international analysis and commentary

Berlin Wall questions


Aspenia Online: Can you think of historical precedents, or parallels, in which a country builds a barrier (and maintains it for three decades) in order mostly to keep its own people in, rather than some external threat out? The North Korean regime tightly controls its citizens, but how far can we push the comparison? What was so special about East Germany (a country that had seen more than 2.5 million citizens leave since 1948) and the context in which that decision was made?

John L. Harper: History’s famous walls – Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China (actually a series, built over many centuries), Israel’s West Bank Barrier, Trump’s Wall (if ever completed) – were/are intended to keep enemies and undesirables out, as the question suggests. The comparison with North Korea is apt because without strict controls, there would undoubtedly be an economically-driven out-flow of people to both South Korea and China. That said, all of the Eastern bloc countries, starting with the USSR, tightly restricted foreign travel and emigration during the Cold War.

The DDR was the most economically-advanced and strategically important of Moscow’s satellites, and after the 1953 uprising there, the Kremlin feared nothing more than its collapse and absorption by the Federal Republic. Before the Wall, East Germans could travel to West Berlin, fly to West Germany, and easily find a job in the booming economy. Over 100,000 East Germans, many of them young professionals and skilled workers, did so in the first six months of 1961, alone. The context of the decision to build the Wall includes the fact that the East German economy – and by implication the Communist regime – was in danger of bleeding to death.

Europe during the Cold War. Source: Wikipedia


The status of Berlin had already produced a major crisis in 1948, with the blockade and the famous airlift that lasted until May 1949: how close did that crisis get to a hot war? And what was learned through that experience that might have been relevant later on?

Stalin launched the blockade in May 1948, hoping to stymie the “London Program” for the creation of a West German state, and failing that, to force the Western Allies out of West Berlin. Both sides were careful not to provoke the other during the blockade, and the evidence suggests hot war was not a serious possibility. In June 1948, US President Truman famously dispatched sixty B-29 bombers to forward bases in the UK. They were not configured to carry nuclear weapons, but the message to Moscow was obvious: if war comes we will launch a devastating atomic attack on you. The predominant lesson taken was that US nuclear superiority had helped to avoid war, and that if the Soviets had had their own nukes, they might have behaved more recklessly. How to maintain the credibility of deterrence (in West German, as well as Soviet eyes) once the USSR had its own nuclear weapons, became the great strategic conundrum of the ’50s and early ‘60s. And holding West Berlin had become even more important than before: thanks to the crisis, the former Nazi capital had managed to rebrand itself as a symbol of Western resistance to tyranny.

Not surprisingly, some took a different lesson: the Allied position in West Berlin was untenable and sure to provoke future confrontations. George Kennan favored a grand bargain whereby both Western and Soviet forces would disengage, and Germany and Berlin would be reunited on the terms later imposed on Austria. Even US President Eisenhower would tell Khrushchev in 1959 that the West did not want “to perpetuate the present situation in Berlin and keep our Occupation troops there forever. We hope to find a way out with honor.”


In the summer of 1961, who ultimately made that fateful decision? Was it made after some significant debate (in Berlin and in Moscow)? Did those responsible anticipate that it might be an enduring solution?

The final decision in August 1961 to build the barrier was made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, but it took no effort to persuade DDR leader Walter Ulbricht that the West Berlin “loophole” must be closed. The East German authorities had already taken measures to try to restrict movement by their citizens to West Berlin and West Germany.

Keep in mind that East German pressure on Moscow to push the Allies out of West Berlin and give the DDR control over the city lay behind the “second Berlin crisis” which had begun in November 1958. Moscow issued a six month ultimatum to the Western Allies demanding that they accept a “free city” in West Berlin, depriving them of their rights to occupy their respective zones. The ultimatum was allowed to lapse, but then renewed by Khrushchev when he met US President Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961. Kennedy’s tough reaction (on July 25, he announced significant increases in the size of the US armed forces and the dispatch of reinforcements to West Berlin) no doubt persuaded the Kremlin that the stalemate over Berlin’s political status would continue, even as the economic hemorrhaging got worse. The Wall was an emergency measure: a tourniquet on the DDR economy. The Kremlin’s and the DDR’s preferred solution was still to get the Allies out of West Berlin, but failing that, the Soviets soon realized that the provisional fix might be the best one available. And so it proved to be.

The construction of the Berlin Wall


What was the range of reactions across the US political establishment and civil society? And how about the West European allies? How did that crisis compare with the 1948-49 blockade crisis in terms of stakes and risks?

Western leaders and the Western press condemned the Wall as barbaric, and were quick to see its propaganda value, but few called for action to remove it. Kennedy spoke for many, especially in the US and the UK, when he privately remarked “better a wall than a war.” The State Department, realizing the Soviets were “sitting on top of a volcano”, had anticipated some drastic move. One of its worries was that the cut off of emigration might spark a revolt in East Germany, which (as in the case of Hungary in 1956), the US would be unable to support.

Paris’s position was somewhat tougher since President de Gaulle aligned himself with German Chancellor Adenauer’s hard-line policy toward the DDR, including rejection of compromise over Berlin. Adenauer and Berlin mayor Willy Brandt were deeply dismayed by the Allied decision to live with the Wall. For Brandt, it marked the failure of Adenauer’s “Politik der Staerke” – supposed to bring reunification from a position of strength – and helped spawn the SPD’s Ostpolitik, based on the idea of “change through rapprochement”.

The irony is that although the Wall relieved pressure on the Soviets to change the status of Berlin, the situation in the city remained even more explosive than in 1948-49. The US sent not only more troops, but General Lucius Clay, the “hero” of the first crisis, back to the city. He was partially responsible for the famous October 1961 confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie, where US and Soviet tanks faced off at 150 meters’ distance. But neither Washington nor Moscow wanted war, and began to talk privately about Berlin.

A map of Berlin with the wall


In retrospect, can we say that the presence of the Wall helped stabilize the balance of power, or at least the calculations made by US and Soviet leaders until its collapse?

After August 1961, the Soviets did not immediately give up their aim of kicking the Allies out of West Berlin. In fact – although there is no Soviet evidence to support the claim – some US historians argue that in putting missiles in Cuba a year later, Khrushchev was aiming to force a new bargain on Berlin. But two things were clear by the end of 1962, if not before: the Allies were not giving up their rights without a fight, and the Wall had solved the DDR’s brain drain problem. By the same token, in tolerating the Wall, the Western allies were tacitly recognizing DDR sovereignty over East Berlin.

The Four-Power Agreement on Berlin (1971) basically ratified these facts, and in 1973, the Federal Republic and the DDR recognized each other as sovereign states. But although recognition of the political-territorial status quo in Europe was a premise of East-West détente in the ‘70s – and eagerly sought by the USSR – the US remained officially committed to the West German goal of reunification and the overcoming of the blocs (goals spelled out in NATO’s 1967 Harmel report).


At what point in time, if any, did the Wall become an embarrassment and a political problem for the East German leaders in the context of the propaganda war being waged for the hearts and minds of the Central-Eastern Europeans more generally?

Probably not an acute embarrassment until the mid-to-late 80s when Moscow began to press the East European satellites to reform, and pressure mounted from the West – for example US President Reagan’s famous June 1987 speech in Berlin calling on Soviet leader Gorbachev to tear down the Wall. For a time in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the DDR regime appeared to have its cake and eat it too: recognition by the West, and generous loans and subsidies from Bonn, together with a relatively quiescent populace. But intra-German détente brought both rising expectations on the part of the young and politically aware, as well as unsustainable levels of hard currency debt owed to the West.

Ronald Reagan’s famous speach, at the base of the Brandenburg Gate.


Can you identify one or more “tipping points” when the removal of the Wall became a real possibility?

Personally, only in retrospect. When Vernon Walters, the US ambassador to Bonn, predicted in September 1989 that German reunification would happen within five years, I thought he had lost his mind. With the benefit of hindsight, there are a number of points that one might focus on: the arrival in power of Gorbachev (who had complained that the USSR was “running a Kindergarten” in Eastern Europe); Reagan’s Berlin speech, which may have been taken as a challenge by Gorbachev; the Soviet leader’s famous December 1988 UN speech in which he stated that “Freedom of choice is a universal principle to which there should be no exceptions”; the opening of Hungary’s border with Austria (secretly abetted by Chancellor Helmut Kohl) in June 1989, allowing thousands of East Germans to leave for the West, followed by the weekly mass demonstrations in Leipzig and other cities calling for democracy and freedom of movement.


Was there any scenario in which a more open and free East Germany could survive as a neighbor to West Germany? In other words, was the DDR doomed once the Wall collapsed?

If there had been an SPD government in Bonn, it no doubt would have pursued some kind of “treaty community” or confederal arrangement, prolonging the DDR’s status as a sovereign state, rather than rapid reunification. But Helmut Kohl, the disciple of Adenauer, seized the opportunity and pushed events forward with his Ten Point Program of November 28, 1989. Even that plan (calling for a transition to reunification over several years) was soon obsolete, with East Germans chanting “Wir sind ein Volk” in the streets, and leaving en masse for the west. Rapid unification became the way to keep East Germans at home, as well as to fulfill a historic West German objective. The coup de grace for the DDR was probably when Kohl offered a massive bribe on behalf of the pro-unification candidates running in the spring 1990 DDR elections: monetary union on the basis of a one-to-one exchange of the worthless east mark for the Deutsche mark.


Do you believe that reunification, and the full integration of the new Germany into the Western fold, has been well managed? To what extent should we be worried about the continuing socio-economic and even cultural and political divide between the two parts of the country?

It’s a question that German economists, politicians and ordinary people continue to debate. The gap in living standards between West and East is far narrower than it was in 1989, but despite a huge transfer of resources, the regions of the former DDR still suffer from lower per-capita income, lower productivity growth, and higher unemployment than the West – rather like Southern Italy compared to the North. The reasons are legion, including non-productive investments, an aging population, and – as in the pre-Wall 1950s – the migration of skilled workers and entrepreneurial young people from the area.

Some would add skepticism toward modernization, and a culture of dependency on the state, that persist in the east. The anti-Islamic and Euro-skeptic AfD party (particularly its extreme nationalist “Flugel” faction), is rooted in the east, especially Saxony, as is the neo-Nazi organization, Pegida. So yes, we should be worried. In the recent European elections, the, AfD won 11% of the national vote. This can hardly be compared with the 33% of the Lega in Italy, but the AfD is increasingly positioning itself as the champion of the “forgotten” and alienated voters of the former DDR.


What is your gut feeling when you see the marks and various traces of the Wall still visible in Berlin today? How do you think we could and should convey the meaning of a standing Wall like that to someone who was born after its removal?

As someone who visited East and West Berlin before 1989, and saw the Wall, my gut feeling is relief, combined with a certain disbelief that the conflict ended peacefully – and gratitude toward those who made it possible, starting with the much-maligned Gorbachev. We should always remember that Gorbachev paid a political price for his acquiescence to German reunification on Western terms. As in the case of other lessons of history that one wants to convey to future generations, we have to rely on the curricula of secondary schools, museums, exhibits, and the messages of political leaders.