The Berlin Wall - What were you doing
the day the Wall went up, 13 August 1961?
Although I know what I was doing when Princess Dianna[31 August 1997]
died, and when President Kennedy [22 November 1963] was assassinated I
do not remember the day East Berlin was sealed off from West Berlin, [13
Disgusting though it was, the building of the Berlin Wall was, perhaps,
not as important as it sometimes seems. One reason for this was the
situation of the four powers USA, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
Nikita Khrushchev, de facto Soviet leader from 1953 to 1964, was feeling
confident as the Soviet Union was leading in the space race having
successfully launched Yuri Gagarin as the first human in space when his
Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on 12 April, 1961.
Gherman Titov became the second human to orbit the Earth aboard Vostok 2
in the same year. Moreover, Khrushchev had broken with Stalinism and
introduced reforms. In foreign affairs, he had withdrawn from Austria,
in 1955, ended the feud with Tito, and defeated ‘counter revolution’ in
Hungary in 1956, without being challenged by NATO. At the 22nd congress
of the Communist Party, in 1961, he broke with China. He was famous for
his travels to India and, with his wife and family, to the USA, in 1959.
The new US President, John F. Kennedy, launched the unsuccessful Bay of
Pigs invasion of Cuba, 17 -20 April, 1961, in an attempt to overthrow
Fidel Castro, which added to Soviet confidence. On the centenary of the
outbreak of the American civil war Kennedy had to deal with conflict in
the southern states. Over the spring and summer, student volunteers
began taking bus trips through the South to test out new laws that
prohibited segregation in interstate travel facilities. Several of the
groups of "freedom riders," as they were called, were attacked by angry
white mobs along the way.
What of the other Western Powers? France was in danger of a civil war
over its withdrawal from Algeria. In April 1961, President De Gaulle
faced the danger of a generals’ putsch. At the same time, De Gaulle
sought détente with the Soviet Union. As for the United Kingdom, under
Harold Macmillan, it was heavily engaged in de-colonization (Serra
Leone, Kuwait, Tanganyika). South Africa left the Commonwealth and the
UK was attempting to join the EEC, membership of which was applied for
in August 1961. It also felt vulnerable after the exposure of the five
members of the Portland Spy Ring convicted of passing nuclear secrets to
the Soviet Union, and double agent George Blake. The situation in
Northern Ireland was deteriorating once again. Throughout March and
April 1961, the number of IRA incidents in Northern Ireland began to
rise; for example, on 28 March Glassdrummond Bridge in Co. Derry was
destroyed and a Royal Ulster Constabulary patrol was ambushed. The
government was also faced with a growing anti-nuclear arms movement,
CND, and gloom about the economy. The Conservative Government presided
over a ‘stop-go’ economy. By contrast West Germany had flourished
economically. In 1961 it was preparing for a September election to the
August was a good time for the East German coup as most Germans, East
and West, were thinking of holidays. Many in Washington, London, Bonn,
Paris, were on holiday or away for the weekend. This included Macmillan
in northern England; Kennedy in Hyannis Port and De Gaulle who was at
Colombey-les-duex-Eglises. Only Adenauer remained in his office.
The East Germans had closed off the frontier between the DDR and West
Germany already in 1952, only East Berlin remained open to the West.
Many thousands of East Germans were using this route to cross into West
Berlin either on the underground or on foot. Occasionally, some
unfortunates were apprehended at rail stations like Friedrichstrasse, as
they dragged their suitcases along. East German leader, Walter Ulbricht,
had told a press conference in June that, ‘Niemand hat die Absicht, eine
Mauer zu errichten‘ but the hemorrhage went on. Something had to happen.
He received the authority, if not the order, from Moscow to get on with
it. In 1960 199,188 fled from DDR, 152.291 of them via the open East
Berlin sector boundary to West-Berlin. Between 1949 and 1960 over 1.7
million had fled the DDR for the West. This was from a population of
about 18.3 million, in 1949, when the DDR was established. Some thought
the East German action was only a temporary measure as in June 1953 or
during the 1957 currency reform. Construction preparations were made in
great secrecy, and the border was sealed off in the early hours of
Sunday, 13 August, 1961. There was some embarrassment in London when it
emerged that some of the barbed-wire was manufactured in Britain!
As there was little the Western Allies could do, and the Soviets did not
make any moves against the Allies in West Berlin, the West acquiesced in
the situation. The Wall was an own goal and remained a permanent
propaganda exhibition against the DDR and ‘Communism’.
- Need a quick comment or some