Just after midnight on 13th August 1961 a tired army of soldiers and construction workers crept along the streets silently laying barbed wire trying not to waken those enjoying their slumber. Berliners awoke the next morning to not only a physical barrier across their neighbourhoods but to a dark realisation that they would perhaps never see the other side of their city again. Families, friends and lovers were now separated for decades. Those unlucky few who had stayed an evening away from their houses or who enjoyed a late night out were forbidden by threat of execution to return home.
Since the end of World War Two Berlin had been a bone of contention between the Soviet Union and the west. In July 1945 Joseph Stalin, Clement Atlee and Harry Truman met in occupied Germany to discuss the future of Europe 26 years since their predecessors had done the same thing at Versailles. It was finally agreed that Germany would be divided up into four zones between the Soviet Union, Britain, France and America. Berlin, hundreds of miles deep into the Soviet sector, would also be split among the four powers to govern as they pleased.
The first clash over the divided city came in 1948 when Stalin introduced a blockade of roads, railways and canals entering the western zones. He would only relent if the Allies withdrew the healthy Deutschmark currency from West Berlin as this was crippling the East German economy. They refused. For thirteen months the Allies flew in all the supplies needed in an impressive display of aerial power with one plane landing every three minutes at Berlin Templehof airport.
In 1953 the increasingly paranoid Stalin died of a stroke. Doctors refused to treat him as he lay in his own urine and faeces lest they made a mistake and be punished. His successor Nikita Kruschev gave hope to those who had suffered in the Soviet regime when delivering his ‘De-Stalinisation’ speech which acknowledged the errors made during the Stalin years and pledged change during his leadership. The hope however was short-lived.
Kruschev had boasted in the Kremlin that Berlin was the testicles of the west; ‘When I squeeze, they scream.’ However the nether regions were causing problems. Fleeing the persecution of life under communism and attracted by the thriving West German economy, over three million East Germans fled across the divide. Largely educated individuals, this brain drain through Berlin left the GDR with only 61% of it’s working population in addition to the huge embarrassment of people fleeing the European paradise of communism. Something had to be done.
In 1958 Kruschev sent an ultimatum to President Eisenhower that America had six months to withdraw their military from the city. Thereafter it would fall under the control of the East German government. Aware of the potential fallout Kruschev accepted an invitation to visit the United States and discuss the issue at the presidential retreat of Camp David. The discussions were successful however the trip was soured by Walt Disney’s refusal to allow the Soviet Premier into Disneyland on the basis of his political beliefs.
With JFK sworn in as president in 1961 the Berlin Crisis reared it’s head again. Influenced by KGB reports of Kennedy as a drinking womaniser, Kruschev saw an opportunity and tested the young president’s resolve by re-issuing the six month ultimatum which would now expire on New Years Eve. The American leader was willing to talk but publicly began preparing for war when he declared, “We seek peace but shall not surrender.” Armed conflict seemed almost inevitable when he was given $3 billion by congress to strengthen the American military and ordered the construction of thousands of nuclear bunkers.
As the world anxiously looked on, East Germans continued to flock west at a rate of thousands per week. From June there began whispers in political circles of a wall being built across Berlin. Following it’s hasty construction the Red Army and their Allied counterparts raced to the city under a cloud of suspicion and distrust. As the dust settled it became clear however that a wall was better than a war.
Both sides had got what they wanted. The Soviets no longer faced embarrassment through emigration and the Americans could forget about war at least until a spy plane spotted missile launch sites in Cuba two years later. But as a collective sigh of relief was breathed by world leaders, Berliners were left to come to terms with the reality that their city was divided by a wall, patrolled by soldiers not afraid to kill any of those brave enough to climb over. It was not until a cold November evening almost thirty years later that they could breathe their own sigh of relief long after the crisis of 1961 had been forgotten by the world.