The Media Did It

Neal Ascherson

  • The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989 by Frederick Taylor
    Bloomsbury, 486 pp, £20.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 7475 8015 4

What you felt on seeing the Berlin Wall depended greatly on the Berlin you had seen before. Frederick Taylor first visited Berlin as a schoolboy in 1965, when the Wall had already been up for some years. He presumably thought of other normal, undivided cities he knew, and was horrified. And anyone who had known Berlin before the Second World War was horrified in the same way.

For me, it was different. I had first seen Berlin in the 1950s, when it was divided, but only by ideology, and when one could still walk incredulously between two worlds. Here were the lights and the cars and the shops. Then the notice: ‘You Are Now Leaving the American Sector.’ And then suddenly the lights became darkness, the streets were deserted, the ruins were masked by gigantic red banners stirring in the icy wind from the east. When you had looked enough, you could walk back again, passing half-hidden sentries who scowled but did not challenge, until on the next street corner the other world welcomed you with a hiss of traffic, a dazzle of shopfronts, a gust of frying currywurst and chips.

So when I returned to live in (West) Berlin in the 1960s, the Wall seemed almost more natural than that spectral, unhindered transit. It was hard to trust my memory of how things had been before. Certainly, the Wall was an atrocity, a piece of sadism in concrete. And yet it seemed like a sort of solution too, an overdue acknowledgment of difference expressed in the conventional form of a frontier. Did it solve anything, at such a human cost? Only the inability of the Four Powers to find a sane Berlin solution without war.

Taylor’s teachers were adventurous by modern standards. They took their school party through Checkpoint Charlie and let them roam around East Berlin. Here young Frederick was accosted by a drunken officer of the National People’s Army and loudly abused for his long Beatles hair. It made a lasting impression. ‘East Germany, I realised, might pretend to be the workers’ paradise, but when you came down to it and put to one side the free nursery-school places . . . the place was about power. Unrestrained, unmitigated power. The kind of power that could build a wall to keep 17 million people captive.’

In later years, Taylor came to know the German Democratic Republic well. He did research work in the archives at Potsdam and Merseburg when he was a student, and travelled about the GDR to gather material about the rise of the extreme right in the early 20th century. More recently, after the fall of the Wall, his contacts in that part of reunited Germany helped him to write his excellent book Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 (2004), which knocked over several myths. But his view of the GDR as essentially ‘a place about power’, whose appropriate monument was the Wall, has not changed.

Is it fair? Well, if you ‘put to one side the free nursery-school places’ and ask if the people of that vanished country were happy, it is fair. It was a listless, lobotomised society. The limits on what an individual could do were tight, but few individuals bothered to visit those limits. It was symbolic that, as Taylor reminds us, the iconic ‘Berlin Wall’ was actually the bit visible from the Western side; East Berliners, held back behind the successive obstacles of breezeblocks, mesh fences and warning notices, scarcely ever saw that Wall at all. After it was erected, in August 1961, there was a rush of escapes and escape attempts. But as the years passed and the Wall was widened and its defences were elaborated, few people took the risk. Better to wait until you were old and useless to the Republic, when you could qualify for a pensioner’s pass to visit relations in the West. And as relations between ‘the two German states’ unfroze in the early 1980s, as many as 112,000 exit permits were issued annually.

The GDR was the most spectacularly efficient one-party dictatorship Europe has ever seen. The word ‘Stasi’ has been welcomed into the English language, and where Councillor Bloggs used to accuse Councillor Jones of using ‘Gestapo methods’, he now complains that Councillor Jones ‘is stooping to Stasi-type techniques’. An interesting comparison. Taylor cites the famous calculation that in the GDR there was one uniformed Stasi officer to every 320 people, whereas the Third Reich required only one Gestapo man to every 3500 Germans. The conclusion, not a pretty one, appears to be that the GDR maintained its grip on a staunchly anti-Communist population by state terror, whereas the Nazi regime was relatively popular. But I am not sure that the answer is so simple, or that public listlessness was caused primarily by fear.

The gigantic size of East Germany’s security machine, with its army of ‘unofficial collaborators’, was not related to need – in the sense of any rational estimate of potential opposition. (In Communist Poland, a much more explosive and rebellious society, the Stasi equivalent was far smaller.) Instead, the bloat derived from the paranoia of the Party leadership, from their craven wish to imitate the Soviet model of a Cheka or KGB as ‘sword and shield of the Party’, and from empire-building by successive ministers of state security. The GDR could have been kept quiet by a fifth of those Stasi officers, and under a much less oppressive variant of Communism. Popular apathy arose less from fear than from well-grounded despair at the international situation of Cold War Europe, which neither East nor West seemed seriously anxious to overthrow.

Taylor’s book is a vivid, comprehensive account of how the Berlin Wall came about, of the repulsive or inspiring events which took place along it during its 28-year life, and of its eventual fall in 1989. He backs this narrative with a summary of Prussian and Berlin history leading up to the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, a close study of the devious postwar struggles within the ruling Socialist Unity Party under Walter Ulbricht and then Erich Honecker, and an account of developing East-West relations before, during and after the great ‘Berlin Crisis’ of 1958-61.

When he is telling stories, Taylor is at his best. He makes compulsive reading, for instance, when he traces the process by which the first spontaneous and idealistic Fluchthelfer (‘escape helper’) groups formed in 1961 became slowly entangled in all kinds of moral and practical dilemmas. Should they carry guns and shoot back when fired on? They began to do so, but lost much Western sympathy when GDR border guards were killed. Should they raise money for expensive tunnels by striking coverage deals with American TV networks or Axel Springer’s right-wing press empire? They eventually did, but getting into bed with journalists sometimes compromised their security as well as their public image. Should they convert the whole effort into a commercial undertaking, in which the escapers were obliged to pay for freedom – and in hard currency? By the late 1970s, the price had reached something like £5000 a head.

His accounts of moments of crisis can be invaluable too. Taylor is good at sourcing and tracing decisions – his Dresden book showed that – and in reconstructing fast-moving episodes which confused even their actors. This applies to his careful breakdown of the way the Wall came to be opened on the night of 9 November 1989, for me the most lucid of so many efforts to explain that incredible, unplanned event.

It began at a chaotic press conference in East Berlin with Günter Schabowski, the Party’s media spokesman. Trying to decipher new regulations which had just been passed to him, he said at one point that permanent exit applications could be made immediately. The journalists didn’t know what he meant. Neither did Schabowski, who should have said ‘tomorrow’ instead of ‘immediately’. But after a few coffees, some reporters saw what, with a little creative help, he could be made to have said. First, Reuters stated that all GDR citizens could now leave by any border crossing point (which were not Schabowski’s words). Then AP proclaimed: ‘The GDR is opening its borders.’ West German television news grabbed the headline and led with it. Before the bulletin was over, East Berliners started heading for the Bornholmerstrasse crossing, then for Invalidenstrasse. Crowds became heaving mobs and eventually, with no instructions and reluctant to shoot, the border guards gave way. In short, neither politicians nor ordinary people opened the Wall. By inspired exaggeration, the media did.

That was worth knowing. So is what Taylor has to say about the terrifying stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie in September 1961, when, for almost the only time in the Cold War, American and Soviet tanks faced each other muzzle to muzzle. This was one of those typical Berlin moments at which the nuclear incineration of much of the world hung on a piddling dispute about detail and precedent. Should the tailboard of a military lorry be lowered to allow a glance inside; should an American official in civilian clothes (in the case which brought up the tanks) wave an ID at an East German soldier as he passed through Checkpoint Charlie or keep it in his pocket?

Precedents here were everything. I remember that the British Embassy in Bonn at that time employed a charming old gnome called Justiziar Dr Kohn, who knew the drill for every sewer-grating and borderline kerbstone in the divided city. Each incoming ambassador would sit dutifully to hear his introduction: ‘As Puffendorf used to teach about the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin is monstro simile – like unto a monster. Seek not to understand, only to preserve!’ But in spite of Dr Kohn, the British prided themselves on being rather less pernickety than the Americans. Their civilian personnel had no objection to waving their IDs, though they might well have contemplated war rather than let an East German handle them. Harold Macmillan, as Taylor reminds us, privately thought the Checkpoint Charlie crisis was ‘childish nonsense’.

Those are some of Taylor’s virtues. But in other ways – language, historical assessment, boldness of opinion – this book falls below the standard set by Dresden. Occasionally, he just gets things wrong, as when he writes that ‘in June 1956, widespread rioting in Poland led Khrushchev to appoint the relatively liberal Wladyslaw Gomulka . . . as leader of the Polish Communist Party’ – a travesty of that crisis – or when he says that the indigenous ‘Prusy’ of Prussia were Slavs. But there’s also an impression that a publisher has told him to find a more popular style for readers whose attention to the past is fragile.

Taylor has tried, but the results can be ungainly. It grates when he refers to ‘Ulbricht and Co’ or calls Brecht ‘the darling of the international left’. More seriously, after he has remarked that there are conflicting explanations for the end of the Cold War, the reader is offered this: ‘Some point to the triumph of the Hawks, the others to the triumph of Helsinki. Perhaps it was both.’ Historians, surely, lose rank if they write like that. Which explanation does he think is correct? If ‘both’, then he has to analyse how and why. ‘Perhaps’, jauntily dropped in like that, is out of order.

That passage and the ‘perhaps’ illustrate another weakness in this book that was not present in Dresden: a surprising reluctance to risk an opinion on difficult subjects. One example is his treatment of Stalin’s notorious Note of March 1952, offering Germany reunification in return for neutrality. Konrad Adenauer turned it down. Taylor records that some thought that Adenauer was right and the Note just mischief-making, but that others have argued that rejecting Stalin’s offer unnecessarily condemned Germany to forty more years of division. Good, but what does the historian-author think? We don’t get to know.

Earlier, he becomes nervous over the dramatic ‘fire-break’ controversy, now crucial to all interpretation of the Cold War’s origins. This is the revisionist theory that it was the Americans, rather than the Soviets, who engineered the division of Europe between 1946 and 1949. They did so, according to this analysis, because they judged that the spread of Communism could not be contained in a politically ‘neutral’ Europe. The United States therefore set about creating situations which forced uncommitted European nations to choose one bloc or the other. There is considerable evidence that the Marshall Plan, ostensibly offered to all European nations but in reality designed to be unacceptable to the Soviet Union, played a part in this strategy.

Taylor avoids taking sides on this. But then he devotes a long, agitated footnote to Carolyn Eisenberg’s 1996 book Drawing the Line, which advances the ‘fire-break’ theory. He describes her research as ‘fascinating’, but offers no view on whether she is right or wrong, and merely complains that she overlooks ‘persistent Soviet bad faith’. Surely he wouldn’t have given Eisenberg’s argument so much attention if he had not thought there was something in it. It would have been helpful to know what.

The biggest gap of interpretation, however, sits right at the heart of the story. Taylor gives an excellent, detailed account of how Ulbricht agitated and manoeuvred to get Khrushchev’s permission for a barrier sealing off the Western sectors. There is a great deal of information about the way it was built, and the way the supplies of barbed wire and fencing and the manpower to erect them were concealed from Western intelligence.

But why was it built at all? In East Berlin during the 1960s, one had to listen to a lot of blether about the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier, which was supposed to have saved the peace of Europe and averted a third world war. This line came in two main versions. The official-speech version in the GDR spoke of the Wall simply as a defence against agents, smugglers and saboteurs coming from West Berlin. The notion that it might have something to do with East Germans who wanted to go West was barely hinted at.

But the second version, the off-the-record or confidential-chat edition, was different. It ran approximately like this: ‘West German and American subversion was beginning to succeed. The draining of our population was beginning to threaten the survival of the state itself. If it had collapsed, then West German agents would have provoked disturbances, allowing disguised Bundeswehr units to cross the Berlin border and start annexing the GDR for the Bonn government. The Soviet Union would have been obliged to intervene, and that would have drawn in the Western Allies, and then . . . the nuclear holocaust. Our Wall is not pretty, but that is what it prevented.’

Forty years on, it’s clear that a very dilute, sanitised variant of that off-the-record briefing has become generally accepted. Nobody today excuses the Wall; everyone celebrates the day it came down. But they all agree that Ulbricht built it to stop his population fleeing, and that if he had not built it, so many people would have left that the GDR would have disintegrated. Having to build a wall, they conclude, proved that Communism was a fraud, but it prevented a terminal crisis for the GDR.

Both explanations, the GDR briefing and the 21st-century soundbite, agree that if the Wall had not been built, the German Democratic Republic would have bled to death. Only when it comes to consequences do the views diverge. One says it could have led to war. The other says: ‘Ulbricht and the Stasi would have got what they deserved, and the world would have become a happier place.’ But was the GDR really going to collapse? This seems to me the key question, the unexamined assumption. Two things need to be investigated. The first is whether the GDR really was facing implosion in the summer of 1961 because of ‘emigration’ through the open Berlin border.

The East German population was about 17 million at the time; by 1958 nearly three million had already fled to the West. A peak had been reached in 1953, the year of the failed June uprising, when some 400,000 people left. Thereafter, the figure reduced and steadied at about 250,000 a year during the later 1950s. The figures began to rise again during the ‘Berlin crisis’ of 1958-61, which spread fear of world war throughout Europe. In 1958, Khrushchev issued the first in a series of ultimata to the Western Allies; they must withdraw from Berlin, and the Soviet Union would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, handing over to the GDR full control of the land and air access routes to West Berlin, which would become a ‘free city’. Eisenhower and then Kennedy retorted by loudly reaffirming the Allied intention to stay in West Berlin. In the early summer of 1961, as the crisis deepened and the Ulbricht regime intensified its repression, the refugee figures rose steeply. About 18,000 refugees arrived in West Berlin in May, and nearly 12,600 in the first two weeks of July.

These numbers are accepted as evidence that the GDR now faced imminent disaster, only averted by the closing of the Berlin border on 13 August. But even if the July figure had been maintained, the total for 1961 would have reached about 300,000 – not vastly higher than the figures for the late 1950s. In the long term, population drain on this scale would have severely weakened the East German state, especially since so many of those leaving were young and qualified. (Tony Judt, in Postwar, 2005, gives a higher outflow: more than 30,000 in July, and nearly 22,000 in the first week of August 1961.) And yet that rate of loss was not necessarily lethal in the short term. It might have been sustained for a substantial number of years. In short, I am not convinced that the GDR had reached the edge of a precipice in August 1961.

But it suited Ulbricht to pretend to his Soviet and Warsaw Pact allies that it had. He wanted to seal off the Berlin frontier, a step Khrushchev for a long time resisted. Ulbricht’s motives, however, were not what they seemed. It may not, I suspect, have been the prospect of some internal apocalypse that most worried him, the looming death of his state from population haemorrhage. It was the maintenance of his own brand of tyranny. For the second unexamined question is this: can it be true that the Wall was the only way to reduce the outflow, or was there another possible remedy?

The answer is that – in theory – there was. A dramatic change of political course, a restoration of at least qualified free speech, a dismantling of state terror by the partial disbandment of the Stasi, a decriminalising of travel to allow East Germans to visit the West and return unpunished, a turn towards the production of consumer goods: all that would probably have stabilised the GDR. Poland changed course in that way in October 1956, although the ‘opening’ was closed again within a few years. East Germany would have remained a one-party state, inevitably poorer and less free than West Germany. But ordinary people – Germans more than most – hate to leave their homes for ever. The GDR might have become a country worth returning to, and even a country that – for all its inadequacies – was worth living in.

But for Ulbricht this would have meant abdication. Others in the Party leadership had suggested in the past that such an alternative course was practical, and had been brutally silenced. Narrow, arrogant, servile to Moscow and yet secretly convinced that German Communism – in the land of Marx – was superior to the primitive Russian version, the Ulbricht clique saw themselves and their methods as irreplaceable. It was not the ‘first socialist state on German soil’ that required a wall to survive. It was Ulbricht’s merciless grip on the state’s subjects that could not be complete without a wall.

Disappointingly, Taylor does not pose these questions. He seems to accept what has become the conventional view: that the Berlin border was sealed because uncontrolled flight had risen to a point at which it had become an imminent threat to the existence of the GDR. But in earlier and later passages, when he discusses the prelude to the Wall and its aftermath, he can be informative and shrewd. There is a very detailed account of the way Ulbricht gradually overcame the long Soviet reluctance to divide Berlin and threaten its Four-Power status in this way. And Taylor gives his imagination a break when he assesses the long-term consequences of the Wall, some of them ironic and unexpected.

The first consequence was a demonstration of how callously the West reckoned its own possible gains and losses in a Cold War crisis. Two years after the wall went up, President Kennedy would come to West Berlin and tell delirious crowds that he was ‘a Berliner’. But back in August 1961, he had relaxed at once when he realised that the Wall was not meant to challenge the Allied military presence in West Berlin. What it did to Berliners was sad, but for the Allies a lesser matter. The Wall, though they could not say so openly, came as something of a relief to governments in Washington, London and Paris.

Second, the barriers turned out, oddly enough, to guarantee that Western presence. Once the fearsome misunderstandings at Checkpoint Charlie had been sorted out, the Berlin border gradually ceased to be a site where international conflict might suddenly erupt. As a result, the Soviet side lost interest in perilous schemes to force the Western Allies out of the city, including the plan for a separate peace treaty with East Germany that would hand it control over ground and air access routes to Berlin. Now, with the Wall up, the treaty was shelved indefinitely.

This cannot have been good news for Ulbricht, who had nursed the absurd hope that a peace treaty would bring him international recognition and that the West would hand over the access routes to him without firing a shot. But, as it turned out, it was the Wall that eventually brought the GDR recognition. It made the West Germans abandon dreams that the other German state was about to expire, and led them towards the new policy of Wandel durch Annäherung – ‘change through rapprochement’.

So Berlin settled into an exotic yet predictable routine. At night, guard dogs barked and howled, but shots became very rare. The Four Powers, who soon forgave each other for the tiff in 1961, settled into a ceremonial round that gave them deep satisfaction. I remember especially the performances at Spandau, where splendid military detachments of each army relieved each other monthly – a parade, bands, salutes and present-arms – in the duty of guarding one man, potty old Hess. Each nation brought its own cooks, and issued luncheon invitations to officers of the other nations. Prison lunch in French month was much sought after.

In the real world, Berliners made the best of it. Foreign visitors, including West German school parties, were sometimes puzzled by how seldom the locals mentioned the Wall. East Berliners, as Taylor pointed out, could not see it anyway, but – incredible as it sounds – many West Berliners never saw it either. ‘Why should I? It’s not on my way to work!’ I was once told. In the East, people sagged into daydreams, spending hours on the sofa watching ads for unattainable goodies on Western TV.

When the Wall finally came down, was the old Berlin restored, or did a quite new and synthetic city appear out of the husks of East and West? I think it’s the latter. But a Berlin friend thinks otherwise. Within days of the border opening and the Stasi being overthrown, she said, the prostitutes reappeared on their traditional Strich (‘beat’) along the Oranienburger Strasse. Banned by the Communists and before that by the Nazis, they had not walked that pavement since 1933. But something, some urban hyper-memory, reached across almost sixty years and touched a granddaughter generation. ‘Berlin bleibt doch Berlin!’

As for the Wall itself, it became archaeology. Hammered into a million souvenir fragments, it dispersed to every land in the globalised world. But then, by popular demand, a few sample yards of its outer barrier had to be re-erected, like the gaudy slabs along Mühlenstrasse, where booths sell GDR badges as curios. Die Mauer, like all artefacts, has a biography linking it to its planners, its builders, its many different users who guarded it, preached over it, made money out of it, demolished it or died on it. And while the Wall still glints on all those coffee-tables and mantelpieces, or flaunts its shabby outline in open-air museums, or makes the material for books such as this, that biography has not come to an end.