The Khrushchev Connection Who Ordered the Construction of the Berlin Wall?

Historians have long argued over whether East German leader Walter Ulbricht or his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev was ultimately responsible for the construction of the Berlin Wall. A newly discovered Russian document from August 1961 provides some answers.

They met in Stalingrad, where they fought on the same side in 1942. One of them, the son of a miner from Ukraine, organized the city's defenses against the German Wehrmacht forces, while the other, a German exile, used a bullhorn to encourage infantrymen to change sides. This much is certain, and it is also certain that the two men -- the impulsive Kremlin dictator Nikita Khrushchev and the calculating founder of the German Democratic Republic, Walter Ulbricht -- were never overly fond of each other.

Nevertheless, during the decade in which they simultaneously shaped the fates of their respective countries, Khrushchev and Ulbricht were close allies. But which of the two men was responsible for the construction of the Berlin Wall  on Aug. 13, 1961? Whose idea led to a 165.7-kilometer (103-mile) bulwark -- a monstrous barrier of concrete and barbed wire, surrounding the western section of the city, armed with watchtowers and booby traps?

Never before had a regime locked up its own population. The border between the two Germanys had been sealed off for some time, but when the Wall went up, the loophole into West Berlin, through which East Germans had been able to flee to West Germany, was also closed.

From then on, anyone who wished to leave East Germany was risking his or her life. At least 136 people died in the attempt to surmount the Berlin Wall. They were shot by border guards, ripped to shreds by landmines or they drowned in the Spree River.

Was this sinister method of border control created at the urging of Ulbricht, because his state of workers and farmers was threatened by a brain drain, as former Soviet diplomats claimed after German reunification? Or did Khrushchev order the Wall's construction, as former senior members of the East German communist party, the SED, claim?

For years, historians have been trying to clear this contradiction, and now an answer may be in the offing. It appears in a Soviet document that Matthias Uhl of the German Historical Institute in Moscow has discovered: a previously unknown record of a conversation that took place between the two leaders on Aug. 1, 1961.

By that time, the preparations for building the Wall were well underway, and the initiative apparently came from Khrushchev, as he said himself in the August meeting with his East German counterpart. A short time earlier, according to the document, Khrushchev had sent the Soviet ambassador in East Berlin to Ulbricht in order to "explain to him my idea of taking advantage of the current tensions with the West and laying an iron ring around Berlin." In the conversation, Khrushchev pointed out that "many engineers" had already left East Germany, and that something "had to be done."

Of course, Khrushchev had little difficulty convincing his visitor, at least according to the minutes of the Moscow meeting. Indeed, Ulbricht was in favor of walling in the East Germans because, as he said, "there are many issues that cannot be resolved with an open border."

It was the height of the Cold War, and the comrades believed that the conflict between socialism and capitalism would be decided in Germany. For that reason, they wanted to make sure that East Germany would economically outpace its West German rival. But Ulbricht's planned economy failed to gain momentum, and in 1960 alone, roughly 200,000 East Germans fled from empty supermarket shelves -- and the Stasi secret police -- to West Germany. At the Aug. 1 meeting, a furious Khrushchev told Ulbricht: "When I attended your party convention two years ago, everything was fine. What happened? You wanted to pull ahead of West Germany by 1961/62."

Ulbricht responded candidly to Khrushchev's accusation, saying: "The population is making demands that cannot be met."

Ulbricht, a Leipzig native who had been trained as a carpenter, shifted the blame to his comrades from Poland and Bulgaria, who -- contrary to all agreements -- were supplying neither steel nor coal. But most of all, he said, it was the fault of the West German government. Ulbricht made the audacious claim that Bonn was even "preparing an uprising" in East Germany, which was to "take place in the fall of 1961." His somewhat naïve host appears to have believed this nonsense.

Khrushchev, at any rate, stepped up the pace. "We will give you one or two weeks to make the necessary economic preparations," he told Ulbricht. "Then you will convene the parliament and issue the following communiqué: 'Beginning tomorrow, checkpoints will be erected and transit will be prohibited. Anyone who wishes to cross the border can do so only with the permission of certain authorities of the German Democratic Republic."

Khrushchev wanted to convince the East German population that the wall being built would protect them from Western spies, and he said that the Germans would understand.

But even Khrushchev didn't appear to totally believe his own propaganda. When Ulbricht told him, during the August meeting, that he wanted to bring his economic experts into the loop, Khrushchev advised him otherwise. "You should not explain anything before the introduction of the new border regime," he said. "It would only strengthen the flow of people leaving."

If word got out about the wall construction, the Kremlin director recognized correctly, there could be "traffic jams" on Berlin's access roads. Such forms of traffic obstruction would constitute "a certain demonstration," he said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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