The Origins and Politics of the Berlin Wall

The Origins and Politics of the Berlin Wall: More

The best article I’ve ever read on the origins and motives of the Berlin Wall is by Professor Hope Harrison, Soviet-East German Relations after WWII, in Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 42, Sept/Oct 1995, p. 9. The article is reprinted in The Berlin Wall, in Opposing Viewpoints Series, Greenhaven Press, edited by Cindy Mur. Prof. Harrison is preparing a book on this topic; see Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961. Here’s an excerpt.

Here’s a brief summary of the article. If you are writing a paper on the Berlin Wall, please look up the original article; it has more details and explains the various positions and counter-positions. — andreas

Prof. Harrison discusses the East German Communist Party’s reasons for building and keeping the wall. The Soviets were annoyed by the Wall, because they did not wish to see any escalation of tensions with the USA.

Walter Ulbricht, head of the East German Communist Party, realized that by creating tension (threat of instability and the threat of war which could lead to an American invasion of East Germany), the Soviets would be obligated to support the East Germans. Every time the Soviets and Americans began to talk, Ulbricht would crack down on the East German population and create another crisis. For example, in 1953 the Soviets asked Ulbricht to relax the political oppression of the population. Ulbricht refused and this led to the 1953 workers’ uprising. Ulbricht had to take refuge in a Soviet military base while Soviet tanks invaded and suppressed the revolt.

Throughout the 50s, the Soviets wanted to make East Germany into a stable industrialized state and get recognition from the Western democracies. By creating a stable Eastern Europe, the USSR would have a protective buffer between the Soviet Union and NATO. However, stability would weaken Ulbricht’s position. In 1961, as the Soviets and Americans were meeting, Ulbricht publicly stated out of the blue that “nobody has the intention of building a wall.” This caused panic and thousands of Germans began fleeing (some 30,000 in one month.) A few months later, Ulbricht built the Wall overnight.

The Americans weren’t in a much better position. Despite the public rhetoric, the USA accepted the fact of the Wall. When it was suddenly built, Kennedy went sailing for five days, to avoid having to take a public position. Asides from verbal protests, the USA did nothing about the Wall in order to avoid a war.

By the mid-80s, the USA and the Soviets had settled down into a sort of mutual respect: “don’t make waves, don’t cause trouble.” (My comments: It was useful for both the USA and the USSR to have an enemy which allowed each side to carry out internal repression. The USA would not have been able to build a massive military and the secret intelligence services if there were no external threat. This was extremely profitable for the military-industrial complex in both the USA and the Soviet Union. The collapse of the USSR was an embarassing event: the USA built a massive military and it turned that the Soviet Union had never been capable of attacking.)

Thus the East Germans were in a superior political position with regards to the Soviets. Ulbricht, whom can only be described as a criminal monster, held the East German population as hostages by threatening the Soviets and Americans with the possibility of war. Thousands of Germans died and tens of thousands were imprisoned. One could say that the entire state of East Germany was a vast prison.

When Reagan famously said “Tear down that Wall!”, it was for internal political consumption. He was making himself look good to Americans, without actually doing anything. If the Wall did fall, the results were unpredictable: riots, attacks on the E. German government, civil war, the Soviets would have to move in to suppress the riots or civil war, a trigger-happy soldier would make a wrong move, the other side would over-react, and we’d have nuclear war in Europe. So… no, don’t touch that Wall.

By the late 80s, the Soviets signaled that the East European Soviet satellites could transition into socialist democracies. Throughout 1989, one government after the other collapsed in Easter Europe. By late 1989, loyalty and support of the East German government evaporated and the Soviets stood by and allowed East Germany to collapse. The Berlin Wall finally fell.

(End of summary of Harrison’s article. Again, I urge you to find the original article; it has more details and explains the various positions and counter-positions.)

My comments

During the Summer of 89, as Soviet client states were collapsing across Eastern Europe, the US government was terrified of riots which could turn into civil war and an general land war. When I was in Berlin the weekend that the Wall fell, I saw US Army soldiers protecting the wall from the West Germans. So much for Reagan’s “tear down that Wall.”

One can see that the political and strategic nature of the Berlin Wall is the same that is going on in North Korea and Israel.

  • In Israel, the extremists in the Israeli government are holding Israeli Jews as hostages. Israel infuriates the Palestinians in order to provoke them into suicide bomb attacks and the USA is obligated to support Israel. Of all things, Israel is now building its own Berlin Wall, to encircle and imprison the Palestinians.
  • In North Korea, Kim Jong Il is holding the Korean population as hostages by threatening to start a nuclear war against South Korea, Japan, or the USA. Thus the world has to put up with a madman who allows a third of his population to starve to death.