VII: The Wall

The enduring problem of the DDR was its utter inability to engender the loyalty of more than a small minority of its citizens. This was, in part, a self-inflicted wound--the product of repression, mismanagement, and the ruthless Sovietization of the economy--in part a reaction to the clearly collaborative nature of the regime and its abject subordination to Moscow. Then, too, East Germans were confronted daily with the example of the Federal Republic, where a liberal democratic state presided over a burgeoning economy that ultimately combined social responsibility with an unprecedented level of prosperity. Within a few years of the founding of the German Democratic Republic, it was apparent to German Marxists that whatever hopes they might have had that it would become a worker's paradise were misplaced. The East German regime remained unable or unwilling to respond positively to the permanent, widespread disaffection of its citizenry. From at least the summer of 1953 onward, the Communist regime survived only through the institution of increasingly thorough instruments of internal repression.

From the perspective of East German President Ulbricht and the leadership of the SED (Sozialistische Einheits Partei Deutschland), the latent popular hostility to the Communist regime was most damaging in the steady hemorrhage of refugees from east to west. Between 1949 and 1961 more than 2.7 million East Germans "voted with their feet," leaving East Germany for the Federal Republic, many of them escaping through West Berlin.1

In 1958 Ulbricht appealed to the Soviet Union for help, but this was not a problem that Moscow could solve. The Kremlin had economic difficulties of its own and could not afford the kind of massive, continuing aid demanded by the East German leadership. Moreover, nothing would persuade the millions of disaffected East Germans to remain, so long as it was not only more promising, but easier to simply abandon the poverty and repression of the DDR and decamp for the West. In the end, Ulbricht finally put an end to the mass exodus by sealing off the borders. This happened over the night of 12-13 August 1961, when East German troops halted traffic and strung barbed wire along the border separating East from West Berlin. Over the next few months this barrier was expanded and improved to become the Berlin Wall, soon to be the universal symbol of the Cold War and of the Soviet tyranny imposed on Eastern Europe. But from first to last it was an East German project, built and maintained by the DDR.2

In West Berlin, the closing of the sector borders was not completely unexpected--although the thoroughness, secrecy, and speed with which the East Germans erected their barrier caught everyone off-balance.3 Washington's first priority was to calm the situation in West Berlin, where the populace was daily confronting the East German guards in massed demonstrations at the now-closed sector borders. There was, of course, little short of war that the US could do to force the East Berlin government to open its border, but, in response to an urgent request by West Berlin Mayor Willi Brandt, President John F. Kennedy ordered that the West Berlin garrison be augmented. Kennedy also dispatched Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and former military governor Lucius D. Clay to the scene.4 With the West Berlin government thus reassured, the tension slowly eased.

The construction of the Berlin Wall came at the end of a season of rising international tension. The new Kennedy administration had been humiliated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco that April. In June, Khrushchev tried to bully the Western powers into abandoning Berlin during his Vienna summit with President Kennedy, and on 3 August--days before the Wall went up--he once again threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with the DDR.5

Intelligence concerning the sources of Khrushchev's conduct did not make the situation look any less dire. Midsummer reporting from Col. Oleg Penkovskiy, the CIA's agent inside the Soviet General Staff, explained Khrushchev's belligerence as the product of Politburo dissatisfaction over his handing of the Berlin situation in general.6 Threatened with outright deposition, Khrushchev was engaging in brinkmanship to reassert his credibility as a dynamic leader. Penkovskiy followed up his initial report on 20 September, when he met with his CIA contacts in Paris, to warn them of plans to use massively augmented Warsaw Pact military exercises as a cover for military action against the Federal Republic. The signing of a separate peace treaty with the DDR was to be announced at the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in October. 7 This last report was examined warily in yet another SNIE considering Soviet tactics regarding Berlin.8 Western policymakers looked to the coming of Autumn with considerable misgivings.

But Ulbricht's construction of the Berlin Wall already had provided the decisive action needed to defuse the situation. Khrushchev did not, in the end, come forward with his proposed peace treaty, but went off on another tangent, using the Party Congress as a forum to denounce the USSR's erstwhile ally, the People's Republic of China! Neither did the anticipated Soviet military exercises occur in East Germany. Instead, tension peaked over 27-29 October with a confrontation between Soviet and US tanks at Checkpoint Charlie. Europe briefly seemed on the brink of war, but after a few days first the Soviet and then the American tanks slowly withdrew. As the noise of their diesel motors faded, so did Berlin's role as the focal point of the Cold War.

Looking back, the tank confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie seems little more than an anticlimax--at least insofar as the intelligence war was concerned. The construction of the Berlin Wall put an end to the classical period of intelligence activity in Cold War Berlin. With one stroke, Ulbricht's action neutralized the effect of the Western intelligence presence while simultaneously solving the refugee problem and stabilizing the Communist regime. Intelligence activities did not cease with the construction of the Berlin Wall, but with ready access to the East cut off, the value of the city as a base of operations was considerably diminished.

The Wall thus achieved much of what the Soviets and East Germans had been trying to do since the creation of the quadripartite regime in 1945. Khrushchev accordingly claimed a triumph, but, ironically, the Wall was built just as photoreconnaissance satellites and other sophisticated technical means of collection were undercutting Berlin's importance as a strategic intelligence base deep inside Soviet territory. After August 1961 the intelligence activities in the city gradually faded from the limelight, but it is difficult to say whether this happened because the East Germans had eliminated its usefulness as an intelligence base or whether Berlin was simply superseded by more sophisticated and reliable means of collecting strategic intelligence on the Soviet Bloc.

Those most affected by the construction of the Wall were of course the inhabitants of Berlin. The wall not only stopped the flow of refugees, it cut the economic links between East and West Berlin, depriving thousands of East Germans of their livelihoods. On the other hand, the newly stabilized supply of labor gave the East German economy a needed boost: literally for the first time since World War II, producers in East Germany could be reasonably certain that skilled employees would be in their jobs from one week to the next. By the mid-1960s, East Germany was enjoying a period of relative prosperity.9

West Berliners continued to prosper throughout it all, albeit with the aid of considerable support from the Bonn government.10 Aided by the narrow windows that gradually opened up to the West, East Berliners lived their lives as best they could in the German Communist state. But the Wall remained. Some East Germans at first tried to escape clandestinely, but as the barrier was steadily reinforced with gun towers, dogs, and minefields, escape became riskier and the chances of success faded. Even so, 600 to 700 people continued to make the attempt each year.11

VII-1: Memorandum for the DDI: Subject: The Berlin Situation, 1 November 1957 (MORI No. 44001). [PDF Only 226KB*]

This CIA memorandum raised the possibility that the Soviets might abrogate the Quadripartite Agreements and seal the "sector borders" between East and West Berlin as a means of applying pressure on the Western Allies.

VII-2: CIWS: East Germany May Move Against Berlin Sector "Border Crossers" 28 May 1959 (MORI No. 45598). [PDF Only 181KB*]

Before the Wall was built, the economies of East and West Berlin were interwoven, with many East Berliners dependent upon income from jobs in West Berlin's more vibrant economy. The East German regime saw this as a drain on their own struggling economy. The possibility that East Germany (not the Soviet Union) might restrict movement between East and West Berlin thus became an issue in the course of the Berlin crisis.

VII-3: CIWS: Soviet Policy on Berlin and Germany, 11 May 1961 (MORI No. 28202). [PDF Only 432KB*]

This review of Soviet policy regarding Berlin stresses the political importance for Khrushchev of reaching an agreement on Berlin during 1961.

VII-4: SNIE 2-61: Soviet and Other Reactions to Various Courses of Action Regarding Berlin, 13 June 1961. [PDF Only 1.47MB*]

This edition for the first time considers the East Germans as actors alongside their Soviet allies. 12

VII-5: Oleg Penkovskiy: Meeting No. 23, 28 July 1961 (MORI No. 12409). 13 [PDF Only 256KB*]

Oleg Penkovskiy, the CIA's agent inside Soviet military intelligence and on the General Staff, was privy to information at the highest levels of the Soviet military. In this oral report, delivered on 20 July 1961, he describes the internal tensions undermining Khrushchev's position in the Politburo as they applied to the Berlin situation. Penkovskiy did not have the direct access to the Soviet decisionmaking process that this report implies. However, he was very knowledgeable concerning General Staff matters and often was informed about high-level political decisions by his patron, Marshal Sergei Sergeyevich Varentsov. The intelligence he provided to CIA was valued very highly.

Penkovskiy began spying for the West early in 1961. Over the next 18 months he made several trips to the West, each time meeting clandestinely with his handlers. The following excerpt is from the transcript of one of those meetings. Penkovskiy is identified as "S."14

VII-6: CIWS: Berlin, 17 August 1961 (MORI No. 28205). [PDF Only 491KB*]

Five days after the Wall went up, this report summarizes developments over 12-17 August.

VII-7: SNIE 11-10-61: Soviet Tactics in the Berlin Crisis, 24 August 1961. [PDF Only 854KB*]

A survey of Soviet policy in light of the changed situation in Berlin and the DDR.

VII-8: CIWS: Berlin, 24 August 1961 (MORI No. 28206). [PDF Only 492KB*]

A more detailed look at developments in Berlin and East Germany.

VII-9: CIWS: Berlin, 7 September 1961 (MORI No. 28211). [PDF Only 570KB*]

In the month following the construction of the Berlin Wall, the East German regime initiated a general crackdown to further the "Sovietization" of East Germany and threatened to restrict Western access to Berlin by air.

VII-10: Memorandum for Washington on Berlin, 14 September 1961 (MORI No. 14414). [PDF Only 583KB*]

The construction of the Wall had profound implications for the conduct of intelligence operations in Berlin. These are detailed in a memorandum sent to Washington.

VII-11: Penkovskiy, Meeting No. 31, 22th September 1961, paras. 17-25 (MORI No. 12412). [PDF Only 815KB*]

Meeting with his CIA handlers on 20 September 1961, Penkovskiy passed important information regarding Khrushchev's contingency plans for military action that Autumn. See Document VII-13, below. "Varentsov" is Marshal Sergei Sergeyevich Varentsov, Penkovskiy's patron on the Soviet General Staff. In this transcript, Penkovskiy is again identified as "S."

VII-12: Memorandum for the Record: Subject: Conversation with Mr. Helms Re [ ] Report on Large-Scale Soviet Military Preparations, 26 September 1961 (MORI: 12292). [PDF Only 87KB*]

VII-13: SNIE 11-10/1-61: Soviet Tactics in the Berlin Crisis, 5 October 1961. [PDF Only 857KB*]

Upon receipt of Penkovskiy's information concerning Khrushchev's plans for the coming fall, the Board of National Estimates prepared a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) devoted entirely to evaluating his information--a highly unusual procedure. Of particular interest is the nuanced approach to Penkovskiy's report.

VII-14: Dispatch: Berlin Since 13 August, 6 November 1961 (MORI No. 14411). [PDF Only 620KB*]

A look at Berlin in the months immediately after the Wall went up.

VII-15: Memorandum for the DCI; Subject: Survivability of West Berlin [in the Event of a Soviet Blockade in Response to the Blockade of Cuba], 23 October 1962 (MORI No. 9409). [PDF Only 87KB*]

The Cuban Missile Crisis raised concerns that the Soviets might retaliate for the blockade of Cuba with a similar action directed against Berlin. Here, the Board of National Estimates reviews West Berlin's ability to withstand another blockade.




1 David Childs, The GDR: Moscow's German Ally (Second Edition, London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), p. 64.

2 Although East German President Walter Ulbricht apparently consulted with Khrushchev during a 3-5 August conference in Moscow, the initiative was his. For a thorough analysis, 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," Cold War International History Project (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1993).

3 Even the KGB had only minimal warning. Oleg Gordievskiy, Next Stop Execution (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 93-96. See also Murphy et al., pp. 378-380. CIA agent Oleg Penkovskiy later reported that he had four days' notice of the Wall's construction, but could not get word to his Agency handlers in time. See Document. VII-11, Paragraph 21, below.

4 David E. Murphy, Sergei Kondrashev, and George Bailey, Battleground Berlin, (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 379-380.

5 John W. Young, Longman Companion to Cold War and Détente, 1941-91 (London and New York: Longman, 1993), p. 44.

6 See Document, VII-5, below.

7 See Document, VII-11, below.

8 See Document, VII-13, below.

9 Childs, pp. 70-71.

10 Economic ties to West Germany were re-established in 1970-72, when a new East German President, Erich Honecker, signed a series of economic and political agreements with West German Chancellor Willi Brandt--in 1961 the Governing Mayor of West Berlin.

11 Childs, p. 64.

12 This SNIE updates SNIE 100-6-59, Soviet and Other Reactions to Various Courses of Action in the Berlin Crisis, (6 April 1959). Document. VI-12, above, is a version of this Estimate.

13 This document survives only in the fragmentary form reproduced here.

14 Penkovskiy also provided much documentary material. The standard history of the Penkovskiy operation is Jerold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin, The Spy Who Saved the World (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992).


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Historical Document
Posted: Mar 16, 2007 01:54 PM
Last Updated: Feb 04, 2014 12:23 PM