Magazine article History Today , Vol. 57, No. 2
THE BUILDING OF THE Berlin Wall in August 1961 divided families and neighbourhoods in what had been the capital of Germany. The Wall represents a uniquely squalid, violent, and ultimately futile, episode in the postwar world. And we know that the subsequent international crisis, which was especially intense during the summer and autumn of 1961, threatened the world with the risk of a military conflict, one that seemed as if it could escalate at any time into nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.
But was all as it seemed, with the noble democracies vainly opposing yet another Communist atrocity? Did the leaders of the West genuinely loathe the Wall, or was it--whisper if you dare--actually rather convenient to all the powers concerned?
In 1945, the victors of the Second World War, the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and by special dispensation the French, had divided Germany into four zones of occupation and its capital, Berlin, into four sectors. To the wartime Allies, Germany had been a problem ever since its unification in 1871, a big, restless country in the heart of Europe. The over-mighty Germany of the Kaiser's and Hitler's time must never be allowed to re-emerge.
Then came the Cold War. From the late 1940s, Germany itself--what was left of it after the Poles and the Russians had carved chunks off its eastern territories--became a creature of the Communist-capitalist conflict. It divided into West Germany (the 'Federal Republic of Germany') and the smaller East Germany (the 'German Democratic Republic'), the former a prosperous democracy of some 50 million anchored into what was to become the Western NATO alliance, the latter a struggling social experiment, a third as large, allied to the Communist Warsaw Pact. The Iron Curtain ran through Germany, with a fortified border between the two Cold War German states.
Until 1961, however, Berlin remained under joint occupation and kept a special status, still more or less one city in which fairly free movement was possible. It represented an 'escape hatch' through which East Germans could head to the now booming West in pursuit of political freedom and a higher standard of living than their Stalinist masters were prepared to allow them.
Between 1945 and 1961, some 2.5 million had fled in this way, reducing the GDR's population by around 15 per cent. Ominously for the Communist regime, most emigrants were young and well qualified. The country was losing the cream of its educated professionals and skilled workers at a rate that risked making the Communist state unviable. During the summer of 1961, this exodus reached critical levels. Hence, on that fateful August weekend, the Communists' vast undertaking to seal off East from West Berlin, to close the 'escape hatch'.
Sunday, August 13th, became known as 'Stacheldrahtsonntag' (barbed wire Sunday). Within a few weeks the improvised wire obstacle across the city started to morph into a formidable cement one that would soon become known as the 'Berlin Wall', a heavily fortified, guarded and booby-trapped barrier almost a hundred miles long, dividing the city and enclosing West Berlin.
Since the end of the war, Berlin had been a constant running sore in East-West relations. In 1948-49 Stalin had tried to blockade the Western sectors into submission by closing off all the land routes into the city, which lay almost a hundred miles inside Soviet-occupied territory. The West surprised him with a successful airlift that kept West Berlin supplied with sufficient essentials to survive. Only Stalin's death had prevented a wall, or something like it, being constructed in 1953. In 1958, his successor, the ebullient, unpredictable Nikita Khrushchev, had started threatening West Berlin's status once more. The Soviet leader compared the Allied-occupied sectors to the West's testicles. If, he joked, he wanted to cause NATO pain, all he had to do was squeeze . …