusiastically to the request for aid, all emphasizing their own economic problems. They were aware as well of the threat of military action, a threat the Khrushchev considered limited but could not entirely discount.

Ulbricht returned to Berlin, and on August 7 reported on the Warsaw Pact conference to the Politburo. There he announced the timing for the border control measure, as the final preparations began. The Soviets and East Germans conducted a last joint planning meeting the day before the closing, and the Soviet representative, Ambassador Mikhail Pervukhin, took this last opportunity to emphasize the importance of not taking this action too far: “If something goes wrong,” he commented to Ulbricht, “we’ll both lose our heads.” Ulbricht signed the orders to close the border at 4 p.m. on August 12, and the operation began at midnight.  As Hope Harrison wrote, “The East Germans started by securing the border with barbed wire, but then added concrete blocks, guard towers, mine strips, dogs, and a shoot-to-kill ban. Free movement on foot, by car, truck, tram, and boat from East to West Berlin was terminated.” Four days later concrete blocks began to appear, eventually growing out into the massive wall that persisted for the decades ahead.

The extensive planning and preparation by the Soviets and East Germans were remarkably effective in preserving operational security, though as the action neared, American intelligence did pick up general information on the Soviet and East German plan. On August 10, the CIA’s daily “President’s Intelligence Checklist” noted that “The SED (Communist party) Central Committee is to discuss a plan today, already approved by the party politburo, to have customs police turn back all East Germans at the border south and southeast of West Berlin and to close the main bridge from Potsdam.” This partial and late information did not provide any basis for an effective response; from a practical perspective, the Western allies and U.S. were taken by surprise.

The reaction was further complicated by the need to operate in concert with the allies in different forums, with all the players unwilling to risk war or serious economic conflict. A meeting among the western Four Power Ambassadorial Steering group the day following the closure explored the options available in response -- diplomatic protests, limitations on travel, limitations on cultural exchanges, and so on. All agreed that “propaganda exploitation” would be the most important response, and the British provided a list of themes that would were accepted by the other powers.

Mayor Willy Brandt wrote President Kennedy a personal letter two days after the wall went up, and Kennedy responded on August 16. Kennedy conceded that there were “no steps available to us which can force a significant material change in this present situation. Since it represents a resounding confession of failure and of political weakness, this brutal border closing evidently represents a basic Soviet decision which only war could reverse. Neither you nor we, nor any of our Allies, have ever supposed that we should go to war on this point.”  Kennedy chose to respond through a reinforcement of the American garrison in Berlin, and through an acceleration of the military buildup already in progress.

In the end, the “propaganda exploitation” was in fact the most important response, and it maintained its power through the remaining decades of the Cold War. As the infrastructure of the wall spread, and the casualties mounted, and as the images of East Germans shot while attempting to escape to the West multiplied, the Wall became an iconic symbol of the vast differences between the Soviet bloc and the West. Presidents from Kennedy to Reagan used the Wall as a backdrop for some of the most memorable remarks in modern American diplomatic history. Finally it was the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, that marked the end of the Cold War, as the unceasing impulse of the East German people to find freedom finally overcame the willingness of their leaders to impose control by force.

About the Author: Stephen Randolph, Ph.D., serves in the Office of the Historian in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Sources:

  • Hope M. Harrison. Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. See especially pages 182–223.
  • Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, vol. XIV, Berlin Crisis 1961–1962. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1993.

Comments

Comments

Patrick W.
|
Maryland, USA
August 20, 2015
They did what they thought was the best thing for the country at the time. I'm glade they were able to work out their problems. If only more countries could do the same... On another subject, what I meant is: North and South Korea screwed up by wasting the time after the war ended, that could have been used to solve their problems. Like everyone else is doing ! Instead of threating each other over-and -over again, which makes no since, because your the same people. It's like a bad civil war that never ended.
A view of Brandenburger Gate, situated near the wall in East Berlin
Posted by Stephen Randolph
August 17, 2015

.

Latest Stories

January 19, 2017

What We Got Right

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the… more

Pages