Modern history




TWO DAYS AFTER THE closure of the border, a young man reported for duty on the Eastern side of the divide. Just twenty-one, Private Hagen Koch was a fresh-faced, newly married soldier in the East German army, the NVA.

Koch, born in the historic Thuringian town of Zerbst, was at that time a true believer. He had joined the SED at the age of nineteen. After completing an apprenticeship in technical drawing, he succumbed to strong peer and employer pressure and volunteered for the East German military. Due to his perceived political reliability, he was selected for the élite so-called ‘Felix Dzerzhyski Guard Regiment’ in Berlin—the military arm of the Stasi. Because of his skills in draughtsmanship, he was assigned to its mapping department.1

Koch’s service in Berlin brought him a wife, and increased his attachment to the Communist system. Even more, it increased his resentment against young people of his own age who lived in East Berlin but worked in West Berlin—sometimes part time and at weekends. They could earn 5 marks an hour in the West, which because of the unofficial 5:1 exchange rate, gave them 25 East German marks. So, for an afternoon’s work, such a ‘border-crosser’ could earn 100 East marks, which happened to equal an army private’s entire weekly salary. The ‘border-crossers’ flashed their money around, wore the latest Western fashions, and mocked those like young Koch, who existed on meagre Communist pittances.

So, when the border was closed on 13 August, Private Koch supported it with enthusiasm. ‘The measures’ would finally settle the hash of those kids who made, to his mind, a despicable profit out of living in a heavily subsidised socialist state while working in a dog-eat-dog capitalist one. Call it fair-mindedness or call it envy.

On 12/13 August 1961, Koch had been granted a rare weekend leave. He and his bride realised something was going on during Sunday morning, when they observed the first disturbances on the border. Koch was recalled to his unit, but it was not until 15 August that he was given a job. That job would make him rather famous. Or notorious. Again, depending on your point of view.

Around dawn on Tuesday, the young private was summoned to his commander and told to report to the East-West border. The staff responsible for the border closure was carrying out an initial inspection. Koch’s task would be to accompany them and ‘document the state of the extension of the border fortification works on topographical maps’.2

Koch got a new pair of boots, for this was going to be a long walk—most of the fifty or so kilometres from Pankow-Schönholz in the north to Alt-Glienicke in the far south-east. The hardest parts were places like the Bernauer Strasse, where only the buildings sat on GDR territory, while the pavements were already in the West. But Koch persevered, painstakingly drawing his maps on a folding portable table. The survey team made good progress, sometimes ferried short distances by jeep. They had covered twenty kilometres by early afternoon. Koch’s senior companions changed from section to section; but the conscientious young private with his instruments, his drawing materials and his folding table remained a constant factor.

At around three p.m., the mapping party arrived in the old centre of Berlin.

There was now barbed wire all along the Zimmerstrasse leading to the crossing point known as ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, which since Sunday was reserved only for foreigners. Coming from the Potsdamer Platz, the party cut down the Mauerstrasse (literally ‘Wall Street’, named after the eighteenth-century customs wall) and arrived at the checkpoint in time to witness a large and noisy demonstration on the West Berlin side. Koch’s superiors, superior Stasi men as they were, took offence at the Western ‘provocation’. Something had to be done.

Soon Koch found himself with new orders. The ‘aggressive forces of imperialism’, he was told by an officer, had to be shown the limits of their malign power. The 21-year-old picked up a can of white paint and a brush and found the exact line of the border, which followed that between the boroughs of Mitte in the East and Kreuzberg in the West.

Starting at the pharmacy on the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse, and ignoring yells and catcalls from the Western side, Koch straddled the border. Bending to his work, he painted a precise white line to show the ‘imperialists’ where East Berlin began. Then he marched smartly back to join the mapping party.

By the end of that long summer’s day, Private Hagen Koch’s task would be complete, his feet thoroughly sore, and the ‘white line’ he had painted at Checkpoint Charlie on 15 August 1961 would be world-famous.

Just minutes later, a couple of kilometres to the north, another guardian of the GDR’s borders was carrying out his duties. Corporal Conrad Schumann stood just inside East Berlin, on the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ruppiner Strasse, facing a jeering group of West Berliners. In parts of Bernauer Strasse, concrete slabs had been positioned to block escape routes, but at this time nothing more formidable than a three-feet-high roll of barbed wire stood between this inexperienced, unhappy young child of the SED state and the Western ‘enemy’.

Schumann, a nineteen-year-old Saxon fresh from NCO training school, had been drafted into the élite ‘Readiness Police’ and was one of 4,000 provincials who had volunteered for transfer to Berlin. When his unit first arrived just a few days earlier, he had been shocked to find that they were regarded with suspicion by East Berliners. Schumann remained in a confused and uneasy state, unsettled by the border closure and the ensuing events.

‘The people were swearing at us,’ Schumann explained later.

We felt we were simply doing our duty but were getting scolded from all sides. The West Berliners yelled at us and the Eastern demonstrators yelled at us. We stood in the middle…For a young person, it was terrible.3

Schumann’s discomfort was all too apparent. The young East German NCO was standing against a house wall, his machine-pistol slung over his shoulder. He chain-smoked, glancing occasionally in the direction of the Western protesters, mostly young men of his own age. They could read the doubt and indecision written on his face. Some stopped abusing him and started encouraging him to desert. ‘Come over!’ they called out. ‘Come over!’

A rookie photojournalist from Hamburg, Peter Leibing—a year older than Schumann and in Berlin for less than twenty-four hours—was also watching.

‘I had him in my sights for more than hour,’ Leibing recalled. ‘I had a feeling he was going to jump. It was kind of an instinct.’4

The urging from the Western side grew louder. A West Berlin police car drove up and stood with its rear door open and its engine racing. ‘Come over! Come over!’

Schumann suddenly tossed away his cigarette and ran for the wire, casting aside his heavy weapon as he reached the barrier and jumped for the Western side.

Leibing’s famous photograph—taken, ironically, with an East German Exacta camera—immortalises that extraordinary moment. The helmeted and jackbooted Schumann is captured in mid-leap atop the barbed wire, his young face immobile with concentration, symbolically overcoming this artificial and inhumane division and yet, for those of us who still look at the picture, frozen for ever between East and West.

‘I had learned how to do it at the Jump Derby in Hamburg,’ Leibing explained. ‘You have to photograph the horse when it leaves the ground and catch it as it clears the barrier. And then he came. I pressed the shutter and it was all over.’

It is the picture of a lifetime, taken right at the beginning of a young photographer’s career. All the more remarkable because his camera had no motor-drive. It was the only image Leibing had time to shoot.

Within hours the photograph appeared on the front of page of Bild. It found its way into scores of newspapers throughout the world and remains an iconic image.

Less famous—though in its way more revealing—is the photograph Leibing took of young Schumann once he got out of the police car in West Berlin. Bare-headed and with his collar loosened, Schumann looks suddenly like a bewildered small-town teenager, a little frightened and shocked at his own temerity and the attention it has suddenly brought him in a world he doesn’t yet understand.

The two images gave the world two views of the GDR’s youthful servants. One, the obedient Private Koch, ‘drawing the line’ of history; the other of the reluctant dissident, Corporal Schumann, who crossed it in one great, eternally remembered ‘leap to freedom’.

All Schumann ever said, then or later, was that he hadn’t wanted to shoot anyone. Going West was a way of avoiding a moral dilemma. Western interrogators were astonished at how poorly prepared the East German Vopos were from a psychological point of view. Schumann was the first ‘deserter’ but by no means the last. During these first thirty-six hours, nine more border guards would flee to the West, jumping the wire, crawling under it, or in one case scaling a factory wall.

Koch, by contrast, never had to worry about the kind of stuff that disturbed soldiers on the ‘sharp end’. He was a privileged ‘back-room’ type, who spent the rest of that afternoon—while the bewildered Schumann was adjusting to a double-edged fame in the West—travelling onward, by boat and foot and jeep to the southernmost limit of the sector border. His main concern was resting his blistered feet, the result of taking that long, long hike in his smart (but tight) new boots.

The result of the inspection tour in which Koch took part was to define the border, and the result of that definition was the building of a more permanent structure, the so-called ‘extension of the military engineering measures’.

At 1.30 a.m. in the morning of Friday 18 August, six crane trucks arrived on Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s Piccadilly Circus or Columbus Circle, south of the Brandenburg Gate. They unloaded dozens of concrete slabs of the kind hitherto used at checkpoints to control traffic. Some forty minutes later, a column of fire engines, concrete mixers, and a ‘work brigade’ of bricklayers arrived. Guarded by Vopos, they began to build a barrier across the entire square. Shortly after five, as dawn broke, they withdrew, leaving a concrete wall topped by two rows of cavity blocks, altogether just over five feet high, topped by metal staples suitable for the threading of barbed wire. At one point, this Wall (it feels legitimate to capitalise it from now on) ran inches from an entrance to the Potsdamer Platz subway station, one of the few on the Western side. West Berlin police and early commuters watched in astonishment.

Of course, the big station below the Potsdamer Platz was closed, though subway trains still passed through without stopping on a line that emerged from West Berlin, going north through East Berlin, and then went back into the West again. Passengers noticed armed and uniformed Trapos on the underground platforms. No civilians were to be seen. The other former trans-sector subway line through Potsdamer Platz, running West to East, was now truncated in the East and started at Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse.5 It ended on the Western side at Gleisdreieck, a few hundred metres short of where it would once have crossed the sector boundary or—before 1945—crossed no meaningful boundary at all.

So the lifelines of old Berlin were cut. Hagen Koch’s white line, a piece of local defiance by a keen Communist officer, was like the indicator mark for a surgical operation. It told the world that the nerve network of a great city, which carried buses and trains, sewers and telephone lines, was to be sliced, snipped and capped.

Berlin was a city of steel, stone, brick and wood. It was not alive in the literal sense, so it could not bleed or feel pain. But its people lived, and they felt intensely.

The day after a Wall first appeared across Potsdamer Platz, President Kennedy’s high-level representatives arrived in West Berlin.

Forty-eight hours before, Vice-President Johnson had been sitting in a restaurant in Washington, bitterly bemoaning attempts to wrench him from his familiar political habitat. Now the tough Texan was landing at Tempelhof Airport in an airforce Lockheed Constellation on the afternoon of Saturday 19 August 1961, bracing himself to play a game in which an extraordinary variety of roles was demanded of him: protector and admonisher, idealist and realist, cheerleader and diplomat.

The Vice-President and General Clay had first flown across the Atlantic in a Boeing 707. They were accompanied by a high-powered State Department party that included Charles Bohlen and various high-ups from the German Department (including Frank Cash and Karl Mautner) plus Johnson’s press assistant, George Reedy, and Jay Gildner of the US Information Agency. There were also some young women, inducted at Johnson’s insistence for stenographic purposes, and a press party that included Marguerite Higgins. The ‘Berlin Mafia’ was strongly represented.6

The story went that the normally quite reticent Clay spent the trip telling stories about his experiences in ‘beating’ Stalin during the blockade and emphasising how tough they had to be with Russians now, just as they had been then. If Truman had allowed him to send an armoured column down the autobahn in ’48, then the whole airlift wouldn’t have been necessary. In fact, they could probably have avoided the Korean War into the bargain. If, Clay maintained, he were president, he would tear the Wall down right away. And, just as in 1948 ‘Chip’ Bohlen had opposed fighting for Berlin, so now, in the cabin of the 707, he interjected that this sounded to him like a pretty good way to start World War Three. Plus ça change

Unusually for Johnson, he did a lot of listening during that journey.7

They didn’t fly directly to Berlin. Protocol considerations and 1960s technical limitations demanded a stopover at the Bonn/Cologne Airport. Here they were received by the American ambassador, Mr Dowling, and the West German Foreign Minister, Dr Heinrich von Brentano. This group accompanied them into Bonn, the modest university town where the West German government had been housed since 1949. There would be discussions and lunch with Chancellor Adenauer.8

The time since 13 August had not been Adenauer’s finest hour. Far from leaping on a plane to Berlin, the Chancellor had merely carried on with his duties and his election speeches. Some of the public had started to ask why he hadn’t visited Berlin in its hour of need. By way of contrast, since 13 August Brandt had achieved an uncomfortable amount of television and press exposure. Almost a week after the border was closed, Adenauer was finally persuaded by his aides that he had been a little lax on the Berlin issue, and that this might affect his poll numbers.

In the light of his recent realisation, what Adenauer really wanted was a lift in the Vice-President’s plane to Berlin, a political coup that would enable him to score some points over the photogenic West Berlin Mayor. Adenauer was, naturally enough, too proud to ask outright for such a favour, and so chancellery aides had already been in touch with the US embassy about the lift-to-Berlin issue.

The possibility of such a request had been discussed in Washington, and the answer decided upon in advance. It was ‘no’. To say ‘yes’ would risk appearing to take sides in the election. During the previous contest, Eisenhower’s Republican administration had indeed expressed support for Adenauer’s conservative CDU, souring relations with the SPD. President Kennedy had no intention of repeating such an elementary diplomatic mistake.

It was not until the very end of lunch that ‘Chip’ Bohlen was detailed to break the bad news, via Foreign Minister Brentano. Adenauer accepted the refusal in his habitual impassive manner. But he proved in no hurry to let Johnson depart. Clay had to muscle in on an ‘unscheduled after-lunch conversation’ between Adenauer and Johnson with the plea that ‘there are a lot of Berliners waiting for us’.9

The Vice-President and General Clay must, it had been decided, land at Tempelhof Airport. This was in the American sector, close to the Mayor’s headquarters at Schöneberg Town Hall, and had heroic associations with the airlift. However, the runway at Tempelhof was too short to receive the 707 in which they had crossed the Atlantic. The American party was therefore split up for the fairly short trip from Bonn to Berlin. The heavyweights flew to Tempelhof in a turbo-prop Constellation while the other ranks re-embarked on the 707, landing at Tegel, which lay in the French sector, an inconvenient distance north of the city centre.

Johnson and Clay’s arrival proved impressive, moving, and, in the way of such things, also slightly comical. The two big names were greeted by a 21-gun salute and the playing of both country’s national anthems. The reception committee consisted of Mayor Brandt and his leading aides. It also, to considerable surprise, came to include Adenauer’s representative, Foreign Minister Brentano. At the chancellor’s firm behest, he had also flown to Berlin, managing to arrive ahead of the Americans. Brentano then hurried over to the apron in time to join the party—and to ensure that Brandt and his SPD colleagues didn’t have the entire vote-catching encounter entirely to themselves.

But the real surprise to everyone, most of all the American visitors, was the mass of Berliners who turned out to greet them on that August afternoon. The people of West Berlin turned away from their preoccupation with the barbed wire and the armedVopossurrounding their half-city and flocked to the route that was to take the motorcade via the Potsdamer Platz to Schöneberg Town Hall.

Brandt and Johnson rode together in one of the American Mission’s open Cadillac limousines, followed by Clay and then the others, with motorcycle outriders to clear the way. The trip to Potsdamer Platz, to see the atrocity of the new concrete Wall, which should have taken five or six minutes, stretched out to twenty. The convoy repeatedly came to a halt in the crush. There were at least 800,000 West Berliners in the streets, maybe a million. They cheered. They sang and chanted the American VIPs’ names. They threw huge masses of flowers.

Clay, his aquiline profile known from airlift days, garnered special adulation. He, even more than Johnson, promised a successful resistance to the Communist threat. ‘Der Clay ist hier! Der Clay ist hier!’ Berliners cried in awe. As it crawled through the streets, the general’s limousine was bombarded with bouquets, including a bunch of red roses, tossed through the window with such violent enthusiasm that its thorns scratched his face. So many Berliners insisted on shaking Clay’s out-stretched hand that American commandant general Albert Watson, seated next to him, insisted he pull it back inside.

Johnson, though foreigners were not really his thing, decided that these were actually his kind of foreigners. Ignoring his security people’s advice, he got out of his car—which in any case was moving painfully slowly—and worked the crowd like the professional he was, embracing, shaking hands, kissing available babies and even patting a dog. The veteran politician was in his element. And, of course, the Vice-President knew that everything was being filmed and that in a few hours, once the footage could be flown back to the States, everything would be on the morning TV news. ‘Campaigning already’, as Brandt press aide Egon Bahr noted wryly.

They never made it to Potsdamer Platz. Johnson ordered the visit to be abandoned. Everything was behind schedule, and maybe his instincts told him that a direct confrontation at the dividing line between the two hostile world-systems might not serve much purpose. It wouldn’t calm things down the way the President wanted.

As it was, by the time the VIP motorcade got to the grey stucco Schöneberg Town Hall, with hundreds of thousands packed into the square in front and the surrounding streets, they were seriously late. Speeches were made, freedom invoked, and, although even Berliners who knew English sometimes found it hard to decipher the Vice-President’s Texan drawl, they cheered him until they were hoarse.

Inside the town hall, Johnson addressed the West Berlin parliament. Like ordinary Berliners, the members of the city’s assembly were over-joyed to have these two symbolically powerful Americans as their guests. They applauded incessantly throughout Johnson’s speech. The Vice-President might be uttering jewelled phrases hand-crafted by Dr Walt Rostow, but to them all that mattered was his presence here, with the famous General Clay alongside. They showed America cared. Or perhaps, to be pernickety, that America didn’t not care.

Heinrich von Brentano then spoke on behalf of the Bonn government. He sounded the only slightly sour (and exaggerated) note, claiming that the right of full self-determination was ‘denied to no people in the world save the Germans’. But then, there was an election on. Willy Brandt delivered the final oration. Given his own anti-Nazi credentials, he could and did tell his guests that ‘we will not bend our necks beneath the yoke of a new dictatorship, irrespective of the colour in which this dictatorship has decked itself out’.

A lavish banquet followed. Everyone got to bed late. They didn’t necessarily get to bed where they thought they would. Ambassador Bohlen, aide to Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, found himself, it is said, shifted out of the bedroom he had been assigned at Ambassador Dowling’s residence in bosky Dahlem. This was now to be occupied by Vice-President Johnson’s senior secretary.10

In the morning, Bohlen returned to Ambassador Dowling’s house to rejoin the Vice-President, who had breakfasted on oatmeal and melon. Then Brandt arrived for a private meeting. Now real conversations could be had. Business could be got down to.

Johnson and Bohlen’s first duty was to deliver President Kennedy’s letter to the Mayor. It is clear that Johnson, a renowned political bruiser, used this occasion to give Brandt a severe dressing-down. Johnson’s own report after his return to Washington merely indicates that the Mayor was ‘chastened’:

He was somewhat apologetic about his letter to the President and regretted that its contents had been given unauthorized publication in the Federal Republic, a disclosure for which he said he was not responsible. I said it did not add lustre to our cause to have our own allies writing critical letters to the President of the United States and putting him to the public question. I then remarked that I had not come to Berlin to debate the past but to reason together with him in quiet co-operation.

Mayor Brandt responded quickly to this approach and I got the clear impression that he was a chastened person, subject to one important exception; he seemed convinced that his letter, with all its faults, had at least moved American policy off dead centre.

I told Mayor Brandt that all the points in his letter had been most carefully and sympathetically considered in Washington, even when it had proved impossible to agree with them, and the American policy was set forth clearly and candidly in the President’s reply. He appreciated this candour.11

Johnson’s onslaught was perhaps even fiercer than indicated in his official report. The British ambassador to Washington sent a dispatch to London, following a dinner with Secretary Rusk. During the meal, the latter confirmed that

the Vice President had spoken very severely to Willy Brandt, upbraiding him for reacting so impulsively to the East German move and for firing off in public impractical proposals and unwarranted criticisms of the Western Allies. Brandt was apparently very shamefaced, made no attempt to justify his behaviour…12

It was true that Brandt had not been responsible for the leaking of the text of his letter to the press. This indiscretion had most likely been a ploy by Adenauer.13 Brandt was also right that the offending letter had helped to push Kennedy into a somewhat firmer commitment than the President would otherwise have wanted to make. From that standpoint alone, Brandt had probably been right to risk sending it—and to accept the consequences.

Later Brandt confessed that the effect of Kennedy’s letter was to ‘tear back the curtain and reveal an empty stage’.14 Only many years later would Brandt also be able to express his understanding of America’s problem. To Berliners and West Germans, the barrier that was now becoming a Wall meant everything. To the West’s superpower, however, whose resources and risks extended throughout the world, it was, of course, important, but just one among several actual or potential flashpoints.

At the time, the hugely stressed West Berlin Mayor had an election to fight and a population to protect. There was no point in biting the hand that (in some ways quite literally) fed him and his city, and without whose protection West Berlin would be defenceless. Brandt had to grin and bear whatever the Allies thrust upon him, and if necessary show contrition to ward off their displeasure. And that was precisely what he did on that tense morning at the ambassador’s residence in Dahlem.

Fortunately, there was better to come. The public naturally knew nothing of the tensions behind the scenes. Locals pinned a sign to the US guard post at Checkpoint Charlie that read touchingly if a little shakily: ‘Kennedy—Johnsen (sic)—Clay / alle drei o.k.’ (all three OK). The vice-presidential visit was an enormous propaganda success. Putting the second-most powerful man in America in harness with the legendary Clay was a stroke of genius. It also served to underline the fact that, whatever Clay’s prestige and popularity, the civilians were ultimately in charge.

The Vice-President was, however, a restless man. At the end of the meeting with Brandt, he was eager to get on. Johnson had two things to do today in his official capacity: first, pressing some more Berlin flesh in trips to a housing project in Charlottenburg and to the refugee camp at Marienfelde; and second, receiving the American reinforcements that were supposed to be arriving via the 110-mile autobahn transit-route from West Germany later that morning. Their arrival time was unpredictable. In fact, there was even a small but unnerving suspicion that the force might not arrive at all, if the Soviets decided to block the access route.

All the same, as the Vice-President’s motorcade set off once more at eleven on Sunday, heading towards Charlottenburg, everyone seemed cheerful enough. Vast crowds of Berliners packed the route into the centre of West Berlin. His six-feet-three-inch frame folded into an open-topped West Berlin municipal Mercedes, with a TV camera truck keeping just ahead to record his entire triumphal progress, Johnson was back in his element. He smiled and waved to the West Berliners like a man possessed, as his personality inclined him and his mission compelled him to do.

Again, the Vice-President repeatedly tested his anxious security people by stopping the car and striding among the crowd like a big friendly giant. Today he had an aide behind him with a bag. As Johnson pressed the warm, seething flesh with one spade-like hand, with the other he would reach behind to this bag and grab large fistfuls of goodies. Here a bundle of special ball-point pens, there a cascade of cards providing access to the visitors’ area of the US Senate, complete with the vice-presidential seal and facsimile signature. They were snapped up by delighted fans.

That’s what West Berliners wanted to see: a big, smiling Texan, units of whose big, serious army were heading up the autobahn towards their threatened city.15

The First Battle Group of the 8th Infantry Division, 1,500 men in all, had left base near Mannheim at just after four a.m. It was commanded by Colonel Glover Johns. He was, like the Vice-President, a Texan. The Soviets had been informed the previous day by General Bruce Clark, commander of the 7th Army, that the group was due to be transferred to Berlin. They had not replied. Some informal patrols of the transit-autobahn between Helmstedt and Berlin, including a sweep by Colonel von Pawel of the military mission, betrayed no special Soviet presence, but it was hard to know what the Russians would be holding up their sleeve.

It was a pretty conspicuous movement of military force. There had been TV crews filming as the group pulled out, and the long, strung-out column set off in the direction of the border with the Soviet Zone/GDR, more than two hours’ travel to the north-east. The column included mess trailers and fuel and ammunition trucks, several rifle companies, and a 105mm. Howitzer battery, a clear signal that this was more than the simple reinforcement of a peacetime garrison. There were no problems except right at the beginning, when one of the mess vehicles got bogged down and held up the brigade’s departure by five minutes.

They had lost another three minutes by the time they arrived at Helmstedt, meaning the column was eight minutes later than planned, but they had some time built in and were greeted, in the dawn light, by the peaceful sight of German civilian cars being checked through by a Soviet border unit. Again, no sign of the kind of large Red Army presence, armoured or otherwise, that might indicate a determination on the Communists’ part to block the Berlin autobahn.16

Colonel Johns had never been to Berlin before. He was assigned a Military Police officer, Major Luce, who acted as guide and adviser. At 6.30 a.m., the first section of the American column rumbled forward into no man’s land and stopped. It consisted of 276 men, and sixty trucks and trailers, some filled with high-explosive ammunition. Johns was astonished when the Soviets advanced on the trucks, to count the soldiers inside. He was not aware that this was normal procedure. Luce, who knew the routine, calmed him down.

In fact, the regulations said that Soviet border personnel were allowed to look into American military vehicles but not to climb on to them. And, once they had passed the Soviet barrier, American military personnel could not be made to dismount. This meant that if the American force was to be counted, it had to be done from a point outside the trucks. Colonel Johns rapidly realised that it would take, even at an average of one truckload per minute, an hour for the advance group to be counted, and three hours or so for the entire column of 200 vehicles.

Johns tried to help by getting his men to dismount so that they could be counted on the road outside their vehicles. The Soviets seemed puzzled, but eventually they agreed. The count then fell down on the fact that the figure arrived at failed to correspond to the US Army Movement Order in the Soviet’s possession. It was far too few. This was, of course, because only part of the column was involved. The advance guard had to move several hundred yards into East Germany and allow the rest of the column to pass through the checkpoint and line up behind it on the autobahn. The counting began again…

An hour had passed. And yet again, the count did not fit the figures in the Soviets’ possession. Johns tried to suggest that all the men simply be lined up in a single large column for easy counting, but the Soviets would not have it. Another count. Again no tally…

Johns, exhausted and infuriated, now wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He insisted that all the men move away from their trucks and line up in single file, all 1,500 or so. Then, dragging the Soviet checkpoint officer with him, Johns strode along, counting them off with a touch in each man’s chest and, after every ten or fifteen, turning to the Russian and saying, ‘Right?’ At which point, the Red Army man would confirm the running total in Russian.

They made it through and, miraculously, agreed on a figure. Less miraculously, this figure exceeded by one the number on the list the Russians had been given. The world’s security—or at least the colonel’s sanity—hung in the balance until someone gently pointed out that the name of Johns himself was not included in the paper total but stood in splendid isolation above it. But he had included himself this morning during the head count, as had his Russian counterpart.

John’s battle group could now move off down the autobahn towards Berlin. There were no more hold-ups, though at various times during the hundred-mile trip, Soviet jets swooped down to take a look. One descended to about 500 feet, its bomb doors open to reveal a camera trained on the American column. East German Vopos were stationed everywhere, a pair for each highway bridge and access road. Others lurked in bushes by the verges, or stood in plain sight until, on the column’s approach, they made for the woods or for the far side of the embankment. That shy creature, the Vopo, caught in one of its more unusual habitats.

There were not many civilians about, probably due to the Vopo patrols, but the few East German farmers in the fields and the oncoming motorists seemed, according to Johns, quite friendly. They waved, even smiled demonstratively at the Americans.

Bumbling Soviet border patrols, bashful Vopos, cheery collective farmers. Who could be thinking of a Third World War?

Nikita Khrushchev, for one. According to his son, Sergei, after he had been informed of the American reinforcements heading for Berlin, he became surprisingly nervous. Later, father and son were taking a walk when a bodyguard rushed up—an unusual occurrence when the Kremlin boss was taking his leisure—and for a moment Khrushchev seemed jittery. However, it was a false alarm. Khrushchev soon realised that Kennedy did not intend to undertake aggressive military action, and that the reinforcement of the Berlin garrison was a symbolic move.

In Berlin, there was a great surge in the popular mood when the Vice-President’s and the mayor’s triumphal progress towards the North Charlottenburg municipal housing project and Marienfelde was interrupted at around 12.30. Momentous news had been received. The battle group from West Germany was approaching the border between the GDR and Berlin. The VIPs must get ready to receive it. The limo turned south-west, weaving its way through back streets cleared by police cars with their sirens wailing and by skilful motorcycle outriders. The car was heading for the Avus highway, which would speed it down to the Dreilinden checkpoint. This was where the battle group would cross back into Western territory.

This moment, shortly after noon in Berlin on Sunday 20 August, was a potential turning-point in the West Berlin crisis. Nevertheless, by Brandt’s account, as they roared towards Dreilinden in the open car, his Texan guest’s mind seems to have wandered to other matters. To shopping, in fact.

Johnson chose this dramatic juncture make an enquiry of the mayor, not about Brandt’s views on the crisis, or on the European scene, but about places where the Vice-President might be able to pick up some stuff to take home for the folks there. You know…what about the place where they did the wonderful china? Ah yes, Brandt responded helpfully. The former Prussian Royal Porcelain Manufactory, now the State Porcelain Factory. This was famous for its pale-blue chinaware, which had adorned the dinner table of Frederick the Great and was still produced for the international luxury market. They had an outlet, but of course, it being Sunday, the place was unfortunately closed. Johnson’s reaction reflected his position as leader of a nation that lived to shop, forced to endure the privations of a nation that still, at that point in its history, shopped to live.

‘Well, goddamnit!’ he exploded. ‘What if they are closed? You’re the mayor, aren’t you? It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to make arrangements so I can get to see that porcelain. I’ve crossed an entire ocean to come here…’

Close to Dreilinden, the limo had to push its way through more crowds of jubilant Berliners. The American commandant, General Watson, took a secret-service detail and cleared a way through the final few yards to the reception podium by the side of the highway. There was a military band, plus the obligatory flock of news reporters and camera crews.17

Finally Colonel Johns was hauled up on to the saluting platform along with the Vice-President, who enthusiastically shook his hand and made an impromptu speech. Johnson’s welcome was echoed by a few brief words in English from Mayor Brandt. Then Johns made his way back to his jeep. Preceded by a Military Police vehicle, the First Battle Group, with Johns at its head, rumbled forward, very slowly, through a vast throng of West Berliners, who threatened to bury the vehicles under a multicoloured torrent of flowers.

The battle group eventually struggled to its destination: the McNair Barracks in the south-western suburb of Lichterfelde. Formerly the AEG-Telefunken factory, since 1948 the buildings had housed the combat units of the American occupation forces in Berlin. The exhausted troops were there belatedly fed, then promptly formed up again and subjected to ‘honest-to-goodness Deep South oratory’ from the Vice-President.18 In fact, all this welcoming was a little too prompt. Several of the newcomers collapsed in the August heat.

Nor were things over once the Vice-President had spoken. The troops were ordered back to their vehicles to prepare for a parade through West Berlin.

Meanwhile, Mayor Brandt had disappeared on city business back at Schöneberg Town Hall and the Vice-President was on his way to the nearby Marienfelde reception camp, one of the visits he had cancelled that morning. He was welcomed by a crowd of East German refugees. He was mobbed, in fact, almost to the point of suffocation. From Marienfelde the tireless visitor returned to Dahlem, to mount yet another saluting stand and start off the big—the really big—parade.

The subsequent drive-past of the battle group was even more memorable. Yet more bouquets hurled by joyful Berliners, yet more cheering and smiling and handshaking. Even the troops ended up grinning, leaning out and exchanging greetings with the crowd. A lot of them forgot altogether to salute the dignitaries as they passed the reviewing stand. It looked more like a welcome for a victorious football team than a military parade. They drove miles through the crowds, the length of the Ku’damm, every inch packed with humanity. Colonel Johns rode at the head in his open jeep, smiling until his face ached and waving until his shoulder all but came unhinged.

Afterwards, Johnson answered a few questions from the press back at Ambassador Dowling’s residence and then, under pretence of a call of nature, handed over these tedious duties to Charles Bohlen.

Bohlen had avoided the parade and spent the afternoon with various State Department German specialists, plus General Clay and Allan Lightner, the civilian Head of Mission, driving around East Berlin. There they had unnerved the Vopos by making an innocent but unscheduled stop at the men’s lavatories in Unter den Linden, just on the Eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate. So varied had been the diplomatic activities of the visitors to the flashpoint city, and so tense was the situation.19

Once Johnson had absented himself, Bohlen was determined to make clear beyond all doubt that America did not want war. ‘We are not going to take any risks in Berlin,’ he told the press.20 Ulbricht and Khrushchev must have loved him.

After the press left, there followed a lively Sunday evening. Vice-President Johnson rapidly acquired a glass of whisky, and kicked back in his inimitable, expansive style. He soon decided that instead of the intimate private dinner at the residence that had been planned, he would invite everyone and their wives out to eat somewhere. The rooftop of the West Berlin Hilton? Great.

The landmark Hilton Hotel had been built in 1958, its black-and-white checkerboard architecture looming above the brashly rebuilt Budapester Strasse and the entire Kurfürstendamm area. As elsewhere, it represented, in Conrad Hilton’s words, a ‘little America’, symbolising the USA’s economic power and reinforcing a near-utopian vision of the superpower’s lifestyle of freedom and plenty. Some other West Berlin politicians were invited. State Department specialists who thought they had the night off were summoned to perform translation duties.

So, everyone set off for the Hilton. But the bewildering blur of activity that was Lyndon Baines Johnson had not yet settled in one place. Just before they left for dinner at the Hilton, that other basic need—shopping—came up once more. After Brandt rejoined the party, Johnson noticed his loafers, and took a liking to them. Where did they come from? Leiser, the mayor replied, naming a well-known German manufacturer of quality shoes. Well, the Vice-President wanted to buy some…today. Brandt gave up resisting and put his chief of protocol on to the problem, asking him to also contact the porcelain factory as well. The American way had triumphed.

The Vice-President’s renewed retail offensive proved successful. By the time they arrived at the rooftop restaurant of the Hilton, with its panorama of all Berlin, the manager of the State Porcelain Factory’s showroom had agreed, given everyone’s gratitude to the emissaries of freedom, to open up his store on the nearby Kurfürstendamm for the Vice-President alone. Everyone waited for dinner while Johnson was whisked along to investigate the precious wares on display. The manager, Herr Franke, agreed to supply his guest with a full dinner service for the LBJ ranch and also a set of rocaille plates bearing the vice-presidential seal.

At last, Johnson returned to the Hilton and dinner could begin. At the Vice-President’s insistence, they all tucked into southern fried chicken, which to the Germans’ mild alarm LBJ consumed as he would at home, in absolute hands-on fashion. He broke off only to receive a full inventory of purchases from the punctilious Herr Franke, who had stayed on in his showroom to do the paperwork.

Herr Franke refused the Vice-President’s offer of a huge wad of dollar bills. He would, he explained with dignity, first ship the china to Texas, where the goods could be inspected and then, when found satisfactory, paid for. So impressive did Johnson find this reasonableness that he then ordered a host of ashtrays, likewise emblazoned with the vice-presidential seal, as a possible gift for honoured visitors in Washington. They agreed on the spot on a bulk-purchase price. As Johnson explained triumphantly to Brandt when the manager had left the room, ‘They look like a dollar and cost me only twenty-five cents!’21

As the evening wore on and on, and the tireless Johnson insisted on going out to the edge of the terrace to take a thorough look over at East

Berlin, just a couple of kilometres distant, someone nervously asked one of the Secret Service detail if this was normal. Or…was the Vice-President ‘on something’? ‘Oh no,’ the man answered, dead-pan, ‘the Vice-President is just his usual bubbling self.’

After returning to the ambassador’s residence, Johnson found samples of Leiser and Company’s loafers waiting for him, Sunday or no Sunday. Before going to bed, he happily tried them all on, and ended up ordering half a dozen pairs.

The Vice-President left just after dawn for the return trip to the States, still unwearied, though his right hand was swollen from shaking. He had been in West Berlin for less than forty-eight hours.

The Johnson whirlwind was over, but the calm was yet to come.

Use of cement and brick had commenced the previous Friday, but records show that the leadership in East Berlin was still not necessarily committed to the massive, deadly engineering project that the border would later become. Although approval had been given for a cement wall, about the height of a human being, to be erected in the built-up areas of central Berlin (beginning with the Potsdamer Platz and extending over the next few days as far as the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag), the barrier would for the next few weeks still consist mainly of barbed wire, wood and cement slabs and bollards placed across traffic routes, closely patrolled by armed police. The cementing-up of the doors and windows of buildings bordering the West also proceeded apace within a few days of the formal border closure.

Meanwhile, the escape rate continued at a level that Ulbricht and the leadership found distressing, humiliating, and even—strange as this may seem—surprising. Around 417 East Germans would manage to reach the West during the month following 13 August.

Many of them were former ‘border-crossers’ who had jobs, friends and family in West Berlin. They had a motive, and they knew where they were going.

Just such a perfect escape candidate was Ursula Heinemann, seventeen years old and a waitress at the Plaza Hotel on the Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin. Every day since she left school, she had commuted with the S-Bahn from the family flat in the East Berlin suburb of Johannisthal, heading over the sector border—which lay just a little over a kilometre northwards—into the borough of Neukölln in the American sector, and from there to work.

Ursula had been shocked by what happened on 13 August, but with the courage of youth she had no intention of passively accepting her fate, She could see that the situation on the nearby Teltow Canal was frightening, Guards were stationed along the banks, motor boats patrolled the waters, She travelled with a girl friend the long route around the rim of Berlin in the middle of that week of enforced idleness, to see if things looked a little easier at Gross Glienicke, which sat on the border near Potsdam. They didn’t. A day spent doing casual waitressing work at a beer garden frequented by border guards, some of whom affirmed their intention to shoot at escapers, convinced them that they were risking too much. Two days later, some close relatives, both disillusioned Communists, told her to ‘Get out and over to the West as quickly as you can’, Once the East German state got around to dealing with her, as a known bordercrosser, she would probably be shipped off to some collective farm in Mecklenburg or Thuringia.

It was on Saturday 19 August, the day of Johnson and Clay’s arrival, that Ursula and her mother took a walk, They headed north-west, with a cemetery and crematorium on their right and woods to their left, crossing a bridge that took them to the far side of the branch canal, the Britzer Zweigkanal, that connected the main Teltow waterway with the river Spree.

Both sides of the canal were still in East Berlin, but just two or three hundred yards away lay the Sonnenallee crossing point. This was still open, though only to Westerners coming East. Mother and daughter did not approach the checkpoint head-on, but took a path leading through neglected vegetable allotments. At this point, Ursula quietly told her mother she was going to investigate the possibilities.

Ursula advanced alone into the deserted garden area, knowing that the border between the Soviet and the American sector lay a few score yards distant, over a grassy moat known as the Heidekampgraben, A small, apparently deserted dwelling stood near by and, immediately ahead, a newly erected barbed wire fence, Although she was dressed just in a sweater and slacks, and she knew her mother was waiting for her, Ursula decided to try to get through, It felt like now or never.

There was a gap beneath the lowest strand of barbed wire, just wide enough for her to squirm under. With agonising slowness she did so, forcing herself to ignore the barbs as they ripped the wool of her sweater. She had to use one hand to lift the wire to let her through, She winced with pain, ending up with a bleeding gash on her palm. All the same, she made it. Only to find a second fence, which had been added just recently. She repeated the procedure, acquiring further lacerations, tearing more pieces out of her sweater.

Ursula could see the sign indicating the sector border just ahead. Her heart leapt. If she could make it through this final barrier, surely she must be safe? Then Ursula noticed cigarette smoke drifting through the air towards her. Somewhere, within a matter of a few feet, was a border guard, maybe more than one. But it was too late to turn back. She eased her legs through the last of the wire, then crawled as quickly but as quietly as she could past the border sign.

Ursula had arrived in West Berlin, a fact confirmed by a man standing in the garden on the other side of the sign. Whether the border guard had seen or heard her, but had decided to let her go, she would never know.

So unprepared was Ursula for the huge step she had taken that she carried only her identity card and a handkerchief, but no money. Some kind soul lent her a couple of marks so that she could take a bus to the reception centre and register in the West.

Ursula’s big advantage was that she had a job to go to. Within twenty-four hours of registering, she was back at the Plaza Hotel, where the management was eager to employ her again and provided her with accommodation.

The young woman even managed to set her mind to rest about her mother. Immediately after making it through to the West, Ursula was consumed by concern, After all, she had gone off to ‘explore’ and never come back. What would her mother think? But the Sonnenallee checkpoint was still open at this stage. The man she met in the garden willingly bicycled off, crossed into East Berlin, found her mother and reassured her that Ursula was safely in the West.

The situation of trouble-free access for West Berliners soon changed.

Having successfully pulled off the border closure without Western counter-measures, Ulbricht decided to turn the screw a little tighter. His government announced that from one a.m. on 23 August, the number of crossing points would be further reduced, from twelve to seven. Of these, only one would be open to foreigners and diplomats (Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstrasse), two to West Germans, and four to West Berliners (including the Sonnenallee checkpoint near where Ursula had made her escape).

The restrictions on foreign visitors were worrying enough, and inspired the usual protests, as did the reduction of the West German crossing points to two. But there was a far worse sting in the tail for West Berliners. The designation of four crossing points for them was misleading. They had hitherto simply shown their identity card to go East. Now they must apply for visas from two yet-to-be-established branches of the ‘Travel Agency of the GDR’, which the Communists demanded be set up in West Berlin at Westkreuz and Zoo stations.

The answer from Brandt’s city hall came back quickly. No deal. How could Brandt agree to such a thing? To allow East German visa offices in West Berlin would be to recognise the legitimacy of the regime, and to retroactively vindicate Ulbricht’s illegal border-closure measures, thus effectively undermining the entire Allied position in the city. Moreover, what was to stop the East Germans using such offices, once established, as a means of political destabilisation and subversion? The East must have known that the West’s agreement was extremely unlikely. The new visa order therefore, in reality, halted all access by West Berliners to East Berlin, dividing families, friends and lovers for the foreseeable future.

The next day came the first killing--the first death caused deliberately by those administering the alleged ‘defensive’ system.

Günter Litfin, twenty-four years old, was a qualified tailor at a fashion house in West Berlin, near Zoo station. Since he lived with his parents and brothers in the East Berlin suburb of Weissensee, he travelled daily to the West and was therefore a so-called ‘border-crosser’.

Young Litfin was suspected not just for working in West Berlin, in a ‘decadent’ industry, but also for his politically untrustworthy family. His father, a master butcher, had been a post-war member of the East Berlin CDU. In 1948, when this party was robbed of its independence and its leaders forced to flee to the West, Litfin senior refused to join the leftover shell that was the Communist-controlled ‘block’ CDU. He remained loyal to the independent party. This survived in the underground and held meetings in West Berlin for its Eastern members, who until 13 August 1961 could cross the border to attend.

In that summer of 1961, Günter Litfin had planned to move to West Berlin. He had found a flat not far from the fashion house where he worked. On Saturday 12 August, he and his brother, Jürgen, took the S-Bahn over there and spent the whole day preparing the place for Günter to move in. They worked until late, catching an S-Bahn home at around one a.m. on Sunday 13 August. It must have been one of the last through trains to travel into East Berlin before the line was closed.

The young man’s anger and despair at the border closure was under-standable. He had worked hard, and now, at the very last moment, found himself robbed of the future he had planned. Instantly unemployed, like Ursula Heinemann he could also expect to be victimised by the East German state. Günter spent the days immediately after 13 August touring the border areas on his bicycle, seeing how the barriers were being strengthened and extended. Sections were being walled off. Litfin decided to take his chances on what looked like the weakest point of the new border: the waterways. He was a strong swimmer.

At around four in the afternoon on Thursday 24 August 1961, Günter made his way along Alexanderufer, a road running along the bank of the ship canal that connects Berlin’s North Harbour with the river Spree. Here a bridge carried the S-Bahn between East and West, crossing what for eleven days now had been the heavily guarded border. The waterway was actually wider than elsewhere, about 150 yards across, forming a basin known as the ‘Humboldt Harbour’ (Humboldthafen). The advantage was that the far side, the Listufer, lay in the British sector of West Berlin. If Günter could just clamber ashore there he would be safe.

He continued to walk along the canal bank until he drew level with the railway bridge, under and around which were several mooring jetties. Suddenly Günter heard a guttural voice call out ‘Stehenbleihen!’ (Halt!) and froze.

There were transport police, Trapos, stationed atop the railway bridge, and they had spotted Litfin. But the young man was not going to just give up. He sprinted towards one of the jetties, from which he launched himself straight into the water of the Humboldt Harbour. Keeping the bridge to his left, he struck out strongly in the direction of the West. One of the Trapos stumbled after him along the bridge, and fired several shots in the direction of the swimmer, who was soon twenty-five yards or so from the eastern shore and moving fast towards his goal. Then one of the other guards locked his machine-pistol on to automatic and sprayed shots around the young escaper. After he let loose this ‘targeted burst’ (as the Stasi report would call it), Günter Litfin slumped in the water. A bullet had entered the back of his neck as he swam, emerging through his chin. It was, to all appearances, a deliberate kill-shot.

The sound of gunfire attracted a crowd on the Western side. Three hundred Westerners were forced to watch in helpless rage as, some hours later, East German police dragged Günter Liftin’s lifeless body from the murky waters of the Humboldt Harbour. Like Ursula Heinemann, he was a ‘border-crosser’ who wanted to go back to his job and the life he was used to. Unlike her, he had been fatally unlucky.22

The shock on both sides of the border was tangible. In the first few days, shooting had been infrequent and confined to warning fire. The depths of the inhumanity involved in the new ‘border regime’ were now revealed for all to see. Within a few days, on 29 August, another young East Berliner, 27-year-old Roland Hoff, was also killed while swimming to West Berlin, this time across the Teltow Canal to the American sector.

A week later, a breathtakingly tasteless article appeared in the SED newspaper, Neues Deutschland, lumping together Litfin’s and Hoff’s deaths. Litfin’s work for a fashion house sufficed for the paper to brand him a homosexual and to exploit this supposed lifestyle for their grubby purposes. Litfin, it was implied, had been seduced by the West Berlin demi-monde for who knows what disgusting ends.

The fiction was nevertheless maintained that it would have been possible for Litfin and Hoff to have applied for exit visas (which, though this was theoretically true, would never have been granted). The article says, with nauseating self-righteousness, that instead the two young men chose ‘dark, forbidden routes’:

…It is usual that soldiers or border policeman guard the borders of a state. All over the world, these border guards are armed, in order that they can prevent illegal movement across these borders. Our border guards did their duty, when they used their weapons against attempts to break through the border by force. Those who abused the border consciously and with aforethought put themselves in danger of their lives, and thereby died.

As for attempts to make heroes our of these ne’er-do-wells, we are familiar with this procedure. When the pimp Horst Wessel was killed in the pursuit of his not unrisky profession, he was turned into an object of Nazi hero-worship. Why then should not the homosexual with the nickname ‘Doll’, who jumped into the Humboldt Harbour, be turned into a hero of the Frontline City of West Berlin? Everyone should have the heroes they deserve. These attempts to create new heroes for the western world will subside into absurdity…23

This was a distortion worthy of Goebbels’ lie factory. The truth was, of course, that most border guards throughout history and all over the world tended to be there to keep foreigners out, not their own citizens in. The East would always claim that escapes, successful or otherwise, were the work of ‘agents’ or ‘criminals’. The developing Wall, and the armed border patrols, the fortifications and the death-traps, were thus purely ‘defensive’ in nature. The Communist authorities began to refer to the border as the ‘anti-Fascist protection wall’ (antifaschistischer Schutzwall).

Ulbricht himself was quite shameless in promoting this myth. On 28 August, in Neues Deutschland, his prose was more purple than ever:

Counter-revolutionary vermin, spies and saboteurs, profiteers and human traffickers, prostitutes, spoiled teenage hooligans and other enemies of the people’s democratic order have been sucking on our Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic like leeches and bugs on a healthy body. Naturally, they would have liked to continue sucking the blood and life force from our people…but if one does not combat the weeds, they will smother the young seed…this is why we have sealed the cracks in the fabric of our house and closed the holes through which the worst enemies of the German people could creep…

Precisely how cynical was this distortion of the Wall’s true purpose can be seen from secret documents of the time. Marshal Konev played the twinkling uncle to the Allied military-mission representatives a few weeks earlier to deceive them over the coming border closure, bur his correspondence with the East German leadership from the weeks after 13 August tells a totally different story.

Konev was a man who had survived the hard school of the Stalinist purges, led a vast army from Stalingrad to Berlin through the hell of the Eastern Front, then crushed the Hungarian revolt of 1956. His task, once the border closure had been decided, was to make it tight. Saving East German civilians from the consequences, as he saw it, of their foolish, anti-Soviet actions, was not his business.

‘The military engineering and technical extension of the border,’ Konev wrote to East German Defence Minister Heinz Hoffmann, ‘is to be undertaken in a direction calculated to deal with the main quarter from which border-violations can be expected’. Konev recommended that in the hundred-metre restricted zone on the eastern side of the border a ‘military regime’ should be instituted and ‘firearms used against traitors and those who violate the border’. He could be referring only to people who, like the tragic victims of 24 and 29 August, committed ‘border violations’ by trying to flee from East to West. 24

Despite the shootings, there was continuing concern about the effectiveness of the new border controls. The question of what to do about the canals and lakes (which, given Berlin’s geography, marked a substantial part of the border) or the so-called ‘green border’ areas that wound their way through woods, parks, and other open spaces, had still to be settled. This sense of unfinished business was increased when during September and October the escapes and escape attempts continued, growing more dramatic and ruthless in their methods as the border regime tightened.

On 20 September, a spectacular escape occurred, in which a truck was driven at speed through a concrete-post-and-wire barrier of exactly the kind that the experts had been concerned about. It happened between the boroughs of Treptow (East Berlin) and Neukölln (West Berlin) at a place where, by some vagary of pre-war local-government regulation, the sector border stopped following the Landwehr Canal, and a West Berlin salient therefore jutted out into the East.

The official report submitted to Ulbricht described the sequence of events:

On Sunday 17 September 1961 at around 18:25 a truck of the type H6, approaching from the direction of Graetzstrasse, travelled along the Bouchéstrasse (Treptow District) in the direction of West Berlin. Just before t.he Heidelberger Strasse, the vehicle signalled right. Presumably, this was to fake a right cum into the Heidelberger Strasse.

After it continued across the Heidelberger Strasse, the guard stationed at the top of the Schmollerstrasse observed that the vehicle increased its speed. After a slight cum co the right on the Bouchéstrasse, with the aim of aiming for a favourable breakthrough point the vehicle turned again in the direction of the pavement on the left side of the street, then drove through the barbed wire fence situated there (attached to posts) and reached the left section of the pavement. Here the anterior limit of the left pavement, which becomes a front garden, forms the state border with West Berlin.

As it turned in the direction of West Berlin, from his post at the top of Schmollerstrasse, the People’s Police Guard fired a burst with his automatic weapon. It is thought that one of the occupants of the vehicle was injured as a result. The three occupants were able to escape to West Berlin.

The vehicle came to a halt…it stood on West Berlin territory, only the right-hand rear double-tyre extended out across the edge of the garden boundary (state border). The vehicle was later cowed back.

The breakthrough point was then closed by a party of engineers.

We have sent in a responsible Party commission, which is checking all street crossing points independently of the staff of the Border Brigade co see to what extent the former transit routes co West Berlin have been made completely impassable. A report will be prepared for each of the streets concerned.25

Soon the Border Brigade reported that points along the border vulnerable to the methods used in the Bouchéstrasse escape were being worked on. Concrete slabs were cemented in like tank traps, and streets torn up and rendered impassable. Existing stretches of ‘barrier wall’ were improved by topping them with bent-steel uprights, to hold the barbed wire and deflect escapes from the Eastern side.26


Victor and vanquished–Berlin, August 1945

The Blockade–coming in to land at Tempelhof, 1948

Stones against tanks, 17 June 1953

The Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin, 1960

‘No one intends to build a wall,’ Walter Ulbricht, 15 June 1961

Exhausted refugees, Marienfelde reception camp, July 1961

The first hours–border troops on the Potsdamer Platz, 13 August 1961

Building the Wall, August 1961

East German Workers’ Militiamen, 14 August 1961

Families divided, August 1961

Families flee, Bernauer Strasse, August 1961

Conrad Schumann jumps the wire, 15 August 1961

A 77-year-old East Berliner caught in a tug of war between Vopos at the window and West Berliners below, Bernauer Strasse, 24 September 1961

General Clay (left), Vice-President Johnson (centre) and Mayor Brandt (right), 20 August 1961

Berliners welcome US reinforcements, 20 August 1961

Götz Bergander, at the Reichstag, 1960

Bergander’s fiancée, Regine, West Berlin, 1960

East German refugee Joachim Trenkner in his new ‘Bubble Car’, summer 1961

US troops escort American officials into the East at Checkpoint Charlie, October 1961

A Vopo searches a tunnel, January 1962

High noon in the Friedrichstrasse, 28 October 1961

‘Freedom Train’ driver Harry Deterling and family, December 1961

Peter Fechter dying at the Wall, 17 August 1962

President Kennedy (fourth from left) in Berlin, June 1963

Vopos patrol a cemetery by the Wall, 1963

Cracks in the Wall, 1966

Everyday terror–the Wall in the 1980s

Competitive building (West): Axel Springer’s headquarters, right beside the Wall, with Peter Fechter memorial (foreground )

Competitive building (East): Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee) with television tower (left background) and Hotel Stadt Berlin under construction (right background)

‘Little’ Honecker and ‘Big’ Kohl, Bonn, September 1987

The Brandenburg Gate, 1980s

The end of the Wall, November 1989

More tightening of the border regime was, however, obviously required. On 14 September, on Ulbricht’s personal order, the borderpolice brigades in Berlin-38,000 men-were transferred from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Defence. What had been police units became soldiers, subject to military discipline. A new military post was created, city commandant of Berlin, a major-general in the NVA who reported to the Minister of Defence, Hoffmann.

There was another reason for imposing military discipline. Escape attempts were not confined to determined civilians. In less than a month after the barrier went up, 68 members of the special police units deserted to the West. Thirty-seven fled individually, like Conrad Schumann, while of the rest, a dozen cases were of two guards escaping together, with one group of three and another of four all deciding to go West.

These escapes represented a considerable achievement of planning on the part of the escapers. Superior officers, NCOs and Stasi were constantly probing what was being said and discussed in the guard posts, the barrack rooms and the canteens, with the aim of nipping such attempts in the bud. All but 3 of the police deserters were between 18 and 21, therefore likely to be single and without responsibilities or dependent family members who might suffer as a result of their actions. Most were not active anti-Communists. Three were SED members, 47 had belonged to its youth movement. The report on this problem blamed poor leadership, the fact that many of these units had been formed only a few weeks before 13 August, and-as usual when all else failed-‘insufficient political education’. 27

At 8.30 a.m. on 20 September, there began a special meeting of the Central Staff, presided over by Honecker. Here the ‘inadequacies in the border security system’ were stated frankly on the agenda. Honecker sternly told the assembled ministers and officials that ‘All attempts at breaking through must be rendered impossible’. They discussed the proposed new‘ 18-20-km. border wall’, plus the creation of anti-vehicle ditches to prevent escapes by truck or bus, an increase in the erection of upright concrete slabs and barriers, the sprinkling of sand on the border approaches to make detection easier, and the barring of the inter-sector sewer system, through which several spectacular escapes had already been made.28

Surprisingly, not all ministers supported the idea of a wall. Stasi Minister Mielke thought a barbed-wire barrier would be ‘more durable and suitable for the prevention of border infringements’, while Defence Minister Hoffmann was in favour of a system mostly composed of ‘concrete blocks and ditches’. It was thought by these powerful and expert advocates of caution that in non-built-up areas a wall would throw shadows beneath which escapers could conceal themselves, thus negating the solid advantages of concrete.

Ulbricht’s support for the ‘border wall’ none the less proved decisive. It was his contention that barbed wire ‘tempted people and provoked them into more and more attempts to break through the border’.29 There was soon confirmation of this. In the first week of October, a 260-yard stretch of post-and-barbed-wire fencing on the so-called ‘green border’ between Gross-Ziethen, in the East near Schönefeld Airport, and the district of Lichtenrade on the far-south-eastern rim of West Berlin, was actually torn down, leaving this part of the border wide open. To the Stasi’s alarm, border troops in the area did not even notice this was happening.

The barrier that would become the Wall was therefore taking shape, in large part simply in response to the continuing determination of East Germans to escape to the West, no matter the cost. The leadership was astonished and dismayed by the large number of escapes still being attempted. This was happening despite the obvious risk and despite the leadership’s best efforts, as well as those of the tens of thousands of police, soldiers and work parties striving to make the border impassable.

For similar reasons, another threshold was quietly crossed. The instructions to GDR border troops of July 1960 had circumscribed the use of firearms, laying out a careful escalation of warning instructions and shots before guards could fire at the person of a would-be escaper—preferably aiming at the legs. But in fact, from the third week of August 1961, a de facto shoot-to-kill policy was in effect. The self-righteous gloating over the deaths of Günter Litfin and Roland Hoff indicated a clear change in the border regime to one of ultimate force.

At the 20 September meeting, a secret order declaring that ‘firearms are to be used against traitors and violators of the border’ made the situation quite clear.

On 6 October the Minister of Defence, under whose control the border forces now stood, issued an order in which he stipulated: ‘A firearm may be used to the extent that is required for the purposes to be achieved.’ The main ‘purpose’ was to stop the fleeing individual reaching Western soil at all costs.

A third fatal shooting took place on 12 October at a railway goods station bordering West Berlin, where two young Easterners were spotted in the small hours of the morning, trying to force a grille and escape across the border. When challenged they ran off back into the Soviet sector, but guards shot one of them, twenty-year-old Klaus-Peter Eich, anyway, inflicting a fatal wound. The other escaper, though pursued with dogs, managed to evade capture. So now even attempting to ‘desert’, and turning back, could be punished with death. It was another ominous development.

It came as no surprise that neither then nor later were any members of the GDR’s armed forces tried for reckless use of firearms, manslaughter, or murder. The message was quite simple. All means necessary were to be used to hinder escape attempts, and if the authorities suspected that any border guards had deliberately allowed an escape, harsh disciplinary consequences would ensue. Ulbricht himself made his will brutally clear in a speech to Free German Youth officials: ‘Whoever provokes us, we shall fire on them…Many say that Germans just can’t shoot at Germans. (But) if we are dealing with Germans who represent imperialism, and they become insolent, then we shall shoot them…’30

The sole stipulation modifying border guards’ freedom of action was simple: they must not under any circumstances open fire on West Berlin territory, so as to avoid international incidents. Otherwise, if an escape was foiled, by whatever means, promotions, medals and pay increases were the order of the day. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that members of the border-control forces tended to shoot at escapers in a way guaranteed to disable and likely to kill.31

So the knot began to tighten. October would bring the XXII. Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Moscow, a huge international showcase for the international Communist movement.

Ulbricht hoped that Khrushchev would use the congress to formally announce the signing of a peace treaty with East Germany, and therefore the assumption by Ulbricht’s government of all the powers in the Soviet Zone and the Soviet sector of Berlin exercised since 1945 by the Russian occupiers. Then Ulbricht would be free to squeeze West Berlin without restraint.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!