NEW EVIDENCE ON THE BUILDING OF THE BERLIN WALL HOW THE EAST GERMAN REGIME PUSHED A RELUCTANT SOVIET LEADERSHIP INTO BUILDING THE WALL 40 YEARS AGO

Aug 10, 2001

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Forty years ago, on 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected. The Wall became the symbol of the Cold War, and its collapse was a crucial step in the end of the Cold War. Researchers affiliated with the Center's Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) have recently uncovered documentation in the archives of the former communist bloc that dramatically changes our understanding of this pivotal event. The documents reveal that an aggressive East German leadership persistently pushed the reluctant Soviet leaders into building the Wall.

The new evidence includes documents that show that the East Germans tried to get Soviet approval to close West Berlin's border with East Berlin and East Germany as early as 1952. For nine years, the Soviets rebuffed this request as "politically unacceptable and grossly simplistic." They urged the East Germans to find other ways to solve their domestic problems, which were particularly manifested in increasing numbers of refugees fleeing West. In March 1953, the Soviets pointedly told the East Germans that closing the Berlin border would entail too many political costs in their relations with the German people and with the Western Powers. Instead, the East German regime was to adopt more accommodating policies to keep its people from fleeing West.

In the summer of 1961, however, as new findings in the Russian and East German archives reveal, a reluctant Soviet leadership was forced to give in to the increasingly strident and numerous requests of the East German leadership to close the border around the capitalist enclave of West Berlin. Indeed, as the Soviet Ambassador to East Germany reported to Moscow in May, the Soviets were increasingly afraid that the East Germans would act on their own to close the border. Ambassador Pervukhin cabled Moscow that the East Germans wanted "to stop free movement between (East Germany) and West Berlin as soon as possible by any means" and that they were "exercising impatience and a somewhat unilateral approach to this problem."

"The biggest surprise of the new documents," according to Hope M. Harrison, author of a forthcoming book from Princeton University Press, Driving the Soviets Up the Wall, "is the aggressive way in which the East German leader Walter Ulbricht pressured and manipulated a much more cautious, reluctant Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev into building the Berlin Wall. The documents hardly yield the picture of a powerless satellite and a hegemonic superpower that we used to have during the Cold War."

The new information about the erection of the Berlin Wall sheds light on two ongoing controversial debates in Berlin. In the lead-up to the October elections in Berlin, the eyes of German political parties and the electorate are fixed on the stance the former East German communist party, now called the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), takes on the Berlin Wall. So far, the PDS has not issued an apology, seen by many as a litmus test for the party's joining the government. Second, the East German regime's role in building and maintaining the Wall has been at the heart of the trials of former East German leaders and border guards. The new archival evidence on the East German regime's active role in pushing for the closure of the border and then for the stringency of the border regime runs counter to the claim of Communist Party's last chief, Egon Krenz, that it was all the Soviet Union's fault, that the East German regime bore no culpability, and that accordingly former East German officials cannot be charged with any crime.

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