Modern history



DURING THE 1950s IN Berlin, two Germans of roughly the same age, both humbly born, both men of the Left and resisters of the Nazis in their youth, faced each other across the Cold War political divide.

Neither of these rivals were Berliners. In fact, both came from the outermost edges of Germany. Erich Honecker, SED official and later East German leader, was born on 25 August 1912 in Wiebelskirchen, a mining town in the Saarland, in the far west of Germany. Willy Brandt, future mayor of West Berlin, came into the world sixteen months later, in December 1913, in the country’s far north. He was a son of the ancient Baltic sea port of Lübeck, from where the next landfall is Denmark.

The first would be the creator of the Berlin Wall, the second would ensure the survival of the isolated island city that the Wall created. They would both spend a long time as leaders-in-waiting, only to gain power within a year of each other. And one would destroy the other; although it would be, in the end, a hollow victory.

Communism was in Erich Honecker’s blood. Honecker senior, a coal-miner, had been a member of the KPD since 1919. His son was politically active from the age of ten.

At eighteen, pursuing an apprenticeship as a roofer, young Erich also graduated to membership of the paramilitary ‘Red Front Fighter League’. He was picked to join the elite youth intake at the International Lenin School in Moscow. On his return to the Saarland (which by the Treaty of Versailles lay under League of Nations administration and French economic control) he became an official of the Communist youth movement, abandoning his apprenticeship. In 1933, he was elected to its central committee.

After Hitler came to power, Honecker ducked in and out of the underground, before turning up in Berlin under a false identity. In December 1935, after three months of clandestine activity, he was arrested by the Gestapo.

In June 1937, 24-year-old Erich Honecker was convicted by the Nazi People’s Court for ‘conspiracy to commit high treason’. He was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour, served in the notorious prison at Brandenburg-Görden, west of Berlin.

During the Second World War, Görden became a transit camp for the concentration-camp system and also the site of a judicial death house, where between 1939 and 1945 almost 2,000 inmates, including gypsies, Jews and political prisoners, were executed. Honecker spent the time between 1940 and 1943 working in a toy-soldier factory. After that, because of his training as a roofer, he was assigned to external construction squads, repairing bombed buildings in Berlin.

On 27 April 1945, the Red Army arrived at Brandenburg-Görden. Quickly released because of his political credentials, Honecker reported to the Soviet city commandant’s headquarters at Berlin-Friedrichsfelde. He acquainted the Russians with his curriculum vitae and was referred to the Ulbricht group as a possible recruit.1

Honecker was assigned the task of recruiting young people to the resurgent Communist party. Within a year, he was made national chairman of the SED’s youth organisation, the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend = FDJ). An obedient and tireless worker and conspirator, he would retain this key post for nine years. He joined the central committee of the SED and the GDR parliament. Still in his mid-thirties, Honecker advanced into the party’s leadership alongside men and women fifteen, twenty, or (in Pieck’s case) thirty-five years older than himself.

In 1958, now a full member of the SED’s innermost circle, the Politburo, Honecker was appointed Secretary for Security Questions. This was a big job—overseer of the police and army—and brought Honecker closer to the position of leader-in-waiting to Ulbricht. Honecker was efficient and absolutely committed. The party was his life. One of the underestimated attractions of Communist states lay in the steep career paths they offered to the energetic and ruthless offspring of simple workers. Honecker was a fine example of this principle.

So, a long way from the Saarland? Geographically, certainly. By now Honecker was only in the most notional fashion still living in the country where he was born. But one of the strange things about the man, who appeared so much the perfect, almost roboticapparatchik, who subordinated everything to ideology, was his fondness for the remote industrial district where he had spent his early years.

A cellmate of Honecker’s at Brandenburg-Görden would claim, many years later, that he could furnish the listener with a plausible tour of Wiebelskirchen, based simply on what Honecker had repeatedly recounted to him during those long days of imprisonment at the hands of the Gestapo. Honecker, by all accounts, was often homesick.2 This remained true even after he reached the heights of Communist power, but by then his perspective was confined to the area between the Elbe and the Oder, hundreds of kilometers from where he had been born.

Willy Brandt also grew up with a distinctive accent, that of Lübeck. The ancient Baltic port’s most famous son was the writer Thomas Mann. Unlike Mann, who came from wealthy patrician stock, Brandt—born neither Willy nor Brandt but Herbert Karl Frahm—grew up ‘across the tracks’ in the humble suburb of St Lorenz. His mother, Martha Frahm, was a single parent who worked in a grocery store.

The most important single figure of the boy’s childhood was his grandfather, Ludwig Frahm, a former labourer-turned-truck-driver, originally from poverty-stricken rural Mecklenburg, whom he called ‘Papa’. The boy often did not see his working mother for days on end, and was never quite sure where he should call home.

Later, Brandt and his biographers would speculate on the effects of such a childhood on his character: a certain distance that endured beneath the mask of friendship; a tendency towards self-reliance and independence; and paradoxically, a constant reaching-out for company, especially of the female kind, which expressed itself in numerous love affairs.3

Only in his teens did Herbert move into a broader world beyond Lübeck’s working-class subculture. He was very bright, and at fourteen was awarded a city scholarship that enabled him to go to the Johanneum, a fee-paying Gymnasium or high school. There Herbert studied the classics, history, languages and high-level science with the sons of Lübeck’s prosperous middle class.

None the less, young Herbert Frahm did not lose his loyalty to the people he had grown up with. Nor did pride in his new school, and his eagerness to learn, stop him from becoming absorbed in politics. At fifteen he was elected chair of his local socialist youth group and was soon writing pieces for the local SPD newspaper.

The problem was that, as democracy came under ever greater threat, Frahm became more of a firebrand leftist. The SPD establishment tolerated the semi-authoritarian rule of the Catholic conservative chancellor, Brüning, who governed through presidential decree after the slump hit Germany in 1930. The far Left of the SPD, especially its youth, preached revolution and militancy as answers to the economic crisis and the rise of the Nazis. They drifted closer to the KPD than to their own party.

Herbert acted on his disillusionment in 1931 by deserting to an idealistic splinter group, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP). The SAP’s founders hoped to attract support from both SPD and KPD and form a common front against the Nazis. For young Herbert, there was considerable personal sacrifice involved in his desertion to the SAP. As a promising young SPD organiser, he could have expected the party to support his university studies. Now that was out of the question. When he left school in February 1932, he became a trainee clerk with a shipping brokerage company. Meanwhile, he devoted almost every hour of his free time to politics.

Needless to say, however, the SAP had no mass support. The membership reached no more than 12,000. There were two elections to the Reichstag in the crisis year of 1932, in which the party gained 0.2 per cent and 0.1 per cent of the national vote. Despite the tireless agitation of young Frahm, who was proving a fine public speaker, it did little better in Lübeck. When the Nazi tide washed over Germany, the not yet twenty-year-old was becoming well known. This did not bode well for his future safety.

After Hitler came to power, several members of the SAP’s central committee were immediately picked up by the Gestapo. One was detained while travelling to Oslo, in Norway, to set up an SAP base in exile. The leadership asked Frahm to take his place—either presciently confident of his abilities or simply desperate. In April 1933, he was smuggled across the Baltic in a fishing boat and made his way to Oslo.

So Herbert Frahm left Germany. At the same time, he ceased being Herbert Frahm. After Hitler came to power, the SAP central committee formally dissolved the party, but many of its members refused to accept defeat. A secret meeting was called at a location near Dresden. Representative of the diehard comrades from Lübeck was Frahm. In the process, he used for the first time the nom de guerre that would make him famous: Willy Brandt.

From the moment he set foot in Norway, and for the rest of his life, Herbert Frahm became Willy Brandt. Charming, intelligent and articulate, he had a gift for languages, learning Norwegian so quickly that within a year he could give lectures in his adopted tongue.

In 1936, Willy Brandt visited Berlin on an intelligence mission for the SAP. He used a borrowed Norwegian passport under the name Gunnar Gaasland—profession, student—and, helped by the fact that the Olympic Games had filled the city with foreign tourists, survived to tell the tale. In Berlin (codenamed ‘Metro’ among SAP exiles), he experienced a shocking realisation. Nazism was not, as Marxist-Leninists insisted, a shaky, temporary phenomenon foisted on the country by an élite. The fact was, Hitler had Germany—and most of its people’s allegiance—firmly in his grip.4

During these years, Brandt’s gifts as a writer blossomed. He published articles in Norwegian, Dutch, Swiss and Swedish publications, as well as a successful book, Why Did Hitler Win in Germany?

The young revolutionary Brandt, meanwhile, moved slowly but steadily away from extremism. The murderous chaos of the Spanish Civil War, which he experienced during a visit in 1937, the bloody purges in the Soviet Union, and finally the Hitler-Stalin pact, convinced him that collaboration with the Communists was fraught with problems. Though still a Marxist, he set out on the road to the moderate, democratic socialist stance of which he became a leading post-war exponent.

In September 1938, Brandt was one of many exiles to lose his German nationality by Gestapo decree. He married Anna Carlota Thorkildsen, a Norwegian citizen, and applied for citizenship himself. Norway had become ‘home’.

It was a home, sadly, that he would have to give up before long. When the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940, Brandt could have been tracked down and arrested as a traitor, had not a friend lent him a Norwegian army uniform. Brandt was treated briefly as a prisoner of war by his unwitting fellow countrymen and then released. But he could not be sure of his personal safety in occupied Norway. Within weeks, he escaped across the border into neutral Sweden.

Brandt was granted Norwegian citizenship by the country’s government in exile and then a licence to practise as a journalist. He opened a Swedish-Norwegian news agency with two local colleagues, reporting on the situation in Sweden and in occupied Norway, and acting as stringers for agencies in America and the United Kingdom. Brandt was undoubtedly also involved with Allied intelligence.

The end of the war brought a brief moment of euphoria, followed by some difficult decisions. Brandt returned to Oslo with his wife and family. But now, of course, with Hitler’s Germany defeated, there was another decision looming. Which country should he live in?

Many exiled German politicians-some technically stateless-had to wait years for permission to return to their own country. But Brandt was now a Norwegian citizen. In November 1945, a Norwegian Labour Party newspaper sent him to report on the Nuremberg war-crimes trials.

After observing the war-crimes trials, Brandt wrote a book entitled Criminals and Other Germans. He pleaded against the idea of collective national guilt. Brandt acknowledged the trials as legitimate and necessary, but felt passionately that the judges should have included a German-to speak and condemn on behalf of those who had opposed the Nazi regime, but had none the less also suffered for its crimes.

Brandt’s views were not shared in Allied countries, including Norway, where some said he was an apologist for Germany. He found his thoughts becoming bound up with the future of his native land. The collapse of his marriage was also a factor.

Brandt returned to Germany in 1947 as a press officer working for the Norwegian Military Mission in Berlin. He wore a Norwegian army uniform and drew the pay of a major (necessary under the rules attached to the presence of the military mission). In years to come, opponents would accuse him of exploiting his privileges as a ‘Norwegian officer’ while his compatriots starved. His Norwegian companion in Berlin and future wife, Rut, would write:

We lived in requisitioned houses with requisitioned furniture and slept in requisitioned beds. The provisions were imported from outside: we ate in allied restaurants, shopped in allied stores, paid with allied military money-British BASF pounds or American SCRIPT-dollars-and went to allied cinemas and clubs. It was an unnatural colonial life and in fact from a human point of view just as degrading for those who lived in relative plenty as for those forced to stand outside and suffer…5

The smell of death that still hung over Berlin, its legacy from the wartime bombing and fighting, affected Brandt deeply. As did the fact of German suffering. Finally, after almost a year, he decided that he must choose, and accepted a job as Berlin representative of the SPD. It meant giving up his Norwegian nationality and becoming German again—citizen of a country that did not, at this point, technically even exist. He had burned his boats.

It was a new beginning that would take the one-time young revolutionary from Communist sympathiser to determined enemy of the SED, from firebrand journalist to international statesman. Willy Brandt’s journey was an adventure of the mind and the heart. His experiences had changed him profoundly. Unlike those of Erich Honecker.

Honecker had shown courage and commitment in fighting National Socialism, but nothing about his views, or his feelings, changed as a result of his experiences. Despite his harsh experiences at the hands of the Gestapo, the SED’s post-war persecution of its opponents did not seem to cause him any concern. The end justified the means.

Honecker assisted loyally and uncritically in the creation of the SED, helped build its minute control over society in the Soviet Zone/GDR. He climbed that society’s ladder through hard work, organisational skill, and, above all, conformity.

Brandt did not always find conformity easy. By 1949, he had joined the group of young Social Democratic high-flyers surrounding the newly appointed West Berlin mayor, Ernst Reuter. They were the generation-in-waiting.

Many post-war democratic leaders were former Weimar-era politicians, in their fifties, sixties or even seventies. Some had been imprisoned by the Nazis. To young men like Brandt, the former Weimar politicians-‘the beards and bellies’ as he once irreverently described them-were to be respected for their courage, but ever so slightly despised for their failure to stop Hitler.

Brandt was, of course, unusual in other ways. Most of his contemporaries had either been convinced Nazis or had been swept up in the mass mobilisation of war. In 1947/8, many were still prisoners. All who had lived through the Third Reich between adolescence and adulthood remained a generation in recovery, getting by from day to day. Brandt, the successful returned exile, belonged to a small group of young people untainted by involvement with the Nazis and undamaged by the experience of fighting on Hitler’s behalf.

As early as the SPD/KPD ‘marriage’ that created the SED, Brandt had observed that this was a shot-gun wedding. Nevertheless, he had hoped that a peace treaty might create a democratic German central government based in Berlin. Final disillusionment came with the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in the summer of 1948.

Though Brandt still supported the then SPD policy of state ownership and control, he gained a reputation as a determined anti-Communist. He learned much from Ernst Reuter, the former Bolshevik, who believed that a democratic Germany and a democratic Berlin needed to be supported by a strong Western anchor. Reuter was the last in a series of men, a generation older than Brandt, who could have been the father he never knew and were crucial mentors at various times in his life.

In 1949, Brandt was offered Reuter’s old job running the city’s transport system. He turned it down. Instead, he went to Bonn as a part of the Berlin delegation of deputies, who because of the city’s special status were not directly elected but nominated by the city assembly. He commuted between Berlin and the Rhineland, until 1957, when he was elected as governing mayor.

This was in future. Though some regarded him as Reuter’s heir apparent, when the hugely respected High Burgomaster died suddenly in September 1953, aged sixty-four, Brandt, who had just celebrated his fortieth birthday, did not succeed him. In the 1950 Berlin elections, the CDU and its allies had won an equal number of seats to the SPD. The CDU’s candidate withdrew in favour of the popular Reuter, but when the latter died, the CDU declared its intent to govern. Berlin had its first non-SPD mayor since the war, and Brandt was in opposition.

In December 1954, the SPD won back some seats and was returned to power. Brandt, however, was passed over in favour of the veteran Otto Suhr, a hero of the blockade. As president of the Berlin house of assembly, Suhr had bravely resisted the Communist crowds that tried to intimidate the city’s elected representatives. Brandt was awarded Suhr’s old post, the second-most important job in the city.

Only when Suhr died, in August 1957, did Brandt attain the heights of power in the divided city. The handsome young governing mayor and his attractive, fashionably dressed Norwegian wife, Rut, became popular favourites, a Berlin pre-echo of Jack and Jackie Kennedy. Opponents sneered at his ‘American’ style and the superficiality of the press coverage, but with television sets now appearing in Berliners’ homes, with rock ‘n’roll and the headlong worship of youth starting to take over every branch of the media, the sceptics made little headway.

Erich Honecker, by contrast, had officially given up youth in 1955, just when it was coming into fashion. That was when, aged forty-three, he stopped being chair of the SED’s junior section, the Free German Youth, which he had built up into a millions-strong apparatus for controlling the post-war generation in the GDR. Honecker was sent to attend the Soviet Central Committee’s training college in Moscow. Successful graduates of this school were headed for the very top of their party organisations. For an ambitious young Communist, this was heady stuff.

Sure enough, shortly after his return from Moscow, Honecker became secretary to the Central Committee for security questions and a permanent member of the Politburo. Since the fiasco of 17 June 1953, Ulbricht had insisted on exercising this vital role himself. His willingness to hand these functions over to Honecker was a special expression of trust.

At the same time as Brandt became mayor-by free election-so Honecker reached a key position in the GDR, though not by any election process considered valid in the West. In 1953, when Ulbricht was threatened with overthrow, Honecker had been one of the few East German leaders who supported him. ‘Pointy beard’ Walter did not forgive a traitor, but neither did he forget a favour.

After the 1953 uprising, and the trauma of the Polish and Hungarian revolts in 1956, security went from being one key aspect of government policy in East Germany to becoming arguably the most important. The economy had to be improved, it was true, but the main priority was to keep the SED in power until a rise in the masses’ standard of living could be secured and the regime made more popular. Meanwhile, subversion and dissent must be suppressed. For the good of the people, of course.

The record year for population loss was, for obvious reasons, 1953, year of revolt and repression. During those traumatic twelve months, almost 400,000 left for the West. The figure dropped in 1954 to less than 200,000 before starting to climb again, staying at around a quarter of a million annually for the next three years. Since the foundation of the GDR in 1949 and the end of Honecker’s first full year as Secretary for Security in 1958, 2.1 million East Germans had fled the country that Ulbricht built. Almost a million would leave during the next three years. In the first twelve years of its existence East Germany lost around a sixth of its population.

The ‘new course’ of 1953-4 had been intended to make life more tolerable for all those tempted to leave, especially small-business men, scientists, doctors and dentists, and skilled craftsmen, who made up a disproportionate percentage of those who were classified in tellingly military terms as ‘deserters from the Republic’ (Republikflüchtige). Even though Ulbricht had managed to hold on to power, it seemed that reform of the system was inevitable, a hope further fuelled by CPSU Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in February 1956.

Ulbricht faced challenges from liberals within the Politburo, including Stasi Minister Ernst Wollweber and Karl Schirdewan, Secretary to the Central Committee with responsibility for Cadre Questions (party membership). Unsure of Moscow’s support, Ulbricht could not deal with these challenges as summarily as he might have wished. None the less, these two Politburo members formed a latent threat to his power that he could not ignore. And, being Walter Ulbricht, did not.6

In June 1956, widespread rioting in Poland led Khrushchev to appoint the relatively liberal Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had been imprisoned under Stalin, as leader of the Polish Communist Party. Gomulka was permitted to carry out market and economic reforms (including a stop to agricultural collectivisation) so long as he continued to toe the Soviet line internationally. This looked like good news for reformers everywhere.

Unknown to the liberals in the GDR, however, the high tide of reform was already about to turn. At the end of 1956, the Soviets were forced to use the Red Army to suppress a revolt in Hungary-led, moreover, by a reformist Communist prime minister, Imre Nagy. This bloody business shocked the world. In Moscow it presaged a turning-away from the post-Stalinist liberalising process and a revival of belief in brute strength.

Ulbricht did not rush things. Using Honecker, who had now slotted his old FDJ trusties into key parts of the security and party apparatus, and marshalling his old Stalinist cronies, the First Secretary gradually isolated the liberalisers. In December 1956, the new Security Secretary, Honecker, accused Wollweber of neglecting the pursuit of the state’s enemies. He demanded regular reports on this problem, keeping the Stasi chief on the defensive for the next months and aiding the construction of a portfolio of alleged failures that could be used against him. At the end of 1957, the reformist economic planner and close Schirdewan ally, Gerhart Ziller, who had been brutally criticised by Ulbricht at a Politburo meeting, gave way under the pressure and took his own life.

Ziller’s suicide was the signal for the hardliners to go in for the kill. In February 1958, Wollweber, Schirdewan and Fred Oelssner, deputy chair of the Council of Ministers and a moderate, were accused of ‘factionalism’ and sacked from the Central Committee.

From now on, Honecker exercised a key overseer role. He stood in charge of security, the army, and the party organisation. In short, every process that was key to the regime’s hold on power passed through his office. The slogan Honecker adopted and issued to the comrades whose political life he now controlled gave a clear message: ‘He who attacks Walter Ulbricht, attacks the party!’ This would remain Honecker’s motto until the day, more than a decade later, when he decided to overthrow Ulbricht himself.

At the Fifth Party Congress of the SED in July 1958, Ulbricht reigned supreme. The economic and political policies he announced to the cowed comrades represented a virtual return to the old ‘building socialism’ programme he had so disastrously pursued until the summer of 1953: more restrictions on the dwindling numbers of private businesses and craft workshops, a resumption of enforced collectivisation of agriculture. Ulbricht made a further astonishing declaration: soon the GDR would overtake West Germany in the production of foodstuffs and consumer goods.

A few weeks later, this claim became daringly specific. The two Germanys would, Ulbricht predicted, achieve parity as soon as 1961. This was clearly a risky fantasy. Even by the somewhat optimistic official figures, industrial and agricultural productivity in the east was 25-30 per cent lower than in the West. The GDR’s reserve of skilled workers was draining away through the open border with West Berlin.

Ulbricht’s trump card was that he could now rely on the support of Khrushchev. The pressing reason for their alliance was that the new Soviet leader, having finally, like Ulbricht, asserted himself against all possible opponents, had decided to reopen the ‘Berlin Question’.

With a bang.

On 27 October 1958, Ulbricht addressed a mass meeting at the Friedrichstadt-Palast theatre in the heart of East Berlin. He launched a blistering attack, not just on the West in general but on West Berlin’s very right to exist. During the summer, Ulbricht had been ratcheting up his rhetoric, calling for the West to recognise the GDR and to sign a peace treaty that would ratify the post-war settlement in Europe. This time he went even further. He described the whole of Berlin, including the Western sectors, as ‘part of the territory of the GDR’.

The newly-elected Mayor Brandt responded by mocking Ulbricht as a ‘Saxon Lenin-Imitation’, but something sinister was in the wind. A month later that something became apparent-at last a move by Moscow, and not one that any West Berliner would have wanted.

Nikita Khrushchev was puffed up by the USSR’s success in putting the first satellite into orbit in the shape of Sputnik, and by the advances in rocket science that made this possible-successes that, as anyone could see, could launch not just a capsule into space but a nuclear warhead on to New York or Philadelphia. The West had lost its nuclear monopoly in 1955, when the Soviets exploded their first hydrogen bomb. Now, with Russian development of long-range missiles, America itself was no longer protected by distance.

At the same time, in another direct challenge to America, Khrushchev declared the Soviet Union’s intention to overtake the West in prosperity and productivity in just a few years. It was a boast that probably influenced Ulbricht’s equally foolhardy statement of intent at the SED’s Fifth Party Congress.

Before he died, Stalin liked to humiliate his henchmen by telling them that once he had gone the capitalists would ‘strangle them like blind kittens’.7 Khrushchev felt these contemptuous remarks acutely. He wreaked revenge in his 1956 posthumous denunciation of Stalin to the Central Committee. Then, at the beginning of 1958, Khrushchev defeated the ‘anti-party’ group within the CPSU (again, see the resemblance to Ulbricht’s ‘factionalists’) and stood alone at the helm of the Soviet Union. He assumed new powers as head of government. Thus equipped, Khrushchev determined to show the shade of the old Georgian murderer what he could do.

In foreign policy, Khrushchev decided to start applying pressure where the West was most vulnerable—in Berlin. He would describe Berlin as ‘the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.’ Publicly, he referred more delicately to a ‘bone in his throat’ which had to be removed.

Two weeks after Ulbricht’s notably aggressive speech on the subject of Allied rights in Berlin, the Soviet leader made a forceful statement calling for the signatories of the 1945 Potsdam Agreement to ‘create a normal situation in the capital of the German Democratic Republic’. The Soviet Union would, he said, soon hand over all functions in Berlin to the East Germans. If they wished to settle the Berlin question, the Allies would have to negotiate with the GDR. Khrushchev ended with an affirmation-cum-threat: the USSR would ‘sacredly honour our obligations as an ally of the German Democratic Republic’.

Eisenhower was initially outraged, and told acting US Secretary of State Christian Archibald Herter, ‘if the Russians want war over the Berlin issue, they can have it’. However, in the end the administration decided to ignore Khrushchev’s challenge and wait and see.8

They waited. They saw. At four in the afternoon on Thursday 27 November 1958, Khrushchev marched into the impressive, mahoganypanelled oval room that housed the Soviet Council of Ministers. It was the first formal Kremlin press conference he had ever held, and had been called at such short notice that American journalists were forced to desert their Thanksgiving Day dinners in order to attend.

The stocky First Secretary, bronzed from a late vacation in the Crimea, announced that he had decided to do some surgery, to remove the ‘malignant tumour’ of Berlin. He assured the assembled scribes that he had sent a 28-page note to Western ambassadors that very morning. This note contained a dramatic ultimatum. The West must agree to sign a German peace treaty within six months. It must also ‘liquidate the occupation regime’ and turn West Berlin into a demilitarised ‘free city’. If the West did not agree to this, Khrushchev would unilaterally sign a treaty with the GDR and turn over all control of access to Berlin to the East Germans.

On receiving the news, Eisenhower-spending the Thanksgiving weekend with his family in Georgia-made aggressive noises. Within a few days, he again backtracked. Nevertheless, the maintenance of the occupation regime and of access rights to the Western sectors of Berlin remained central to American policy. This was made clear to Moscow. As was America’s commitment to West Germany and her readiness to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to defend it.

It was difficult to work out exactly what Khrushchev hoped to achieve by the 27 November press conference. Once the West had refused to budge, if he went ahead and turned over control of access to Berlin to Ulbricht, then in practice the self-willed East German leader would be given the power to determine peace or war. And the Russians, because of their ‘sacred alliance’ with the GDR, would be committed to supporting him. Meanwhile, the West started carrying out manoeuvres and issuing statements of military solidarity that further heated up the situation.

There was a disconcerting sense in Khrushchev’s unleashing of the Berlin Crisis, as on other occasions, of a gambler tossing all the dice into the air to see where they landed.

His son, Sergei, was then twenty-three. He asked his father what would happen once the ultimatum ran out. Would it mean war? of course not! No one would want a war over Berlin, Khrushchev assured him. Before that time came, his threat would scare the West into negotiations. And if the negotiations failed? Sergei persisted. Khrushchev replied irritably, ‘Then we’ll try something else. Something will always turn up.’9

It was, in fact, the British Prime Minister who turned up. In January 1959, Harold Macmillan came on an official visit, at which an offer of top-level discussions was made. His Soviet counterpart withdrew the time limit on the ultimatum.

The West had agreed to a conference on a German peace treaty. Khrushchev solved the problem of saving face with a breathtaking distortion of the truth. He simply pretended that there had never been an ultimatum. The West had misunderstood him, he insisted.

Nothing actually came of the resulting talks, but the immediate crisis was over. The zigzagging over Berlin went on for more than two more years, until the end of the Eisenhower administration and into the next. Sometimes it was a live issue, sometimes not, but it was always there.

In the words of the post-Communist Russian historian, Vladislav M. Zubok:

Khrushchev must have believed he was killing many birds with one stone. He was pressing hard on an ‘acorn’ of the west to deter the United States in the Far East and to pre-empt Drang Nach Osten (drive toward the east) from West Germany. He also gave decisive support to Ulbricht’s regime in the GDR. And all that was couched in the language of a peace settlement designed to sound irresistible to world public opinion.10

Berlin was still the West’s most sensitive part. All Khrushchev had to do was squeeze.

Khrushchev seemed to be on the GDR side. But the security of their regime was not the only source of anxiety for the leaders of the GDR. What about their own personal security? Who guards the guards?

As they tightened their grip on the Soviet Zone in the post-war period, the SED bosses settled into a group of requisitioned villas in the northeast Berlin suburb of Pankow. Ulbricht, Pieck, Grotewohl and the other Politburo members lived within a few hundred metres of each other, in a leafy area surrounding the Majakowskiring, close by the castle of Schönhausen (Pieck’s official residence). This ‘VIP quarter’ was sealed off by a security fence and by guard units.

Even before 17 June 1953, there were signs that this location might prove insufficient for future needs.11 Then came the Hungarian revolt. The swiftness of the revolutionaries’ seizure of Budapest, and the violent, often lethal, summary punishment they inflicted on the Communist officials and secret policemen they rounded up, were a warning to the SED leadership of what might happen to them in case of another, this time more successful, uprising in Berlin.

At a Politburo meeting two months before the Hungarian revolt, on 28 August 1956, security measures for the élite were discussed. The minutes conclude: ‘Measures are to be prepared for a new residential settlement’. There is little question, however, that the experiences of October 1956 gave added impulse for the Politburo to move out of Berlin.

But to where? Ulbricht, a fitness fanatic, was keen to live in the fresh air, near water and trees. Various possibilities were discussed. Then someone suggested the area near the appealing small town of Wandlitz, north of Berlin, as a possible solution to the Politburo’s very special housing needs.

Wandlitz lay amid state forest near the town of Bernau, thirty-five kilometres north of Berlin. It was wooded country threaded through with attractive lakes, far enough from Berlin to provide a good quality of life, yet close enough that a minister’s or Politburo member’s limousine could be circling the Alexanderplatz within half an hour of leaving home. ‘Deep in nature—at the gates of Berlin!’ as the town declares in its tourist literature. Moreover, the summer residence of the Soviet ambassador lay on one of the nearby local lakes, the Liepnitzsee, within easy reach.

In the spring of 1958, a group of bureaucrats suddenly appeared from East Berlin and started inspecting the terrain, under the bewildered and slightly nervous gaze of forestry workers. Word spread that local land was being earmarked for ‘a special purpose’.

By the summer the town of Bernau had been informed that initially 60 hectares (approx. 145 acres) would be required, which was later expanded to 101 hectares (approx. 240 acres) which would finally become 357 hectares (approx. 860 acres). A connecting road would be built to link up with the north-south autobahn. Existing and new woodland and shrubplanting would make the area invisible from outside, and provide visual, personal and weather protection for the individuals who lived and worked there.

The basic building work on the soon-to-be-notorious ‘forest settlement’ (Waldsiedlung) was finished by February 1960. There were no street names, and never would be. The houses, comfortable and roomy but not especially grand by most standards, were simply numbered from 1 to 23. They were mostly built of pre-fabricated materials and not considered especially modern even at the time. They enjoyed pleasant gardens.

Years later, the actor and director Vera Oelschlegel married a Politburo member and came to live here. She hated it and wrote of the place they called ‘the bosses’ paradise’:

The houses were situated as nice and symmetrical as matchboxes. They were soulless, and seemed alien in the landscape with its beech and pine trees…It was a ghetto, and while I was there I felt about as at home as an emigrant. When in the mornings the same dark Volvos stopped in front of the garden gates, and when from each house an old man emerged, escorted by a younger man, who carried his bag and opened the door for him…12

This referred to a later period, when the official car for the East German party boss had become a specially lengthened and reinforced Volvo. Earlier, the limo would have been a Soviet-built Chaika, which was standard transport for GDR ministers and party bosses between the 1950s and 1970s. The party leaders were provided with a so-called ‘A-Certificate’, which rendered them exempt from normal traffic rules, especially speed limits (which for normal mortals were strictly enforced).13

The gentlemen of the Politburo moved into their plain but roomy homes in the early winter of 1960. There was a private clinic not far away. In summer, the bosses could follow a private lane down to their own part of the lake shore, where there were bathing huts and boat houses. For less pleasant contingencies, there was even a system of bomb-proof bunkers a few hundred metres from the VIP residences. Here the SED bosses’ families could take refuge if the Cold War ever turned hot, while the men of the house would be spirited away to an underground governmental complex elsewhere in the area, from which they would direct the GDR’s fight for survival.14

They had at their disposal the large and roomy Functionaries’ Clubhouse complex (known as the ‘F-Club’). This contained a cinema and a swimming pool. In the F-Club’s restaurant the SED functionaries and their families could also eat extremely modestly priced meals (four marks for roast venison!), cooked by a team of gourmet chefs who followed their every culinary or dietary whim. The Politburo members could drink a beer in the bar after their car dropped them back from a long day at the ministry or the party office.

There was also a general store where fresh food and (usually imported) household necessities were available, though, given the astonishingly reasonably priced menu, functionaries and their families tended to eat at the club restaurant. The store, like the club’s restaurant, was guaranteed the best produce at all times, including foreign and Western goods accessed through Stasi channels.15

According to one account, when Lotte Ulbricht, the First Secretary’s wife, conceived a passion for ‘Jonathan’ apples, couriers were despatched to Bulgaria to get some.16 Ulbricht himself rose at six a.m. every morning, regularly worked out, took long walks, rowed on the lake, often appeared on television swinging Indian clubs or leading enthusiastic GDR citizens in mass callisthenics sessions. Well into old age, he remained a ferociously competent table-tennis player. He often ate meals confined to raw vegetables and eggs.

As the years went on, up to thirty gardeners were employed, and a series of large greenhouses produced a constant supply of fresh vegetables and flowers for the settlement dwellers. Grotewohl’s successor as prime minister, Willi Stoph, was a keen vegetable gardener and would even press his Stasi security detail into work on his produce beds if he felt they had nothing better to do. Stoph, considered cold and inhumane, was reportedly the least popular of the high-ups the staff had to deal with.17

The area where the bosses and their families lived was known as the ‘Inner Ring’. Of the 600 or so servants, officials and security staff who serviced the Politburo settlement, many lived near by in much more modest homes in the ‘Outer Ring’. They were all, even the cooks and housekeepers and gardeners, responsible to the ‘Main Department for Personal Protection’ of the Stasi and were paid according to Stasi graduations of rank. For some reason, cooks were not allowed to rise above the rank of lieutenant.

The employment conditions of the settlement staff were very demanding. A circular to the domestic help from Stasi minister Erich Mielke admonished them that ‘by showing an amenable and professional attitude, and by sensitively carrying out of their duties, {they} should constantly foster the subjective well-being of our leading representatives’. This was wryly referred to by staff as the ‘Love-Me-Directive’.18

For all the egalitarian rhetoric, the atmosphere was not unlike a traditional feudal estate. The gamekeeper upon whose shoulder the ageing Honecker rested his gun when he took aim and fired at the wildlife, went deaf in his right ear.19 All the same, jobs at the forest settlement were much sought after. Nearness to power brings reflected prestige even to the humblest drudge. And there were all those imported goodies, which tended to trickle down.

During the 1960s, the high officials would also be allowed access to the hunting reserves that lay twenty or thirty kilometres to the north, straying over into the huge area that once been the preserve of Hitler’s old crony and Reich Master of the Hunt, Field Marshal Göring. Göring had built a great house that he called, in memory of his Swedish first wife, Karin, ‘Karinhall’. The house was demolished after the war, but Göring’s hunting lodges and the houses belonging to his huntsmen still existed and were reserved for the exclusive use of Politburo members at peppercorn rents. Foreign visitors, especially Soviet grandees such as Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev, were treated to lavish hunting parties in the wild-animal reserve adjoining the ‘forest settlement’. The hunting lodge on the Döllnsee was also used for high-level weekend conferences of the GDR élite.

The settlement sometimes seemed like a kind of leafy political reservation. Every night the system gathered its rulers in, as if to leave them wandering about outside might be dangerous, both for them and for the people at large. Despite the luxury of life there compared with elsewhere in the GDR, few if any of the élite seem to have lived there out of preference or desire. Many of the settlement dwellers confessed later to a distinct sense of claustrophobia.20

Günter Schabowski, who moved there in the 1980s when he joined the Politburo, said that there were was no place for real friendships, no truly authentic social life. Anyone who socialised too often with specific fellow Wandlitz-dwellers would be suspected of conducting intrigues, of ‘forming a faction’. Walter and Lotte Ulbricht never socialised with other residents. The only outsider to enter their home except on official business was their daughter, who would come up from Berlin at the weekend. When she did so, the staff were sent out of the house. The Ulbrichts wanted to keep their private life private.21

The consequence of such anxiety-inducing rules of interaction was that people either stayed at home alone with their families, or they went to the F-Club, where they were safely visible and part of the ‘collective’.22 Ulbricht, who had spent the entire 1950s fighting off leadership challenges of one kind or another, liked having the rest of the party’s leaders at Wandlitz, where he could keep an eye on them. His underlings, powerful men in the outside world, were in a real sense under surveillance once they passed through the settlement gate.

Not for nothing, though somewhat tastelessly given recent German history, did Wandlitz become known among the general population of the GDR as the ‘Ghetto of the Gods’, or simply, ‘the Ghetto’. The imprisoners became the imprisoned. The ‘forest settlement’ was the GDR élite’s golden cage.

Surrounding the forest settlement at Wandlitz from the time of its construction in 1960 was a wall. This wall was eight kilometres long and two metres high, with manned guard towers at regular intervals. The entire, magnificently paranoid structure was screened by trees and newly planted, quick-growing giant shrubs such as juniper, mahonia and rhododendron. The casual viewer would never know it was there.

‘Five kilometres on from the Wandlitz autobahn exit, one took a left turn,’ as one account has it:

There stood two glass sentry boxes with uniformed guards…and a traffic light. Well before you got to this, of course, there were ‘halt’ notices, and warning signs that forbade ‘unauthorised vehicles’ from turning off the main road. Even after passing through this electronically regulated entrance, you had to look very carefully to make out, amidst the thick growth of the forest, a two-metre-high wall.23

Erich Honecker, as Secretary for Security, had directed the privacy and safety aspects of the forest settlement’s construction with great success. The next year, he would face his greatest challenge yet. Having sealed themselves off so carefully from the threat of a hostile outer world, the men of the East German leadership now had to see about doing the same for their fellow citizens.

All seventeen million of them.

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