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The Berlin Wall: A Secret History

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The Berlin Wall was a tangible symbol of the suppression of human rights by the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, but Frederick Taylor asks whether it was more convenient to the Western democracies than their rhetoric suggested.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin.The building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 divided families and neighbourhoods in what had been the capital of Germany. The Wall represents a uniquely squalid, violent, and ultimately futile, episode in the post-war world. And we know that the subsequent international crisis, which was especially intense during the summer and autumn of 1961, threatened the world with the risk of a military conflict, one that seemed as if it could escalate at any time into nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.

But was all as it seemed, with the noble democracies vainly opposing yet another Communist atrocity? Did the leaders of the West genuinely loathe the Wall, or was it – whisper if you dare – actually rather convenient to all the ­powers concerned?

In 1945, the victors of the Second World War, the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and by special dispensation the French, had divided Germany into four zones of occupation and its capital, Berlin, into four sectors. To the wartime Allies, Germany had been a problem ever since its unification in 1871, a big, restless country in the heart of Europe. The over- mighty Germany of the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s time must never be allowed to re-emerge.

Then came the Cold War. From the late 1940s, Germany itself – what was left of it after the Poles and the Russians had carved chunks off its eastern territories – became a creature of the Communist-capitalist conflict. It divided into West Germany (the ‘Federal Republic of Germany’) and the smaller East Germany (the ‘German Democratic Republic’), the former a prosperous democracy of some 50 million anchored into what was to become the Western NATO al­liance, the latter a struggling social experiment, a third as large, allied to the Communist Warsaw Pact. The Iron Curtain ran through Germany, with a fortified border between the two Cold War German states.

Until 1961, however, Berlin remained under joint occupation and kept a special status, still more or less one city in which fairly free movement was possible. It represented an ‘escape hatch’ through which East Germans could head to the now booming West in pursuit of political freedom and a higher standard of living than their Stalinist masters were prepared to allow them.

Between 1945 and 1961, some 2.5 million had fled in this way, reducing the GDR’s population by around 15 per cent. Ominously for the Communist regime, most emigrants were young and well qualified. The country was losing the cream of its educated professionals and skilled workers at a rate that risked making the Communist state unviable. During the summer of 1961, this exodus reached critical levels. Hence, on that fateful August weekend, the Communists’ vast undertaking to seal off East from West Berlin, to close the ‘escape hatch’.

Sunday, August 13th, became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (barbed wire Sunday). Within a few weeks the improvised wire obstacle across the city started to morph into a formidable cement one that would soon become known as the ‘Berlin Wall’, a heavily fortified, guarded and booby-trapped barrier almost a hundred miles long, dividing the city and enclosing West Berlin.

Since the end of the war, Berlin had been a constant running sore in East-West relations. In 1948-49 Stalin had tried to blockade the Western sectors into submission by closing off all the land routes into the city, which lay almost a hundred miles inside Soviet-occupied territory. The West surprised him with a successful airlift that kept West Berlin supplied with sufficient essentials to survive. Only Stalin’s death had prevented a wall, or something like it, being constructed in 1953. In 1958, his successor, the ebullient, unpredictable Nikita Khrushchev, had started threatening West Berlin’s status once more. The Soviet leader compared the Allied-occupied sectors to the West’s testicles. If, he joked, he wanted to cause NATO pain, all he had to do was squeeze ...

Most Germans experienced the building of the Wall as a devastating blow. It was not just a brutal act in itself but also final proof, if proof were needed, that the reunification many still hoped for must remain a distant, even an impossible, dream. There was genuine outrage in West Germany (and to some extent in the East, though this was rapidly suppressed by the Communist secret police, the Stasi, who carried out thousands of arrests).

However, given the renewed dangers of conflict during the previous few years, the building of the Wall, although it unleashed a brief East-West showdown, was – seen from a global perspective -- not necessarily the catastrophe that it first appeared.

None of the former victors of the Second World War was about to go to war in order to prevent the division of Germany. The Western powers were unanimous in declaring their horror at the Wall, in making the right public noises - it wouldn't do to upset the West Germans - but what was going on behind the scenes?

The West officially promoted the recreation of a unified German state. In reality, however – as the crisis made clear – it privately accepted the division of Germany and saw no reason to oppose it by force.

At the end of July 1961, the newly-elected American President John F. Kennedy, had already ordered a military build-up to cope with possible Soviet and Warsaw Pact designs on Berlin (and by implication West Germany). However, his actual response to the building of the Wall was downright muted. Washington made it clear that only if the Soviets and their East German protégés tried to blockade or invade West Berlin would war become a possibility. In private, the US Secretary of State Dean Rusk even confessed – within days of the East German border closure operation – that ‘in realistic terms it would make a Berlin settlement easier’. In other words, so long as American prestige was not affected, the Soviets could do what they liked with the bits of Germany they controlled, including East Berlin. The extension of the Iron Curtain to the heart of Berlin might even help stabilize the situation.

The reaction of the other two occupying powers, Britain and France, was even more ambivalent.

The crisis found Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Britain since 1957, hundreds of miles north of London, at Bolton Abbey, in Yorkshire. There he was celebrating, as he did every summer, the opening of the grouse-shooting season. Macmillan spent Saturday August 12th in the company of his nephew, the Duke of Devonshire – owner of Bolton Abbey -- engaged in appropriate use of firearms against indigenous bird-life. Even after hearing the news from Berlin, the premier saw no reason why he should not con­tinue to do so on August 13th.

The day afterwards, the British ambassador to West Germany, Sir Christopher Steel, commented ­languidly in a dispatch to London:  ‘I must stay that I personally have always wondered that the East Germans have waited so long to seal this boundary.’ His main concern was to  ensure Washington didn’t do anything silly. London should get together with the Americans to make sure that ‘they, no more than we, regard this as the issue on which we break’.

Meanwhile, 71-year-old General Charles de Gaulle, last active Allied leader of the Second World War and since 1958 once more President of France, was resting at his country home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. So re­laxed did de Gaulle seem about the Berlin affair that he failed to return to Paris until the following Thursday, August 17th.

This caution was not due to mere indifference on the part of either leader. Each had problems of his own. 

Britain’s military and economic decline had lately accelerated to a point where even the traditionally imperialistic Conservatives realized they had to cut their cloth to suit new circumstances. A certain testy obsession with cost had crept into discussions about Britain’s military commitments. Even before this latest twist in the Berlin crisis, plans had been put in motion by defence minister Harold Watkinson, not to increase Britain’s military presence in West Germany and Berlin, but drastically to reduce it.

Conscription for the British armed services was due to be abandoned in the early part of 1962. The strength of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) would accordingly fall from 52,000 to 44,000 by the end of that year. It seemed likely that even the 3,500 troops London maintained in the British Sector of Berlin might be subjected to a quiet culling operation.

Moreover, Britain had problems elsewhere in the world. In the Middle East it faced confrontation with the newly-radicalized republic of Iraq under its fiery strongman, Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassem. Qassem had laid claim to the small, British-protected (and oil-rich) sheikhdom of Kuwait, and had spent most of June massing his army in the arid border zone. London had hastily withdrawn substantial forces from Germany, Cyprus and the Home Command to defend the Kuwait flashpoint. The cost of such a major, if temporary, movement of personnel and equipment, including ships and aircraft, was extremely painful for the British Treasury.

Before August 13th, Macmillan’s diplomats were still frantically occupied with arranging for peacekeeping forces from the Arab League to take over the protection of Kuwait, while British conscripts sweated in temperatures of 50° centigrade (120° Fahrenheit) opposite Iraq’s army in the desert south of Basra.

Berlin was therefore not high on London’s priorities list, in great part for financial reasons. For several years, Britain had been locked in a wrangle with West Germany. London wanted Bonn to share more of the cost of the British presence there. Formerly an army of occupation, the BAOR was now part of the first line of defence against attack from the East. This had become a touchy point. In mid-July, during discussions about contingency plans in case of another Soviet blockade of Berlin, Macmillan had declared rather sourly that Britain ‘should make it clear that we will pay nothing’ toward the expenses of any new airlift.

As for that other overstretched former imperial power, France still had several hundred thousand troops, mostly young conscripts, tied up in a vicious guerrilla war in Algeria. Talks to end the bloody Algerian struggle for independence from France had just begun in the spa town of Evian – a concession by de Gaulle that had already brought sections of his army and the Algerian white settlers out in open rebellion. It would be late the following spring before a ceasefire resulted. With France’s largest ‘overseas province’ in bloody uproar, diverting serious reinforcements to join the 45,000 French troops already in Germany (of which 3,000 were based at the Quartier Napoléon military complex in Berlin) was out of the question. Just weeks after the forced division of the German capital, the French defence minister, Pierre Messmer, informed his British counterpart  that Frenchmen were not prepared to ‘die for Berlin’. 

Privately the French elite, like the British, still found the existing division of Berlin, and of Germany, perfectly satisfactory, although (in the delicate words of a recent French official publication) de Gaulle thought that ‘it was important to avoid dashing the hopes of the Germans’, whom he was courting as part of his plan for French dominance of the continent. Another great Frenchman, the Nobel prize-winning author, friend and biographer of de Gaulle, Francois Mauriac, would make the classic quip that ‘I like Germany so much, I want two of her’.

So, even as an appalled world watched machine-gun-toting East German guards supervise the wall-building – Berlin was the first properly televised world crisis – the West did nothing. The American Secretary of State even forbade the US commandant from subscribing to a joint Allied press release, for fear of arousing negative reactions from the East. The first deaths at the Wall came. Frantic East Berliners trying to escape to the West via apartment blocks on the border plunged from high windows and roofs to their deaths. Ten days after ‘barbed wire Sunday’, a young East Berliner was coldly and deliberately shot as he tried to swim across a canal into the West. The deaths were the first of almost two hundred during the course of the Wall’s existence. Hundreds more were wounded, ­thousands were punished for their escape attempts with long jail sentences under harsh conditions.

Many writers at the time and in the intervening four and a half decades have speculated what would have happened if the Allies had responded to the Wall with  vigorous ‘roll-back’ measures, bulldozing through the wire and defying the East to respond. It is clear from the documents we can now read in the archives of the countries involved that this was never a serious prospect.

In fact, the only possibility of 'roll-back' came not in August 1961 but more than two months later, in late October, when the East Germans began to demand identity documents from American officials entering East Berlin. This, which the Americans considered in breach of the postwar Potsdam Agreement, unleashed the famous 'Checkpoint' Charlie' confrontation, the only time during the Cold War when American and Soviet tanks actually faced each other, fully armed and ready to fire. Jeeploads of armed GIs escorted senior American diplomats for short, passport-free incursions into the East. Some of the American armour backing these forays was fitted with bulldozer blades, ready to push down the barrier and advance into East Berlin to facilitate freedom of movement for Washington's representatives, should the East try to prevent it. Finally the Americans seemed to be getting tough - not over the tragedy of the wall but over their own national prestige.

Even then, we can see from the British government documents, Harold Macmillan’s government had no intention of risking war on this issue. British civilian personnel entering East Berlin had for some time now been showing ID if requested, and so London’s sympathy for the American stance was limited. After reading a report from his embassy in Washington on the Checkpoint Charlie crisis, the Prime Minister scribbled some marginal comments. ‘What does the Foreign Office intend to do about this?’ Macmillan asked. ‘It’s rather alarming’. He wondered how long Britain could continue to ‘be associated with this childish nonsense’.

Almost nobody in London was of the hardline persuasion. Foreign Secretary Lord Home claimed on October 27th that he was ‘pretty close to an understanding with Rusk’, who did not want the question of showing passes to be made into a major show of strength. Home considered the American military, represented by former military governor Lucius D. Clay, to be the chief problem. He advised Macmillan:

The trouble is that the US soldiers do not yet seem to have been brought to heel on this point. I am sending an immediate telegram urging that specific instructions be sent. You might mention this to the President.

Whether British pragmatism (or weakness) played a role in taking the heat out of the crisis remains unproven. Then as now, Downing Street tended to overestimate its influence on the White House.

It now seems more likely that Kennedy had already reached an agreement with Moscow through unofficial secret service channels.  Khrushchev, who had been kept busy managing a split in the international communist movement, finally decided to pay attention and clamp down on the notorious ‘salami-slicing’ activities of the notably wilful East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, which had led to the crisis in the first place. Khrushchev was only too keen to find a face-saving formula – as was Kennedy. The end of the ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ confrontation in effect meant the end of the Berlin crisis. Both superpowers had other fish to fry.

The actual reality of the wall had never been seriously challenged throughout this time, and this remained the case. It continued in existence for another twenty-eight years, a hideous scar on the European landscape and a cruel negation of post-war Germany's right to self-determination. When the Wall did come down in November 1989, overnight and as suddenly as it had arisen, it was not because of some exciting, high-risk initiative on the part of the West but mostly because of the internal decay of the communist bloc in general and the East German regime in particular.

Inevitably, the demise of the Wall in 1989 exposed the true feelings and anxieties of the Western allies about Germany every bit as blatantly as had its construction. The Americans quickly decided that they were, on balance, happy to see a reunited Germany, but both the French and the British, atavistic fears reawakened, panicked at the prospect. In her memoirs, Mrs Thatcher recalls an emergency visit to de Gaulle’s 1980s successor, President Mitterrand, in which ‘I produced from my handbag a map showing the various configurations of Germany in the past, which were not entirely reassuring about the future ….’

For a short while, Mitterrand seems to have considered Thatcher’s offer to resurrect the wartime Anglo-French alliance against a resurgent Germany, but on consideration the wily French leader decided against tying himself to the forceful and passionately Eurosceptic British leader. Instead, with characteristic subtlety, he took the alternative route: not to unite with other powers against Germany, but to clutch the Germans so tightly to France’s bosom that even a mighty, reunited state east of the Rhine would constitute no threat. Part of the hefty price Mitterrand secured from the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, in exchange for France’s support of reunification was the Federal Republic’s support for a common European currency and for closer integration.

So, in the end the fall of the Wall brought not just the end of the Cold War but the final absorption of Germany into Europe – a solution of sorts for the ‘German problem’ that had haunted the world for more than a century and brought about two catastrophic world wars. 

Timeline

May 8th, 1945 

End of the Second World War: Germany and Berlin are each divided into four zones/sectors (Soviet, American, British and French).

June 24th, 1948 

Soviets begin their blockade of the Western sectors of Berlin.

June 25th, 1948 

The Western Allies begin the ‘Berlin Airlift’ to provide food and basic necessities for West Berliners.

May 12th, 1949  

End of the blockade, though harassment of the access routes continues.

May 24th, 1949 

The Federal Republic of (West) Germany is founded in the Western zones.

Sep 30th, 1949 

The Airlift is officially abandoned.

Oct 7th, 1949

The (East) German Democratic Republic is founded in the Soviet zone. Transformation of East Germany into a Soviet-style ‘people’s democracy’ accelerates.

May 26th, 1952 

‘Operation Vermin’. The Soviets and their East German allies seal the border between East and West Germany. Berlin alone remains accessible, the only ‘hole’ in the Iron Curtain.

March 5th, 1953 

Death of Josef Stalin in Moscow. Apparent liberalization follows.

June 17-18th, 1953 

A mass uprising against the Communist regime in East Germany is bloodily suppressed by Soviet troops and loyal East German police.

Dec 11th, 1957 

Leaving East Germany without permission becomes a criminal offence, punishable with three years’ hard labour.

June/July 1961 

Tens of thousands of East Germans continue to defy the regime and flee to the West.

Aug 12-13th, 1961 

Barbed wire and breeze-block barricades seal off West from East Berlin, making escape from East Germany impossible.

Aug 24th, 1961  

24-year-old East Berliner Günter Litfin becomes the first escaper to be shot dead trying to cross into the West. Many more deaths and injuries follow.

Aug 26th, 1961 

West Berliners are barred from East Berlin.

Oct 22-28th, 1961 

American and Soviet tanks face each other at the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing after East German guards restrict American officials’ access to East Berlin. During these days, the world comes close to nuclear war. However, the mutual withdrawal of US and Soviet units on October 28th also signifies the de facto end of the Berlin crisis.

Oct 1961  

The transformation of the border barrier into a fortified ‘Wall’ begins.
June 26th, 1963 President Kennedy visits West Berlin and declares ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.

Dec 17th, 1963 

Temporary permits are issued for West Berliners to visit East Berlin for the first time in two-and-a-half years.

Sept 3rd, 1971 

Signing of the ‘Four-Power Agreement’. The Soviets and East Germans recognize West Berlin’s right to exist, and the West grants de facto recognition to the East German regime.

Aug 1st, 1975 

The Helsinki Accords, signed by 35 countries including the USSR, America, Britain, and East and West Germany, promise universal human rights, including the right to freedom of movement. Within months, East German dissidents start to invoke this right in applying for exit visas. Despite government repression, what starts as a trickle grows into a flood.

June 12th, 1987 

President Ronald Reagan visits Berlin. He tells the Soviet leader: ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear this wall down!’

Sept 10th, 1989 

The Hungarian government opens the border to Austria. Thousands of East German 'tourists' escape during the coming weeks.

Nov 9th, 1989 

Unable to halt the headlong exodus of its population through ‘third states’, the East German regime concedes its citizens the right to leave. The Berlin Wall is effectively history. ­In the coming days, East Berliners destroy it with their own hands.

Oct 3rd, 1990 

East and West Germany are officially reunited.

Further reading: 
  • Hope Harrison, Driving the Soviets up the Wall (Princeton University Press, 2003)
  • Mike Dennis, The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic 1945-1990 (Longman, 2000)
  • V. Zubok and C. Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War from Stalin to Khrushchev (Harvard University Press, 2003)
  • Ed. John Gearson & Kori Schake, The Berlin Wall Crisis: Perspectives on Cold War Alliances (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Frederick Taylor is the author of The Berlin Wall (Bloomsbury, 2006)



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