Modern history

13

HIGH NOON IN THE FRIEDRICHSTRASSE

AWAY FROM THE CAULDRON of Berlin, the world carried on. In West Germany, of course, a rancorous election campaign was still in progress.

The day after Vice-President Johnson left, on 22 August, Adenauer appeared in West Berlin. Naturally, as protocol demanded, the ruling Chancellor was received by Mayor Brandt. Photographs of them together show the men looking away from each other, their faces impassive. When the old Rhinelander viewed the closed border at the Brandenburg Gate, he was greeted with catcalls and boos—and that was just from the Western side.

What happened on 13 August had presented Adenauer and his CDU government with a serious problem. Their policy on German reunification, which the Chancellor had pursued throughout his dozen years in office, was suddenly revealed as bankrupt. Through the so-called ‘Hallstein Doctrine’1, which stipulated that West Germany would not enter into relations with any country that recognised East Germany (the USSR being the only exception), Adenauer had tried to isolate the Communist regime. Through insisting on the status of West Germany as the sole legitimate German state, and Berlin as German capital-in-waiting, he kept alive the idea of a unified country. And through the so-called ‘magnet theory’, according to which in the longer term East Germany must be drawn into the orbit of the progressively richer, more dynamic and more powerful West Germany, Adenauer had promised his people the inevitable collapse of the Ulbricht regime.

After the primitive, brutally effective action of the Ulbricht/Khrushchev axis in Berlin—and the clear failure of the ‘big three’ Western occupation powers to oppose it—Adenauer and his ministers stood naked and helpless. Perhaps because of this, the Chancellor’s trip to West Berlin was brief and fairly inglorious.

The election campaign continued. Adenauer grimly went on beating the increasingly hollow drum of conservative nationalism and blowing the rather more convincing trumpet of continuing economic success. His goal was to rally his hitherto reliable support among the vast middle class that had benefited from the post-war ‘economic miracle’ for which his government could claim credit. But the old fox no longer showed his habitual sureness of touch. The notorious and widely derided ‘Brandt alias Frahm’ speech was one example. In another bizarre outburst, this time in the Westphalian town of Hagen, Adenauer even characterised the Wall as ‘deliberate electoral help on Khrushchev’s part for the SPD’.2

In the elections on 17 September, Brandt failed to unseat Adenauer. The West Berlin Mayor and his supporters had hoped that the Wall crisis and his new status as a national figure above party politics would help the SPD out of the working-class electoral ghetto in which it had languished throughout the 1950s.

None the less, Brandt’s party gained more than 4 per cent in the polls. Adenauer’s CDU lost almost 5 per cent and its overall majority. The big winner was the business-orientated Free Democratic Party, which won over middle-class voters who saw the bankruptcy of the old Chancellor’s policies but remained nervous of going all the way leftwards and voting for Brandt’s ‘Reds’. With almost 13 per cent of the vote, it held the balance. The problem was, the FDP had declared that it would not go into coalition with a government led by Adenauer.

After 17 September 1961, West Germany found itself in a situation of chaotic interregnum. Negotiations for a coalition government would last two months, eventually concluding only when 85-year-old Adenauer promised to step down midway through the government’s four-year term, to make way for a younger man.

Ulbricht, watching the confusion in West Germany and in the Western Alliance from his perch in East Berlin, could be very satisfied. He had got most of what he wanted. The GDR was now locked firmly into the Soviet Bloc; the border situation had been stabilised at a stroke, and with it East Germany’s demographic and economic situation. There could now be no possibility that the state he had struggled to build would suddenly collapse.

Nevertheless, being the practised and devious salami-slicer he was, Ulbricht was not about to sit on his hands and wait for Khrushchev to hand him the rest of what he wanted—a separate peace treaty, full control over the GDR as a sovereign state, and, last but not least, rights over access to and from beleaguered West Berlin.

In September, two British MPs visited the Leipzig Trade Fair in East Germany. They were treated to lunch with Ulbricht—and to a relentless tirade that showed how strong was the East German leader’s lust to turn West Berliners into virtual prisoners of his border police. The MPs’ report on their trip was passed on to the British Prime Minister’s office:

Ulbricht said that a Peace Treaty would be signed before the year was out and that it would be based on the Potsdam Agreement. Thereafter, no one could fly over or enter East German national territory without a visa from East Germany. Such visas would not be given to ‘undesirables’. BEA {British European Airways} would not be allowed to overfly the East German territory without a special agreement. He did not think that Tempelhof would be a suitable aerodrome for Berlin, but if its use was continued there would have to be East German control there.3

It was this relentless inability of Ulbricht to leave well alone that led to a direct American-Soviet military confrontation on the streets of Berlin, and once more threatened to bring the world to the brink of war.

On Sunday 22 October 1961, ten weeks after the border closure, Deputy Leader of the American Mission Allan Lightner and Mrs Lightner approached the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint in a car bearing American occupation-force plates. They planned to attend the performance of a Czech theatre company in East Berlin. It was 7.15 p.m.

Military and civilian representatives of Western authorities in Berlin had been accustomed over the past sixteen years to come and go between East and West Berlin at will. The pragmatic British placated the East German officials with an airy wave of their ID cards (though they would not get out of their vehicles), but the Americans stubbornly refused to show any documents. This routine was about to be challenged. When the Lightners slowed down at the East German guard post, instead of waving them through, theGrepos stopped them and demanded proof of identity.

Something similar had happened a few days before to a less high-status group of American officials, so Lightner was forewarned. He refused to show any documents. If Lightner’s status were to be questioned, it must be by a representative of the appropriate occupation power, not by an East German policeman whose authority he did not recognise. Lightner demanded a Soviet officer be summoned in order that the situation be resolved.

Thirty-five minutes passed, and still no Russian appeared. Lightner decided to drive on into East Berlin, steering his car around the crude barriers put in place to stop escape vehicles. He had driven forty yards into the Soviet sector when he was stopped by an East German patrol. He sat in his car, surrounded by armed border guards, and did not move.4

General Clay, the President’s personal representative in Berlin, had by now been alerted. In the two months since his arrival as Kennedy’s personal representative, Clay had bombarded Washington with calls for tougher action. He had also authorised ‘Wall-busting’ exercises involving American military vehicles, training troops for the possibility that the newly built sector border might need to be breached. However, he had remained primarily a figurehead, a rallying point. Many in Washington had expressed fears about Clay’s gung-ho tendencies before he was dispatched to the beleaguered city. Their fears were about to be confirmed. Or so it seemed.

At nine p.m., an hour and three-quarters after Lightner first arrived at the border, eight American MPs, led by Lieutenant Claude L. Stults, were ordered by the US army provost-marshal in Berlin, Lt-Colonel Robert Sabolyk, to cross into East German territory.

With bayonets fixed, the escort party crossed the white line into East Berlin. They marched past the barriers and over to where Mr Lightner sat in his car. They escorted him on foot as he drove slowly past the speechless East German guards and a short way further into East Berlin. Then they returned to the Western side.

But the diplomat wasn’t finished. Dropping Mrs Lightner off at the guard post, he drove back into the Eastern sector. He was stopped. Again the Grepos were forced to watch as Stults and his MPs marched with Lightner as far as the Leipziger Strasse, a couple of hundred yards into the Soviet sector, and back again. A few minutes later, a Soviet officer finally appeared on the East German side of the border. It was to him that Lt-Colonel Sabolyk issued an official protest. At around 10.20, Lightner passed through again, unchallenged, and did his circuit to the Leipziger Strasse and back. He was followed by several other Allied civilian vehicles, which also went unmolested.

Mr Lightner never got to the theatre, but principle had been (some-what theatrically) preserved. He considered himself entitled to enter East Berlin unchecked, and, with the aid of American military might, that is what he had done, albeit to take no more than a short evening constitutional or three. To reinforce the point, Clay also had four tanks appear on the American side of Checkpoint Charlie.5

The Soviets immediately declared through their spokesman that the whole business with Lightner had been a mistake on the part of the East Germans.

End of story? No. It was a worry—and perhaps a first indication of a certain dissonance between Soviet and East German priorities—when, the following day, the East German news agency ADN made an announcement on behalf of the GDR Ministry of the Interior. In future, all foreigners in civilian clothes would be required to show identity documents to East German officials when crossing the border.

Clay made no public statement about this, but privately fired off a sharp telegram to the Secretary of State, in which he emphasised the importance of not giving in to East German machinations.

I am convinced {he wrote} that the GDR will require identification at Friedrichstrasse for all US licensed cars not driven by soldiers in uniform as a first step in requiring identification for all allied personnel. This would of course eliminate any special allied rights in East Berlin as all foreigners have these rights.6

In other words, an American occupation official would have no more right of access to East Berlin than, say, a Belgian tourist, thus negating the entire notion of privileged four-power occupation rights in the former German capital.

Clay expressed ‘serious doubts that Khrushchev really wants to leave to the GDR the full responsibility for control over access to Berlin with the risks of war which this involves’—a shrewd appraisal, as events would show. Unlike most officials in Washington, however, he saw this not as a lead to be followed in East/West discussions but as a reason for refusing to negotiate with the Russians ‘under the present atmosphere’. Negotiations should only be resumed if the Soviet Union agreed to recognise the current status quo in Berlin as a basis. Only in this way, he suggested, would Khrushchev be ‘forced to show his hand’.

Clay wanted this put to the Soviet ambassador in Washington immediately. Meanwhile, he said, he would not test the East Germans that same day (24 October) but felt that it was important to do so the next day (25 October).

So there was a 24-hour hiatus. The general was not starting from nothing on this issue. On 18 October, following the earlier incident where Americans were refused access to East Berlin, he had sought and been granted new instructions in case of possible Communist action to close the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint:

As approved by White House following course of action by USCOB {United States Commanding Officer Berlin} authorized in event Friedrichstrasse entry point closed either by unacceptable demands for documentation or erection physical barriers by GDR.

(1) Two or three tanks would be used to force barrier and demolish any obstacle barring entry;

(2) Tanks used for purpose would be withdrawn immediately after accomplishing mission and stationed nearby inside West Sector.

(3) Commandant in Chair for month, or alternatively, USCOB would then call Karlshorst immediately to protest GDR action and demand urgent meeting with Soviet Commandant, as well as assurance safe conduct through sector boundary for purposes of this meeting.

Press statement would be issued soonest Berlin, explaining Allied forces had destroyed barrier illegally erected by East Germans; matter was being protested to Soviet Commandant; Allies continue to hold Soviets responsible for assuring unrestricted Allied circulation in East Berlin.7

And if the Soviets refused to do anything about the East Germans’ salami-slicing? The answer to that question was left unclear, probably deliberately. Clay, that rare creature—a gung-ho realist—would have been the first to realise this.

Meanwhile, however, it was not just the statesmen of the West from whom the Berlin situation was an unwelcome and dangerous distraction. Hundreds of miles to the east, the Communist world was splitting apart.

The XXII. Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began on 17 October 1961 in Moscow. More than 5,000 delegates from all over the USSR and representatives of four score international Communist parties attended to pay homage or, in one or two cases, make less flattering feelings clear.

The XXII. Congress appeared to represent the apogee of Khrushchev’s power. It opened in a huge, new marble-and-glass building, the Palace of Congresses, that had been completed just days previously after a frantic race against time.

Since the defeat of the ‘anti-party’ group four years earlier, Khrushchev had consolidated his rule throughout the Soviet imperium. Sputnik, and the flights of the cosmonauts, had greatly increased Russian prestige. The Soviet Union itself was less repressive, and its citizens a little more well provided with consumer goods, than had been the case under Stalin. In the Third World, socialism seemed to be on the march. The Soviet Union’s influence had even, thanks to its recently acquired protégé, Fidel Castro, arrived on the very doorstep of the United States. Just a few months earlier, in April 1961, the rookie US President’s attempts to foment counter-revolution in Castro’s Cuba had been a humiliating failure. In his introductory speech, Khrushchev proclaimed the ambitious plan of ‘creating Communism’ in the Soviet Union by 1980 and reasserted his support for ‘national liberation’ movements all over the world.

Russia’s leader was therefore riding high. But he had problems. There was the growing rift with Mao’s China, which disapproved of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and was constantly pushing for a more aggressive policy against the West. Khrushchev held back from direct attacks on the Chinese, whose delegation was led by Foreign Minister Chou En-lai; instead all the aggression was levelled against China’s solitary ally in the European Communist movement, the Albanian party led by the tiny country’s savagely eccentric dictator, Enver Hoxha. At the congress, Khrushchev all but called for Hoxha’s overthrow. In the background, there also lurked questions about Khrushchev’s wayward and highly personal agricultural policy, based on his attachment to maize-growing as a farming cure-all.

And then there was the continuing crisis in Germany.

The world had long assumed that the XXII. Congress would see a triumphant announcement on Germany. The construction of the border barrier in Berlin on 13 August had been achieved without conflict. It was now widely expected that the Soviet leader would give the German question another hefty, possibly conclusive shove in front of the assembled Communists from all over the world, and finally stymie the West by announcing a separate peace treaty with East Germany.

Those who believed this were wrong. And most wrong of all was Comrade First Secretary and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the GDR Walter Ulbricht, who until now had been getting everything he wanted.

On 17 October, the opening day of the congress, Khrushchev announced matter-of-factly that he was rescinding his ultimatum to the West. He did not now envisage signing a separate peace treaty with East Germany before the end of 1961. He denied abandoning this goal altogether, and heaped fulsome praise and support on Ulbricht and his regime, but the message was clear.

Kvitsinsky, the Russian Foreign Ministry insider who had first informed Ulbricht of Khrushchev’s assent to the Wall, explained the Soviet leader’s logic:

The Wall itself was the way with a lot of fuss and ceremony to bury the idea of a separate German peace treaty, in the sense of a separate treaty with the GDR. After the building of the Wall, the signing of a separate peace treaty with the GDR was not necessary. All issues that needed to be resolved were resolved. Ulbricht saw in a peace treaty a way to receive international recognition. For us, international recognition of the GDR was important, but not the most important [thing]. We saw that this would happen no matter what; it was a question of time. After the borders were closed, there would be no other choice than for the West to recognise the GDR. And that is what happened.8

Ulbricht had got some of what he wanted. Khrushchev had got almost all of what he wanted, and with far less trouble than he had feared. The West had shown it could live with a divided Berlin and a closed-off East Germany. Any more ambitious demands, Khrushchev realised, would risk conflict with the West and possibly war. He would have been aware, through the comprehensive network of Soviet intelligence operatives in West Berlin, that Clay had set up a special training ground where his troops practised knocking down lengths of cement-block wall identical to parts of the recently erected border barrier. Why provoke the Americans further?

Moreover, although the Americans had continued talks with Moscow even after 13 August, they had not given substantial ground. President Kennedy had written to Khrushchev recently, precisely regarding the ‘Ulbricht problem’:

This area would…be rendered less peaceful if the maintenance of the West’s vital interests were to become dependent on the whims of the East German regime. Some of Mr Ulbricht’s statements on this subject have not been consistent with your reassurances or even his own—and I do not believe that either of us wants a constant state of doubt, tension and emergency in this area, which would require an even larger military build-up on both sides.9

This may have resonated in the Kremlin. Another reason why Khrushchev had turned down the heat on the peace-treaty question (and was preparing to put it on the back burner) was that almost everything Ulbricht had done on his own initiative during the period between March and October seemed to underline the unwisdom of allowing the East German leader to determine questions of access to West Berlin. So long as the USSR retained a semblance of four-power involvement in Berlin, while at the same time supporting East German sovereignty in every other regard, it kept ultimate control. Otherwise Moscow would be dependent on Walter Ulbricht’s will, and would essentially allow him to make policy.

Ulbricht himself had been in Moscow for over a week when the 22 October border incident occurred. Whether he was personally responsible for Allan Lightner’s avoidable detention at Checkpoint Charlie that evening, we do not know. However, whoever ordered the Grepos at the Friedrichstrasse crossing point to demand Lightner’s ID and then refuse to call a Soviet officer when the American diplomat so requested, must have known they were unleashing a crisis. They must have assumed themselves to be acting in the spirit of the leader’s desires.

There is absolutely no indication that Ulbricht, who was in constant contact with East Berlin from his Moscow residence, did anything to rescind that decision. The subsequent announcement by ADN that the East German authorities would continue to harass plain-clothes Allied personnel trying to cross into East Berlin must be seen as further evidence of a plan that had been authorised at the highest level.

On Wednesday 25 October, Clay decided to ‘test’ the East again. At 9.25 a.m. an American civilian official drove a car with US military number plates through the checkpoint. He refused, when challenged by the East Germans, to identify himself. Once more no Soviet officer appeared. An American officer then appeared and issued an ultimatum. If within an hour the East Germans did not allow the official through, a crossing would be achieved by force.10

At around ten a.m., American tanks appeared in the vicinity. Within a short time, ten had lumbered on to the Friedrichstrasse, where they sat with their engines running, fifty to sixty metres from the checkpoint. The two foremost tanks, as Soviet reports noted, were front-mounted with bulldozer blades. Also present were several jeeps and four armoured personnel carriers containing armed American soldiers.

At ten minutes to one, almost three and a half hours after the original incident, five jeeps, each containing four armed men, appeared. They escorted the civilian vehicle through into East Berlin, just as jeeps had accompanied Lightner the previous Sunday evening. Again, they turndled onward to a depth of about 200 yards before turning smartly and returning to the safety of the American sector. As they did so, two American air-force helicopters also flew over the area.

The tanks were withdrawn from Friedrichstrasse at two o’clock that afternoon, but all American forces in Berlin were placed on full alert. At the barracks in Lichterfelde, tanks were rolled out on to the parade ground. Armoured units were dispatched to the autobahn checkpoint at Dreilinden. Armoured personnel carriers were seen in the Tiergarten area, close to the border.

Within minutes, all this was known to Soviet Defence Minister Marshal Malinovsky and to Marshal Konev, who was also attending the XXII Congress in Moscow. Konev immediately ordered that a Soviet officer be stationed at the Friedrichstrasse crossing, opposite Checkpoint Charlie. The Soviet commandant, Colonel Soloviev, was instructed to receive his American counterpart.

The meeting between the commanders did little to defuse the situation. Soloviev could no longer simply dismiss things as a ‘misunderstanding’. In this publicly escalating situation, the Soviets could not disown the East Germans without losing face. Soloviev therefore stonewalled, complaining of American stubbornness and pointing out that uniformed Allied personnel were not subjected to demands for proof of identity. The checkpoint incident on 22 October was described as ‘an act of armed provocation that cries out to heaven’.11

During the afternoon of 25 October, several more American civilian vehicles were escorted on short tours of East Berlin. The East Germans did their best to make things awkward, in one case having a car drive at speed out of a side-street as an American vehicle and its armed escort—a jeep loaded with soldiers, plus two bayonet-wielding GIs on foot—were returning slowly to the checkpoint after their excursion. Only the swift reaction of one of the foot escort, who threatened to fire at the oncoming car’s windscreen, averted a contrived traffic accident that would have given the East Germans an excuse for restricting American drivers in East Berlin.

After night fell, the East Germans directed powerful searchlights at the Western observers, making it difficult for them to see what was happening on the Communist side. The Americans retaliated by mounting a hugely powerful searchlight of their own on one of their tanks. The 100,000-candlepower beam was so dazzling that the Grepos were forced to turn their backs on it and withdraw into their guard hut. They turned off their own searchlights shortly after.12

That evening, a further escalation occurred. Unidentified tanks were spotted, moving in the direction of Unter den Linden. They parked in a bombed-out lot within what had once been the Prussian Crown Prince’s palace. The next morning, a Russian-speaking CIA man with diplomatic cover was sent to check out the situation. He strolled up to one of the group of parked tanks. When a soldier popped up out of the turret, he asked him in German how to get to Karlshorst. The man stared at him in blank incomprehension. The American asked the same question in Russian. He was treated to a friendly grin and a stream of travel instructions.13

There was a total of thirty-three Soviet tanks parked a few hundred yards from Checkpoint Charlie. They stayed there all through 26 October.

This was the first time in years that Soviet armour had been seen inside East Berlin city limits. Even on 13 August, they had held back and allowed the East German NVA to man the potential front line within Berlin. Ten forty-ton American tanks and five armoured personnel carriers were now parked and at the ready in Friedrichstrasse. By now, the British had decided to show willing. According to Associated Press, they moved three anti-tank guns into position near the Brandenburg Gate, trained precisely on the area where the Soviet tanks were parked.

This was starting to look genuinely dangerous.

At three p.m., the Americans decided to test the border yet again.14 The tanks moved towards the border, three of them stopping right on the line with their big guns trained on East Berlin. Then an American civilian in a blue German-made Ford Taunus threaded his way through the barriers the East Germans had placed there in order to slow down traffic. He progressed on to the Eastern side until he was stopped and asked for his documents. The man refused. He sat in his car for some time. Then American provost-marshal Colonel Sabolyk appeared on the scene again. He walked through the border post, past the East German border police, and got into the Ford.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Sabolyk told the driver. The man turned the car around but halted just before they got back to the border line. By now the area was filled with hundreds of civilian spectators—the theatre being played out here had become a kind of grim, high-stakes entertainment for the locals as well as the international press. Sabolyk leaned out of the car and asked for a Soviet officer to be summoned. He was told by a Grepo captain that such a decision was up to his superiors.

‘That means no,’ Sabolyk retorted. He indicated the American tanks, which were turning over their engines, and said: ‘We’re coming over. Tell that to your superiors.’

Three jeeploads of soldiers, wearing bullet-proof vests and with bayonets fixed, escorted the Ford Taunus into East Berlin. The jeeps peeled off once they reached the final barrier and the way was open. The car, containing the original driver and a Russian-speaking member of the provost-marshal’s staff, cruised around East Berlin for five minutes or so, then drove back to the checkpoint. The East Germans again stopped it and demanded documents. The Americans again refused.

‘This is the worst example of international impudence the world has known!’ bellowed an East German officer.

‘You seem to have forgotten,’ said the man from the provost-marshal’s staff, ‘that we do not recognise you, and God forbid we ever should!’

The driver then flashed his lights in a pre-arranged signal. The jeeps roared forward and escorted the car back into West Berlin. Meanwhile, a carload of British personnel had also driven through from East Berlin. They had waved their IDs and been allowed through. This was starting to look like a farce, albeit a deadly one.

As an older Berliner said to the New York Times: ‘If you could not act when they split the city on 13 August or when they cut you down to one crossing point, how are you going to make this stick?’

The Russians decided that they could not leave all the bullying to the Americans. The next morning, 27 October, after yet another American sally into East Berlin, they brought up ten tanks. Marshal Konev had spoken to Khrushchev. The leader had told his c.-in-c. to match the Americans exactly. But no shooting.

Once more, Khrushchev, with his strange and unnerving combination of impulsiveness and calculation, was engaged in both provocation and calibration. He was still involved in a major international congress, where he had launched another outspoken attack on Stalin—an attack that had led directly, while the congress was actually in progress, to the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum it had shared with Lenin’s since 1953. Khrushchev’s continuing denunciations of Stalin were unpopular with the Chinese, the Albanians and various other unreconstructed organisations and individuals within the movement.

As a show of strength to foes in West and East, Khrushchev had ordered the resumption of nuclear testing. A thirty-megaton device was detonated on 23 October, during the first week of the congress, and an even bigger test-bomb would be dropped from more than seven miles above the island of Novaya Zemlya in the icy Barents Sea on 30 October, just as the congress was winding down. The gigantic flash of the explosion could be seen 700 miles away, and a swirling mushroom-like pillar of smoke rose up to fifty miles into the atmosphere. Despite this ruthless show of world-destroying power, and despite his ruthless coup in dividing Berlin, Khrushchev’s alleged failure to confront the West remained a background issue. The Chinese delegation left before proceedings were over. The Sino-Soviet split—in which Beijing would accuse Khrushchev of ‘restoring capitalism’—would not become fully public for another couple of years, but it was pretty much a reality by October 1961.

While pursuing a reforming, anti-Stalinist line, Khrushchev could not afford to show weakness on a key foreign-policy matter like Berlin. Hence the tough stance, and his order to Konev to match power with power. The two sides did indeed end up with ten tanks each, facing each other across the border. The American tanks had their engines running, and the ones with the bulldozer blades were prominently displayed. American helicopters continued to ‘buzz’ the checkpoint and carry out observation flights over East Berlin, ignoring East German and Soviet protests.

Once Clay was told that the tanks were definitely Russian, he was quick to gain propaganda advantage. ‘The fact that Soviet tanks appeared on the scene,’ he declared at a press conference in Dahlem, ‘proves that the harassments which were taking place on the Friedrichstrasse were not those of the self-styled East German government but ordered by its Soviet masters.’

At the time, and for years afterwards, Clay’s view—that the Russians unleashed the Checkpoint Charlie confrontation in order to humiliate America—was generally accepted. However, what now seems more likely, with the hindsight afforded by several decades and the gradual unearthing of documentary evidence, is something different. Once more, Khrushchev had found himself forced by Ulbricht’s aggressive anti-Western stance into going further than he wanted. Looked at this way, the decision to bring Soviet armour into East Berlin might be represented, not as an escalation, but as an attempt to claw back control of the crisis from the East Germans.

The stand-off lasted sixteen hours through a ‘chilly, drizzly night’.15 It was the first and only time during the Cold War that American and Russian forces faced each other at close proximity, fully armed and ready to fire if either side made a false move. Nor, as Defence Minister Malinovsky would carefully point out to the Central Committee, was the crisis necessarily localised. American and Western aircraft and warships were put on full alert throughout the world. During the Checkpoint Charlie confrontation, four missile-firing atomic submarines of the Polaris class were submerged in the North Sea, Malinovsky reminded his colleagues—each with sixteen warheads aimed at targets in the Soviet Union.16

Who would blink first?

Not Ulbricht. Still in Moscow, he fired off furious telegrams to the Politburo in East Berlin via his trusty supporter, SED organisation man Hermann Matern. On 27 October, as the tanks were moving into position, he told Matern to play down the actual confrontation between the three Western powers and the Russians for domestic consumption in the GDR. The protests of the American commandant, General Watson, and Colonel Soloviev’s response were not to be reported in the East German press. The press was also to hold off attacking the West ‘in exaggerated form’ because other measures were being planned and at this point Ulbricht did not want unnecessary provocation. Nevertheless, ‘previous instructions to the effect that civilian personnel of the three Western powers must show their identity documents are to be precisely carried out’. In other words, no giving-in to the Americans.

Mielke, the Stasi Minister, was commanded to ensure that within three days a steel barrier extending the whole width of the Friedrichstrasse had been constructed. This would be installed at a time to be advised.

Colonel Soloviev [Ulbricht concluded] has declared unambiguously to the Western powers that border controls are a matter for the German People’s Police. He has protested at the act of provocative penetration into the GDR. He has announced counter-measures. Foreign Minister Gromyko has summoned the American ambassador, Thompson, to convey an identical declaration to him.17

In fact, although this may have been what was happening publicly, unknown to Ulbricht, in private something very different was already in train.

According to Clay, when he spoke with Kennedy that evening, the President asked him if he were nervous.

‘Nervous? No, we’re not nervous here,’ Clay remembered answering. ‘If anybody’s nervous, Mr President, it will probably be people in Washington.’

This dig at the State Department faint-hearts and congressional liberals, who had opposed Clay’s appointment to Berlin and continued to criticise his alleged brinkmanship on the matter of the Wall, failed to ruffle the President.

Kennedy conducted the entire call to Berlin with his feet up on his desk. ‘Well,’ he told Clay, ‘there may be a lot of nervous people around here, but I’m not one of them.’18

The reason for the President’s insouciance was simple. He almost certainly already knew that moves to defuse the situation were under way. Kennedy’s brother Robert had been cultivating a relationship with Georgi Bolshakov, a personable press attaché at the Soviet embassy in Washington, and had already used the man as an alternative, unofficial channel to the top leadership in Moscow. In fact, Bolshakov was a colonel in the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) and his job at the embassy a cover, as the Americans well knew. RFK had contacted his friend Bolshakov soon after the 27 October tank confrontation brought things a little too close to the edge. Within hours, messages had passed back and forth between the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Since this material remains classified, we do not know exactly what was said. What we do know is that at 10.30 the following morning, Khrushchev spoke to Marshal Konev, who had hastily returned to Berlin. According to Khrushchev’s memoirs, Konev told him that the situation at Checkpoint Charlie was unchanged. No one was moving, he told the Soviet leader, except for when the tank crewmen on both sides would climb out and walk around to warm up.

‘Comrade Konev,’ Khrushchev said, ‘I think you’d better order our tanks to turn around and pull back from the border. Don’t have them go very far. Just get them out of sight in the side streets again.’ The Americans, he added, had got themselves into a very difficult situation. ‘They’re looking for a way out, I’m sure. So let’s give them one. We’ll remove our tanks, and they’ll follow our example.’19

And that was exactly what happened. The Soviet tanks withdrew. Between twenty minutes and half an hour later—just enough time to confirm high-level instructions—the Americans also pulled back.

In his memoirs, Khrushchev makes it seem as if he had a sudden rush of common sense to the head. This led him to suggest a withdrawal, which his instincts told him the Americans would match. In fact, the suggestion had probably been put to him during the night of 27/8 October by President Kennedy via the RFK/Bolshakov connection, sweetened with a White House promise to ease up on the border-pass issue. So, Khrushchev had a little quid pro quo to save face, and knew that any unilateral Soviet withdrawal of tanks would be reciprocated by the other side.

During the confrontation on 27/8 October, London was wielding as much pressure as it could to avoid war over access to East Berlin.

British civilian personnel entering East Berlin had for some time now been showing ID if requested, and so London’s sympathy for the American stance was limited. Moreover, the British managed, with evident satisfaction, to blame the French for the latest problem. ‘The French,’ a note from an aide to the British Prime Minister, Macmillan, asserted, ‘have been caught bringing people across the border who were in fact not Allied personnel at all, although they were travelling in official cars.’

After reading a report from his embassy in Washington on the Friedrichstrasse crisis, the Prime Minister scribbled some marginal comments. ‘What does the Foreign Office intend to do about this?’ Macmillan asked. ‘It’s rather alarming’ He wondered how long Britain could continue to ‘be associated with this childish nonsense’.20

Few in London were of the hardline persuasion. The Foreign Secretary wrote on 27 October claiming that he was ‘pretty close to an understanding with Rusk’, who did not not want the question of showing passes to be made into a major show of strength. ‘He has accepted our advice to try and reach a face saving compromise with Moscow.’ Home considered Clay the chief problem. He advised Macmillan: ‘The trouble is that the US soldiers do not yet seem to have been brought to heel on this point. I am sending an immediate telegram urging that specific instructions be sent. You might mention this to the President.’21

Whether British pragmatism (or weakness) actually played a role in taking the heat out of the crisis is uncertain. Downing Street tended to overestimate its influence on the White House.

The resolution of the Checkpoint Charlie stand-off showed the stark reality of superpower relations. Neither superpower leader was about to go to war over who showed what bit of paper to whom in the streets of Berlin. The only person to whom this was actually of vital importance was Walter Ulbricht, and at anxious times such as this a satellite leader like the East German strongman could be and was overruled. The Berlin Crisis was, arguably, over at the moment both sides withdrew their tanks on the morning of 28 October 1961.

The next day, Sunday, President Kennedy attended mass in Washington as usual and then flew to Fort Smith, Arkansas, for an official appearance.

Khrushchev continued with his congress, which had two days still to run.

Ulbricht continued to harangue his comrades in East Berlin by cable, chiding them for not having made the main flash points, such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Potsdamer Platz, tank-proof, and ordering them to begin immediate construction of tank traps at all crossing points, especially at Friedrichstrasse, to make it impossible for tanks of ‘the occupation forces’ to force an entry to East Berlin.

Before he left Moscow, Ulbricht complained to Khrushchev about his failure to announce a separate peace treaty. ‘I do not agree that the more the conclusion of a peace treaty is postponed, the worse the GDR economy will be,’ the Soviet leader responded irritably. ‘We are having an old conversation with you.’22

To Polish Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, Khrushchev made his true felings plain:

There will not be a war, bur signing a peace treaty with the GDR might exacerbate the situation…Although there will be no war, we should not exacerbate the situation. We must continue our game. We are not afraid, but we do not want war.23

And although the time of truly perilous international confrontation was over, Khrushchev did continue his ‘game’. Soviet forces in Germany stayed on their heightened state of alert for another two and a half months, until 11 January 1962. There were more minor provocations against American officials in December, but the West did not rise to the bait and the small storm blew over. In February there would ensue an elaborate game of aerial cat-and-mouse over the flight corridors into Berlin, but in general this was shadow-boxing.

Khrushchev wanted to show everyone, including Ulbricht and the Chinese, that, despite abandoning the East German peace treaty, he had nor given in. It was easy to keep the Berlin issue ‘live’, and he continued to do so. He had, however, transferred his attention to the Third World, and specifically to Cuba. There, almost exactly a year after the Friedrichstrasse incident, another, even more perilous confrontation would again place humanity on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.

The British were hugely relieved that the Checkpoint Charlie incident went no further than it did. For some time they continued to worry that the supposedly aggressive attitude of the Americans in Berlin might lead to renewed confrontation.

A report to Macmillan on 1 November expressed fears that Kennedy, under pressure from the West Germans, the French, and a section of opinion at home in the USA, might ‘be tempted to think that a prolongation of the present tension could be safely endured’ and spoke of the risk of an ‘accidental war’ due to ‘General Clay’s game of chicken in Berlin’. P.F. de Zulueta, the Prime Minister’s Personal Secretary, noted glumly: ‘I am afraid that no one knows what the Americans may do.24

In fact, for East as well as West, the near-simultaneous pull-back of American and Soviet tanks on 28 October represented a symbolic recognition of the status quo established on 13 August. After that day, the Americans no longer forced entry for their civilian personnel into East Berlin, and neither the East Germans nor Soviets made serious attempts to block access. The crisis was over.

New research is uncovering even more secrets of the Friedrichstrasse crisis. There is now a strong suspicion that, while Khrushchev’s abandonment in October 1961 of pressure for a separate peace treaty meant a reduction in international tension, it also meant that Germany and Berlin were forced to swallow the bitter pill of a permanent, fortified Wall.

That does not mean that the East had ‘won’. The persistence of Allied rule in West Berlin-including free air and land access-was implicitly recognised. The East Germans got their Wall in recompense. Until Khrushchev gave up his peace-treaty plan, both Moscow and East Berlin could continue to see the Wall as possibly a temporary measure, to be confined to barbed wire and in places a simple cement barrier. After all, once a peace treaty had been signed, would not the East Germans control travel between West Berlin and West Germany, and might a Wall therefore be no longer necessary? That had been Ulbricht’s dream. And Khrushchev’s too, because he knew the Wall would represent a defeat for the system he represented.

The Wall was in the long run a propaganda catastrophe for the East. Every day it existed, it screamed aloud one simple, damning statement: in Berlin we Communists stood in direct competition with capitalism, and we lost. Khrushchev and his successors had to live with this permanent mute accusation until a Soviet leader came along who just couldn’t or wouldn’t do it any more. But that miraculous moment lay almost half a lifetime in the future.

By this argument, the Wall originated not on 13 August 196 I, when the wire went up, but on 17 October, when Khrushchev reluctantly abandoned his hope of a settlement that would nullify the Potsdam Agreement, force an Allied withdrawal from West Berlin, and give control of the entire city to his East German satellite.25

As a result, from early 1962 the East Germans began building a horribly ingenious system of fortifications, more ugly and more sinister still than simple breeze blocks and cement, a thing for which the term ‘Wall’ was wholly inadequate.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!