The secret history of the Berlin Wall

Twenty years after it fell, Patrick Major analyses the brinkmanship, machinations and top secret manoeuvres that led to the building of the great icon of the Cold War…

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

West Berliners peer over the newly constructed wall at the boundary between the

West Berliners peer over the newly constructed wall at the boundary between the districts of Kreuzberg and Mitte, August 1961. (AKG-Ullstein Bild)

 

Twenty years ago this month, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. This reinforced concrete edifice, the arch-symbol of the Cold War, had been toppled from within, by a mixture of people power on the streets and mistakes at the top by the East German communist party. 

Although the wall’s days were probably already numbered, the speed with which it fell seemed to confirm the cock-up theory of history. Günter Schabowski, the party’s press spokesman, turned what was supposed to be an orderly queue at police stations for passports into a stampede for the border checkpoints after mistakenly declaring that all restrictions on travelling abroad were lifted with immediate effect. The party seemed to have finally fallen victim to its own mismanagement, unequal to the challenge of reform from above started by Soviet bloc leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Less than a year later the German Democratic Republic (GDR) would have disappeared within a united Germany. This incompetence was in marked contrast, however, with the story of the wall’s rise on 13 August 1961.

Berlin had been a peculiar space ever since the end of the Second World War. It was a quadripartite ‘island’ city run by all four occupiers, each with its own sector, but enclosed within the Soviet zone and over 100 miles from the western zones of America, Britain and France. In retaliation against moves towards a separate West German state in 1948, Stalin had exploited West Berlin’s exposed position by cutting off its land links to the west. But, after nearly a year-long airlift, West Berlin had emerged as a permanent thorn in the side of the surrounding East Germany. The CIA and MI6 used it as a forward espionage base; its economy attracted tens of thousands of East German commuters; and permanent leavers could easily cross the sector boundary to West Berlin (often little more than a white line in the road) and then fly out from Tempelhof airport with impunity to the west.


Newly erected barbed wire barricades near the Brandenburg Gate, 1961. (AKG Images)

On the night of 13 August 1961 this loophole behind the Iron Curtain was closed with dramatic suddenness. From 1am human cordons of East German border police and factory militiamen descended on the Soviet sector boundary to face down the West Berlin police and American, British and French troops. Large stockpiles of barbed wire, as well as wire mesh fencing and concrete posts, were rapidly erected just within the eastern sector, sometimes with the help of lampposts and tramlines welded into improvised barriers.Four days later, with no western counter-measures, the East German authorities started a more permanent structure of breeze blocks and concrete slabs: the Berlin Wall proper. 

In one fell swoop, the GDR had put an end to a human exodus under way since 1945, but which had reached epidemic proportions in the summer of 1961. Dubbed by the party Republikflucht, or ‘flight from the Republic’, one in six East Germans had left for the west, the majority via Berlin. 

From 1958 the communist authorities had become particularly alarmed at the numbers of doctors, teachers and engineers leaving. Despite a carrot-and-stick policy, they were unable to deter these defections while maintaining the open border which Berlin’s special quadripartite status demanded. From May 1960 the Stasi, the feared secret police, had been drafted in but could intercept only one in five, concluding that “a comprehensive sealing-off of West Berlin is not possible and therefore the combatting of Republikflucht cannot be left to the security organs of the GDR alone”.

A more radical solution was needed, involving a physical isolation of West Berlin, a one-way valve that would keep East Germans in the east, but would not deny the west access to East Berlin. The East Germans had privately toyed with this idea throughout the 1950s, but had been vetoed by the Soviet big brother in favour of a diplomatic solution. The price Moscow and the fellow eastern bloc were paying, however, was seemingly endless subsidies to the leaky East German ally, in the form of raw materials and now even guest workers. 

In May 1961 the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, formally petitioned Moscow to close the border, but it was only after Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s confrontational first meeting with the new US president, John F Kennedy, in June, followed by the latter’s uncompromising television address in late July, that the Kremlin leader relented. The decision to build a wall thus came very much at the 11th hour, but had to be conducted in extreme secrecy, so as to avoid a stampede for the exit.

The day after Kennedy’s address, on 26 July, Khrushchev instructed the Soviet ambassador to tell Ulbricht that “we have to use the tension in international relations now to circle Berlin in an iron ring. This must be done before concluding a peace treaty”. In effect, the Soviet leader was short-circuiting the diplomatic crisis which he himself had unleashed in November 1958 when issuing an ultimatum to the western powers to vacate West Berlin, or accept a peace settlement that would have forced them to recognise what they regarded as an illegitimate Soviet puppet state: the ‘so-called’ German Democratic Republic. 

GDR sovereignty would have given the East Germans direct control over the transit autobahns between West Berlin and West Germany, as well as over the air corridors that had kept the western sectors alive during the airlift of 1948. 


West Berlin police look on as the wall takes shape in Chausseestrasse, December 1961. (AKG Images)

East Germany effectively could have started a second Berlin blockade. Kennedy’s speech had made clear that America was prepared to go to war to defend West Berlin, but any commitments to an open East Berlin had been conspicuous by their absence. A free hand was implicitly being given to the communists in their sector.

From this point on Operation Rose, the plan to cut off West Berlin, was developed rapidly under strictest secrecy. 

The normal chain of command was circumvented, and altogether perhaps 60 GDR officials were let into the secret. The chief of ground operations would be Erich Honecker, number two in the East German Communist party, but destined to become GDR leader a decade later. In 1961, hair thinning slightly and behind a pair of severe horn-rimmed spectacles, he was the Politbüro’s security secretary responsible for domestic and military security. 

The border closure would take place from a Saturday night to Sunday morning, to avoid potential factory stoppages; the party had painful memories of being caught out itself, eight years earlier, by the mass strikes of 17 June 1953. On 24 July, the party’s security section had calculated that total closure would require 27,000 man-days of labour and almost 500 tonnes of barbed wire. 

The chosen few in the interior ministry met at the Volkspolizei’s training college outside Berlin, under Willi Seifert, commander of interior troops, but himself a former Buchenwald inmate, and so with extensive ‘insider’ experience of maximum-security installations. Little by little, fencing stocks were secretly ferried to the capital from other border regions and police units. But this was not just to be a police action. In late July the chief of staff of the Soviet forces, Lieutenant General Ariko, met his East German counterpart, Major General Riedel, to discuss coordinating the ‘iron ring’ of Soviet and East German tanks that was to provide deterrent back up a mile behind the police units. The army duly began conspiratorial planning at Schloß Wilkendorf, north-east of Berlin, where defence minister Heinz Hoffmann, Riedel and 11 other officers drew up a blind order of march, to be conducted in strictest radio silence, right down to such details as muffling tank tracks.

Much of this secrecy was for the benefit of western intelligence. There has been great speculation about how much the west knew in advance. The Americans did have a Kremlin superspy, Oleg Penkovsky, who on 9 August had learned of the impending action, but he was unable to relay the information until after the event. Previous CIA intelligence estimates, as early as autumn 1957 for example, had predicted possible border closure. The British Joint Intelligence Committee reached similar conclusions in February 1959. By 1961, however, CIA analysts were more fixated on what would happen if the Soviets tried a repeat of the 1948 blockade, to drive the western Allies out of West Berlin by attacking transit routes. There were also reports of hoarding of barbed wire, but these were not new and as with most intelligence evaluation, the problem was one of information overload. The western Allies’ military missions, which could conduct roving overt intelligence gathering, found no evidence of the impending action. As the Americans reported on 2 August: “situation largely same as week ago”. On 12 August the British, too, were dismissive of drastic solutions: “The Russians are probably more impressed by the dangers of disturbances if the escape route is completely cut than by the current damage to the DDR”.

More recent evidence has come to light from West German sources, but this too is inconclusive. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), West Germany’s MI6, had a large network of anticommunist informants in the GDR, collecting military intelligence. Its head, Reinhard Gehlen, claimed in his memoirs that the BND had reported the action ahead of time on 1 August. Its July 1961 report indeed suggested that closure of the sector boundary was considered a real possibility and imminent. 

Despite these seemingly ominous pointers, however, there were contradictory reports. West Germany’s domestic intelligence, the Verfassungsschutz, told Chancellor Adenauer that, although “the island of West Berlin has now become a matter of life or death for the communist regime”, more swingeing travel restrictions would be “intolerable to the whole population”. It therefore seems likely that the intelligence community knew that closure of Berlin was an option being actively weighed and planned for by the east, but was uncertain of an exact date.

“The most important strategic and tactical lesson of the successful action of 13 August”, as their opposite numbers in the Stasi later recorded, “is the importance of keeping secret the point in time, as a decisive prerequisite for further successful blows against the enemy – at the right time and in the right place.”

In advance of a meeting of the top eastern-bloc leaders, on 1 August Ulbricht spoke to Khrushchev for two hours by telephone in a conversation recently discovered in Moscow. After some pleasantries about the state of the GDR’s collectivisation, Khrushchev repeated his call for “an iron ring around Berlin… I think our troops should lay the ring, but your troops should control it”. Ulbricht was clearly greatly concerned about a western economic embargo of the GDR, and much of his input regarded East Germany’s economic plight. The two finally got down to security:

Khrushchev: “I read original reports from western secret services which estimate that the conditions for an uprising have ripened in the GDR. They are using their own channels to keep things from going as far as an uprising because that will achieve nothing. They are saying: we cannot help and the Russians will crush everything with tanks. Therefore they are calling for people to wait until the conditions are right. Is that really true? I don’t know for sure and am relying on western reports only.”

Ulbricht: “We have information that, slowly but surely by recruiting defectors and organising resistance, the Bonn government is preparing the conditions for an uprising to take place in autumn 1961. We see which methods the enemy uses: the church organises the walk-out of the farmers from the collectives, although with little success; there are sabotage actions… An uprising is not realistic, but actions are possible which could cause us great international damage.”

Even at this stage, however, Ulbricht seemed to be contemplating gradualist measures requiring political preparation. “Carry it out whenever you want,” replied the Kremlin leader. “We can fit in at any time.” Yet he was more conspiratorially inclined than his East German counterpart: “Before the introduction of the new border regime you should not explain anything, since that would only increase the refugee movement and could lead to a rush… We’ll give you one, two weeks so that you can prepare yourselves economically”. Khrushchev then raised the four-power status of Berlin: should the border go around Greater Berlin rather than just the western sectors? Yet Ulbricht remained adamant; the border would go right through the city centre: “Above all, it has to happen fast”. Khrushchev was confident that the west would not overreact: “When you implement these controls, everyone will be satisfied. Besides, they will get a taste of your power”. Ulbricht: “Yes, then we will achieve stabilisation”.

Such a matter of war and peace nevertheless required the political backing of the Warsaw Pact. But when it met from 3–5 August, the die had already been cast. Already on the first day, in what was probably a private meeting with Khrushchev, the GDR leader had hammered out the essentials of what was to come, and by then they had a date: 13 August. “We kidded among ourselves that in the west the 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day,” Khrushchev later recalled. “I joked that for us and for the whole socialist camp it would be a very lucky day indeed.” 

On 12 August at around 4pm, Ulbricht signed off on the impending action, then invited government and party officials to his country seat at Lake Dölln, north of Berlin, for a walk and a dinner. Speaking to the Soviet ambassador, the East German party leader, in a rare burst of humour, jested that “I won’t let them go until the operation is over. Just in case.” The gathered leaders were all slightly bemused by the round of jokes and musical interludes, until at around 9.30pm Ulbricht suddenly convened them into an emergency session of the Council of Ministers to rubber-stamp the measures to come. When the guests broke up towards midnight, the road back into Berlin was already choked with Russian tanks. Operation Rose had begun. 


The wall in context 

First and foremost, the wall stabilised the GDR’s domestic crisis. Whereas from 1949–61 around three million citizens had fled, this fell between 1961 and 1989 to 35,000 (but at the cost of at least 136 lives at the wall). Economic planners no longer had to factor in ‘natural wastage’, and by the mid-Sixties supply did improve, although not overnight as party propaganda suggested. 

The border closure was also used to grasp other nettles: military service was introduced for young men; the recently collectivised farms were consolidated; there was an attempt to improve productivity on shop-floors with a Production Drive; and, more surreally, television aerials capable of receiving western programmes were targeted by bands of young communists, sometimes saw in hand. Rather soon, however, the party realised that it could not rule by force alone. The majority of the 7,000 persons arrested in August 1961 were soon released, and in 1963 the GDR entered a period of cultural thaw, including officially sanctioned Beatlemania. 

The wall was also significant in foreign policy terms. Despite the official protests by the western Allies, there was secret relief that the second Berlin Crisis had ended peacefully. The wall also created a shift in thinking from its biggest West German opponent, the Social Democrat Willy Brandt. In the mid-1960s he and his adviser Egon Bahr advocated a ‘policy of small steps’ which culminated, once chancellor, in Brandt’s conciliatory Ostpolitik in the early 1970s, a policy of rapprochement continued by the Christian Democrats in the 1980s. 

The resulting travel concessions allowed close family members to cross the wall. Although held at about 40,000 trips per year, these mushroomed in the 1980s to over 1.5 million by 1988. For some, the wall was already effectively open. Yet the selective nature of the opening caused great resentment among the majority without western relatives, indicating that, in the long term, Ostpolitik actually helped to destabilise the GDR, not prolong it as some critics have suggested. 


East Germans protest against travel restrictions, September 1989. (Ullstein Bild)


Defiance and disbelief: How east and west reacted when the wall went up

The initial reaction to the wall’s building from East Germans was shock, betrayal and disbelief: “a dirty trick” in the words of one, or from another: “One cannot be for peace with tanks”. Many East Berliners thought the initial barbed wire a temporary measure, becoming more hostile when permanent obstacles went up on 17 August, and when West Berliners were excluded from East Berlin on 23 August, splitting up whole families. 

Although East Berliners were angry, there was no repeat of 1953’s insurrection, when half a million strikers had taken to the streets. Now the populace was on the back foot. Instead, young people, who had frequented West Berlin, went into a collective sulk, and middle-class ‘waverers’ as the party called them, became resigned to socialism in half a country. Party activists, by contrast, went on the offensive, even beating up political opponents. “Dentists”, warned one party secretary, “would be getting a lot of work in the near future”. 

The official rationale, nonetheless, was that the wall, soon labelled the ‘Antifascist Protection Rampart’, had “saved the peace” by foiling the west’s alleged plans to foment a second GDR uprising to coincide with a NATO ground attack. Few East Germans believed this. Willy Brandt, then West Berlin’s mayor, saw the new border regime as fascist, not antifascist, the “perimeter wall of a concentration camp”. 

The most violent reactions came from young West Berliners – both students and teenagers – in a series of running battles with GDR border police. The stationing of Allied troops right up to the wire was as much to deter them as the Volkspolizei on the other side.

Since the west’s core interests were not touched in West Berlin – there was no interference with the transit routes to West Germany and thus no repeat of the Berlin blockade (the Americans’ greatest fear) – John F Kennedy’s response was muted: ”A wall is not very nice but it’s a hell of a lot better than a war”. Protests were made, and a morale-boosting tour of West Berlin by Vice President Johnson and the former military governor and hero of the Berlin airlift, General Lucius D Clay. 

Privately, the Americans’ allies in Berlin – France and Britain – censured Clay’s gung-ho tactics, which included a tank stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie in late October 1961 and encouraging vigilante schemes to blow up the wall. Behind the scenes, however, the Foreign Office admitted that Britain’s commitments to Berlin had been “negligible… just enough to avoid odious comparisons with the other NATO partners”.


From l to r: Lucius D Clay, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt, Berlin, August 1961. (AKG-Ullstein Bild)


The brick that brought tears to a dissident’s eyes

Four BBC reporters who were in Berlin when the wall finally fell tell Greg Neale about their memories of an extraordinary night

BBC television and radio journalists were among the first to send back reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most dramatic symbol of the wave of reforms that brought Cold War communism in eastern Europe to an end two decades ago. 

While film footage of tearful East and West Berliners coming together for the first time in 28 years provided the most moving impressions, possibly the most symbolic moment for British viewers came when reporter Olenka Frenkiel brandished a plaster-strewn brick, newly taken from the wall, during a live broadcast from the city for the Newsnight programme.

Today Frenkiel and former Newsnight presenter Peter Snow – who was hosting the Berlin broadcast from a studio in the east of the city – still remember the episode vividly. 

“I was conducting a discussion with a West German journalist and the leading East German dissident Jens Reich, when I saw Olenka coming onto the set,” Snow recalls. “For some reason, I thought she was carrying a baby. Then I saw what it was. She banged it down on the table, and said ‘that’s a bit of the Berlin Wall’. Jens Reich simply couldn’t believe it. He was in tears by the end of the programme.’’

It was one of many extraordinary moments during a tumultuous period in European history, which had begun several months earlier, as correspondent Brian Hanrahan recalls, when first Hungary, then Czechoslovakia began to allow East Germans to cross their borders with the west, sparking an exodus by tens of thousands of people. 

Following the exodus, and large-scale anti-government protests within East Germany, Erich Honecker, the country’s hard-line leader, resigned in mid-October. His successor, Egon Krenz, sought to introduce a measure of reform, but the protests continued. Then, on 9 November, came an extraordinary development.

“I was at the Grand Hotel in East Berlin, when someone came back from the evening press conference that the government had started holding,” Hanrahan remembers. “He said Günter Schabowski [the East German government spokesman] had just announced that the wall was opening, but the details… were all very unclear, and everyone was arguing about what it meant. I listened to the tape [of the press conference] and it seemed pretty damned clear to me – they were going to lift travel restrictions.

“I said, ‘I don’t care whether we argue about the details: as far as I’m concerned, this evening they have made one of the biggest announcements in our lifetime’. So I wrote a piece [for that night’s BBC television news] saying the Berlin Wall is going. Then we went onto the streets to see what was happening.”


Reporter Olenka Frenkiel appears on the set of Newsnight with “a bit of the Berlin Wall”, 9 November 1989. By the end of the programme, Jens Reich (right) was in tears. (BBC)

Olenka Frenkiel had been filming in the city earlier that day for Newsnight before Schabowski’s announcement. “On the way back to our hotel, I said to our producer, ‘let’s take a walk past the wall’,” she remembers. “We walked past the Brandenburg Gate when, to my amazement, I saw someone get up and simply walk through the line of [East German] military police. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone knew that the soldiers were there to guard the wall, but they weren’t doing anything. 

“I said: ‘I’m going to go over there, too.’ So while our producer went back to our hotel to find a camera crew, I walked over to the wall. One or two people pulled me up. Two days before, the soldiers would have had orders to shoot. Now they were doing nothing. 

“Then a BBC news cameraman turned up. His camera batteries were fading, and there was little light, but I managed to record a quick, rather faltering little piece in my excitement, saying something along the lines of ‘This is the east, over there is the west, and I’m standing along with several thousand other people tonight on the Berlin Wall’. I stayed there till four in the morning; I simply didn’t want to leave.” 

Brian Hanrahan, meanwhile, found his way to the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint, normally used by those few Berliners permitted to cross the city. “We had no idea where we were going,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the only journalist who couldn’t find a hole in the wall that particular night! But as we got to this street which would normally have been deserted it was absolutely throbbing with people. We dumped the car and ran. And we got there just as the orders arrived to open the checkpoint. 

“We saw the pole go up and all these people surging through. And the guards standing there – I remember the look on their faces – they were completely bewildered. Some people even handed their passports in to be stamped, but others just went through. And there they were – in West Berlin. Some were crying, some laughing. Some had taken their kids with them and were never going back. Some were literally just popping over to see what it was like.” 

Hanrahan’s filmed report, including scenes from the impromptu party taking place at the Brandenburg Gate, would be the first TV images that many Britons would see next morning. That day, Matt Frei, then a young BBC reporter, flew into the city. 

“I was filing for radio, and we established a phone line in this hotel which we kept open for two weeks, so fearful were we that the line would suddenly go down,” he remembers. “The bill must have been horrendous!”

For Frei – who met East German relatives he had never seen before – the fall of the wall was “an incredible story. It was not just a historical milestone, it was the end of an era, and rearranged the global furniture in a way no one could imagine at the time.” 

As for the Newsnight brick – from one of the sections of wall demolished to create one of the new crossing-points – Brian Hanrahan kept it for many years as a souvenir of “the biggest story I ever did. I can’t think of anything else that would match it.” 

Patrick Major is professor of modern history at the University of Reading. His latest books are In the Shadow of the Wall: True Stories from Berlin’s Divided Past (National Archives Press, October 2009) and Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power (OUP, November 2009)

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