New Evidence on the Building of the Berlin Wall

Hope M. Harrison
CWIHP e-Dossier No. 23

Fifty years ago on August 13, 1961, the East Germans sealed their border with West Berlin, beginning what would become known as the Berlin Wall. Overnight, families, friends, lovers, classmates, and others were cut off from each other, and seventeen million East Germans became prisoners. Streets, subway lines, and waterways were closed off between East and West Berlin and between West Berlin and the surrounding East German countryside. Since the creation of East Germany in 1949 until 1961, over two million East Germans had fled communism for freedom in the West. The East German leader Walter Ulbricht had been pushing the Soviets for over eight years for permission to close the border.

The Soviets had long resisted, arguing that the entire communist bloc would look terrible if they sealed the border in Berlin to stop the refugee exodus; it would be an admission of failure. Yet Ulbricht never gave up his fight to close the border, and he finally received Soviet permission and support in late July 1961, just weeks before “Operation Rose” was implemented on the night of August 12-13. As Khrushchev later told the West German ambassador to Moscow, Hans Kroll, “The Wall was ordered by me due to Ulbricht’s pressing wish.”[1] Similarly, General Anatoly Grigorevitsch Mereshchko, deputy director of the operational department of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, one of the officials in charge of the final coordinated plan to close the border, recently remembered: “Carrying out the job was easier, since Ulbricht had already asked Khrushchev many times to seal the border. But for a long time Khrushchev didn’t want to do this. The preparatory work, however, on the part of the GDR authorities was fully under way.”[2]

The following document is published here in English for the first time and comes from the Russian protocol of a lengthy meeting in Moscow between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and East German leader Walter Ulbricht on August 1, 1961, discussing plans to close the border in Berlin. [Link to the document: "Notes on the Conversation of Comrade N.S. Khrushchev with Comrade W. Ulbricht on 1 August 1961"] The meeting lasted for two hours and fifteen minutes. The protocol of the meeting was released in 2009 to Matthias Uhl of the German Historical Institute in Moscow. The Kremlin Presidential Archives deposited the document in the Russian State Archive on Contemporary History (RGANI), where Uhl retrieved it.[3] Uhl published the document in Germany in 2009,[4] and the German historian Gerhard Wettig published the document in 2011 in a collected volume of documents related to the Berlin Crisis.[5] The document shows Khrushchev’s and Ulbricht’s deliberations about the reasons for sealing the border in Berlin, the timing for sealing the border and some of the difficulties they expected to arise therefrom.

Since at least January 1961, the East German leaders had been formulating detailed plans for sealing the border once they obtained Soviet permission. Indeed, ever since the border between East and West Germany was fortified by the Soviets and East Germans in the summer of 1952, leaving Berlin as the only place for free movement between East and West within Germany, Ulbricht sought to close off the last “loophole” in Berlin. In letters and personal meetings, Ulbricht pressed the Soviet relentlessly to close the border and in the fall of 1960 he even began to resort to unilateral measures at the border in Berlin to make it more difficult to cross. This led to multiple Soviet reprimands and to very worried reports from the Soviet ambassador in East Berlin, Mikhail Pervukhin, back to the Kremlin leaders that the East German leaders were “sometimes impatient and took a unilateral approach” on the issue of the border with West Berlin, “as evidenced by their efforts with all means possible to cut off free movement between East Germany and West Berlin as soon as possible.”[6]

Ulbricht succeeded in maneuvering the Soviets into a corner whereby if they wanted to save their East German communist ally, they would need to close the border as he had been pushing for. But Ulbricht could not do this alone and needed Soviet military help in the background to deter both the East German people and the Western Allies from any significant moves to interfere with “Operation Rose” and the building of the Berlin Wall. Achieving this deterrent effect was indeed one of the main motivations for convening the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow in early August. As Ambassador Pervukhin explained to one of his deputies, Yuli Kvitsinsky, on the plane on the way to Moscow from East Berlin, “We cannot let the GDR’s action [i.e., closing the border] be seen as only its plan; this could provoke the Federal Republic and its allies to an intervention. The Soviet Union and the entire Warsaw Pact must stand in front of the GDR so that it will be clear to all that there is no way back.”[7]

As was often the case in meetings between the two leaders, the dire state of the East German economy played a major role in their meeting on August 1. The leaders expected this could become even worse if in response to the border closure, the West Germans instituted an economic boycott against East Germany and thus stopped supplying the GDR with key goods.[8] Another related problem discussed by the two leaders was the impact of the loss of so many key workers (engineers, laborers, intelligentsia) who had fled to the West and how to supply East Germany with some replacements, whether from other East European countries or from the Soviet Union itself.

The meeting took place on the eve of a summit of the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries in Moscow on August 3-5. Thus, some of the discussion between Khrushchev and Ulbricht concerned the schedule for the meeting and also the speeches that Khrushchev and Ulbricht would give at the meeting justifying the need to seal the border in Berlin.[9] It was clear that they both expected there to be some grumbling among the East European allies about giving East Germany economic aid.[10]

There are several references in the discussion to a peace treaty (since there was still no World War II peace treaty with Germany) which Khrushchev had been threatening the Western Powers since November 1958 that he would sign with Ulbricht. With this treaty, Khrushchev had announced that he would turn over Soviet control of the access routes between West Germany and West Berlin to Ulbricht. However, due to the massive refugee exodus from East Germany and Ulbricht’s persistent requests to close the border, Khrushchev finally agreed to the separate action of first closing the border in Berlin but not yet signing a peace treaty with East Germany. Khrushchev hoped that he could still get the West, led by American President John F. Kennedy, to agree to sign a peace treaty with both parts of Germany, thereby obtaining Western recognition of the East German state, which the West had thus far refused to grant. In the August 1 conversation with Ulbricht, Khrushchev seems to believe that the border closure in Berlin will push the West into finally agreeing to this.[11]

Most importantly, Khrushchev and Ulbricht discuss the details and timing of the impending closure of the border in Berlin. They don’t yet decide exactly on the timing, except that it will be “in one or two weeks.” Ulbricht brings up the issue of the timing about half-way through the meeting, asking, “When is the best time? What will we do about this?” When Khrushchev doesn’t answer, Ulbricht goes on to answer himself: “Technically we could prepare this in two weeks.” Khrushchev responds: “Implement it when you want, we can be ready at any time.” The Soviet leader concludes later in the meeting: “We will give you one, two weeks so that you can prepare economically” in case West Germany would respond with an economic boycott. Later in the week in Moscow, the two leaders agreed to close the border on the night of Saturday August 12-Sunday August 13, as Ulbricht reported to the East German Politburo on August 7.[12] Ulbricht had told Ambassador Pervukhin in July that the most propitious time to maximize the level of surprise was during the night between Saturday and Sunday.[13]

Since at least July 25, East German and Soviet military leaders had been working together on plans to seal the border, based on the original East German plans, supplemented by Soviet ideas. The East Germans had drawn up all sorts of documents on the details of stopping the movement of trains, subways, trams, boats, cars, planes and people from East Germany and East Berlin into West Berlin, including what to do with houses on the border between East and West Berlin. Now at the August 1 meeting, Khrushchev gave his ideas on how to back up this East German action “with an iron ring around Berlin,” while listening to Ulbricht’s plans for “houses with exits into West Berlin, they will be walled up. In other places, barbed wire barriers will be erected. The barbed wire has already been delivered. It can all happen very quickly.”

Indeed, it did all happen very quickly. By the time most Berliners woke up on Sunday August 13, most of the border had been sealed off with barbed wire and concrete posts, guarded by armed soldiers. At last, Ulbricht had his wish fulfilled of closing the border to West Berlin to prevent any more of his citizens from escaping.[14]

Hope M. Harrison is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University and Senior Scholar at the Cold War International History Project as well as Chair of the Advisory Council of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is the author of Driving the Soviets Up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (Princeton University Press, 2003) and an updated, expanded version of this in German, Ulbrichts Mauer: Wie die SED Moskaus Widerstand gegen den Mauerbau brach (Ulbricht’s Wall: How the SED Broke Moscow’s Resistance to Building the Wall, Propyläen Verlag, Berlin, 2011). Professor Harrison’s English book won the 2004 Shulman prize for the “best book on the international relations of the former Soviet bloc” of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and her German book has been featured widely in the German media this summer related to the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall.


"Notes on the Conversation of Comrade N.S. Khrushchev with Comrade W. Ulbricht on 1 August 1961"


[1] Hans Kroll, Lebenerinnerungen eines Botschafters (Cologne and Berlin: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1967), p. 512, 526.

[2] Manfred Wilke/Alexander J. Vatlin, “Interview mit Generaloberst Anatolij Grigorjewitsch Mereschko, “Arbeiten Sie einen Plan zur Grenzordnung zwischen beiden Teilen Berlins aus!”  Deutschland Archiv (2/2011).

[3] Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkiv Noveishei Istorii (RGANI), Fond 52, opis 1, delo 557. 

[4] “Niederschrift eines Gesprächs des Genossen N. S. Chruschtschow mit Genossen W. Ulbricht am 1. August 1961,”  Die Welt Online, May 30, 2009,­tik/article3828831/Das-Gespraech-zwischen-Ulbricht-und-Chruschtschow.html Die Welt erroneously published this as a telephone conversation, when in fact it was a face-to-face meeting in Moscow.

[5] Gerhard Wettig, ed., Chruschtschows Westpolitik 1955-1964, Gespräche, Aufzeichnungen und Stellungnahmen, Band 3, Kulmination der Berlin-Krise (Herbst 1960-Herbst 1962) (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2011), Document 15, pp. 295-313.

[6] See the meetings and communications about this on September 23 and 26, October 18, October 24, November 30, 1960, and December 15, 1960, and January 30, 1961 and  May 19, 1961 in Harrison, Driving the Soviets Up the Wall, pp.  144-149, 151-53, 158-9, 166.

[7] Yulij Kwizinskij, Vor dem Sturm: Erringungen eines Diplomaten (Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 1993), pp. 181-82.

[8] As it turned out, West Germany did not in fact respond to the Berlin Wall with an embargo, but continued to trade with East Germany as before.

[9] For an English translation of Khrushchev’s opening speech to the Warsaw Pact leaders on August 3 and Ulbricht’s lengthy speech on August 4 justifying the border closure, see Hope M. Harrison, "Ulbricht and the Concrete `Rose': New Archival Evidence on the Dynamics of Soviet-East German Relations and the Berlin Crisis, 1958-1961," Working Paper No. 5 of the Cold War International History Project (Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 1993,), Appendices G and H, pp. 106-125.

[10] Indeed, when this was discussed at the meeting on August 4, tempers flared on this issue, with the allies being very reluctant to help East Germany, since they were each suffering from their own economic problems and their own dependencies on Western aid. Khrushchev finally ended that part of the discussion on August 4, angrily declaring: “Now, comrades, we will all help the GDR. I will not say who of you will help most. All must help and must help more.” For more on these discussions at the Warsaw Pact meeting, see Harrison, Driving the Soviets Up the Wall, pp. 198-203.

[11] Khrushchev proves to be partly right on this and partly wrong. The sealing of the border did indeed get the US to resume talks with the Soviet Union on Germany. But once these talks began and once Khrushchev saw that the Berlin Wall had solved the East German refugee exodus, he no longer wanted to risk that his aggressive, unruly East German ally could disrupt his relations with the US and thus the Soviet leader did not sign a separate peace treaty with the GDR or turn over control of the Western access routes to Ulbricht, much to the East German leader’s chagrin.

[12]Protokoll Nr. 39/61 der ausserordentlichen Sitzung des Politbüros des Zentralkomitees am Montag, dem 7. August 1961 im Sitzungssaal des Politbüros,” Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen im Bundesarchiv (SAPMO-BArch), DY 30/J IV 2/2/781.

[13] Kwitzinskij, Vor dem Sturm, p. 180.

[14] For recent works emphasizing the role of the Soviets in this process, see Manfred Wilke, Der Weg zur Mauer. Stationen der Teilungsgeschichte (Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2011) and Gerhard Wettig, Chruschtschows Berlin-Krise 1958 bis 1963: Drohpolitik und Mauerbau (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 20060