The Berlin Wall

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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 August 1961]. 

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 In foreign affairs, he had withdrawn from Austria, in 1955, ended the feud with Tito, and defeated ‘counter revolution’ in Hungary in 1956, without being challenged by NATO.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 Bundestag.

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’.

David Childs

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