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Early in the year in which John F. Kennedy became president of the United States, apprehension about Soviet foreign policy was high. Nikita Khrushchev was in power, and his rhetoric was threatening. Historians looking back on the crisis centering on Berlin, 1961, now mostly agree that it was not on the scale of what would come one year later over Soviet missiles in Cuba, but at the time, Khrushchev's claims, and the bellicose language he used in pressing them, made it sound as if World War III were imminent.
The threat by the noisy first secretary, boss of the Soviet Union and of the Eastern European Communist world, was that he was prepared to write a separate peace treaty with East Germany. The situation Khrushchev was exploiting was the result of what Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt had agreed upon at Yalta in February 1945. What they had done there was confirmed and embellished at the Potsdam conference in July and August 1945 and expanded in sub-agreements over the ensuing months. The design was to invest formal authority over Germany in the victorious powers: Soviet, British, and American. To their number France was added, with the war's end, something of a collegial gesture by Britain and the United States. These powers would jointly govern Germany and, within it, Berlin. For administrative purposes, Germany was divided into four zones, Berlin into four sectors, each assigned to one of the occupying powers. But it was assumed that the four powers would make policy jointly, and that the personnel of each of them, military and civilian, would have unimpeded access to all four sectors and zones.
The Soviets had unilaterally violated these understandings from the outset. They began to make their own policies in the part of Germany, and of Berlin, that they controlled, without a nod of the head to their co-responsible allies. Early in 1948, the Soviets stopped even dispatching a representative to joint occupation meetings. At that point the Western occupying powers, which believed it was time to start gradually devolving upon all of Germany the authority to rule itself, decided to go ahead with the part under their control. This had approximately 51 million inhabitants, as against 16 million for the part under Soviet control.
The West Germans were now allowed to set up their own parliament, but it would still be a long apprenticeship back to sovereignty. They had no authority to mobilize an army or to make policies that had military implications. The American representative in Bonn was still called the U.S. high commissioner, retaining plenary contingent authority. Not until 1954 did the Western powers grant substantial sovereignty to the Federal Republic of Germany, the high commissioner becoming, simply, ambassador.
In 1949 the Soviet Union granted ostensible authority to the German Democratic Republic-ostensible, because the GDR was of course a satellite nation. Walter Ulbricht, who had been the third-ranking member of the original government of occupied East Germany, rose quickly to de facto chief of government. His formal portfolio was secretary-general of the Central Committee, the counterpart of Stalin's and then Khrushchev's ranking in the Soviet Union. He was also deputy premier, but, as Moscow's man, he wielded far more power than the actual premier, Otto Grotewohl, or President Wilhelm Pieck.
A divided Germany and a divided Berlin, formally under occupation authority, was still the status quo as of 1958, when Khrushchev first threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany. Whenever he or his spokesmen elucidated on the point, they reasoned that World War II was long since over, and therefore there was no need to hold Germany in subjugated status. Why should we not, Khrushchev asked, proceed to make a final settlement?
This was more or less what the Allies had argued in 1954. What was different, and alarming, was the Kremlin's attitude on Berlin. When, in November 1958, Khrushchev announced his plan for East German sovereignty, he made it clear that he was not only talking about the Soviet Zone. He was also talking about all of Berlin. Under his plan, West Berlin would become a "free city," and authority over it would reside solely in the GDR. Khrushchev conveyed through Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the grim successor to the grim Vyacheslav Molotov, that he would give the West six months to respond to his request for negotiations. If nothing was accomplished by what counted down to May 1959, Moscow would proceed with the entirely reasonable next step, which would be unilateral recognition of the German Democratic Republic as a free and sovereign state.
Khrushchev added his characteristic rhetorical flourishes at a celebration in Moscow honoring First Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka of Poland. On that occasion, Khrushchev asserted that West Berlin was not really what it appeared to be, one half of a great city administered under the aegis of France, Great Britain, and the United States. What it had become was a Cold War fortress. Not exactly a military staging area, though there were of course military forces in the Western sectors, as permitted by the four-power agreements. No, his complaint was not of a military buildup, but that West Berlin had become a launching pad for subversives bent on weakening East Germany. Khrushchev hedged his declaration by reassuring the world that the Soviet Union had no intention of using military force over the Berlin issue. However, he immediately added, if the West should elect to engage in hostile activity, the aggressors would be "crushingly repulsed."
Berlin was well shaped by history and topography for its role in the Cold War. It is a great, sprawling city, 344 square miles, eight times the size of Paris, three times the size of London. Its perimeter would encircle the five boroughs of New York City.
Berlin turned out this way only in part because of organic growth. The decisive event in the city's aggrandizement was the annexation in 1920, under the Weimar government, of dozens of surrounding towns, villages, and estates into one administrative unit. Greater Berlin now had not just one but two rivers, the Spree and the Havel, and canals linking them. Within the city limits were the Berlin Forest, the Green Woods (Grünewald), and many acres of land suitable for orchards and truck farming. In all, a third of Berlin was, and still is, covered with parkland, forest, farmland, rivers, or lakes.
As European capitals go, Berlin is comparatively new. The first permanent settlements, along what is now Museum Island, in the eastern part of the city, date only from 1237-a dozen or more centuries after the beginnings of many other European cities. Berlin grew slowly, set back by outbreaks of the Black Death, as also by devastating wars. Only a handful of buildings from the medieval and Renaissance periods survived the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).
The flowering of the city began at the end of that war, under the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern. It was he who envisioned a wide avenue leading westward from his castle. For aesthetic reasons, as well as for comfort in the summer, he planted trees along it. The avenue thus formed became the heralded Unter den Linden-Under the Linden Trees. Walking down that avenue in 1970, I thought, however wistfully, of a walk down the Champs-Elysées, both of them central, well laid out, leafy, but, in Berlin, neglected.
Friedrich Wilhelm's successors were great builders, turning Berlin into a baroque city. Among the most notable of the new structures was Schloss Charlottenburg, which Friedrich I of Prussia ordered built some three miles to the west of the city center as a country retreat for his queen, Sophie Charlotte. In their day, at the end of the seventeenth century, the royal party would have traveled from their main castle down Unter den Linden and through a large hunting preserve to reach Schloss Charlottenburg. In the eighteenth century, that hunting preserve became a park, the Tiergarten, and the Brandenburg Gate was erected at the point where Unter den Linden comes up against the eastern edge of the Tiergarten. This immense gate, six columns topped with a chariot drawn by four horses, was modeled on the entrance to the Acropolis and became the universally recognized symbol of Berlin.
In the late nineteenth century, Chancellor Bismarck was busy conquering Prussia's neighbors in order to turn the Kingdom of Prussia into an empire and his king into Kaiser Wilhelm. Shops, restaurants, and offices were built near the Tiergarten, the first large-scale expansion of Berlin west of the Brandenburg Gate. The Kurfürstendamm (near the western end of the Tiergarten) and Potsdamerplatz (to the south of the Tiergarten's eastern end) became new centers of Berlin life. This shifting of the city's center of gravity was ratified by the construction of the Reichstag at the northeastern corner of the Tiergarten.
Berliners suffered greatly from the defeat of Germany in World War I, though their city's buildings were not much damaged. And then came Adolf Hitler, and World War II.
The British air raids began in 1940; the American, in 1942. Potsdamerplatz was taken out early, reduced to rubble by a bombing raid in 1941. The Reich buildings and older official buildings nearby, along Unter den Linden, were particular targets. But it was not the Allies who destroyed the original linden trees: that had been done before the war, on Hitler's orders, to facilitate the digging of a new U-bahn (subway) tunnel. The area around the Kurfürstendamm also was hit hard. Block after block of apartment houses had their habitable areas reduced to basement and sometimes ground floor, which survivors of the air raids shared with the rats. In April 1945, one and a half million Soviet soldiers marched in from the east, determined to take revenge for the Battle of Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad. By the time Hitler killed himself in his bunker, some fifty thousand Berliners had died and many times that number had fled; 39 percent of all buildings in the city had been destroyed, including more than a quarter of the housing stock.
When Berlin was divided among the four occupying powers, the new inter-sector borders followed the lines of the old administrative districts, so that the East-West border zigzagged wildly, sometimes going almost due north-south (as at the Brandenburg Gate), sometimes almost due east-west (as at what would become Checkpoint Charlie), sometimes curving to follow a river or canal. The Soviet Sector wound up with the historic part of Berlin-Museum Island, Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate. Most of the Third Reich buildings, including the bunker, lay just southeast of the Brandenburg Gate. The Western sectors got the Tiergarten and the Reichstag, Charlottenburg and most of the forests, the Kurfürstendamm and both the existing airports, plus the land where a third airport was planned.
There was, in law, no such thing as "West Berlin" and "East Berlin," but, as with Germany as a whole, the Soviets very soon made the portion under their control separate from the other occupation sectors. West Berlin from the start was an island in the sea of the Soviet empire. In 1948 Stalin decided to sink that island by imposing a blockade on all goods coming into the western part of the city. He succeeded in stopping all road, rail, and barge traffic from West Germany. What saved West Berlin was the U.S. airlift, and what made the airlift possible was that 1920 decision to fold surrounding land into Greater Berlin. Tempelhof and Gatow airports were both small, but their existence permitted the airlift to begin immediately. Under the urging of the American military governor, General Lucius D. Clay, who organized the airlift, a third airport, Tegel, was finished in half the time projected. West Berliners had a rough few months, but the city survived, and in May 1949 Stalin gave up. Twelve years later, West Berlin was still, to Nikita Khrushchev, a "bone in my throat."
Secretary-General Walter Ulbricht was not just a Communist apparatchik, he was also a true believer. As a young man in Leipzig before World War I, he had joined Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacus Society. At age twenty-six, in 1919, he was a founder of the German Communist Party. He was spotted for his zeal and called to Moscow, in the mid-1920s, for training in cell organization, which he put into practice back home for the next several years, until Hitler took power in 1933. At that point, wanting to preserve their asset, the Soviet high command spirited him out of Germany. He spent most of the next twelve years in Moscow, except for a stint in Spain during that country's civil war. When he returned to Germany in 1945, he held the rank of colonel in the Red Army and served under Marshal Georgi Zhukov, chief of the Soviet General Staff.
Ulbricht greatly admired Lenin, including his goatee, causing him to grow his own in historical deference. Ulbricht bore some physical resemblance to his hero, but it wasn't enough. Where Lenin looked ruthless, Ulbricht looked disapproving. To see him standing at a lectern-shoulders squared, eyes narrowed behind steel-rimmed glasses, lips pursed above the goatee-you might take him for a solemn symphony orchestra conductor, prepared to bring down his baton on the music stand to reprimand an erring violinist. You would not immediately guess that his favored means of registering displeasure were indeterminate jail sentences and, for star transgressors, the firing squad. A nonsmoker and nondrinker (except to toast the occasional victory of the Workers' and Peasants' State, as the GDR was nicknamed), he was undeviating in doing his daily calisthenics and taking his daily run.
The admiration he had for Lenin, and then for Stalin, did not carry over to their successors. He found them lamentably unreliable, sometimes outright deviationist. Even Stalin had delayed in authorizing Ulbricht to implement a Five-Year Plan for East Germany. You cannot have a planned economy without a plan, Ulbricht complained.
Finally, in 1950, he was given the go-ahead. In July 1952 he proudly launched his first collectivization drive. It was followed, as such efforts tend to be, by serious food shortages. Ulbricht bristled at the restiveness of his people. He asked himself, What would Comrade Stalin have done in such straits? Stalin, too, had faced opposition to collectivization, in 1933, but had never been deflected from true Communist principles. And so, instead of easing up, Ulbricht tightened the screws. The westward march began. Tens of thousands of East Germans made their way to the West.
On June 10, 1953, Ulbricht raised production quotas for factory and construction workers by a whopping 10 percent.
Excerpted from The Fall of the Berlin Wall by William F. Buckley Jr. Copyright © 2004 by William F. Buckley Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. Ulbricht’s Berlin Problem.
2. The Continuing Crisis.
3. In the Shadow of the Wall.
4. The Wall Came Tumbling Down.
5. The End of the Cold War.
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