From (David P.)@21:1/5 to All on Thu Aug 19 11:30:55 2021
How the Berlin Wall Rose in a Single Night
By Helena Merriman, 8/12/21, Wall St. Journal
When the Berlin Wall came down in Nov 1989, it was one of
the most thoroughly documented events in history. Each
anniversary, TV networks replay footage of Germans dancing
on the wall & hacking into it with hammers.
Far less revisited is the night when the wall first went
up—Sunday, Aug. 13, 1961, 60 years ago this week—in one
of the speediest, most audacious plots a govt has ever
carried out to constrain its own people. In a few hours
between midnight & dawn, the initial barbed-wire barrier
was completed & the border sealed. Within days, it had
became a concrete-block behemoth.
For many East Berliners, the previous Saturday evening had
been the highlight of summer. It was the date of the annual
children’s fair, & the streets were filled with people
eating ice cream & watching fireworks. Meanwhile, in the
People’s Army HQ, the country’s most senior military
commanders were gorging on a luxurious buffet of sausage,
veal, smoked salmon & caviar. In front of them were
envelopes containing secret instructions to be opened at 8 pm.
Elsewhere in East Berlin, Walter Ulbricht, leader of East
Germany, was hosting a garden party. It was out of character
for him—he was a serious, friendless man, terrible at small
talk—but tonight he’d invited the most senior govt ministers
to his woodland retreat. There was music & a Soviet comedy
film played in the background, but it was awkward; almost no
one knew why they were there. Eventually, Ulbricht directed
his guests into a room & told them he was about to close the
border between East & West Berlin.
For years, Ulbricht had watched as East Germans had packed
their bags & crossed the border, fed up with poor living
conditions, censorship & the feared secret police, the
Stasi. By the summer of 1961, East Germany had lost 3 million
people, around 1/5 of its population; there were towns without
a single doctor or teacher. A 900-mile barbed-wire fence ran
the length of East Germany; the unsealed border between East
& West Berlin was where people crossed.
So Ulbricht proposed his plan. His Soviet commissars were
initially appalled at the potential PR disaster: How could
Moscow persuade the world of communism’s superiority if East
Germany had to build a wall to stop people from escaping?
Instead, their instructions, as recorded in letters held
in the Russian Central Committee Archives, were surprising:
If you want East Germans to stay, improve their lives.
After all, the Soviet Union was beginning to reform, yet
here was East Germany continuing down a Stalinist path.
Ulbricht resisted, & East Germany continued to hemorrhage
its youngest & brightest. Documents in the committee
archives reveal monthly meetings between the East Germans
& Soviets to discuss the exodus. Finally, Ulbricht asked
the Soviet ambassador to pass along a message to Nikita
Kruschev warning the Soviet leader that “collapse is
inevitable.” A few weeks later, a message came back for
Ulbricht: Close the border.
When Ulbricht finally shared the details of his plan with
his ministers, if any wanted to stop him, warn friends or
even escape themselves, it was too late. In a few hours,
what he code-named “Operation Rose” was about to begin.
At 1 am, streetlights were switched off. Tens of thousands
of soldiers moved into position, forming a circle around
West Berlin. Then the construction began. Ulbricht delegated
the task to his most trusted units: border police, riot
police, secret police & 12,000 members of the Betriebskampf-
gruppen—a militia of specially trained factory workers.
Ulbricht had designated how many men to have at each
crossing point & how much ammo each got—enough to scare
people off but not so much that things would spin out of
control. Trucks drove toward crossing points, depositing
soldiers armed with machine guns who crouched on streets.
Ulbricht knew the operation depended on surprise, and he
had chosen a Sunday morning in the height of summer when
many East Berliners were away on holiday.
A 2nd group of soldiers crept down from the trucks,
pulling out giant coils of barbed wire. There were 150 tons
of it, bought secretly over the previous few weeks from
manufacturers in West Germany & even Britain, stockpiled
by police units who had no idea what they were keeping it
for. Next, the soldiers brought out wooden posts & then,
using steel rods, unfurled the barbed wire, stringing it
between the posts & sealing the crossing points at the border.
They began at Potsdamer Platz, the busiest crossing. From
there, the soldiers moved to other checkpoints, ensuring
the barbed-wire fence followed the border exactly, not
edging a millimeter into the West: They didn’t want to
provoke war. And so the barbed wire cut thru parks,
playgrounds, cemeteries, squares, not stopping for anything.
Every inch of the 27-mile internal border had been mapped.
Meanwhile, at 1:30 am, armed units shut down all public
transport that led to West Berlin. They split train tracks
& sealed train stations, under & above ground. It was hard
work, but the night was quiet. Ulbricht knew the operation
depended on surprise, & he had chosen a Sunday morning in
the height of summer when many East Berliners were away on
holiday. By 6 am soldiers had closed off 193 streets,
68 crossing points & 12 train stations. Their work was done.
As the sun rose, the city’s workers were up first. In the
half-light they could see men in uniforms on the streets
&, looming behind them, the hulking outline of tanks.
Then, at the border, they saw the barbed wire.
Reports on RIAS radio (Radio In the American Sector)
describe seeing East Berliners wandering along the barbed
wire, trying to work out what had happened. A logbook kept
by the East Berlin People’s Police describes how a group of
men gathered at the barbed wire, shouting at the border
guards, asking what had happened, getting angrier until
border guards shot toward them with tear gas.
Then the vans appeared. Weaving thru the streets, East
German officials announced over their loudspeakers that
the border was closed. Panic set in. Parents packed
suitcases & dragged children to railway stations, hoping
that trains might still be running to West Berlin. But
when the trains reached Friedrichstrasse station at the
border, the passengers heard a new announcement: “Der Zug
endet hier” (“The train ends here.”) Border guards herded
everyone off the train & onto the platform, which was now
heaving with people.
Among those at the train station was the American
journalist Robert H. Lochner, director of RIAS radio.
He had been driving thru East Berlin recording what he
saw. Now at the train station, he watched as an elderly
lady walked up to a border guard & asked when the next
train would go to West Berlin. The border guard laughed.
"That is all over now," he told her. “You are sitting in
Those in East Berlin with phones at home tried calling
kids or friends in West Berlin, but the phone lines
between E & W Berlin had been cut. And so, as dusk fell,
East Berliners were reduced to waving: waving from the
tops of cars, waving out of apartment windows, white
handkerchiefs in their hands.
It wasn’t until almost 3 decades later that the Berlin
Wall came down. By then it was almost impossible to
breach, with tripwires all around & every inch patrolled
by border guards equipped with machine guns & mortars.
Yet between 1961-1989, over 5,000 people escaped, with
at least 140 dying in the attempt, including one in a
homemade hot-air balloon that crashed. East Germans dug
70 escape tunnels, & 19 of them were used successfully,
including a “senior citizens” tunnel started in a chicken
coop by 12 elderly people.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is often described as the end
of an era, & in one way it was, but we still live in an
era of walls. Today, over 70 countries have some kind of
barrier or fence, & many draw inspiration from the one
built in Berlin in 1961. The politics behind these walls
varies, but there is perhaps one thing they all have in
common: Wherever govts build a wall to stop free movement,
people will try to get over it, or under it.