Secret Documents Released Adenauer Wanted to Swap West Berlin for Parts of GDR

It was already clear before the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 that the West would not take action in response, secret documents show. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer even proposed handing West Berlin to the Soviets in exchange for parts of East Germany.


Former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was known not to mince his words when it came to the Soviets and their allies. He labelled the communist superpower the "deadly enemy," called Kremlin Chief Nikita Khrushchev "a brutal fighter" and referred to East Germany as a "concentration camp."

So Andrei Smirnov, Moscow's ambassador to Bonn, probably had an inkling of what might be in store for him when he walked into Adenauer's Chancellery on August 16, 1961.

Three days before, members of the East German police and of the communist party militia had begun sealing off the border between East and West Berlin with barbed wire. Concrete blocks lay ready nearby to build the Berlin Wall. Millions of East Germans found themselves locked in the self-proclaimed "workers' and farmers' state."

But the tall, elegant Smirnov met a peaceable, polite Adenauer, who praised Khrushchev's intelligence and farsightedness and expressed his "urgent wish" to coexist in friendship with the Soviet Union.

The catholic Adenauer had never liked protestant Prussia. As Cologne's mayor in the 1920s, he used to close the curtains of his train compartment as soon as he crossed the Elbe river, the border to Prussia, while travelling to Berlin. He disliked what he called the "Asian steppe" on the other side of the river.

'Bothersome and Unpleasant' Wall

So now the communist regime had closed the border and the chancellor was appeasing the Soviet ambassador. He complained that it was a "bothersome and unpleasant" matter that had been played up "more than necessary." He said he hadn't asked the East Germans to move over to West Germany and would rather that they stayed "over there."

He did not protest about the building of the Wall, nor did he call for the border to be reopened or try to open negotiations to that end. If Adenauer's reaction in that meeting with Smirnov had become public at the time, he would probably have lost the pending general election. As it was, he defeated the SPD candidate and West Berlin mayor, Willy Brandt.

Until now, only excerpts of the protocol of that meeting had been known. It was part of a batch of top secret documents that have been released by the German government, partly in response to an application from SPIEGEL. The documents include notes on Adenauer's conversations, foreign ministry papers and files from the chancellor's office.

They reveal the sanguine approach the chancellor and his colleagues took to the building of the Berlin Wall. They also testify to the powerlessness of the government in Bonn, which had already weighed up all its options before the construction of the Wall began on August 13 1961 -- and concluded that it had none.

Fleeing the East

Ever since 1958, Khrushchev had been pressing to change the status of Berlin. Every day, hundreds of people left the GDR via West Berlin, causing serious depopulation that was putting the economic viability of the state at risk. Khrushchev was not a fan of the plan to construct a wall. The Kremlin dictator would have preferred to seize control over the exit routes from West Berlin to West Germany. Then those fleeing East Germany would have been trapped in West Berlin.

In 1958, a defector from the GDR had told West German authorities that there was the idea to build a wall. In September 1960, the foreign ministry representative office in West Berlin reported that the GDR had moved police from the Polish border to be able to "suddenly turn the open sector border into a closed state border."

In the summer of 1961, Wilhelm Grewe, Bonn's ambassador in Washington, asked the Americans which interests the West would be ready to defend. His list included "free travel inside Berlin." But as Grewe informed the foreign ministry in Bonn on July 4, 1961, the American reaction was "divided."

A Different Tactic

The West German government had "no rights" in occupied Berlin (Adenauer), and the Allies feared a war. At a special meeting of the NATO council on August 8, the representative of Norway openly declared that all members of the alliance would take "very serious risks" for West Berlin -- but not for "other not so vital points." The latter included the freedom of movement of East Germans, as US Secretary of State Dean Rusk made clear to a German diplomat after the Wall was built. The Allies were even unwilling to impose severe economic sanctions on the Eastern bloc. The British ambassador to Bonn later told Adenauer that no one in NATO would have gone along with something like that if Adenauer had proposed it.

Adenauer had no illusions. On Oct. 6, 1961, he told a US diplomat that "it is clear to every politician that a reunification is not possible in the foreseeable future."

Released documents show that the chancellor was pursuing a different idea. The US should offer the Soviets a swap in secret negotiations: West Berlin for the state of Thuringia as well as parts of Saxony and Mecklenburg. He made the suggestion to Secretary of State Rusk a few days before the construction of the Wall started.

Had Adenauer got his way, the cities of Schwerin and Leipzig would have become part of Federal Republic West Germany in the 1960s rather than in 1990.

Swapping Territory

To back his argument, Adenauer referred to the situation at the end of World War II. British and American units had advanced beyond the Elbe river to reach areas that subsequently became part of the Soviet zone of occupation under Allied agreements, while the Soviets had conquered the whole of Berlin, including the parts of the city that became the Western sectors. The victorious powers, still allies at the time, had exchanged the territory they had conquered. Parts of eastern Germany for the west of Berlin. Adenauer proposed reversing those steps. He wanted Rusk to demand that Khrushchev "hand over" areas that had been vacated by Western forces if he wanted to "eliminate the Allied rights in Berlin."

Adenauer pursued the project further in the months after the Berlin Wall was built, and broached it to President John F. Kennedy.

The plan was probably the brainchild of Adenauer's most important foreign policy advisor, Horst Osterheld, a 41-year-old diplomat. The head of the foreign policy department in the chancellery wanted to get the Americans accustomed to "offensive thinking" and to make the Soviets "more restless'" by calling their "acquired rights" into question.

Neither Osterheld nor Adenauer thought Khrushchev would agree to a deal. It would have deprived the German Democratic Republic of important industrial regions. But if the Soviets were to accept it, "it would be an advantageous exchange for us," Osterheld wrote on April 24, 1962.

The US administration took the idea seriously. The population of West Berlin would have to be relocated to West Germany, a senior official wrote to Kennedy, It was quite feasible that the Soviet Union would agree to such a "long-term solution," he said. But in the end, the president shied away from going ahead with it. And so everyone stayed where they were: the West Berliners in their city, voluntarily, and the people of Thuringia, Mecklenburg and Saxony in the GDR, unwillingly.

And Adenauer, as West German chancellor, had to keep up the onerous task of visiting Berlin.


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