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The Path to the Berlin Wall

The Path to the Berlin Wall: Critical Stages in the History of Divided Germany

Manfred Wilke
Translated from the German by Sophie Perl
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 386
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    The Path to the Berlin Wall
    Book Description:

    The long path to the Berlin Wall began in 1945, when Josef Stalin instructed the Communist Party to take power in the Soviet occupation zone while the three Western allies secured their areas of influence. When Germany was split into separate states in 1949, Berlin remained divided into four sectors, with West Berlin surrounded by the GDR but lingering as a captivating showcase for Western values and goods. Following a failed Soviet attempt to expel the allies from West Berlin with a blockade in 1948-49, a second crisis ensued from 1958-61, during which the Soviet Union demanded once and for all the withdrawal of the Western powers and the transition of West Berlin to a "Free City." Ultimately Nikita Khrushchev decided to close the border in hopes of halting the overwhelming exodus of East Germans into the West.

    Tracing this path from a German perspective, Manfred Wilke draws on recently published conversations between Khrushchev and Walter Ulbricht, head of the East German state, in order to reconstruct the coordination process between these two leaders and the events that led to building the Berlin Wall.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-289-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. iv-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    Axel Klausmeier

    In early 2011, the Berlin Wall Foundation (Stiftung Berliner Mauer) initiated a book series that, in accordance with the Foundation’s purpose, aims to make various aspects of the history of divided Germany and inter-German migration accessible to a broader public. All of the volumes in this series examine facets of the Berlin Wall and the emigration movement out of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as contributions to and results of German division and the East–West conflict of the twentieth century.

    The series comprises five volumes in total, a culmination of the interdisciplinary research project “The Berlin Wall as a...

  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xix)
  5. Map of Germany, 1949–89
    (pp. xx-xx)
  6. Map of Berlin, 1949–89
    (pp. xxi-xxi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The Berlin Wall was a multifaceted, concrete border. It split the city in two, forming part of both the inner-German division and the cleft between the Soviet Empire and the Western European democracies. After its construction in 1961, the Wall came to symbolize the division of Germany and the oppositional forces of dictatorship and freedom; internationally, it remained the most indelible image of the Cold War. In May 1989, before anyone in Germany sensed the Wall’s fall just a few months later, Gerald R. Kleinfeld, founder and executive director of the German Studies Association, spoke at a congress in West...

  8. Part I. The Polarization of Postwar Europe

    • Chapter 1 The Allied War Conferences and Europe’s Postwar Order
      (pp. 9-30)

      The unconditional capitulation of the German Wehrmacht on 8 May 1945 meant the self-inflicted collapse of the German Reich as a major European power. However, the Allied victory did not create a political vacuum in Central Europe. Compared to the period before the Second World War, the international political constellation in Europe had undergone a fundamental change: the Soviet Union and the United States had risen to the status of dominant world powers, shaping politics on the continent and in Germany for decades to come.

      The Anti-Hitler Coalition among Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States development as...

    • Chapter 2 New Borders for Germany
      (pp. 31-54)

      In their war plans, the members of the Anti-Hitler Coalition took the German borders of 1937 as their starting point: all revisions by the National Socialists after 1938 were automatically dismissed. This included the Anschluss of Austria and the integration of the Sudetenland into the German Reich in 1938. Austria was thus restored to an independent state, and the Sudetenland was returned to Czechoslovakia.

      There were qualitative differences in the implications of these new borders. The separation of the eastern territories by drawing Poland’s borders permanently changed Germany’s territorial composition. Germany ceased to be a major European power— and this...

    • Chapter 3 Two German States
      (pp. 55-82)

      After May 1945, each Allied command exercised sovereign authority within its occupation zone. The Allied Control Council was comprised of the four supreme commanders, who could only act on unanimous decisions—each of the four powers could block the others through a veto. The Control Council did not have its own German administrative structure to span the zonal borders; thus, the reorganization of German statehood and the process of reconstruction began separately in each of the four zones, following the organizational and political directives of the respective occupation power. Disagreements among the four powers concerning the approval of political parties...

    • Chapter 4 Western Integration and the Establishment of Socialism: Competing Systems in a Divided Germany
      (pp. 83-96)

      Konrad Adenauer, first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, entered office at the age of seventy-three. After the National Socialists stripped him of his position as lord mayor of Cologne in 1933, he survived the regime’s persecution and was among the founders of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the Rhineland in 1945. His realism regarding the situation in postwar Germany comes out in a statement he made as president of the Parliamentary Council during a meeting of the CDU caucus: “We are not mandated by the German people. Our orders come from the Allies.”¹ Adenauer’s sober “sense of...

    • Chapter 5 The End of the Postwar Period: The Geneva Summit and the Transition to “Peaceful Coexistence” in Germany
      (pp. 97-111)

      Before the two German states achieved sovereignty, Joseph V. Stalin died in 1953—a critical turning point in the history of the Soviet Union and the East–West conflict. The years between 1953 and 1958 were marred by crisis in the Soviet Empire: The GDR witnessed a popular uprising against the SED in 1953. Nikita S. Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor at the head of the CPSU, exposed Stalin’s crimes against his own party at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, causing major unrest in Poland and the Hungarian Revolution, which ended in a bloody defeat at the hands of Soviet troops....

  9. Part II. The Fight for Berlin

    • Chapter 6 The First Berlin Crisis, 1948–49
      (pp. 115-134)

      Berlin in general, but especially West Berlin, had special importance during the period of divided Germany. The city’s enduring four-power status prevented the situation of two Germanys from settling into permanent normality. Its national significance became especially visible on 9 November 1989, when East Berliners broke through the wall that had divided the city and the path to German reunification began.

      In 1945, when the four Allied powers took over joint administration of Greater Berlin, comprised of four sectors, no one thought about dividing the city. It had been excluded from the drawing of zones. From Berlin, the headquarters of...

    • Chapter 7 Stalin’s Death and the First Existential Crisis of the GDR: 17 June 1953
      (pp. 135-144)

      Between the first and second Berlin Crises, the establishment of the “foundations of socialism” in the GDR unleashed the country’s first existential crisis with a major wave of emigration and the uprising of 17 June 1953. These events confirmed all of Fedor Gusev’s fears in 1947 regarding the significance of West Berlin for the stability of the Soviet zone. The GDR’s crisis in the early summer of 1953 occurred after Stalin’s death, after a “collective leadership” took power at the head of the CPSU in Moscow. During the uprising, the Soviet Union resolved to defend and stabilize the GDR both...

    • Chapter 8 A Prelude to the Second Berlin Crisis: The SED Party Congress
      (pp. 145-153)

      During each Berlin Crisis, the Soviet Union tried to use an offensive in Berlin to change the status quo in divided Germany to its advantage. The Soviet Union’s goal of resolving the problem of West Berlin in a way that would benefit its own interests was evident in both crises. For Nikita S. Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet party and state, Stalin’s failure in 1948 and 1949 provided an incentive to remedy the past with his Berlin advance of 1958. In his memoirs, Khrushchev wrote:

      When we began to face up to the problem of West Berlin after Stalin’s death,...

    • Chapter 9 The Soviet Union’s 1958 Berlin Ultimatum
      (pp. 154-164)

      Khrushchev’s appearance at the Moscow Sports Palace on 10 November 1958 was the bolt of lightning that sparked the second Berlin Crisis. A few days earlier, on 6 November, the presidium of the CPSU Central Committee had advised Khrushchev on his “Thoughts on Germany”; only Anastas Mikoyan contradicted the party leader’s approach. Mikoyan feared “a drastic deterioration in the East–West conflict.”¹ Khrushchev directed his main attack toward the West German government, which he accused of planning a new war. He warned:

      To march against the East would mean marching to death for Western Germany.

      It is high time to...

    • Chapter 10 Negotiations over a Peace Treaty and the “Free City of Westberlin”
      (pp. 165-178)

      After the Soviet Ultimatum and the first shocked reactions from the Western powers, the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs produced drafts related to a peace treaty with Germany, a statute for the “Free City of Westberlin,” and a separate peace treaty between the Socialist states and the GDR. The USSR first submitted the draft of a peace treaty with Germany to Poland and Czechoslovakia for their approval. Ulbricht then informed Khrushchev on 3 January 1959 that the SED Politburo was also “satisfied [with] the draft of the ‘Peace Treaty with Germany.’”¹ Ulbricht announced that the GDR’s Council of Ministers planned...

    • Chapter 11 The Second Berlin Crisis and a Shift in the Cold War
      (pp. 179-188)

      The second Berlin Crisis was an international conflict and became the longest period of heightened tension in Central Europe during the Cold War. Contention over the Western powers’ rights in Berlin, the status of West Berlin, and unobstructed movement to the Federal Republic became questions of war and peace between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both countries understood that a war over Berlin would end in nuclear inferno. The Soviet Union aimed to elicit certain changes in Germany and Berlin in agreement with the Western powers, especially the United States, through an internationally binding peace treaty that would...

    • Chapter 12 Crisis in the GDR, Changes to the Border Regime, and Interzonal Trade
      (pp. 189-198)

      Simultaneous to fundamental changes in the international political constellation of 1960– 61, the Berlin confrontation took on new dimensions with the crisis in East Germany. In the fall of 1960, while the GDR’s economic troubles intensified, leaders in East Berlin and Moscow began to discuss “security measures” for West Berlin in order to address the open sector borders and the growing number of refugees fleeing the GDR. The SED had caused its own crisis by setting unrealistic economic goals and forcing agricultural collectivization. Fifteen thousand farmers fled, and “the yield per hectare of wheat, potatoes, and root vegetables sank by...

    • Chapter 13 Ulbricht: Resolve the “Westberlin Question” Now!
      (pp. 199-212)

      From summit meeting to summit meeting, Khrushchev repeatedly extended the Berlin Ultimatum of 1958 and instructed the SED to keep waiting on a solution to the question of West Berlin. Reaching an agreement with the United States took priority over signing a peace treaty with the GDR, and it was important to see what would come out of talks with newly elected American President John F. Kennedy. The Soviet head of party and state adhered to this position in a conversation with Ulbricht on 30 November 1960:

      Khrushchev:Another question is whether we should pursue a peace treaty with the...

    • Chapter 14 The Vienna Summit, 1961: The Second Soviet Ultimatum
      (pp. 213-224)

      After Kennedy entered office, Llewellyn E. Thompson, American ambassador to Moscow, warned the president not to underestimate the issue of Berlin in navigating relations with the Soviet Union. He advised Kennedy to negotiate with Khrushchev, if only to prevent a separate peace treaty between Moscow and East Berlin. “Lastly, Thompson warned that, at the very least, the East Germans would have to seal off their sector boundary in order to stop the refugee flow.”¹ The idea of separating the spheres of influence in Berlin thus entered the conversation as a potential line of compromise in American policy. Kennedy consented to...

    • Chapter 15 The Decision to Close the Sector Border in Berlin
      (pp. 225-237)

      Khrushchev’s decision to allow Ulbricht to seal off the sector border to West Berlin in the “capital of the GDR” occurred on 20 July 1961.¹ Ulbricht and Khrushchev communicated about the decision-making process via Mikhail G. Pervukhin, Soviet ambassador to East Berlin. Directly after the Vienna Summit, however, this measure was not yet on the table and Ulbricht remained unsure of how to proceed. He began by focusing propaganda entirely on the swift conclusion of a peace treaty, the same demand that Khrushchev had presented to Kennedy in his second ultimatum.

      The “Vienna Ultimatum” elicited fear and helplessness in West...

    • Chapter 16 The Construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961: Germany’s Division Gains a Symbol
      (pp. 238-265)

      After the completion of plans to seal the sector border, as Anatoli Mereshko recalled in his interview, a meeting with Ulbricht took place, probably toward the end of July:

      Mereshko: On about 2 August, we (Yakubovsky and I) went to Ulbricht with the finished plan. The three ministers were already gathered in his residence; they each reported briefly on their own preparations to introduce the new border regime.

      Wilke: Then we have a problem regarding the dates. There is no doubt that Ulbricht discussed this issue with Khrushchev in Moscow on 1 August. And on 3 [August], the Political Consultative...

  10. Part III. The End of the Second Berlin Crisis

    • Chapter 17 Negotiations, but No War!
      (pp. 269-283)

      In August 1961, Khrushchev let the Germans feel Soviet power. In shock over the division of Berlin, many Germans wondered whether the Wall signaled their country’s permanent division and whether all hopes for reunification were now no more than an illusion. Media and politics reacted immediately to these sentiments and to the diffuse uncertainty of the German population. The unbelievable act of dividing a European metropolis with barbed wire became an international media sensation, and television cameras captured the event in real time.

      Interestingly, in their declarations after 13 August, none of Germany’s leading politicians indicated that they would abandon...

    • Chapter 18 A Wall in Berlin but No Peace Treaty with the GDR
      (pp. 284-324)

      Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s offer to talk. Even before the meetings between Secretary of State Rusk and Foreign Minister Gromyko began in late September, Khrushchev dictated a telegram to Moscow from his vacation. First, the presidium of the CPSU should decide on a “course correction” to be undertaken immediately, and second, Pervukhin should inform Ulbricht of the new negotiations with the United States:

      I would think that the presidium must immediately reach an agreement to undertake these changes so that it can be read to me today, and it would be good to deliver this document, perhaps even now, by courier...

    • Chapter 19 Repercussions for Germany and a Shift in Trouble Areas
      (pp. 325-340)

      Both German states had to reorient themselves to the new constellation that Khrushchev had orchestrated. The situation only affected the two German governments at first, but before long, the permanence of German division encompassed both societies separated by the Wall. Ulbricht was unable to defy Khrushchev’s decision not to conclude a separate peace treaty with the GDR or transfer control rights along West Berlin’s transit routes to the East German state. The SED had to acknowledge and cope with the new Soviet course; reunification propaganda gave way to the demand for international recognition. Adenauer, meanwhile, could not prevent Kennedy from...

  11. Conclusion Who Was Responsible for the Berlin Wall?
    (pp. 341-347)

    Until 1961, Berlin was the gateway to the West for people in the GDR. The demarcation line between East and West Germany had already been closed and fortified in 1952 following Stalin’s orders. But before 13 August 1961, hundreds of thousands of people used the open door in Berlin to escape from the SED state. Without sealing and militarily securing the sector border there, the GDR likely could not have survived through the end of 1961. This, at least, was Walter Ulbricht’s opinion. Going through the Soviet ambassador to East Berlin, Ulbricht sent a clear message to Soviet Premier Nikita...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 349-360)
  13. Index of Persons
    (pp. 361-363)