18 August 1961
Potsdam Square is walled off overnight. At 1.25 a.m., six crane trucks unload cement slabs in Potsdam Square, the kind that until now have only been set up at border crossings as solid barriers. At 2.10 a.m., fire engines, cement trucks and gangs of bricklayers arrive. Guarded by People’s Police, the bricklayers begin putting up a long wall. At 5 am., the building crews leave. They leave behind a wall built of concrete slabs with two rows of hollow blocks on top, some 1.60 metres high, and with iron rods set in concrete designed to support barbed wire: the construction of the Berlin Wall has begun.
To the moral indignation of the border police and People’s Police, the SED’s Berlin district administration comes up with an "operative plan" that envisages the sending of authors and artists to the border.
The West Berliners continue their boycott of the metropolitan train service, supported by the German Confederation of Trade Unions. Demonstrators stand at numerous train stations, carrying protest posters with slogans such as: "Not a pfennig more for Ulbricht! Stop the East controlling our trains! The train driver pays for the barbed wire!" – the director of the East German railways ("Reichsbahn"), Otto Arnt, has posters hung up and leaflets distributed in the train stations, asking the passengers not to be influenced by any boycott measures.
In a radio and television address, Walter Ulbricht defends the sealing-off measures of 13 August, citing what he calls indications of an open attack, civil war and military provocations by West Germany against the GDR. Ulbricht goes on to say that many citizens had asked "whether it had been completely necessary to deploy tanks and artillery during our operations. I would like to say clearly and plainly: yes, it was necessary! (…) Provocateurs were dissuaded from the start from provoking dangerous incidents. Much less happened during the implementation of all our measures than at an average rock-and-roll concert in the Sportpalast in West Berlin. For many people, it is certainly very useful to realise that the German working class is no longer defenceless, but has at its disposal tanks and cannon and everything that is necessary for defence."
Bonn: At a special session of the Bundestag, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer delivers a governmental statement in which he denounces the sealing-off measures as a brutal violation of human rights and the Four-Power status of Berlin. The ruling mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, calls for a Western initiative to take the violation of human rights in Berlin to the United Nations.
After the Bundestag session, the chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary party, Heinrich Krone, records in his diary: "The Bundestag is protesting. Communism has further consolidated its power. Seventeen million people are sitting behind the barbed wire. Completely cut off from us. Only a few get through. The dividing wall goes through the middle of Berlin. The hour of great disillusionment. The German people had expected more than a protest note from the West. Voices are being heard that question trust in the West." (Krone 1995, p. 524)
East Berlin: The Soviet city commander in Berlin, Colonel A. J. Soloviev, answers the written protests of the three Western city commanders of 15.8.1961, rejecting them as a "completely inappropriate" intervention in affairs of the GDR government.
Moscow: The Soviet Union responds to the submission on 17 August 1961 of the Western notes of protest against the sealing-off measures in Berlin with three identical notes. They state that the Soviet government "entirely" supports the steps taken by GDR government. They describe the claims made by the Western Powers of a violation of the quadrilateral pact on Germany as "unfounded" and "absurd", and, in conclusion, point out that the measures taken by the GDR government were considered "temporary" – until a peace treaty was signed.
London: A spokesman for the British Defence Ministry announces that, in view of the Berlin crisis, Great Britain has decided to reinforce its armed forces in Germany by sending an additional division – about 12,500 men.
Washington: The Press Secretary of the White House, Pierre Salinger, announces that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, as representative of the US president, will be travelling to Germany today – accompanied by General Lucius D. Clay, the US military commander for Germany and the hero of the Berlin Airlift of 1948/49. He adds that John F. Kennedy has given orders to reinforce the Berlin garrison, saying that a 1,500-strong combat troop is being transported over the motorway and will arrive in Berlin on Sunday, 20 August. The secret instruction given by President Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson is as follows. "Dear Mr Vice President, I am grateful to you for taking on this task in Germany and West Berlin at short notice. The main purpose of your mission is to reassure the people of West Berlin and at the same time to hold a frank conversation with Mayor Willy Brandt (…) to try to make it clear to him that it will be very important in the coming months to avoid hasty criticism of the other respective side (…)." Johnson is also given the task of handing over John Kennedy’s response to Willy Brandt’s letter of 16 August. The key sentence in Kennedy’s letter runs thus: "As this brutal closure of the border is a clear admission of failure and political weakness, it obviously means a fundamental Soviet decision that could only be undone by war. Neither you nor we nor any of our allies have ever assumed that we would have to start a war on this point."
Western press comments:
In his commentary piece, "Action Boomerang" in the "Deutsche Zeitung", Johannes Gross singles out Willy Brandt for particular criticism: "Willy Brandt himself said several times that protests were not enough and called for decisive action. What should be done is something he did not say – to this day, he has not made any suggestion. (…) So it was nothing but demagogy from the start, trying to get the Berliners and the entire German people, affronted by injustice, to believe in counter-measures. (…) To sum up: Germany’s doubt, brought upon itself, about the strength of the Western alliance. (…) Neither the true peril nor the real remedy was made clear: from the very first moment, it should have been said that it was not West Berlin that was blocked, but the Zone; that the fight is being carried out for the freedom of Berlin, not for the right of people to flee from an unbearable dictatorship. But Willy Brandt, who, in all seriousness, pretends to feel equal to his opponent and his office, failed. His rhetorical effort, directed against Ulbricht, acted as a boomerang against the trust put in the Western alliance, the basis of our safety and freedom."
In the "Zeit" weekly, Golo Mann writes about "The End of the Bonn Illusions": "The promise to ‘roll back’ the enemy empire was nothing more than words. Nothing was risked to do so, not even when the occasion cried out for active deeds (Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956). Because the politics of power, which West Germany endorsed, did not have the promised success, it had to have precisely the opposite result: that of making the curtain on the border to the Zone more and more impenetrable; for Russia would never yield its portion of power to such a Germany of its own free will; rather, it would hold it ever more tightly to itself." Golo Mann’s suggestion is: "We must, either directly by means of discreet negotiations or by using neutral mediators and appealing to the neutral public spirit, convince the Kremlin that a change of the Zone regime is in everyone’s interest including its own. We should not insist on free elections and free reunification, which are right, but not achievable today. We should not even insist on an "Austrian solution" for the Zone – its neutralisation accompanied by a complete abandonment of the ‘social achievements’ - because this too cannot be achieved today. But we should tell the Soviets via a hundred different channels: Create a situation in the Zone under which the people no longer want to leave in their thousands every day. Create a government that the people accept and no longer abhor and under which they can live in tolerable freedom and law and order."
In the same edition of the "Zeit", Marion Countess Dönhoff sees August 13 as a "Requital for the Long Sleep’: "If a fixed time schedule had been decided upon at the foreign ministers’ conference in Paris or even before, then Khrushchev would probably not have taken the risk of unilaterally breaking the Four-Power status of Berlin with brutal force." Dönhoff calls for protest marches, demonstrations, petitions and a visit to Moscow by the Minister for All-German Affairs, Lemmer, and asks why the United Nations had not been called upon. She concludes: "Certainly, one could say of each of these steps that it will not make any decisive impression on a triumphant dictator. But the worst thing that a statesman can do in such a situation is to do nothing, for that is tantamount to a declaration of bankruptcy."