Modern history



ON 25 JULY 1961, President John Kennedy appeared on television to address the nation.

Six weeks earlier, immediately following his return from Vienna, the President had given a sober appraisal of the progress (or lack of it) towards understanding with the Soviets, but had made few suggestions about how this might be remedied. The reaction from both press and public was less than favourable. The President had not performed as he should have in his big encounter with the Communist enemy.

Kennedy was in many ways a particularly self-aware individual, especially for a politician, and not one normally swayed by short-term praise or blame. All the same, he was rattled by growing public impatience with his presidency. ‘There are limits to the number of defeats I can defend in one twelve-month period,’ he told the economist J.K. Galbraith. ‘I’ve had the Bay of Pigs, and pulling out of Laos, and I can’t accept a third.’1

The most likely arena for a third defeat was, of course, Berlin.

The question ultimately being begged was, what would constitute a ‘defeat’ for America in Berlin? One of the things the President tried to do, in his broadcast on 25 July, was to define the Berlin problem in the way he wanted Americans to understand it. In the past month, East and West had been leaking information to show their last-ditch readiness for war. One wrong move, and the world could face the most serious threat to peace since the Korean crisis.

Kennedy was acutely aware of this danger. He wanted to avoid the risks inherent both in hardline nuclear missile-rattling on the one hand and a weak-seeming negotiations-at-all-costs stance on the other. This opened him up to criticism from all sides. Former Truman-era Secretary of State and the administration’s unofficial foreign-policy éminence grise, Dean Acheson, who was more of the missile-rattling party, had tried to push Kennedy in a more aggressive direction. While Kennedy indulged in seemingly endless consultations and discussions, Acheson grumbled privately that ‘the nation is without leadership’2.

In the end, Kennedy’s television speech on 25 July was a skilled example of the President’s ability to give something to both parties. He spoke from the Oval Office. The mass of klieg lights and cameras crowding the room on what was already an uncomfortably hot summer night, and Kennedy’s knowledge that the whole world was anxiously watching, lent the occasion an air of tension and unease.

Like Khrushchev, though for different reasons, the President was walking a tightrope. And he also had someone disturbing him while he was trying to do so. Kennedy had his own German protégé in the shape of Adenauer’s West Germany.

Unlike the GDR, the Federal Republic was by no means a basket case. It was prosperous, socially stable and a growing military power. However, it aggressively resented both the Polish and Soviet absorption of Germany territory at the end of the Second World War, and the creation of an East German state. Maps in West German offices, atlases and school classrooms showed Germany ‘within the borders of 1937’, and vocal refugee organisations representing the millions of Germans expelled from their ancestral homes in the post-war period ensured that no West German government (especially of the Right) could afford to relax this policy. The strongly anti-Communist bent of the West Germans, further intensified by a natural sympathy with the sufferings of their seventeen million compatriots east of the Elbe, led to a militant attitude towards the GDR and the Berlin problem. This militancy did not always match the Washington administration’s sense of world priorities.

Therefore, in his speech President Kennedy was talking not just to his own people, or to the Soviet Union and its allies, but also to West Germany and its government. He promised America to strengthen its armed forces, with a $3.25 billion increase in the military budget and an increase in total army strength from 825,000 to one million men. He promised, in the case of West Berlin, to ‘make good on our commitment to the two million free people of that city’. Illustrating the situation with a map, just to be on the safe side, he showed Americans the facts of Berlin’s geography but also warned the Communists against thinking that the West would not risk a fight to protect it. Berlin had

now become—as never before—the great testing place of Western courage and will, a focal point where our solemn commitments stretching back over the years since 1945, and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation.

It would be a mistake for others to look upon Berlin, because of its location, as a tempting target. The United States is there; the United Kingdom and France are there; the pledge of NATO is there—and the people of Berlin are there. It is as secure, in that sense, as the rest of us—for we cannot separate its safety from our own.

But at the same time he became very specific about the nature of that commitment. The President added:

So long as the Communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments. We will at all times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.

The words ‘West Berlin’ in this part of the speech were crucial. They meant that America was not committing itself to preserving the status of the whole of Berlin as four-power territory. The message to the East was: try to restrict access to West Berlin, or to take over the Western sectors, and we shall fight. About the rest of Berlin—the part the East Germans now claimed as their own—Kennedy said not a word.

It was not the first time Kennedy had made this distinction, but it came at a defining moment. To German-born State Department analyst Karl Mautner, this was the ‘“Oh, my God” feeling of a government undercutting its own position’.3

But Mautner, along with his wife, Martha—also a State Department adviser—was one of the group known as the ‘Berlin Mafia’. This was the name given to CIA officials, State Department hands and journalists who either lived in or had served in Berlin. They tended to feel strongly about Berlin’s freedom, and to emphasise firmness in the face of Communist aggression. Members of this group were respected in Washington for their knowledge of the city and the intricacies of its position, but the administration tended to take their opinions with a pinch of salt. They were perceived to have ‘gone native’—than which there can be no greater put-down of any diplomat, foreign correspondent or spy.

Khrushchev’s reaction to Kennedy’s television address concentrated almost exclusively on the stick part of the business and ignored the (admittedly disguised) carrot. The President had come up with a tougher response to his ultimatum than the Soviet leader had expected.

Khrushchev responded with his habitual bluster. The British prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn was performing with the Bolshoi. On the night that Khrushchev went to see her, British ambassador Sir Frank Roberts was in the audience. In the interval, Khrushchev summoned Roberts to his box and subjected him to a lengthy harangue. Soviet forces outnumbered Western forces ‘hundredfold’ he told the normally unflappable diplomat, and reminded him that ‘six hydrogen bombs would do for Britain, and nine for France’.4

A few days later, Khrushchev retreated to his vacation dacha at Pitsunda on the Black Sea. There he was visited, at his request, by John J. McCloy, the US administration’s chief disarmament negotiator. A former Assistant Secretary of Defense and military governor of the American Zone of Germany, McCloy was a doyen of the East Coast establishment. He had also served as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and was still chairman of the Ford Foundation. To Khrushchev and his advisers, who saw the American government and its president as puppets of Wall Street, McCloy represented the puppet masters.

McCloy stayed over night at the dacha. Khrushchev was on friendly form the first day, clowning around, challenging McCloy to a game of badminton, taking him for a swim, and so on. Then, overnight, Khrushchev got round to reading the full Russian translation of Kennedy’s speech. Next day, he switched in that Jekyll-and-Hyde way of his from genial host into angry warlord. He was, McCloy said, ‘really mad’.

Yet again, Khrushchev spelled out his ultimatum and pointed out that the war Kennedy seemed to want would be a thermonuclear one, perhaps leaving some of the USA and USSR standing but wiping Europe from the map. Civilisation would be destroyed. Kennedy would be ‘the last President of the United States’.

It was clear by now that Ulbricht’s campaign to seal off West Berlin from the East was reaching its climax. Moscow would have to make a decision regarding the possible measures involved, which could easily lead to physical confrontation with the Western forces in Berlin.

The SED’s strong man had been further encouraged in his sense of invulnerability by the visit of Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, two days after the Vienna summit, to discuss future economic co-operation. Mikoyan, an old Bolshevik of pre-revolutionary vintage, forcefully underlined the Kremlin’s support for the GDR, which was, he said

the western-most outpost of the socialist camp. Therefore, many, very many look at the GDR. Our Marxist-Leninist theory must prove itself in the GDR. It must be demonstrated in the GDR that what the capitalists and renegades say is wrong…Marxism was born in Germany and it must prove its correctness and value here in a highly developed industrial state. We must do everything so that your development constantly and steadily goes forward. You cannot do this alone. The Soviet Union must and will help with this…5

Secure in this support, the East German leadership began co tighten the screw.

A few days before Kennedy’s speech, SED propaganda chief Horst Sindermann sent out a circular instructing media to no longer use the term ‘desertion of the Republic’ (Republikflucht) to describe flight to the West. This term gave an unfortunate (if truthful) impression that people were leaving of their own volition, and therefore implied, if only indirectly, that the system in the GDR itself might be at fault for their decision. Henceforth, those who went West were to be described as victims of Western ‘trade in human beings’ or of ‘head-hunting’ (Kopfjagd), implying that they had been dishonestly seduced, bribed, or even kidnapped into leaving the socialist state.6

The hard thing to work out was whether this extreme rhetoric primarily reflected or fed the refugee exodus. Each month, it increased. In May 1961, 17,791 fled through West Berlin, 19,198 in June, and then 12,578 in the first two weeks of July alone. Entire factories and offices were emptied of their staff as more East Germans left while they still had the chance. Even with increasing patrols on the sector borders, plus random checks at crossing points and on public transport, only a tiny minority of attempted ‘illegal’ crossings into West Berlin were being foiled—according to Stasi estimates, between 1 April and 13 August 1961 only 15 per cent. People who had come from the provincial GDR were generally sent back to their place of residence. It was, however, an indication of the helplessness of the authorities—and the high level of determination among would-be refugees—that many never returned home, indicating that within a short time of being released they simply tried the border again, and this time crossed successfully.7

No one was entirely certain what the GDR regime was going to do, but it was becoming increasingly likely that they would—must—do something.

In early June, according to Soviet records published since the end of the Cold War, Russian diplomats were hearing senior SED officials openly connect the imminent signing of the Soviet-East German peace treaty with the closure of the sector border in Berlin. Later that month, a report to Moscow from the Soviet embassy in East Berlin spoke of the GDR population’s fears that ‘this question will be resolved in the near future and that all paths for their exit to West Germany will be closed. Therefore some try to go to West Germany before it’s too late.’8

Almost everything the regime did in these months seemed calculated to increase people’s fears, and thereby to exacerbate the refugee problem. On 15 June, Ulbricht appeared at a press conference in East Berlin. Exceptionally, his aides had gone out of their way to invite the Western press corps. Ulbricht used the opportunity to make it clear that once the peace treaty had been signed, and the four-power status of Berlin nullified, the SED regime would assume control over all air as well as land routes to and from Berlin. This step would in itself, if carried through successfully, close down the escape route for the thousands of refugees being flown out of West Berlin to West Germany using the Allied air corridors.

Annmarie Doherr of the Frankfurter Rundschau, a West German newspaper, asked the East German leader: ‘Does the formation of a Free City in your opinion mean that the state boundary will be erected at the Brandenburg Gate?’

I understand by your question {Ulbricht declared} that there are men in West Germany who wish that we would mobilise the construction workers of the GDR in order to build a wall. I don’t know of any such intention. The construction workers of our country are principally occupied with home-building and their strength is completely consumed by this task. No one has the intention of building a wall.

The problem was, no one at the press conference had suggested that any such intention existed. The person who reveals their guilt by denying culpability for a crime not yet discovered is a staple figure of detective fiction.

There is no evidence that Khrushchev had yet assented to a physical barrier being erected between East and West Berlin. So, was this a mistake on Ulbricht’s part? Unlikely. The former Berlin correspondent of NBC, Norman Gelb, pointed out:

Ulbricht could not act against the wishes of the Kremlin. But he could influence events and attitudes. His presence at the press conference and his comments implying that West Berlin would soon be his do with as he pleased were calculated to raise the level of tension already building in the city, and they did.9

For Ulbricht such pronouncements always served a dual purpose: to influence his own side (be it the East German public or the big men in Moscow), and also to undermine confidence inside the Western sectors. He was fond of reminding West Berliners of the fragility of their position; it weakened their morale and also helped encourage the capital flight from the city that would in the long term make it economically unviable, whether the West kept its troops there or not.

But what was the leader’s message to his own people? The Western press did not make a big issue out of his curious remarks. But on the day after their leader’s surprisingly frank press conference, the number of refugees entering West Berlin rose sharply. Easterners knew how to read the runes.

Was Ulbricht now deliberately encouraging people to leave the GDR? Was he attempting to ensure that the Soviets would have no choice but to support the measures—any measures—needed to stem the life blood pouring from the open wound in their enfeebled German client state? There is no proof of this, but neither is there much doubt, for anyone who observed the trajectory of Ulbricht’s career over more than thirty years, that he was quite capable of such Machiavellian doublethink.

Almost immediately after the press conference, Ulbricht opened a campaign to call the Warsaw Pact members together. His suggestion was that they discuss the coming peace treaty and the practical measures (including the ‘solution’ of the Berlin problem) this would entail. He discussed this with Pervukhin, the Soviet ambassador, and formally wrote to Khrushchev on 24 June, suggesting a meeting in Moscow on 20-1 July. He also mentioned measures against ‘border-crossers’, workers who lived in East Berlin but worked for hard West marks in West Berlin. Such actions, he insisted, would be necessary before the peace treaty. In this small way, Ulbricht explicitly detached the treaty question from the security question. An interesting development. Prescient, as it turned out.

The Soviet Presidium met on 29 June and considered their German ally’s request. They set the meeting for 3 August in Moscow. The ‘border-crosser’ question could also be considered then, the Russian comrades insisted.

With the Vienna summit a failure—no longer could Khrushchev counsel waiting on the meeting with Kennedy—and the GDR’s refugee problem spiralling out of control, it was obvious the Moscow meeting would not be just a talking-shop.

At the moment, East German refugees who got to West Berlin could not travel by road or rail to West Germany without the risk of being arrested for ‘desertion’. But they could safely be flown to West Germany from Tegel or Tempelhof.

As Soviet Ambassador Pervukhin saw it, once a peace treaty had been signed and control of access had been handed over to the East Germans, the goal would be to have all external air traffic from West Berlin channelled through the East Berlin airport at Schönefeld, effectively giving the East control of who was permitted to leave by air. Refugees from the GDR would be marooned in West Berlin, since to leave West Berlin by any means, now including air as well, they would have to cross GDR territory and be subject to arrest. Few East Germans would want to be stuck in West Berlin indefinitely, and neither would the half-city be able to cope with such a long-term influx. Refugee problem solved, and possibly West Berlin so weakened that it would fall into the East’s lap.

This ambitious plan was Pervukhin’s preference. It involved the successful signing of a peace treaty between the USSR and the GDR, very much his business as a diplomat, so perhaps it was natural that he would prefer it. The physical sealing of the sector borders, though it would be swift and decisive and so could not be ruled out, in his opinion presented vast problems from a technical point of view alone as well as risks of military conflict.

Pervukhin was under intense pressure, and whichever plan he might personally prefer, it was this pressure that he was passing on to Khrushchev. Ulbricht had warned him that ‘the situation in the GDR was growing visibly worse. The growing flood of refugees was increasingly disorganising the entire life of the Republic. Soon it must lead to an explosion.’ If something was not done, then East Germany’s collapse was ‘inevitable’.10

Ulbricht’s Cassandra-like predictions were passed on to Khrushchev, who had evidently realised the matter was now urgent. According to his son, Sergei, in early July, while at his dacha in the Crimea, Khrushchev asked his commander-in-chief in Germany, General Ivan Yakubovski, to do a feasibility study on the closing of the border between the Western and Eastern sectors. Khrushchev studied a map of Berlin specially sent from Moscow. He also consulted with Foreign Minister Gromyko and his deputy, Vladimir Semenov, an old Germany hand.

Some time during those few days, the most powerful man in the Soviet imperium made up his mind. He had, perhaps, himself continued to hope that his insistent promotion of a separate peace treaty, accompanied by the usual measure of bluster, would persuade or intimidate the West into agreeing to changes in the status of West Berlin, such that the island half-city would no longer act as a magnet for East German refugees. Now Khrushchev saw that, if this happened at all, it would probably be the result of a long-term process, and time was of the essence. If the GDR was to be saved, something had to happen quickly.

According to Soviet diplomat Yuli Kvitsinsky (later ambassador to West Germany and Deputy Foreign Minister under Gorbachev), then a junior official at the embassy of the USSR in East Berlin, on 6 July he was called to Pervukhin’s office.

The ambassador informed Kvitsinsky crisply: ‘We have a yes from Moscow’.

Young Kvitsinsky was charged with finding Ulbricht. He tracked his quarry down to the People’s Chamber, the GDR parliament. The ambassador and his assistant raced over to the nearby Luisenstrasse, where they were shown into Ulbricht’s presence. Pervukhin told the SED boss the news. The Kremlin had plumped for the quick, labour-intensive solution: the sealing-off of the sector border in Berlin. Ulbricht simply nodded and asked the ambassador to thank Khrushchev.11

As the ambassador stood opposite him in the People’s Chamber building, Ulbricht then launched into an explanation of exactly how the border closure could be achieved: with barbed wire and fencing, which would have to be brought into Berlin in secret. And the main border-crossing rail stations like the Friedrichstrasse would have to be instantly walled off—in the case of the Friedrichstrasse, with glass. Oh, and a Sunday would be best, a summer Sunday when Berliners would be picnicking in the forests or at the lake. By the time they returned home in the evening, it would all be over…

The ambassador was surprised at the unnerving depth of detail in Ulbricht’s description of the proposed operation. He was, after all, personally pessimistic about the feasibility of sealing off the Berlin border. Khrushchev had not followed Pervukhin’s alternative suggestion—possibly because he saw the plan as too long-term and dependent on international developments, certainly because he felt it was dangerous to give Ulbricht total control over access to Berlin—but there was no question the ambassador’s dispatches had played a vital role in directing him towards the drastic action that the East was soon to take.

‘If anything goes wrong,’ Pervukhin warned Ulbricht, ‘they’ll have both our heads.’

The East German leader insisted that nothing could possibly go awry. At first, he told the Russians that he would oversee everything personally. Then, a few days later, he told them that he had appointed Security Secretary Erich Honecker to handle the practical details.

It would be the biggest job of Honecker’s life, and the one that would finally make—or break—his career.

Honecker would co-ordinate a huge operation in which surprise would be all-important. Surprise used against the Western powers, of course, but also against the GDR’s own people.

The numbers allowed into the secret of the planned border closure would be small Honecker set up his headquarters in an inconspicuous suite of four rooms on the second floor of an East Berlin Police Department building in the Keibelstrasse, behind the Alexanderplatz. Members of the planning group, chosen on a strict need-to-know basis, were: Paul Verner, First Secretary of the Berlin SED; Deputy Prime Minister Willi Stoph; Minister of State Security Erich Mielke; Minister of the Interior Karl Maron and his deputy, Major-General Seifert; Defence Minister Heinz Hoffmann; Transport Minister Erwin Kramer; the East Berlin police chief General Fritz Eikemeier and his aide, Colonel Horst Ende. Honecker’s own operational staff was limited to eight, including army lieutenant-colonel Hübner, his military adviser, and police colonel and Defence Council official Gerhard Exner. Exner would playa key role. He must ensure that, inasmuch as it was visible to outsiders, the whole thing must look like a large but routine police operation.

Handwritten reports on the progress of the project—given the codename ‘Rose’—would be passed to Kvitsinsky and Ambassador Pervukhin by a single designated courier—Ulbricht’s personal bodyguard. From the embassy, the documents, detailing matters such as the closing off of the East-West transport system or the shutting-down of the power connections between the sectors, would be forwarded to Moscow likewise by courier. No telephone or radio transmission would be permitted, for security reasons.12

On 7 July, a meeting took place at Stasi headquarters, led by the State Security Minister, Erich Mielke.

Mielke, then fifty-three, was a stocky, thickset Berliner. He had belonged to the KPD’s paramilitary wing from his teens onward, and had been forced to flee Germany for Moscow in 1931, even before Hitler came to power, because of his involvement in the politically motivated murder of two Berlin policemen.13 After training at the Lenin School in Moscow as an agitator and undercover agent, Mielke was sent to serve in Spain under the command of NKVD general Alexander Orlov. He became accustomed to using assumed names and ranks. His job seems to have consisted mostly of purging the Spanish Republican ranks of Trotskyites and other perceived ‘traitors’. Physically strong and personally ruthless, he was a perfect ‘enforcer’.

After a period of internment in Southern France following the collapse of Republican Spain, Mielke’s trail goes cold for a while. He later claimed to have worked with the illegal French Communist Party during the war. It seems equally likely that he managed to return to the Soviet Union, where he continued his career as a collaborator with the NKVD.

All that’s known for sure is that Mielke resurfaced in July 1945 in Berlin, when he walked into the offices of the newly re-established German Communist Party. He seemed already to enjoy close contacts in the Soviet Military Administration, implying that he had returned at their behest as one of ‘their’ men.

Put in command of a police district, Mielke climbed both the SED greasy pole and the post-war internal-security ladder with an extraordinary speed that confirms the suspicion that he was the Soviets’ chosen creature. By the end of 1946, Mielke was leader of the Police and Security Department of the SED Central Committee and a vice-president of the DVdI (predecessor to the Stasi). From 195, he acted as Deputy Minister of State Security.

In 1957, Mielke finally became head of the Stasi. He would remain in office for thirty years, a Communist J. Edgar Hoover, immovable and all knowing, quietly feared even by his nominal superiors.14

The motto of the Stasi betrayed its true nature. It called itself the ‘Sword and Shield of the Party’—not of ‘the people’ or ‘the state’. Just as Mielke was a lifelong conspirator, so the Stasi itself was not a police force in any conventional sense but a conspiratorial organisation, created in order to sustain the rule (or ‘leading role’ in Leninist jargon) of a revolutionary party, the SED.

The Stasi was proud of this fact. To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, posters were printed for internal display, telling the story of the organisation’s antecedents not as a pillar of state but as the internal intelligence arm first of the old SPD (created during its years of illegality under Bismarck) and then of the KPD. The Stasi retained the mentality of an organ of opposition, and therefore necessarily of deceit. In power, given the SED’s persistent unpopularity, the Stasi was a weapon directed against the overwhelming majority of the country’s own people.

At the 7 July meeting, Mielke set in motion initial measures to strengthen security on the main West German-East German border and in the so-called ‘ring around Berlin’. The latter had been created after the 1953 uprising, enabling joint GDR/Soviet forces to close off all movement between East Berlin and East Germany proper in the event of a political crisis.15

No one below Mielke had an overall view of what all this was for. The new level of activity was generally explained as ‘preparations for the signing of a peace treaty with the Soviet Union’. Police patrols on the transport routes and at crossover points into West Berlin were stepped up. Colonel Gerhard Harnisch, ex-principal of the Stasi’s training school, was made chair of a commission that would supposedly study how to tighten things up further. Mielke would by this point have been totally aware of existing plans to tighten things further by sealing off the sector borders, so Harnisch’s commission may have been a deception measure, to further conceal the purpose of the mobilisation from rank-and-file Stasi members.

The strengthening of the Readiness Police and Special Security Police ordered at the beginning of June was now complete, but this was only part of the preparations for ‘Rose’. Honecker and Stoph, a former Minister of Defence, put together an overview of what internal resources the regime could rely on. Apart from 8,200 ordinary police, almost 4,000 Readiness Police and 1,500 Special Security Police, they decided that they could call on 12,000 members of East Berlin’s factory militias, the so-calledBetriebskampfgruppen.

These paramilitary units of loyalist workers had been established after the 1953 uprising as a backup for the state in case of emergency. The factory militias were armed with automatic weapons (often of antique Soviet provenance), light machine guns and even flak artillery, plus the kind of crude anti-tank weapons that had been issued to Hitler’s Volkssturm in the dying days of World War Two.

To this total could be further added 4,500 armed Stasi operatives, and 10,000 regular East German army troops stationed in or around Berlin. If things got badly out of hand, more units could be transferred from Saxony, which was seen as relatively loyal to the regime.16

The Soviets had spent the first months of the year reinforcing and reequipping their forces in the GDR in anticipation of a showdown over Berlin. Now the Soviets moved to take strategic charge of the affair. Moscow had no intention of letting its self-willed East German satellite leader call the entire tune.

On 15 July, the commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact’s forces, Marshal Andrei Grechko, put the East German People’s Army on a state of heightened alert, at the same time placing it under the command of the Commander of Soviet Forces in Germany. Ten days later, on the day of Kennedy’s TV address, a secret meeting took place at the GDR’s Ministry of Defence in Strausberg, outside Berlin. Present was Grechko’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Grigori Ariko, and his East German opposite number, General Sigfried Redel.

The agenda of the 25 July meeting was the ‘securing of the sector borders within Berlin and of the ring around Berlin’. The actual sealing of the border would involve only East German border police. Both the Red Army units (armour belonging to the 1st Motorised Division of the 20th Army) and the East German NVA units (tanks and armoured vehicles including gun-carriers) would hold back, remaining one or two kilometres behind the sector border. The actual use of such units was envisaged only if the East German Ministry of the Interior proved unable to secure the ‘ring’—that is, the outer perimeter of East Berlin, where it met the GDR proper. The exact plans for such an eventuality would be developed over the next ten to fourteen days.17

What the Soviets planned to do in case of an uprising or of military conflict is only partially known. The military archives in Moscow remain closed. What the Soviets certainly rook upon themselves was the creation of a deterrent effect that would inhibit the West, and especially the Americans, from aggressively opposing the sealing of the Berlin sector borders.

Throughour the summer, a stream of Soviet reinforcements, especially tank units and aerial reconnaissance forces, headed for the GDR. Facilities and armaments were upgraded. On 16 July, a massive exercise took place near Archangelsk, on the Arctic Circle, involving the USSR’s strategic-missile forces. Two long-range ICBMs of type R-7A were launched—the only ones the Soviets possessed that were capable of reaching American territory carrying a nuclear payload (in this case five megatons). The Soviets knew that the West was capable of monitoring all such exercises in thorough detail. The point would not be lost on Washington.

Meanwhile, a high-profile appointment was made that would also send a message to the West. The World War Two hero and former Soviet Deputy Defence Minister Marshal Ivan Konev was recalled from retirement at sixty-three to take over as Commander of Soviet Forces in Germany. Konev was an acknowledged urban-warfare specialist who shared with Marshal Zhukov the laurels for the capture of Berlin in 1945 and also—notoriously—had commanded the forces that eleven years later crushed the Hungarian resistance in Budapest. His appointment was a typically brash Khrushchev public-relations stunt.

Did Khrushchev’s psychological plan have any effect? Perhaps. Kennedy’s television address had made it clear that, while America was boosting its defence capacity, this was explicitly for the protection of West Berlin. No mention was made of Berlin as a whole. Five days later, on 30 July, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arkansas Democratic senator J. William Fulbright, went much further. He did not understand, he said, why the East Germans had not closed their border, which they had ‘a perfect right to do’. The Soviets definitely took notice of that. It was practically an invitation.18

President Kennedy himself was privately aware of the limits of what could be done without risking a major, possibly cataclysmic war. He told his aide Walt Rostow during a private conversation a few days after his 25 July speech:

Khrushchev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If he loses East Germany, then he loses Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe as well. He cannot let that happen…He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees—perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it. I can hold the {Western} alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open.19

The poker game was not, of course, a one-sided affair. Khrushchev held a strong hand because of West Berlin’s geographical vulnerability and the seeming unwillingness of America to go to war over the question of four-power control of the city. As early as 20 July, he did, however, have a warning from the Chairman of the KGB, Alexander Shelepin. Shelepin told him that NATO was preparing for conflict and that, if the promised peace treaty with the GDR were to involve the closing-off of the transit routes to West Berlin, then the West was prepared to use force to restore access. Raise you, so to speak.

Khrushchev’s calibration of the border closure was therefore crucial. To intimidate without provoking, to go as far as he could without going too far. These were fine judgements.

Moscow planned to keep Ulbricht on a short leash. Hence dominant Soviet participation in the planning process—though the idea had originated and been promoted by Ulbricht. And hence the trimming of excessively ambitious, not to say dangerous, East German suggestions. These included Ulbricht’s hair-raising proposal to close West Berlin’s airports by blocking the corridors with East German and Soviet aircraft, floating giant barrage balloons over the airports, and systematically jamming the airwaves, so that all civil air traffic would have to be redirected via East Berlin—Schönefeld. Such plans were firmly nipped in the bud.20

By 27 July, a map produced jointly by Soviet and East German staff officers showed the route of a barrier running through the heart of Berlin. On the last day of July, Interior Minister Karl Maron issued an order to the Commander of Border Police. The commander was instructed ‘under maintenance of the strictest secrecy and in the shortest possible time, to plan and prepare the strengthened military-architectural extension of the state border between the GDR and West Berlin’.21

On 1 August, border-police units, in co-operation with the Transport Ministry, began putting together the materials that would be needed for this initial phase of the operation. These included 18,200 concrete posts, 150 tons of barbed wire (a very precious commodity in the East Bloc), five tons of binding wire, and two tons of staples. Aside from this, materials were also scraped together to create a temporary barrier all around the ‘Berlin ring’, totalling 146.3 kilometres. The plan was not just to seal off West Berlin from East Berlin but to create a less formidable but none the less effective barrier to insulate East Berlin from its provincial hinterland. The barbed wire required for this entire extended project was more than 300 tons.

The Communist command economy may not have been able to provide a decent standard of living for its people, or to adequately maintain the country’s once-proud architectural and industrial fabric, but for such a project as the border closure it was the perfect instrument. The apparatus for the border-sealing operation was largely in place by the beginning of August. This massive undertaking was being achieved at a breakneck speed, made even more remarkable by the fact that most of those involved had no precise conception of where their labours were leading.22

One more matter remained to be settled before the final order was given. The border closure must be presented as a defensive action on the part of the entire Warsaw Pact. This would show the West that the entire Communist world was behind the operation.

On 3 August 1961, Ulbricht and his team travelled to Moscow for a key meeting of the Warsaw Pact’s Political Advisory Committee. Technically, the other satellite countries were to be consulted, but it seems probable that the border-closure operation was already a done deal before the plenary meetings began.

Ulbricht’s handwritten notes of his preparatory tête-à-tête with Khrushchev indicate this, as does the fact that the main features of the dramatic move in Berlin—and a text of the Warsaw Pact declaration that would accompany it—had already been approved by the Soviet Presidium on the morning of 3 August, before the actual Warsaw Pact meeting began. The same applied to the date set for the operation: 13 August 1961. Khrushchev had already formally approved the border closure, but he re-emphasised that it remained a defensive measure. As he told Ulbricht at this private meeting, the East Germans were ‘not to go a millimetre further’. There was to be no encroaching on West Berlin territory.23

Khrushchev’s opening speech later that day called for unity on all matters, including the economic ones that would arise from a separate peace treaty with the GDR and from ‘practical measures which must be taken in the near future’ (by which he meant the Berlin border closure). He also referred specifically to Kennedy’s 25 July speech and the American’s threat to go to war if the East tried to liquidate the occupation regime in West Berlin. It was both an assurance that he would not go too far, and a warning to the likes of Ulbricht, who showed a tendency to do so.

Leaders of other Warsaw Pact states had opposed the notion of a Berlin border closure back in March, when Ulbricht first brought it up. Now they more or less nodded the operation through. Gomulka, the Polish Communist leader, claimed that he especially had pushed for it all along. The exodus through Berlin had already led to political disruption and economic problems in the GDR’s eastern neighbour.24

So far, so good. But no one could be sure what sanctions, besides military ones, the West would impose in response to the closing-off of East Berlin. East Germany, with its dependence on Western spare parts and close informal economic links with West Germany, was especially vulnerable to a total Western economic boycott. Thus the second important point on the agenda of the Warsaw Pact meeting. Ulbricht needed to be sure that the other Warsaw Pact countries would lend economic support to the GDR if such a crisis occurred.

However, at this point, despite Khrushchev’s appeal for solidarity, the satellite leaders’ reaction turned cool, even hostile. Most pleaded that they could not help the GDR economically because of their own problems. This was particularly true of states such as Poland and Hungary, whose relatively liberal governments had become reliant on food and grain imports from the West. In Hungary’s case, 30 per cent of the country’s trade was with the capitalist world, and 25 per cent of that with West Germany.

Ulbricht had been coming to Moscow and the Warsaw Pact states cap in hand for years, blaming East Germany’s problems on West German ‘militarists’ and ‘revanchists’ rather than his regime’s neo-Stalinist ineptitude. The August meeting was the point at which, we know, the other satellites tried to dig their heels in and say ‘enough’. Even Khrushchev was awakening to this reality. The embassy in East Berlin had already told him that ‘material facts alone’ were not enough to explain the exodus from the country. His own international department, under future KGB boss Yuri Andropov, would soon express scepticism about the effectiveness of repeated ‘pump-priming’ aid to the GDR.25 But Khrushchev was stubborn. The prestige of the USSR—and therefore his own—was at stake, and such considerations were more important than more economics.26

The USSR had already sold fifty-three tons of gold on the world market to help the GDR through the coming crisis with credits and special supply deals, as well as to reinforce and re-equip its forces in East Germany.27 Khrushchev could do little to persuade the satellite leaders to tighten their own people’s belts to help the East Germans. None of this, however, changed his decision on Berlin. All the more reason, in fact, to seal off the GDR, integrate it more fully into the Communist COMECON system, and thus systematically reduce its dependency on the West.

Ulbricht had pointed out to Khrushchev that the open border, and the higher standard of living available in West Germany, forced the East German regime to ‘artificially’ increase the standard of living of its people. This Canute-like attempt to keep East Germans happy with their lot and thus slow the westward tide meant that the GDR had to import much more from the West than was desirable. Ulbricht’s implication was clear: once East Germans were sealed into their country, unable to leave for the West, the regime could concentrate on austerity policies and consumer cut-backs with less heed for popular discontent.

Ulbricht made the arguments for the border closure starkly clear in his lengthy speech to the Warsaw Pact leaders on Friday 4 August, then concluded:

This situation necessitates the introduction of a regulation stipulating that at a certain time the government border of the GDR (going through Berlin) be closed and may be crossed by citizens of the GDR only in the presence of the corresponding permission for exit or, in so far as it concerns visits to West Berlin by citizens of the capital of the GDR, with a special pass28 [emphasis added].

The emphasised words, which made the drastic nature of the plan perfectly clear, were included in Ulbricht’s original speech, but disappeared from the official Russian translation and from printed reports, presumably for security reasons.

So Ulbricht got his way, though not the enthusiastic offers of economic support he had hoped for.

The East German leader flew home on 5 August. On Monday 7 August, he finally informed the entire Politburo of the Moscow discussions and of the plan to close the border on Sunday 13 August 1961.

On the ground in Berlin, the American diplomatic and intelligence officials responsible for assessing the situation had no real idea what was about to happen.

There was much discussion of the refugee problem, and of how far they could push without endangering both the West’s intelligence-gathering activities in the GDR and its military-political status within Berlin itself. Both sides in the Cold War saw Berlin as a vital listening-post, cockpit of a silent struggle for knowledge and control. Both sides actively spied on each other and worked to destabilise each other’s spheres of influence in Germany—although, of course, Communists only ever referred to the West’s covert activities, never their own. The West was also, it must be said, keen on ‘deniability’.

There was a lot of bluff and counter-bluff going on. Each side, in its own way, overestimated its own power. For instance, at the end of June, the American President’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, issued an action memorandum. This requested the State Department’s and the CIA’s advice on ‘preparations…for inciting progressively increasing instability in East Germany and Eastern Europe, at such a time after 15 October as it may be ordered’. Tellingly, he also asked how this ‘capability’ to undermine the East Bloc might be brought to the attention of the Soviets before they made their decision on Berlin.29

Bundy wanted to ‘send a signal’ to Khrushchev. The fifteenth of October would see the opening of the XXII. Congress of the CPSU in Moscow. There, before the assembled Communist parties of the world, Khrushchev was expected to announce a separate peace treaty with East Germany and the associated measures that might unleash a world crisis. Clearly Washington thought that the crisis would not come to a head before that date.

In June 1961, former head of the Berlin Operations Bureau (essentially the CIA station, which reported directly to Washington) Bill Harvey had already given a brutally frank assessment of what was and was not possible:

It is unrealistic to believe that we could infiltrate into the East Zone a sleeper net of sufficient size, reliability, and skill to…play a part in organising resistance groups…Our abilities are not equal to this task when balanced against the defensive capability of the [East German] Ministry of State Security.

There was a mis-match between the dreams of Washington official-dom and appraisals by those on the spot. Where Bundy talked blithely of destabilising East Germany and of taking action to ‘increase the refugee flow’, the Berlin hands were much more cautious. After all, what could be more perfectly calculated to justify the Soviets’ and East Germans’ constant accusations of Western sabotage, espionage and subversion? The CIA even suggested, in late June 1961, that active subversion and attempts to encourage the refugee problem in East Germany ‘might very well precipitate a Berlin crisis by forcing the East to blockade the city’.30

In other words, the effect of Bundy’s ‘signal’ might be the exact opposite of what he intended. Instead of discouraging the Soviets, it would make them even more determined to cleanse the ‘Augean stables’ of West Berlin by turning it into a neutralised free city under strong Communist influence. It might even provoke them to seize it by force.

Kennedy’s 25 July television address was a turning-point. The speech reflected a coldly realistic reappraisal on his part, a kind of cost/benefit analysis. Hitherto the policy had been to keep undermining the GDR and hope it would collapse into the arms of the West. Now, with the Russians unwilling to let this happen, Kennedy decided to pull back to a more defensible position. If the Soviets took measures to shore up East Germany, so be it. The alternative was nuclear war, and who wanted to risk nuclear war over the (by now largely notional) four-power status of Berlin?

However, the West, including the US, was still making calculations based on a crisis in late autumn/early winter, with a Soviet-East German peace treaty following the XXII. Communist Party Congress and precipitating possible conflict over the status of Berlin. The West thought, wrongly, that it had time to work out a strategy.

Four-power talks between Foreign Ministers of Britain, France, the USA and West Germany took place from 4 to 9 August 1961, in Paris. The meeting in Paris took a leisurely view. It agreed that preparations might be made to discuss Berlin with the Russians in October or November. No date was set for announcing this Western willingness to talk.

These discussions overlapped with the Warsaw Pact meeting at which, unknown to the West, the 13 August Berlin border closure was agreed.

One jarring note of urgency among the complacent Foreign Ministers in Paris came in a message from Mayor Brandt of West Berlin. He warned them of the painful effects of growing East German repression and expressed his fear that the population’s situation could worsen ‘if the Berlin door were to close’. Secretary of State Rusk was stirred to suggest that ‘an attempt to seal off the refugees…might lead to an explosion and precipitate the problems under consideration sooner than expected’.31 But no practical remedy was suggested. Perhaps none was possible.

That repression was increasing inside the GDR, there could be no doubt. On 2 August, a new campaign of intimidation against ‘border-crossers’ began—even though the closure of the border, which would make such choices irrelevant, was only ten days away.32

The ‘border-crossers’ had already been subjected to harassment in their homes. The tenancy agreements of people known to work in West Berlin were queried, in some cases cancelled, rendering them homeless. Now came more swoops on Easterners crossing into West Berlin, particularly at the beginning of the working day. Those who worked in West Berlin or were suspected of doing so were arrested and questioned. Others were summoned to government employment offices, where they were instructed to leave their employment in the West and seek work in the ‘capital of the workers’ and peasants’ state’.

Many decided it was time to get out.

In June 1961, 19,198 refugees (approx. 630 per day) registered at Marienfelde reception centre. By July the total had leapt to 30,444, (a thousand per day), the highest since 1953. On 2-3 August, 1,322 refugees were registered at Marienfelde; on 3-4 August, 1,100; on 4-5 August, 1,155; and on 5-6 August, 1,283. Over the weekend of 6-7 August, 3,268 left East Germany for West Berlin. The figure for the next day was 1,741.

The total population loss for the GDR for those previous seven days amounted to 9,869. If this were kept up over a year, it would amount to around half a million ‘deserters’, dwarfing even the figure for the annus horribilis of 1953.

On Monday 7 August, Ulbricht had told the Politburo members of the coming border-closure operation At the same meeting, it was agreed that the GDR parliament, the People’s Chamber, would assemble on 11 August, where it would approve any measures necessary. The ‘anticipated measures for control’ (i.e. the sealing of the border) would occur during the night between next Saturday to Sunday, on the basis of an order by the Council of Ministers.

So the official decision was revealed to the highest élite of the GDR, and duly rubber-stamped.33

Meanwhile, some Western intelligence sources inside the GDR had started to hint that the decisive moment might come sooner than expected. On 6 August, a CIA source, a doctor quite prominent in his district SED, reported being told at a committee meeting that ‘drastic measures’ to close off West Berlin were planned for the following weekend. Several Soviet and East German army divisions stood in readiness. A dentist passed on to his French intelligence handler details of a conversation with a patient who held a senior position in the SED. The man had told him that ‘they intended to build barriers through Berlin’.34

Although Willy Brandt’s SPD was now illegal in East Germany, it maintained a clandestine network there. Through this, on 4 August, came another report, from an official in the GDR Health Ministry, that West Berlin was to be sealed off. It gave details. In the Potsdam District alone, 14,000 troops of the East German army had been mobilised, and all police units in the district put under army control, along with the factory paramilitary groups. All leave for police and army units had been cancelled. Moreover, these measures applied not just to the border between West Berlin and the GDR (i.e. the Potsdam area) but also to that between East and West Berlin.

This last, astonishingly accurate report reached Brandt himself on either 6 or 7 August 1961. It was marked with the Mayor’s personal green pencil for the attention of his chief of staff. Later, Brandt would say that no intelligence organisation had predicted the date of the border closure. This may have been true, but only in the very narrowest sense.35

The German intelligence service, the BND, also picked up this and that. As early as mid-July, one of their agents in the East told them that ‘the refugee movement within the population of the Soviet Zone will soon force the SED to take rigorous measures’, and a few days later another source claimed to have heard a ‘top SED functionary’ talking about plans for the sealing-off of West Berlin. The details were being worked out, but as yet the Soviets had not yet given formal permission. This was all true except the last point. Khrushchev had, in fact, finally approved Ulbricht’s plan just a few days earlier.

As late as the first week in August, while Ulbricht and his aides were in Moscow, dotting the final i’s and crossing the last t’s of ‘Operation Rose’, the West German intelligence establishment at its headquarters in Pullach, near Munich, was still mired in speculation about when precisely the East German leader would get the Soviet go-ahead for his alleged Berlin plan.36

The big difficulty was one of imagination. How to divide a modern city of almost four million, to cut streets and railway lines and infrastructure networks that had been functioning, pulsating nerves and arteries for a huge, lively centre of population—a living urban organism—for many decades, even hundreds of years?

A West Berliner, then a student, toured Israel in the autumn of 1960. He was given a tour of Jerusalem, and was shocked to see a city then divided between an Israeli West and a Jordanian/Palestinian East. Their hosts showed them a wooden wall just by the Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame. This, it was explained, had been built to stop clashes between young Jews and Arabs, who had a habit of throwing stones at each other across the border.

For a few minutes, we West Berlin students discussed whether something like this would be possible at home. We rejected the thought immediately. The four-sector city of Berlin was in our opinion far too large for a strict division like that in Jerusalem—it couldn’t happen in Berlin, a metropolis that had arisen over centuries of technical progress, with extensive bodies of water and forest, with an intricate pattern of sewers, with a network of subterranean underground and city railway tunnels, inhabited by children who had no inclination to throw stones at each other, as if they were members of two hostile population groups.37

In early August, Erich Mende, chair of the West German Free Democratic Party, was tipped off about the BND’s suspicions. He broke off from campaigning for the elections due on 17 September and went to Bonn to see the Minister for All-German Questions, Ernst Lemmer. The two politicians discussed the possibility. Lemmer, himself a prominent member of the Eastern CDU who had been forced to flee to the West, produced a large map of Berlin and unfolded it out on to the table in his office. He indicated the border around West Berlin. All 164 kilometres of it.

‘We discussed how hard it would be to seal off a great city in such a hermetic fashion,’ Mende wrote later, ‘so that there wasn’t even a mouse hole in it. And Ernst Lemmer said, it just wasn’t possible.’38

Meanwhile, Honecker and his fellow plotters were preparing to do exactly what the Christian Democrat minister had defined as impossible. Every day now, from 9 August, he was in his office, drafting, telephoning, planning.

The omnipresence of the state and its officials in the days before ‘Operation Rose’, the rising wave of stop-and-search actions and spot checks, was already making life difficult for would-be ‘deserters of the Republic’, like 25-year-old Gerhard Diekmann. He left the ancient Baltic port of Wismar on 9 August.

On 9.8.61 just before 4 a.m., I left Wismar by train, travelling in the direction of Schwerin, in order to get to Berlin. During the journey I made the following observations: our train stood for around 15 minutes at the control point of Schönfliess, and we were guarded and had our papers checked by the Trapos [transport police]. When I got out of the train to smoke a cigarette, there were tanks and guns of the Red Army standing in a field about 50 metres distant. I saw exactly four, which were well camouflaged.

As the journey continued, I realised that a great part of the young people who had been with us in the train were no longer aboard.

When I arrived at Berlin-Lichtenberg, there were Trapos at the barrier again—four or five of them—and they were demanding that passengers submit their luggage for examination. Around six passengers were taken into custody by the Trapos. All passengers complained about the constant document checks. Anyone who did not submit to the orders of the Trapos had their German identity card confiscated.39

The situation was escalating. But where exactly was it escalating to? In the West, even the intelligence insiders seemed unable to distinguish rumour from fact.

On 9 August, the ‘Berlin Watch Committee’ met. This important body, which co-ordinated American intelligence organisations in Berlin and pooled their information, discussed the measures the GDR might be considering to stem the exodus. Some participants reported strong indications from sources inside East Germany that a border-sealing operation was on the cards. These sources were not, admittedly, considered wholly reliable. In the end, the majority opinion still held a total closure of the Berlin border to be technically unfeasible.

Like the Foreign Ministers in Paris, the spooks on the spot concluded that any drastic action by the East would occur in the autumn, when a separate peace treaty was signed, not before.40 And like the Foreign Ministers, they were wrong.

The huge amount of materials and men required for the border closure was being moved around the GDR in some 400 trucks, deliberately dispersed and taking long routes so that no one would realise that they were all ultimately headed for Berlin.41 Work parties and police teams were also kept away from the sector border until the last moment. These ploys seem to have worked.

All that remained now was to maintain internal secrecy as far as possible. As the clock ticked towards the weekend of 12/13 August, more people on the East German side had to be indoctrinated in ‘Operation Rose’. By 9 August, some sixty GDR functionaries and military commanders of various kinds had been let into the secret of the imminent border closure. A critical moment was approaching when—as the information already starting to dribble through to NATO intelligence services indicated—the West would have more than just vague suspicions. All the more reason for Honecker to keep to his schedule, and to maintain what secrecy and/or external confusion he could muster.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were playing their own game of hide-the-border-closure. On Thursday 10 August, at 4.30 in the afternoon, the three senior liaison officers of the Western military missions based in Potsdam appeared by invitation at the Soviet military headquarters complex near Wünsdorf, south-east of Berlin. They were scheduled to meet with the Soviet commander-in-chief, Germany. In itself, a fairly routine event. Expecting to see the familiar figure of Colonel-General Yakubovski, they were astonished instead to be greeted by a balding, slightly portly figure in his sixties, resplendent in a Soviet marshal’s uniform. ‘Gentlemen, my name is Konev,’ he announced with a stagy twinkle in his eye.

Later they exchanged social chit-chat with the legendary marshal—it was, as the American liaison officer, Colonel von Pawel later remarked, like having General Eisenhower suddenly emerging from retirement. Then one of the Westerners remarked: ‘We are hearing about substantial military transport activity in your command’. They knew that the Soviets were claiming a routine army exercise, but there was no harm in raising the subject—and if Konev was here, surely something big was going on, or was about to.

The marshal merely smiled and told them in avuncular fashion: ‘Gentlemen, you can rest easy. Whatever may occur in the foreseeable future, your rights will remain untouched and nothing will be directed against West Berlin’.42 It was the all but final act of a classic piece of Khrushchev power-political theatre, and Konev played it perfectly.

On Friday 11 August, prominent East German journalists and regional SED chiefs assembled at the imposing Central Committee building on the Werderscher Markt, a block south of Unter den Linden. They were given a basic run-down of what was about to happen. The newspapers would have to print the formal announcements and also begin the propaganda counter-blast that would justify the action and help to keep the GDR population as calm, or at least as passive, as possible.

That evening, Stasi Minister Mielke gathered his senior officials in the officers’ restaurant at the ministry’s headquarters in Hohenschönhausen and explained the situation. Although the organisation itself would play little direct part in the border closure, its job was just as vital. There must be no repeat of the 1953 uprising. This was the Stasi’s task.

‘This new chapter demands the mobilisation of each individual member of the State Security,’ Mielke told them, adding an appropriately Orwellian note: ‘In this period we are entering, it will be shown whether we know everything and whether we are firmly anchored everywhere.’ The aim would be to prevent ‘all negative phenomena’.

Mielke didn’t entirely trust the East German army and police either. Stasi operatives would also be charged with ensuring the ‘reliability and combat readiness’ of the armed forces during the border closure. In 1953, some soldiers and Vopos had sided with the rioters. This must not happen now. In the other main area of danger, the big factory complexes in Berlin and elsewhere, strikes had spread eight years previously like brushfires. ‘Anyone who comes forward with hostile slogans is to be arrested,’ the minister concluded brusquely.

Then Mielke vouchsafed the final secret: ‘The overall operation has been given the codename: “Rose’.’43

And so the Stasi set to work, covering Honecker’s back while he put his final plans into practice.

Between Wednesday 9 August and Saturday 12 August 1961, 5,167 refugees were registered. During the following twenty-four hours, it would be about 2,400. Under drastically changed circumstances.

The last day of Berlin’s open border dawned. The weather proved only sporadically summery, reaching only 20°C (68°F), with just three hours’ sunshine in the afternoon. Otherwise conditions stayed grey and, in the crucial hours of darkness, under clear skies, the temperature would fall to 8.6°C (47°F).44

Changeable weather did not stop Berliners in East and West heading off to their favourite summer haunts among the woods and lakes. Joachim Trenkner recalls spending the entire day at the beach on the Wannsee, in the south-western corner of West Berlin, bordering Communist-ruled Potsdam. He and his friends took in what sun was available, discussed everything from approaching girls to approaching political crises in the beer gardens that gird the lake.45 Millions did likewise.

As we now know, not everyone in divided Berlin was taking their ease that summer Saturday. At noon on 12 August, under heavy guard, government printers began to run off thousands of copies of a declaration by the GDR’s rubber-stamp Council of Ministers (which had not yet even met), announcing the border closure. Thousands of troops and police had been placed on alert. Honecker and his staff moved into the Keibelstrasse office suite for the final push. They would stay there until the operation was over.

By contrast, the true begetter of the border closure, Walter Ulbricht, was chauffeured out to the Grosser Döllnsee, beyond Wandlitz, to the government guest house. This facility, the Haus zu den Birken (House among the Birches) was originally a large, hip-roofed hunting lodge belonging to Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s personal huntsman.

This Saturday afternoon, Ulbricht seemed relaxed, almost jolly. He was throwing a garden party, to which almost everyone who was anyone in the GDR’s government had been invited. He called it a ‘get-together’ (Beisammensein).46

It was not unusual for Politburo members and ministers to meet at Döllnsee for occasional weekends to brainstorm problems or to finalise major decisions. Cooks and other staff from Wandlitz would be present during the daytime, then usually return at night to their homes some miles away. But this weekend things were different, as Ulbricht’s personal chef, who helped prepare the meals, vividly recalled. The domestic staff were commanded to stay overnight in temporary accommodation near by. Only on Sunday morning would they be allowed to leave.47

Invitations had been extended to one or two Politburo members, but mainly to ministers and their state secretaries and leaders of the ‘block parties’. These were the pseudo-independent organisations of the ‘National Front’, including the National Democratic Party, the East-CDU, and Liberal Democratic Party.

The guests were, in short, largely the kind of people that Ulbricht used rather than consulted: people with impressive titles but unimpressive real powers. After coffee that afternoon, they wandered through the birch trees to the tranquil lake. Back at the house afterwards, the leader had ordered up a Soviet comedy film, Every Man for Himself!, but few of the guests were interested. Music played in the garden. They stood around, making somewhat awkward small talk, swapping jokes. Some of them noticed that the woods surrounding the guest house were full of soldiers and military vehicles. None of this made for an easy atmosphere.

The president of the tame parliament, Liberal Democratic Party leader Johannes Dieckmann, asked Alfred Neumann, veteran Communist and Secretary to the Central Committee, why they had been summoned here. The extremely tall and impressive-looking Neumann, a decathlon competitor in his youth and an unrepentant crypto-Stalinist throughout his long life, told him he didn’t know. This was a lie. As a Politburo member, Neumann had known for some days about the border closure, but it wasn’t his job to inform the likes of Dieckmann before ‘the boss’ saw fit.

After supper, Ulbricht finally called his guests together. The staff had already cleared away the meal. It was now around ten p.m.

‘We’re going to have a little meeting now,’ he announced in his highpitched bark of a voice. Ulbricht informed the members of the Ministerial Council of ‘their’ decision to close the sector border between East and West Berlin—a decision which had already been printed up and distributed. ‘Everyone agreed?’ he asked. Unsurprisingly, no one demurred.

Once they had rubber-stamped the Polituro’s plan, the members of the Ministerial Council had served their purpose. Like the domestic staff, they were also not permitted to leave until the big border-closure operation was under way.

Shortly before the blatantly stage-managed ‘vote’ at Döllnsee, Honecker’s staff put the finishing touches to the complex patchwork that was ‘Operation Rose’.

The final operational orders for ‘Rose’ and a copy of the planned official announcement left Honecker’s office and were couriered a few blocks to the white-stone fastness of the Soviet embassy in Unter den Linden, within whose mazelike complex of offices the texts could be quickly translated into Russian for Moscow’s benefit. The ‘big brother’ had to be paid his due.48

All day, thousands of police units and ‘factory fighting groups’ had been on stand-by in barracks and training grounds. At eight that evening, the sealed orders for ‘Rose’ were opened. Senior officers were initiated into the plan, the police in Berlin and the army people at the commander-in-chief’s headquarters, Schloss Wilkendorf, just north of Strausberg. Then middle-ranking and battalion commanders were summoned by telephone. At nine they too were briefed on their role in the operation. By ten, Honecker knew that the huge machine was ready to move.

At midnight, Honecker rang army HQ and gave the crucial order: ‘You know the assignment! March!’49

General Heinz Hoffmann, commander-in-chief of the Nationale Volksarmee (NVA), immediately put his forces on a state of ‘heightened combat readiness’.

Three thousand one hundred and fifty soldiers of the 8th Motorised Artillery Division, based in Schwerin, rumbled towards the capital. Their 100 battle tanks and 120 armoured personnel carriers would take up position in the leanstock yards at Friedrichsfelde, just outside the centre of East Berlin. Four thousand two hundred more troops of the 1st Motorised Division, in 140 tanks and 200 personnel carriers, left their barracks in Potsdam to cover the outer ring around West Berlin. Both sets of troops were positioned at least a thousand metres back from the sector borders; their task was to prevent any mass attempts to break through into the border area with West Berlin, so that the border police and the constructions gangs could carry out the border-closure operation undisturbed.

All units of the East Berlin People’s Police were placed on combatalert level II, and the 1st Brigade of Readiness (Riot) Police and the Berlin Security Command—10,000 men in all—were given their orders. These were to seal off to pedestrian and vehicle traffic all streets that gave access to the Western sectors, with the exception of the thirteen designated crossing places.

A changeable day had turned into an exceptionally cool night. The temperature was very low for August. All the better when there was work to be done.

At one a.m., the actual border-sealing operation began.

Sentries were placed at two-metre intervals along the entire Berlin sector border to prevent escapes, while border troops, factory paramilitaries and construction units barricaded the streets by means of barbed wire, tank traps and improvised concrete bolsters. Street lights were turned off, masking the nature of the operation. Only at the Brandenburg Gate did searchlights bathe the terrain in a cold, pale-blue light as soldiers laboured with hydraulic drills to tear up the surface of the great East-West boulevard on which the gate stood.50

Sixty-eight of 81 crossing points were to be barricaded. All 193 streets that straddled the border would be closed. And then there were the transport systems. Twelve underground (U-Bahn) and surface (S-Bahn) city railway lines were to be blocked off at the sector borders. Dozens of stations on or near the border were to be closed and sealed. The police, including Trapos, had charge of that. The most challenging task was at the busy Friedrichstrasse station complex, favoured route for refugees, where U-Bahn, S-Bahn and international passenger trains all stopped on the east bank of the Landwehr Canal, just metres from West Berlin. The Vopos were even ordered to regularly check the entry shafts to the sewer systems that connected East and West.

Honecker, the bespectacled organisation man who had spent so many years as Communist youth leader, ensuring that festivals, camps and demonstrations ran smoothly, was in his element. Overcome by restlessness once the work began, Honecker had himself driven around the various parts of the border to check that all was in order, to talk with the commanders, praise the troops and fine-tune the operation where necessary.

By four a.m., Honecker was back in his office. The tireless Security Secretary continued for two more hours to rasp orders, make and take phone calls. Then, at six, he was told that the provisional sealing of the border between East and West Berlin was complete.

With dawn creeping across the sky outside, Honecker turned to his staff. ‘Now we can go home,’ he announced with weary satisfaction.

Wolfgang Leonhard, who as a 24-year-old in 1945 had accompanied Ulbricht’s group from Moscow, and who in 1949 had decamped to the West, knew Honecker well. Of the devastating achievement that was the first phase of ‘Operation Rose’, Leonhard wrote later that it was ‘strange, even terrifying’ that Honecker seemed not to have experienced

even the slightest twinge of doubt…[at] dividing a city with a wall and with barbed wire and fortifications, so preventing human beings from exercising their full natural freedom—something that did not just contradict the general principles of humanity, but also the original concepts of socialism.51

Honecker’s greatest organisational triumph was now a fact. The Security Secretary’s official car was waiting to take him back to Wandlitz, the tranquil, fortified Communist VIP settlement in the forest.

Soon Erich Honecker would be snatching a little sleep, secure behind his own wall. The difference was, of course, that the Wandlitz wall was designed to keep the millions out, not in.

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