Thursday, April 10, 2014

‘Nobody intends to put up a wall’: Walter Ulbricht, Khrushchev and Building the Berlin Wall, 1961

March 2014

Drawing predominantly on the work of Harrison, Maddrell, Slusser and Zubok, this essay will argue that the Berlin Wall was not conceived of nor built by Nikita Khrushchev alone, that building the Berlin Wall served the immediate needs of East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht more than Khrushchev’s international goals, and that Khrushchev was heavily influenced by Ulbricht’s campaign to pressure him into finally allowing the DDR to erect the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961.

Khrushchev’s International Goals v Ulbricht’s Immediate Needs: Maximum & Minimum Objectives
Much of the early Western-based literature on the Berlin Wall Crisis of 1961, and indeed throughout the Cold War, pictured Nikita Khrushchev as a puppet-master, pulling the strings of satellite states. It portrays Khrushchev as the sole architect and decision-maker on Soviet and socialist bloc policy in Berlin. However, this is a misrepresentation (Slusser,1973:ix). Archives and recollections of Cold War actors show Khrushchev did not decide alone to build the Berlin Wall. Khrushchev’s decisions were especially influenced by East German head-of-state Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of the German Social Unity Party (SED) of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). Harrison (2000:53-74) discusses at length the lack of study of ‘super allies’ in the Cold War that led to the focus solely on ‘super-powers’. As Leffler (1996:120-135) argues, the picture developed from Cold War archives is more complex.

Slusser (1973:2) holds many Western scholars have reduced Ulbricht’s role because it was official Western policy that the DDR did not exist, that Ulbricht and the DDR had no recognised rights in Berlin, and there were no official ties between the DDR and Western governments in 1961 (Slusser, 1973:2). Bonwetsch and Filitow (2000:155-56) point out responsibility for die Mauer and Ulbricht’s role was and continues to be deflected onto Khrushchev by many former-DDR officials attempting to avoid public and criminal liability since the Wall fell in 1989. Khrushchev and the USSR are no longer there to defend themselves.

Harrison (1993:7-8) lists comprehensively motives ascribed in the literature to Khrushchev in the 1961 crisis: ‘to prevent West Germany from having access to nuclear weapons, to get Western recognition of the East German regime and thus stabilize that regime, to show Khrushchev's domestic opponents how strong and successful he was, to show Khrushchev's Chinese critics that he was not "soft on the imperialists," to divide the Western alliance, to force the West to accept the Soviet Union as its political and military equal, to test the rules of the new nuclear game to see if nuclear weapons could be used for coercive purposes, and to force the West to a summit conference to discuss German and disarmament issues.’ Khrushchev’s concerns in 1961 Berlin had more to do with global issues and the position of the USSR and socialism than with the future of Berlin itself.

Walter Ulbricht had much more immediate concerns. For the DDR, West Berlin in 1961 presented three threats to its very existence (Harrison, 2002:99). First, Berlin, with free movement throughout all sectors of the city guaranteed by the post-WWII four-partite agreement, was a ‘loophole’ that could not be closed by the DDR. The borders throughout the rest of East Germany had been secured since 1952 (ibid.; Schaefer, 2011:509) However its citizens could still freely cross into West Berlin and fly out of Tempelhof Airport, leaving the DDR permanently behind. Western powers did not recognise the DDR had any control in Berlin which would allow them to close the border. 1,000 people per day were fleeing the DDR into West Berlin (Schake, 2001:29). In June 1961, The Economist reported that since 1949 2.5 million citizens had fled the DDR (Slusser, 1973: 67). The annual number rose from 120,230 in 1959 to 182,278 in 1960 (Harrison, 2002:108) and continued to rise in 1961 (ibid.; CIA, 1961:2). Pictures and press testimonials of Germans leaving the DDR was bad publicity for the DDR, USSR and socialism as a whole. Additionally, many of those leaving were skilled professionals. According to CIA:

‘The high proportion of professionals, engineers, and intellectuals has been of particular concern to the (DDR) regime. From 1954 through 1960, the refugees included 4,334 doctors and dentists, 15,330 engineers and technicians, 738 professors, 15,885 other teachers, and more than 11,700 other college graduates. In addition, industrial managers have been leaving East Germany in significant numbers, many of them Socialist Unity Party (SED) members of long standing’
(CIA, 1961:2).

The flood of migrants not only reflected bad light on socialism, but also represented a ‘brain drain’ of skilled workers from East to West Germany.

A second threat was the economic impact of Grenzgaengern (Harrison, 2002:99): the estimated 50,000 East Germans who worked in West Berlin, were paid in West Marks and who returned home daily to East Berlin to enjoy the advantageous exchange rate against the East Mark. The term also included West Berliners who crossed into East Berlin to shop, also enjoying the exchange rate and contributing to scarcity of goods in the East, thus increasing prices for less-wealthy East Berliners (ibid.). The number of East Germans working in West Berlin rose from 50,000 to 65,000 in 1961 alone (ibid.:108).

The third threat was to DDR security. Western intelligence agencies used Berlin as a transit point for intelligence material and agents. Maddrell (2006:829-847) argues that while the DDR refugee crisis and the economic situation were the main impetus for building the Berlin Wall, DDR security concerns regarding Western espionage were a more important factor than often cited. Western intelligence agencies used Berlin as a major base of operations, obtaining information from refugees and using the free movement of Grenzgaengern to conduct espionage, ferry information and meet agents. To be fair, the East bloc used it in the same manner against the West. The DDR State Ministry for Security—the Stasi—was concerned that Western intelligence would use the fragile state of the DDR in 1961 to incite an uprising in East Berlin similar to that of 1953, which Ulbricht had blamed on subversion coming from West Berlin (US State Department, 1954), ending in a massive uprising against Ulbricht’s government that was only eventually put down by Soviet tanks. Maddrell (2006:833) points out, ‘in the whole history of states, it is hard to think of a state which has suffered an espionage and subversion crisis as grave as that which gripped the DDR in the years up to 1961.’ For Ulbricht, choking off this attack point was vital to DDR survival.

Slusser (1973:9) argues that for Khrushchev, Berlin was a ‘lever’ to be used in the larger struggle with the West, while for Ulbricht Berlin was not a means to an end, but the end itself. For Ulbricht, Berlin was the prize to be won (Harrison, 1993:11). Ulbricht sought elimination of the embarrassing refugee problem, the ‘brain drain’, Grenzgaengern, security worries and the vanishing prestige of the DDR itself. Building a wall could do that. Khrushchev’s international concerns were secondary to him. Harrison (2002:103) agrees Khrushchev’s goals in Berlin were larger, global concerns, whereas Ulbricht’s were DDR-specific and could be immediately addressed by building the Berlin Wall. During 1961, it was Ulbricht who was impatient, confrontational and aggressive, while Khrushchev was patient and more restrained (ibid.). As Ahonen (2011:40-56) points out, for Ulbricht controlling the borders was about the legitimacy of the DDR.

Slusser (1973:93) adroitly describes this tension between Khrushchev’s larger international goals and Ulbricht’s immediate needs as a choice between ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’ objectives. He describes Khrushchev’s maximum objective as, ‘inflicting a major diplomatic defeat on the Western powers by forcing them to accept the fait accompli of a Soviet-East German peace treaty, bringing with it the end of Western occupation rights in West Berlin.’ Ulbricht’s minimum objective was, ‘shoring up the East German regime by shutting off the escape route via West Berlin.’ In the end, Khrushchev set aside his maximum objective and in favour of Ulbricht’s minimum objective.

Ulbricht Probes Khrushchev and the West on the Border
Why would Khrushchev, premiere of the Soviet Union, be influenced by Walter Ulbricht, the leader of a divided country dependent upon aid from Moscow and not even recognised by Western powers? Zubok (1993:11-12) argues Khrushchev was tied politically and sentimentally to Ulbricht because of their history. During the 1953 East Berlin uprising, Khrushchev sided with Ulbricht over other Soviet leaders and accused them of abandoning socialism in the DDR, thus tying himself politically to Ulbricht’s success. While Khrushchev faced uprisings in Poland and Hungary in 1956, Ulbricht swiftly quelled protests and had no quarrel with Soviet troops on East German soil and in fact welcomed them, a story explored further by Granville (2006:422). Ulbricht’s commitment to building socialism in East Germany won him Khrushchev’s praise (CWIHP, 1993:60), though it was these very ‘collectivisation’ policies that caused the economic hardship in the DDR that precipitated the refugee crisis. Zubok (1993:11-12) says Khrushchev did not want to lose the DDR, a place millions of Russians died to win in WWII, a place where a higher standard of living was enjoyed than anywhere else in the socialist bloc (CWIHP, 1993:61), and the place Westerners could most easily come into contact with socialism to be ‘won over’ by it. Khrushchev developed a similar affinity for the embattled socialist island of Cuba (Zubok, 1993:12). In 1961, Ulbricht ‘masterfully exploited’ Khrushchev’s fears of losing the DDR to force a confrontation with the West over Berlin (CWIHP, 1993:58).

Talk of a Berlin Wall neither began in 1961 nor just between Khrushchev and Ulbricht. There is evidence that Wilhelm Zaisser, the first head of the DDR’s Stasi, put forward a plan to build a wall to separate the two halves of Berlin in the early 1950s (Maddrell, 2006:833). Though DDR security officials such as Erich Honecker, charged with erecting the Wall, claimed the operation was a surprise to and great success against Western intelligence (Harrison, 2002:113), that the border may one day be sealed was no surprise at all to them. In fact, Western intelligence had been planning and instructing its agents regarding the possibility since 1953 (Maddrell, 2006:833). The Soviets had been turning down DDR requests to seal the border in Berlin for at least that long (Harrison, 2002:96). Erecting a barrier between East and West Berlin was not a new concept in 1961.

The rest of the DDR border outside Berlin was sealed since 1952 (Schaefer, 2011:509). The East Berlin border was temporarily sealed during the 1953 uprising, but soon reopened. The DDR announced in 1957 that it was now illegal for East Germans to leave the country without official permission (Maddrell, 2006:833). Until 1960, attempts by Ulbricht to secure the Berlin border were limited to controlling transit of East Germans into the West. However, from 1960 Ulbricht began to probe Western responses—and Khrushchev’s—to increased security measures affecting West Berliners and the Western allies. He acted without consulting Khrushchev and often even against Soviet cautions.

On 21 September 1960, Ulbricht, frustrated with Khrushchev’s slow approach on a permanent solution regarding the status of the DDR and Berlin, decided to press the issue by requiring Western diplomats obtain DDR Foreign Ministry permission to enter East Berlin. He had not notified Moscow and under the post-war four-partite agreement on Berlin (to which the DDR was not a party) he had no recognised authority to do so. The Soviet response was negative as they wanted no reciprocal restrictions made against them (Harrison, 2002:105).

On 17 October 1960, the Soviet embassy cabled Moscow that, ‘Our friends [East Germany] are studying the possibility of taking measures directed towards forbidding and making it more difficult for DDR citizens to work in West Berlin, and also towards stopping the exodus of the population of the DDR through West Berlin. One of such measures by our friends could be the cessation of free movement through the sectoral border and the introduction of such a process for visiting West Berlin by DDR citizens as exists for visiting the BRD [West Germany].’ (Harrison, 2002:107; Zubok, 1993:18). The next day, 18 October, Ulbricht wrote to Khrushchev directly defending the restrictions, arguing they should stand firm against the Western powers which did not recognise the DDR’s right to control its own borders, a fundamental right of any state. In a 30 November meeting, Khrushchev instructed Ulbricht to refrain from measures on the border (Harrison, 2002:107). Ulbricht tried again. On 19 May 1961 Soviet Ambassador Pervukhin reported that an impatient Ulbricht was not following Soviet guidance and wanted to immediately close the border to address the growing economic and refugee problems (ibid.:110-11).

On 15 June, Ulbricht held an infamous press conference. He offered, ‘there are people in West Germany who would like us to mobilise the building workers of the DDR capital to put up a wall. I am not aware of any such intention…Nobody intends to put up a wall.’ This only two months before the Wall would go up. It has since become a phrase many Germans repeat when someone is not being completely honest. Ulbricht went on to mention Soviet/DDR control of Berlin would mean closing Tempelhof Airport, the main escape route for refugees, and that Berlin would become a neutral city, ‘free’ from ‘disturbance’ by Western forces (Slusser, 1973:8-10). Slusser argues that rather than just a blatant lie or an attempt to calm tensions, Ulbricht’s intent—and the effect—was to increase the panicked atmosphere in Berlin to force Khrushchev to bring a swifter conclusion to the crisis.

Ulbricht’s probing continued. On 28 June, Ulbricht ordered all foreign air traffic to notify DDR controllers upon entering and exiting DDR airspace, a move quickly brushed aside by the Western allies (ibid.:43). On 8 July, the East Berlin police chief refused entry of West German delegates to an All-Germany Protestant church conference. That day, 2,600 refugees crossed into West Berlin. Throughout July, DDR ministers continued to publicly push the issue of DDR recognition and control of Berlin. On 16 July, the Ministry of Justice publicly released a detailed plan for the administration of West Berlin under DDR control (ibid.:63). Western figures show that over 100,000 refugees left the DDR in the first six months of 1961 alone (ibid.:66).

Rather presciently, on 30 July US Senator and Kennedy-ally William Fulbright remarked to the press that he did not understand why the DDR does not build a wall in East Berlin, as he considered it their right to do so (ibid.:94; Zubok, 1993:29). It appears Khrushchev made the decision to finally agree Ulbricht’s request at just this time.

There is no ‘smoking gun’ record of when exactly Khrushchev decided to agree to Ulbricht’s continuous request to seal East Berlin. Harrison puts the period between 15 and 25 July 1961 and argues that it came about broadly as a result of Khrushchev’s disappointment with the Vienna talks with Kennedy in June (2002:110). Slusser (1973:93-4) believes the decision fell on 27 July and came about after Khrushchev read Kennedy’s 25 July television speech in which he announced a large increase in US defence spending, which Khrushchev interpreted as an escalating US response to his own recent decision to increase Soviet defence spending. Zubok (1993:26-7) also places the decision on or around 27 July, citing Khrushchev’s own recollections.

Khrushchev also claims credit for the idea of building a concrete wall, not just a barbed wire barrier. Literally interpreted, Khrushchev may be said to be responsible for a Berlin ‘Wall’, not just a Berlin fence. Khrushchev recalls Ulbricht, upon being informed of the decision said, ‘This is the solution! This will help. I am for this’ (ibid.). Ulbricht sent Khrushchev a copy of the speech he would deliver at the coming 3-5 August Warsaw Pact conference on Berlin, stating that in regard to sealing the borders, ‘we have prepared all the necessary measures’ (Harrison, 2002:111). The Berlin Wall would be erected as planned on 13 August 1961.

Contrary to much of the early Western-based literature on the Berlin Wall, more recent literature based on archival research shows Khrushchev did not make the decision to build it alone. Building the Wall served Ulbricht’s immediate needs to stabilise the DDR more than they did Khrushchev’s larger international goals in the Cold War. Ulbricht had been seeking to seal the DDR’s Berlin border for several years and his probing campaign, beginning in late 1960, played a key role in pressuring Khrushchev to finally allow DDR forces to build the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961.


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