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Digital Archive International History Declassified

Essays

Berlin Introduction

Hope M. Harrison

Berlin was at the heart of the Cold War.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction

Berlin was at the heart of the Cold War. As the Cold War developed and both Berlin and Germany itself were divided into East and West and rebuilt from the destruction of World War II, the events there became increasingly influential in the Cold War. The Berlin Wall stood from 1961 to 1989 as a symbol of the Cold War, and the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 presaged the end of the Cold War. How and why did Germany and Berlin occupy center stage in the Cold War? Why was Berlin the only place in the world where Soviet and American tanks came barrel to barrel during the Cold War? How did the Berlin Wall come to be built? Why did it collapse? Read on to investigate the answers.

Imagine what it would be like to have the United States divided into two countries and to have Washington, D.C., the capital, divided into two sectors, with a wall dividing them. What if your beloved grandmother lived on the other side of that wall, and you could no longer visit her? Imagine if your sister had been visiting your grandmother when the wall went up through the center of Washington, and you didn’t know how to get your sister back. This strange and terrible situation is exactly how the East and West Berliners lived during the Cold War. Families and friends were divided and forced to lead very different lives. One East Berliner had borrowed books from a library in West Berlin and could only return the books twenty-eight years later!

The Occupation of Berlin and Germany

When the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Great Britain accepted Germany’s World War II surrender in May 1945, they sought to ensure that Germany could not start another world war. They learned from the mistakes made after the defeat of Germany in World War I, at which time Germany was allowed to maintain its own government and was not occupied by the victorious powers. Germany then rose up again in the 1930s under Adolf Hitler and launched World War II and the Holocaust. In 1945, the Allies wanted to avoid another post-war resolution that would again allow Germany to rise as a global menace.

The United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, soon joined by France, established four zones of military occupation in Germany and in its capital city, Berlin. Since Berlin was located in the Soviet Zone of Occupation, there were vague guidelines established for the American, British, and French forces to move between the Soviet zone and their respective zones of occupation.

Germany no longer existed as a sovereign state once it surrendered to the Allies. Instead, it was ruled by military and political officials of the Four Powers who coordinated policy in the Allied Control Council. The goals of the Allies in occupying Germany were to ensure that German military capacity was destroyed, Nazi officials were out of power, and that Germany would no longer pose a threat to the international community. They planned to de-Nazify, decentralize, democratize, and demilitarize Germany. Although the occupation zones in Germany were run by officials from four different countries, they were expected to enact similar policies in their respective regions to encourage uniform conditions throughout Germany. On the other hand, the Kommandant of each zone was given a degree of independent decision-making that contradicted the concept of equalizing conditions. These two guidelines presented conflicting policies: one of coordination between the Allies, and one of autonomous policy within each zone.

There are a variety of reasons for the increasing differences in the treatment of the different zones of Germany and Berlin by the Four Powers. One important factor was the degree of suffering experienced in World War II at the hands of Germany. The Soviets and the French suffered most from German invasions in World War II and were most eager to exact revenge and to receive reparations from Germany to rebuild their countries. After four years of a brutal war with Germany and with 25 million dead and much of the western Soviet Union destroyed, the Soviets argued that they deserved the biggest piece of the German pie. Both to keep Germany weak and to help the Soviet Union rebuild, the Soviets took as much as they could from Germany in the form of economic resources, and transported it back to the Soviet Union. This involved dismantling factories down to the lightbulbs and toilets, taking whatever food and goods were needed to support their occupation troops, and importing any German atomic and rocket scientists they could find to the Soviet Union to help them improve their own military capabilities (something the U.S. did also). The anger of the Soviet Red Army against the Germans was also expressed in mass rapes of German women, often in front of their husbands, fathers or children. [For more details, see Norman Naimark’s book, “The Russians in Germany”] The French were similarly ruthless in taking reparations from their zone and attempting to keep Germany as weak as possible. In addition, the French sought to split off some of the more industrially important parts of Germany and integrate them into France, such as the Saar and the Rhineland, and even the key industrial area of the Ruhr, which was in the British Zone.

Another factor influencing different Allied policies in their occupation zones was related to the economic makeup of each zone. The Soviet zone was largely agricultural, while the Western zones were more industrial, which implied food shortages in the Western zones, and subsidized food supplies for the Germans at the expense of American, British, and French taxpayers. The British were the first to decide that this practice couldn’t continue. They needed their taxpayers’ money to help reconstruct London and other areas bombed by the Germans in WWII, not to feed the German people. The British suggested to the Americans that instead of focusing on keeping their zones of Germany weak and de-industrialized, they should let the Germans rebuild some of their industry. This would encourage the Germans to produce goods for export which would then earn them money to pay for their own food. In addition, the Americans and British remembered the bad lessons from the reparations they imposed on Germany in the Versailles Treaty after WWI. The pressure on Germany to pay monetary compensation ultimately dragged down the German economy and the rest of the European and world economy. As a side note, these de-habilitating reparations were used as a political tool by Hitler to unite and embitter the German people behind his cause in the 1930’s. Thus, by 1947, the British and the Americans decided that their zones of Germany should be part of an engine of economic growth for the European economy to help promote stability and prosperity. The British and Americans merged their zones of Germany into Bizonia on January 1, 1947 in order to make the plan more economically effective. The U.S. then launched the Marshall Plan of economic aid to Western Europe in June 1947, with the belief that to rebuild the economies of war-ravaged countries and promote democracy would, in turn, ensure prosperity and peace. While the Americans and the British began to focus on strengthening their zones of Germany to achieve self-sufficiency, the Soviets and French continued to favor extracting reparations from their zones- essentially weakening their economic potential and stability.

The final crucial factor affecting the different polices in the zones was the different political, economic, and cultural systems of democracy versus communism. Soon after the end of the war, the Soviets supported the creation of the communist party (KPD) in their zone, and in 1946 they oversaw the forced merger of the socialists (SPD) and communists into the Socialist Unity Party (SED). They then helped to force other parties from power in order to ensure SED control, as they did in other East European countries in the late 1940s. After free elections in the Soviet zone didn’t favor the communists, they were abolished from East German politics. In the Soviet zones of Berlin and Germany, socialism took over all aspects of life, while democracy and capitalism were encouraged in the Western zones with multiple political parties.

At first, Germans and occupying troops were able to move between the zones of Germany and Berlin in both directions. But with each year more people favored the democratic practices of the western zones to the communist politics of the eastern zone, and moved accordingly.

While the Four Powers occupied Berlin and Germany, they tried to work out the terms of a peace treaty to end the state of war with Germany and turn over governing powers to the Germans. The Allies created a special body to handle the issue of a peace treaty: the Conference on Foreign Ministers (CFM). The American Secretary of State met with the British Foreign Secretary, the French Foreign Minister, and the Soviet Foreign Minister to discuss the details of a peace treaty with Germany. The Conference of Foreign Ministers met regularly in the first years after the defeat of Germany. These meetings became less frequent as it became clear that no consensus could be reached and negotiations were at an impasse. Whereas after World War I, peace treaties were signed in the two to three years after the end of the war, there was no peace treaty signed with Germany for forty-five years because of the disagreements among the victors.

These disagreements centered around two issues: how the Germans should be represented in the peace talks, and how post-war Germany would be structured politically and economically. The U.S., Great Britain, and France insisted that only freely elected representatives of the German people could participate in the talks, while the Soviets insisted that the East and West Germans should be equally represented. In terms of the nature of the German regime after the peace treaty, the Western Allies pushed for clear democratic safeguards to guide the government, and the Soviets wanted the system to favor communists. The Allies also disagreed over the reparations they should be allowed to take out of Germany. The Soviets insisted on the equivalent of $10 billion in goods, while the Allies initially agreed at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945 that western industrial goods would be swapped for eastern agricultural goods between the zones. However, this agreement broke down soon thereafter. The Western Allies would stop their harsh reparations policies years before the Soviets would. After a certain point, proposals for a peace treaty were largely for propaganda value in an effort to demonstrate to the German people that the Four Powers were concerned with their fate.

While the Allies argued over future plans for Germany, the German people suffered in the wake of WWII from the effects of the American and British bombing raids and the brutal final battles with the Red Army. Berlin, the center of Hitler’s regime, lay in ruins. Day after day, week after week, month after month, housewives gathered on the streets of Berlin to clear away the rubble from the destroyed buildings. Apartment buildings, factories, train tracks, highways, and subway lines had been destroyed. There was an immense coalition effort to rebuild the city and country on the part of both the occupying powers and the German people.

Both Great Britain and the United States realized the need to rebuild Germany sooner than the French or Soviets, who remained embittered and weakened by WWII. For the British and Americans the fear of communism came to surpass the fear of a German threat. They believed that a Germany with a stronger economic foundation was more likely to resist extreme political ideologies than a Germany that remained on its knees.

In the wake of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the Western Allies decided to focus on making their zones of Germany democratic, capitalist, and therefore safeguarded against communism. Accordingly, they chose to extend Marshall Plan aid to Germany and Berlin, fully aware that this was in violation of the WWII Potsdam Agreements, which stipulated that all zones of Germany and Berlin must be treated equally. In order to make the economic aid useful, they also announced that they would reform the old, weakly valued currency, the Reichsmark, and replace it with the Deutschmark. Finally, they called for the formation of a sovereign and united West German government.

The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

Not only did the Soviets contend that the Western move was illegal, since it violated the Potsdam Agreements, but they also feared the strategic implications. In the future a wealthier and industrialized Germany, allied with the West, would present a threat to Soviet domination. The Soviets responded by storming out of the Allied Control Council and blockading road, rail, and waterways between western Germany and western Berlin. This threatened to starve and freeze the 2.3 million citizens of the western zones of Berlin by blocking off access to vital supplies, such as food and coal. Berlin had relatively no industry to support its population, and being surrounded by the communist zone, their only source of supplies was via the transit routes from the British, American, and French zones of Germany. The British and the Americans were determined not to let the Soviets succeed in intimidating them or in starving the people of Berlin .

Despite the potentially dangerous political and military consequences, the Allies remained steadfast in their resolve to stay in Berlin. The cause of the Allies’ continued involvement in Berlin was both strategic and political. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that “the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe,” which implied that if the Western Allies conceded West Berlin to the Soviets, the communists could potentially gain momentum and move into Western Europe. The British came up with the idea of using the three Western air corridors to fly in all the necessary supplies to the western zones of Berlin. Together the British and the Americans carried out the Berlin Airlift, Operation Plainfare (the British term)/Operation Vittles (the American term, beginning on June 26, 1948. They flew 1000 tons of supplies, which gradually increased in size up to a record of 13,000 tons of supplies in one day. One American pilot, Lieutenant Halvorsen, figured out a way to drop parachutes of candy down to the children of West Berlin to boost their morale. He was dubbed “the candy bomber,” and became a hero to West Berliners. By May of 1949 the Soviets ended blockade.

The Soviet aggressive tactics used in the blockade backfired in several ways. The blockade demonstrated that the Soviet threat was greater than that of the Germans, and France was influenced to join the Americans and British in their resolve. Therefore, the French allowed their Berlin and German zones to unite with the American and British zones into West Berlin and West Germany. Second, the Soviet tactics convinced the Western Powers of the communist threat and led them to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949. Third, the Berlin blockade urged on the formation of a West German state, the Federal Republic of Germany (the FRG), on May 24, 1949, closely tied to the Western Alliance. The communists followed suit and created an East German state, the German Democratic Republic (the GDR), on October 7, 1949. Konrad Adenauer was elected as the first Chancellor of West Germany, and remained in power until 1963. Walter Ulbricht [see bio box] was the first General Secretary of East Germany and led the communist party there until 1971.

Despite the division of Germany, Berlin remained a separate entity, under Four Power control. East Berlin was not legally a part of East Germany, nor was West Berlin legally a part of West Germany. In practicality, however, East and West Berlin were, in fact, a part of the respective East and West German states in terms of political, economic, and social systems. But the Four Powers retained their rights to keep troops in their zones of Germany and Berlin in order to oversee developments there, and to have the final say on the terms of an eventual peace treaty and unification. World War II had ended only four years before, and the Four Powers still did not trust the Germans with the governing of their own states.

Berlin and Germany from the Division in 1949 to the 1953 East German Uprising

Once Germany was divided and the Cold War continued to escalate, Berlin’s situation as a unique and open city became a critical factor in the face-off of East and West. Since Berlin continued to be occupied by the Four Powers, officials of each country’s occupation regime had the right to go into the other sectors of Berlin: the Soviets had the right to move around the three Western Sectors, and the Western Allies had the right to move around the Soviet Sector of Berlin. This was very conducive to intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, and Berlin became known as “spy central.” [for more, see the book written by former CIA and KGB spies, Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War, by David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev, and George Bailey] In time, the East Germans and West Germans also built up their own intelligence organizations (with close connections to the KGB and CIA respectively) with an emphasis on spying on Berlin and German neighbors in the enemy zone. Since they were all Germans and spoke the same language, infiltrating the other side was relatively easy. East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, became infamous for its foreign espionage branch, which was run by Markus Wolf and was very successful in penetrating all levels of West German government and society. Known as “the man without a face,” because he kept his identity secret for so long, Wolf was the main character in some of the most popular spy novels of the Cold War written by John le Carre, such as “The Man Who Came in From the Cold.” [see also Wolf’s–autobiography, The Man Without a Face. On the Stasi generally, see John O. Koehler, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police]

In the wake of the attack of communist North Korea on South Korea in June 1950 which launched the Korean War, the Western Allies intensified discussions about allowing the rearmament of West Germany within the context of the Western alliance. On March 10, 1952, Stalin sent a note to the Western Powers calling for a unified, neutralized Germany that would be allowed to have its own military forces for self-defense. The West rejected this proposal, skeptical that Stalin had anything constructive in mind concerning German unification or re-militarization. The Western Alliance was also wary of allowing anything to hinder their efforts to integrate the FRG into the Western military alliance. In May 1952, it seemed that the FRG would be allowed to establish its own military forces within an entity called the European Defense Community. Fearful of the threat of a rearmed West Germany, the East Germans responded by closing the border between East and West Germany. Beginning in May and continuing for several months, the Soviets and East Germans established a five-kilometer no-man’s land along the border and then sealed the border with wire and mines. (If you had a house in this area, it was demolished, and you had to move.) The Soviets also closed most of the border connecting West Berlin with East Germany and even closed some of the roads between East and West Berlin. Phone service connecting West Berlin with East Berlin and East Germany was cut off. In conjunction with these developments, the East Germans launched the hard-line policy of the Construction of Socialism. The increasing rigidity of the East German government cause numbers of refugees fleeing from East Germany and East Berlin to the West to increase from 5,000 in May to 7,000 in June, and reached 10,000 in July. Since the inter-German border was closed, the refugees had to travel via Berlin, which was the last remaining escape hatch. By early 1953, about 40,000 East Germans were fleeing each month through West Berlin. The refugees then either stayed in West Berlin or were flown out by Pan Am, British European Airways, or Air France through the two Allied air corridors to the FRG. The West German government gave the refugees money to get started, provided them with housing and medical care, and helped them find jobs. Although the East Germans and Soviets resented and felt threatened by the wave of emigration, they were not willing to risk war in an effort to stem it.

As the number of refugees increased in the spring of 1953, the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, died on March 5, 1953. In the following months, a group of Soviet leaders concluded that Stalin’s communist policies had been too harsh and had alienated people in communist-ruled countries These decision-makers included Prime Minister Malenkov, Secret Police Chief Beria, Foreign Minister Molotov, and Khrushchev, who eventually emerged as the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Stalin’s successor. These leaders declared the harsh Construction of Socialism policy launched in the GDR a mistake. The Soviets called the East German leaders to Moscow in early June and instructed them to carry out a New Course of “Measures for the Recovery of the Political Situation in the German Democratic Republic.” [show document from Christian’s 1953 book] The Soviets told the GDR leaders that the high numbers of East German refugees fleeing the country demonstrated the failures and shortcomings of the hard-line communist policy in the GDR. Included among the refugees were East German communist officials, workers, and peasants, who were expected to be the backbone of the regime.

SED leader Walter Ulbricht wanted to resolve this problem by closing off the border between East and West Berlin, so the refugees would no longer have any means of emigration. But just two weeks after Stalin’s death, the Soviet leadership told the East Germans that closing the inter-Berlin border was “politically unacceptable and grossly simplistic.” Ulbricht essentially wanted to build the Berlin Wall in 1953, but the Soviets refused. The Soviets felt that not only would it be difficult technically, but it would also embitter Berliners and Germans to the Soviet and East German communist cause. Closing the border would also give the Western Powers a propaganda tool against the communists and would lead to a chill in East-West relations, which the Soviets sought to avoid, despite their rhetoric.

Instead of closing the inter-Berlin border, the Soviets encouraged the East Germans to moderate their harsh communist policies in order to entice more people to remain in East Germany. The Soviets forced the SED to publish the New Course, which announced that the regime would take steps to improve people’s lives. The East German government offered too little too late, however, and merely demanded that people work 10% more for the same amount of pay.

Thus, in a development that caught the East German and Soviet regimes completely off guard, the people of East Berlin took to the streets in an uprising against the government on June 16. Started by construction workers calling for better working conditions and better pay, the uprising soon spread to other workers and other groups in East Berlin. The next day, June 17, the movement spread throughout the rest of the GDR. Protestors ultimately called for Ulbricht’s resignation and for German unification. The uprising was only quelled when the Soviets sent in tanks to East Berlin and other key East German cities.

During the uprising, the Soviets closed the inter-Berlin border, and Ulbricht sought to keep it closed after the uprising. But the Soviet leaders in Moscow decided to reopen the border after the uprising was put down and continued to urge the East Germans to moderate their policies enough to stem the refugee flow.

Some in Berlin had hoped that the Western Powers would help the East German protestors throw off the communist regime. But in spite of the new Eisenhower regime’s doctrine favoring the “rollback” of communism and the “liberation” of people behind the Iron Curtain, the U.S. chose not want to risk another world war by challenging the Soviets over East Berlin and East Germany. Thus, the U.S. limited its response to sending some food packets to the people of East Berlin. This was an early indication that the U.S. would largely stick to its own sphere of influence and not risk meddling in the Soviet affairs.

Berlin: its Challenges and Importance as Seen by the East and West

As Soviet control in the East and Allied control in the West solidified in the 1950’s, there was increasing attention given to the challenges of maintaining the status quo in Berlin. For the East, the location of capitalist and democratic West Berlin in the midst of the territory of the GDR was a grave threat because it lured people out of communist East Germany for the freedoms and economic prosperity of the West. It was also the biggest Western espionage outpost in the Soviet bloc. The communists also felt threatened by the Western television and radio transmissions from West Berlin, which demonstrated to East Berliners and East Germans the better living conditions of the West and exposed the stagnation in the East. For example, Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) played a crucial role in the 1953 uprising by broadcasting news about the uprising as it unfolded, which spurred many East German citizens to take to the streets to join the protestors. Finally, West Berlin and its open border posed an economic threat to East Berlin. Many of the refugees who fled were skilled workers, resulting in a crucial economic “brain drain” from the GDR. There were about 50,000 East Berlin grenzg (border crossers), who had lived poorly in East Berlin, but earned relatively high salaries when they escaped to West Germany. They had more purchasing power to buy the inexpensive East German goods and services than the other East Berliners did. The same was true for the Western Berliners who regularly came into East Berlin for inexpensive haircuts, restaurants, records, and a variety of other goods and services that made it harder for average East Berliners to have equal access to these goods and services.

For the West, the central challenge was that West Berlin was a vulnerable outpost located 177 kilometers from West Germany. And it was surrounded by roughly 500,000 Soviet troops. If tensions escalated to the point of military conflict there was no way that the West could prevail in defending West Berlin with conventional weapons and troops, and nuclear weapons would be a viable option. As the Soviet blockade of Berlin from 1948 to 1949 had demonstrated, Western access to West Berlin and its ability to keep West Berlin supplied was dependent on Soviet and East German acquiescence, which were not always guaranteed.

While both the Soviets and the Western Powers felt vulnerable due to the situation in Berlin, they also saw great opportunities for furthering their respective causes and were eager to exploit them. In particular, both the Soviets and the Americans sought to make their part of Berlin a “show window” for their system. Located at the front line of the Cold War, both sides knew that their part of Berlin was the first and perhaps the only glimpse the other side would get of communism or democracy. They both sought to make their part of Berlin attractive to people on the other side of town.

Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy both felt it was essential to the U.S. reputation in the world that they not give up on West Berlin. Kennedy in particular felt that if the Allies abandoned West Berlin, none of America’s other allies would trust the U.S. to defend them in the face of a Soviet threat. To abandon Berlin would also lead the communists to conclude that the West was weak, and the Soviets would challenge the Western Powers elsewhere in the world. Kennedy felt the U.S. reputation was tied so strongly to West Berlin that upon visiting West Berlin in 1963, he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (“I am a Berliner.”) For the U.S., West Berlin was a “super-domino”: if we let it fall, many others would fall to communism soon after. The flow of refugees into West Berlin from the East was a signal to the Western Powers that their efforts to make the city into a magnet that lured people away from communism were succeeding. The U.S. and West Germany poured resources into West Berlin. In return for living in the vulnerable outpost surrounded by communists, West Berliners didn’t have to pay taxes, serve in the military, and had most of their goods and services heavily subsidized, including housing and cultural activities.

Stalin’s successor as Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, similarly sought to help East Berlin and East Germany by improving the public’s perceptions of the communist zone. Khrushchev was personally convinced that communism was superior to capitalism in meeting human needs, and felt that the reputation of the entire communist camp was manifested in Berlin. Thus, once he changed the focus of Soviet policy in the GDR from that of taking all he could in reparations and keeping Germany weak, Khrushchev dedicated himself to building up the GDR as a crucial “super-ally.” He told the East Germans that “your needs are our needs.” Like Kennedy, Khrushchev felt his fate and that of communism was tied to what happened in Berlin and Germany. Khrushchev poured increasing amounts of money into East Berlin and East Germany in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to compete with and outmaneuver the capitalist West. The East and West German leaders knew how important they were to their superpower allies, and both sides of Germany sought to use this influence to their advantage.

The Berlin Crisis and the Berlin Wall, 1958-1961

Tired of dealing with the challenges posed by West Berlin, Khrushchev launched his own Berlin Crisis. He sought to force the Allies out of West Berlin and to compel them to legally and diplomatically recognize the existence of the communist East German state. The Western Powers had refused to do so thus far, arguing that the East German leaders had not been freely elected. On November 27, 1958, Khrushchev sent notes to the Western Powers demanding that they sign a peace treaty with Germany and agree to turn West Berlin into a demilitarized “free city” within six months. Khrushchev’s meaning of a “free city” implied that it would be free of significant Western influence and free of Western troops. If the U.S, Great Britain, and France did not agree to these demands within six months, Khrushchev threatened to turn over control of the access routes between West Germany and West Berlin to the GDR leadership. The clear implication was that East Germany would then close off those access routes, thus isolating West Berlin, and preventing travel to West Germany.

Since 1953, Khrushchev had been pressuring Ulbricht to moderate his policies in the GDR to prevent citizens from fleeing. But Ulbricht was a traditional Stalinist and autocratic leader, in that he didn’t know any other way to rule and didn’t seek any alternatives. Ulbricht also felt it was too risky for him to loosen his grip on power, fearing that this might lead to the collapse of the country altogether and its take over by West Germany. Not able to persuade Ulbricht to change his policies sufficiently, Khrushchev tried other means to strengthen the regime in East Berlin. Primarily, he tried to force the West to abandon their position in Berlin. Khrushchev believed that if the West significantly reduced its presence in West Berlin and recognized Ulbricht’s regime, East German people would be much less likely to flee the country. There would no longer be a capitalist, democratic “show window” in West Berlin, and the German regime would gain international prestige with Western recognition.

Khrushchev felt threatened by the clash of the two systems in Berlin and sought to force the West to withdraw from this clash. The U.S., urged by Adenauer not to give in to Soviet threats or recognize the illegitimate East German regime, adamantly refused to abandon West Berlin. The Soviet threats to Berlin made the U.S. leaders feel even more committed to defending freedom, democracy, and capitalism in West Berlin, and to preserving Western access to West Berlin. During the course of the three-year crisis Khrushchev attempted to convince the West to negotiate on the status of West Berlin and a German peace treaty. However, the East and West could reach no agreement. As the crisis went on, the numbers of refugees leaving East Berlin and East Germany increased. By the spring and summer of 1961 when Ulbricht’s and Khrushchev’s threats increased, thousands of people were fleeing East Germany each day, fearing “the door to the West” would be slammed shut by the communists Torschlusspanik (fear of the door closing).

Ulbricht lobbied Khrushchev regularly for permission to seal the border. Khrushchev continued to refuse, hoping to reach some sort of agreement with the West. In the final year of the Berlin Crisis, Ulbricht grew so impatient waiting for Khrushchev to act that he started to take matters into his own hands, and clamped down on the inter-Berlin border without Soviet permission. Khrushchev repeatedly scolded Ulbricht for acting unilaterally and urged patience to wait to see how the new American President, John F. Kennedy, would approach the situation. Ulbricht, however, did not think Kennedy would be any more susceptible to Khrushchev’s threats than Eisenhower had been and wanted to seal off the refugee’s loophole as soon as possible. Khrushchev and Kennedy met at a summit in Vienna in June 1961, but they both refused to compromise. Khrushchev insisted that the West must leave West Berlin and sign a peace treaty. Kennedy refused to leave West Berlin and said he would only sign a peace treaty when there was a freely elected East German government.

Shortly after the summit meeting, Khrushchev finally succumbed to Ulbricht’s requests to close the border in Berlin. Soviet and East German military forces prepared in secret for almost two months to seal the border around West Berlin. Carefully hidden from Western intelligence services, the communists stockpiled barbed wire, cement bricks and posts to be readily available to close off the border when the order came. The East German secret police were greatly involved in the effort, and their top secret code name for the operation was “Rose.”

The Soviet military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, met in Moscow from August 3-5, 1961 to discuss the situation in Berlin. In hopes of deterring a Western military response, the members made it clear to the West that the entire Warsaw Pact stood behind the building of the Berlin Wall. The border closure was set for the night of August 12-13, a weekend night, when most Berliners would be at their country houses, away from the center of the city where most of the work would be done. The Berliners and the Western Powers were caught completely by surprise when East German border guards began to seal the border in the early morning hours of August 13. When Berliners woke up Sunday morning, they gathered in shock to watch the border guards erect the wall, and sometimes yelled at them to stop. Although a few border guards threw aside their weapons and leapt over the border to the West, most stayed and continued their work. To ensure the Wall got built as swiftly as possible, the East Germans brought soldiers from other parts of Germany to seal the border in Berlin, fearing that locals wouldn’t have the heart to go through with it.

Although President Kennedy and others expressed outrage at the border closing, in reality they were relatively relieved that the communists had found a way to deal with their refugee crisis without causing a war. Kennedy remarked to an aid: “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The barbed wire was erected a few meters inside East Berlin and East German territory all around West Berlin and thus did not infringe on West Berlin territory at all. In many ways, it was seen as a defensive move by the East and not as an attack on the West, although it did violate the post-war agreements among the Four Powers for freedom of movement throughout the city.

Khrushchev and Ulbricht agreed that the East German soldiers would proceed cautiously and first put up barbed wire to test the Western reaction. When the West “undertook fewer countermeasures than anticipated,” the communists were relieved and moved ahead to solidify the border closure. Some top East German leaders argued that it would be better to keep the barbed wire, since that would make it very easy to see whether someone was trying to approach the border and would not cast shadows one could hide in as a wall would. Ulbricht, however, insisted that the barbed wire be replaced with more solid, durable cement bricks. He was anxious to curtail émigrés who cut through the wire in order to escape. Within weeks of the barbed wire going up, the East Germans began to replace it with a concrete wall.

Gradually, the wave of people escaping slowed to a trickle, and was eventually completely shut off. Some tried going over the wall in a hot-air balloon, tunneling under it, swimming across a canal or lake on the border, or escaping in secret compartments of people’s cars. Most of these attempts failed, however, and many of those that attempted to flee were killed.

The communists succeeded in stopping the refugee exodus, but were forced to acknowledge that their system was failing in the process. As Khrushchev later commented in his memoirs, “what kind of workers’ and peasants’ paradise was this if we had to wall people in?” But he saw no other option at the time.

The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the Cold War and was a clear indication of the ultimate outcome of the Cold War—the failure of the communists to compete successfully with the democratic, capitalist West. As Ulbricht himself noted in a letter to Khrushchev a month after the border closure: “The experiences of recent years have proven that it is not possible for a socialist country such as the GDR to carry out peaceful competition with an imperialist country such as West Germany with open borders. Such opportunities will first appear when the socialist world–system has surpassed the capitalist countries in per-capita production.”

Berlin in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s

While Kennedy had been relieved that the communists had not done anything more dangerous than build a Wall to keep their people in, the mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, was outraged with the Wall and the complacent reaction of the Western Powers. He felt betrayed by the U.S., Britain, and France. Brandt later wrote in his memoirs that he felt that “a curtain had been drawn aside to reveal an empty stage,” with no Western Powers willing to challenge the Soviets and East Germans. This began a shift in West German policy regarding East Germany. The shift involved Germans and Berliners taking policy matters into their own hands and acting more independently of the superpowers.

Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963, had followed a very hard- line policy toward the GDR. Aside from minimal trade, he refused to recognize the East German regime in any way. And in effort to isolate the GDR internationally, he refused to have relations with any country, other than the Soviet Union, who had diplomatic relations with the GDR. Adenauer believed that his “policy of strength,” of containing and ignoring the GDR, would ultimately lead to its collapse under the pressure. The construction of the Berlin Wall, however, made Willy Brandt and other West German politicians believe that Adenauer’s expectations were dangerously unrealistic.

To Brandt and his closest advisor, Egon Bahr, it appeared that the East German regime would remain a political entity that required attention. In order to help their fellow Germans on the other side of the Wall, Brandt and Bahr determined that West Germany needed a new policy. To ignore or pressure the GDR would avoid the reality of the situation, and was a losing fight, they concluded. They decided, instead, that they should try to reach out in some way to the East German regime and to the Soviets if there was any hope of mending relations. Brandt and Bahr would call their policy “change through rapprochement”—an effort to get the GDR to change not with political pressure, but with dialogue.

Brandt’s first priority as the mayor of West Berlin was to unite families separated by the Wall. The policies he orchestrated in Berlin he would later apply to all of Germany when he became Chancellor in 1969. In the first two years after the construction of the Wall, no visits whatsoever were allowed by either side. But for the Christmas holidays in 1963, Brandt persuaded the East German leaders to allow West Berliners to apply for a day pass to visit relatives in East Berlin. No East Berliners, however, were allowed to visit West Berlin. These visits were repeated for Christmas and Easter in subsequent years, but were stopped in 1972 by the East. Another method, although secret, was developed for overcoming the Wall: buying people free from the GDR in a practice known as Freikauf. Freikauf began with the Protestant Church in West Berlin in 1963, and was then taken over by the West German government. The West German policy of Freikauf would last for twenty-seven years. The FRG also bought the freedoom of political prisoners from the East who had been captured as Western spies. West Germany paid in cash or with goods desired by the East, such as gold or other precious metals. In the first twenty years of the Freikauf policy, West Germany bought 9,000-13,000 people freedom per year. Between 1983 and 1989 this figure was almost always above 20,000. [see Timothy Garton Ash, “In Europe’s Name”] The West German government hoped that the money paid to East Germany would be used to better the lives of average East Germans. However, GDR leaders usually kept the money for themselves and hid it in foreign bank accounts to be used to buy luxury items.

When Brandt became West German Chancellor in 1969, he decided that “the path to East Berlin goes through Moscow,” and set out to normalize relations with the Soviets. After the brutal Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, it became apparent to Brandt that the only way to make progress in relations with the East was first to get Moscow’s permission. In his years as Chancellor Brandt followed a policy called “Ostpolitik,” or Eastern policy. Unlike Adenauer who focused his policy on the West, Brandt focused his policies on the East: the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other countries of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. He did this to create an environment in which he could reach out to East Berliners and East Germans to try to improve their lives and to moderate the GDR regime.

In 1970 the Soviets and Poles signed treaties with West Germany that affirmed the peaceful intentions of all parties. These efforts toward rapprochement led to the Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin in September 1971 and the Basic Treaty between the FRG and GDR in December 1972. In the Quadripartite Agreement, the U.S., Soviets, British, and French came to an agreement on the status of Berlin. Concessions from the East included a Soviet agreement not to interfere with the Allies’ access to West Berlin. For the first time since 1961, West Berliners were guaranteed access to East Germany and to East Berlin, along with phone service that enabled West Berliners to call East Germany. Agreements were also reached to improve the Western access routes, which would be funded by Western money. These concessions were not extended to East Germans, except under special circumstances, such as weddings or funerals, and even then, only under the condition that they traveled alone.

Twenty-three years after the two German states were created, in December 1972, the two Germanys established relations with each other in the Basic Treaty. West Germany still refused to recognize the GDR as a legal, sovereign state, since its leaders were not freely elected. Thus, instead of exchanging ambassadors and establishing embassies in each other’s capitals, West Germany agreed to exchange “permanent representatives” and to establish “permanent missions.” The two Germanys pledged to work together to resolve the “practical and humanitarian” consequences of the German division. In a bitter turn of events, however, Willy Brandt, was forced to resign in 1974 when it was disclosed that one of his closest advisors, Gunter Guillaume, worked for the Stasi.

The lives of Berliners and Germans in East and West became increasingly different in the years after 1949. The West experienced the “economic miracle” beginning in the 1950s, while the East continued to struggle economically. People in the West could travel freely, whereas people in the East were limited to traveling to fellow communist countries if they could travel abroad at all. In the East, society was penetrated by the Stasi. As East German relations progressed with West Germany, the Stasi intensified its work within the GDR to clampdown on dissent. The kinds of cultural differences that developed between the people on the opposite sides of the Berlin Wall are portrayed in the 1982 novel by Peter Schneider, “Wall Jumper.” Schneider illustrates the absurdity of the situation and presciently remarks in the novel that “it will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”

Lead up to the Collapse of the Wall

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev [box on him] came to power in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev launched a series of economic and political reforms meant to improve the socialist system at home and throughout the Soviet bloc. Gorbachev’s goal was not to destroy communism, but rather to help enable it to reach its full potential. Yet his economic policy of perestroika (restructuring) and his political policy of glasnost (openness) would ultimately lead to the demise of the entire system. With the increase in freedom from Gorbachev’s reforms, the people of communist countries expressed their criticism of the communist system as a whole.

Visiting West Berlin in June 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan encouraged Gorbachev to follow his reformist words with deeds. Standing before the Berlin Wall, Reagan demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In July, Gorbachev essentially answered Reagan saying, “history will decide what will happen in 100 years.” In September, GDR leader Erich Honecker made the first official visit of an East German leader to the West German capital, Bonn, where he was received with full honors. Both German flags flew and both national anthems were played for Honecker’s reception. It seemed that the division and the Berlin Wall would continue in spite of improved relations and political reforms.

Between 1987 and 1989, Gorbachev intensified his reforms and asserted that the Soviets had no right to interfere in the domestic affairs of their allies. On multiple occasions in 1988 and 1989, Gorbachev made it clear that he did not agree with the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968, which argued that the Soviets had the right to interfere in socialist countries if the socialist system there was at risk.

By the spring of 1989, reformers in Hungary and Poland sought to follow in Gorbachev’s footsteps, while the East German leader Erich Honecker resisted the reforms. In May, the Hungarians opened their barbed wire border with Austria. This became the first open border between a communist country and a democratic country, and was used as an escape hatch by East Germans. A trickle of East German refugees became a flood in September 1989 when the Hungarian government further relaxed its border controls. Meanwhile, in Poland, which bordered the GDR, the opposition trade union movement, Solidarity, was legalized in April and won elections against the communists in June 1989.

East German critics of Honecker’s hard-line regime were emboldened by Gorbachev’s reforms and those of their Hungarian and Polish allies and took to the streets in the fall of 1989 in Berlin and elsewhere in the GDR. Honecker resisted, despite pressure from Gorbachev, and increasing numbers of East Germans continued to flee the country via the border between Hungary and Austria or through West German embassies in Warsaw and Prague. In October, many of those who remained in the country took to the streets and demanded change. Demonstrators grew in numbers from crowds of 100,000 people to 300,000 in Leipzig alone. Honecker was forced to resign and was replaced by Egon Krenz, who developed a less restrictive policy on travel.

On November 4, 1989, 500,000 people in East Berlin participated in a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration. Their primary demand was to remove barriers to travel between East and West Berlin, and within the greater German state. On November 9, the East German Central Committee met to discuss a new travel law, and provided for greater freedom of travel and emigration. East Germans were still required to apply for these travel rights, but the requirements and review process were much less stringent than in the past. While the Central Committee was still meeting, Politburo member Gunter Schabowski was sent to speak to a press conference.

The Wall Opens--By Mistake

At the press conference, Schabowski was questioned about the new travel law. Schabowski hadn’t followed the discussion in the Central Committee carefully and had hastily gathered the papers from the meeting to bring with him. Flustered by the questions about the travel law, Schabowski said, “we have decided today (um) to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic (um) to (um) leave the GDR through any of the border crossings.” When asked when this new law would take effect, Schabowski again consulted his papers in an uncertain way, and said “immediately, without delay.” Would this include border crossings for West Berlin also? Schabowski said it did. [see documents in CWIHP Bulletin 12/13, Hans Herman Hertle, pp. 157-58] The damage had already been done when Schabowski admitted that “I’m not up to date on this question.”

In fact, the new law was not supposed to be announced until the next day, and even then, it stipulated that people had to apply to leave. As the evening wore on and the news reports spread that the border was open, thousands of people flocked to checkpoints in East Berlin and at the East German border with West Germany. Border guards had no orders and turned people back at first. But as the crowds built up and increased pressure the border guards they were allowed to travel freely. The Berlin Wall was open. And in less than a year, Germany was united on October 3, 1990.

About the Author

Hope M. Harrison is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington DC, and Director of the Institute for European, Russian & Eurasian Studies at GWU. Dr. Harrison specializes in Cold War and East German history. She has recently completed a book on the Soviet and East German decision to build the Berlin Wall. She is fluent in Russian and German, and has worked extensively in archives in Moscow and Berlin on this topic. Her broader research interests are Soviet foreign policy decision-making during the Cold War, the two Germanies in the Cold War, truth and reconciliation commissions, trials concerning historical justice, and the interaction between history and politics. (PhD, Columbia University, 1993)