In the night of the 12 to the 13 of August, Walter Ulbricht, as SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Ger.: Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands)) party leader and Chairman of the National Defence Council of the GDR, (German Democratic Republic [East Germany]. (Ger.: Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR)) gave the order to seal off the sector border in Berlin. Having obtained the agreement of the Soviet Union a few days previously, and with the support of the Soviet troops in the GDR, the regime closed off the last route for escape from the Party dictatorship: in the early morning of August 13, border police started ripping up streets in the middle of Berlin, pieces of asphalt and paving stones were piled up to form barricades, concrete posts were driven into the ground and barbed-wire barriers erected. A few days later, in the night of August 17 to 18, groups of construction workers stared replacing the barbed wire by a wall made of hollow blocks. On August 24, 1961, the first refugee, the 24-year-old tailor Günter Litfin, was shot by GDR border guards as he tried to escape from East Berlin into West Berlin.
The Wall cemented the political division of Germany and Europe; it became a worldwide symbol of the Cold War, which split the world politically into an eastern and a western hemisphere – and a symbol of the failure of a dictatorship that was only able to secure its existence by walling in its population.
When the Wall was erected in Berlin in 1961, Germany had already been a divided country for sixteen years. After the defeat of the German Reich in 1945, which put an end to the Nazi dictatorship, it was divided up into four occupied zones. Berlin was placed under the joint administration of the Four Powers and also divided up into four sectors.
Because the Soviet Union continued to use force and dictatorial means to extend the powers it had gained during the war even after the conflict had ended, the anti-Hitler coalition soon broke up. The Second World War unleashed by the Nazis was followed by the Cold War. In Berlin, the tensions reached a first high point in the blockade set up by the Soviet Union from June 24, 1948, to May 12, 1949. The Western Allies provided aid to endangered West Berlin by means of an airlift – for the West Berliners, the victorious Western Powers became protecting powers. In 1949, two German states came into being, the Federal Republic and the Democratic Republic: in the West, a democratic constitutional state with a pluralistic institutional framework, in the East, the communist dictatorship of the SED, based on an enforced political conformity of the non-socialist parties and unions and the repression of any political opposition.
Decisions taken by the SED to speed up the imposition of socialism, pension reductions, rises in the price of food and finally the increase in the stipulated work rate triggered the national uprising of June 17, 1953, which culminated in demands for free elections and reunification. Soviet soldiers and tanks rushed to the aid of the SED regime and brutally crushed the rebellion. After June 17, 1953, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people who fled the GDR; in the following years, this number swelled with every repressive measure and every political event that deepened Germany’s division: in 1955 after the signing of the Warsaw Pact, in 1956 after the National People’s Army (Nationale Volksarmee) was founded, in 1957 as sharper measures were taken against churches, in 1960 when farmers were forced to collectivise. And, because of the tightening of controls and the consolidation of the barriers along the internal German border, most people fled via West Berlin.
The second Berlin crisis was triggered on November 27, 1958, by an ultimatum given by the Soviet Communist Party leader and Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev. He threatened that the Soviet Union would sign a peace treaty with the GDR and hand over all its rights and responsibilities regarding Berlin, in particular the control of the connecting routes to the Federal Republic by land, water and in the air, to the GDR government, if the Western Powers did not enter into negotiations within six months on a peace treaty and the transformation of West Berlin into a “free city”. This ultimatum was aimed at putting an end to the four-power status of Berlin and driving the Western Powers from West Berlin, thus stabilising the GDR. But the United States, Great Britain and France did not give in to the pressure.
To the disappointment of the SED leadership, Khrushchev withdrew his ultimatum several times. The Soviet party leader seemed to shrink back from the promised confrontation and its incalculable consequences, including the risk of a nuclear conflict with the United States.
In the spring of 1961, the economic situation in the GDR worsened rapidly. The supply problems increased – and the number of people fleeing the country grew from day to day. The GDR was bleeding to death; its end seemed near. Ulbricht pressed for drastic measures, but Khrushchev still urged restraint, saying that decisions should not be taken until after his summit meeting with American president John F. Kennedy on June 3 and 4 in Vienna. The Soviet-American summit was a frosty affair. Khrushchev repeated his ultimatum, setting a new deadline for the end of 1961. Kennedy rejected the ultimatum and warned of a cold winter to come. The second Berlin crisis entered its hot phase.
By choosing the Viennese summit as a starting point, this chronicle of the construction of the Wall highlights how much the German question formed an integral part the international context. The documentation of the events in the form of a chronicle makes it possible to re-enact in one’s mind a sequence of actions in which a few of the actors perhaps suspect, but no one exactly knows, what is in store for them. And in the days directly after August 13, 1961, no one could have imagined that 28 years, two months and 27 days would go by before the division in Germany was overcome and the symbiosis of unity and freedom again became possible there.