High Noon on Friedrichstrasse: The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall

Let’s start with the painting, for that was the sign something ominous was about to begin.

In East Germany during the Cold War, you didn’t join the Stasi, the Stasi asked you to join them. This is what 19-year-old, Hagen Koch discovered when the Stasi approached him and said, “We need you to help secure our country’s peace.” 

Koch arrived in Berlin on April 5th, 1960, to a city without a wall, without barbed wire, without division. He had been chosen for a specific job and was soon promoted to Head of Cartography.

It was a warm day in August 1960, when Stasi Private Hagen Koch arrived at Checkpoint Charlie and started painting a white line. No one took much notice, which was understandable, only in the following days would the enormity of Koch’s actions become apparent. For unknown to Berliners and the West, Koch was marking the ground for the building of the Berlin Wall.

Years later, Koch said the Wall was not against the West but “against the population of East Germany.”

It was also the first sign that East Germany’s so-called “Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Heaven” had failed, and marked the start of the slow and difficult demise of Soviet bloc Communism. 

Moreover, the creation of the Berlin Wall led to a standoff between Russia and America that nearly caused World War Three.

It all started after the Second World War when Germany was divided in two. West Germany received the largesse of American and European monies, in a bid to strengthen democracy; while East Germany fell under the indifferent rule of Communist Russia.  In the center of all this stood Berlin, a small island in the heart of East Germany, divided by the Russians and three Allied Powers – America, Britain, and France. It was here, that a battle for world domination was to take place, as America and Russia played a game of the last man standing.

Technically, all four powers ran Berlin and each had free and open access to either side of the imaginary divide. But on the weekend of 12th and 13th of August 1961, all this changed, when East German Head of State, Walter Ulbricht, ordered the secret building of a Wall. Ulbricht called the plan Operation Rose, and incredibly, West Berlin was fenced-in during one single night. 

Ulbricht claimed the Wall was to stop the flood of East Germans leaving their “Workers and Peasants Socialist Heaven” for the corrupt and fascist West. Up to 150,000 East Germans were fleeing westwards every week. But in truth, Ulbricht had much darker intentions than staunching the tide of “weak capitalist lackeys” from leaving his country. 

As Frederick Taylor points out in his excellent and highly readable book The Berlin Wall: A World Divided 1961-1989 Ulbricht’s intention was to use the Wall as a lever to force Russia to sign an individual peace treaty with East Germany. Once the Russian President, Khrushchev, signed such a peace treaty, Ulbricht knew he could march into West Germany, and unite both Germanys into a “socialist paradise”, as he was now protected by Russia. Ulbricht gambled that the West would not risk a war with Russia, and would acquiesce to Ulbricht’s annexation.  This was his main reason for building the Wall – to steal West Germany from under the Allies’ noses.
Journey Across Berlin 1961

What Ulbricht had not taken into account was the political shrewdness of American President, John F Kennedy, or the closeness between Russia and America when it came to running the world.

Kennedy had made it clear to his office he believed it was in East Germany’s and Russia’s best interests to build a Wall between East and West Berlin as far back as 1960. Indeed, Kennedy and his advisors were flummoxed as to why this had not yet happened, as they believed the building of a Wall would not only stop the tide of refugees but signal the failure of Communism to capture the hearts and minds of its people. 

But Ulbricht was wily; he had already invited divisions of the Red Army into his country and allowed Russia to plant nuclear missiles on German soil.  A terrifying thought, but what neither he nor Khrushchev had envisaged was the effects of the high level of alcoholism within the Red Army. 

According to Fredrick Taylor, the Russian soldiers in charge of the nuclear missiles had siphoned off the essential blue ethanol rocket fuel for drinking purposes and replaced it with weaker yellow ethanol. Blue has a higher level of alcohol (92%) than yellow, and was the Red Army’s drink of choice which they called “Blue Danube.” This meant that the Russian nuclear missiles in East Germany were unstable, and were more likely to crash back to earth or explode in their silos than hit any targets in the West.

America was aware of Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons, and Kennedy made a decision that became the root for Europe’s anti-Americanism. Kennedy believed if a nuclear war was to be fought it had to be fought between the East and West on European soil, which meant Europe was expendable.

The flexing of military muscle heightened after Ulbricht convinced the Russians to test their latest ICBM missiles in Siberia the week before Operation Rose. Ulbricht knew that America would see the testing of these nuclear weapons as the first round in a bleak political game.

On the night of 12th August Ulbricht deployed over 500,000 Stasi (with help from the Red Army) to build the Wall. Khrushchev was aware of Ulbricht’s intentions but did not comment on his actions.

On the morning of 13th August, a fine summer’s day, East and West Berliners woke to find their city divided by wooden fences, concrete and barbed wire. There were thirteen crossing points, later reduced to seven, which were now the points of entry. 

Though allegedly still allowed to travel between East and West Berlin on the application of a visa, movement from East to West was technically forbidden. Ulbricht had cunningly set the scene for a showdown between Russia and America, and within weeks, high noon came to Friedrichstrasse.

Ulbricht ordered the border guards to demand identification from all westerners crossing over into East Berlin. This deliberately contravened the agreement by which America, Russia, Britain, and France ruled the city. All Allied Powers had right to access without presenting ID. While the British and the French waved their IDs at the Stasi guards when crossing, the Americans refused. This led to Deputy Leader of the American Mission, Allan Lightner to force the East Germans hands.

On 22nd October 1961, Lightner and his wife were set to attend an opera in East Berlin. Their vehicle was stopped at the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint, where Lightner refused to show any identification. The armed Stasi guards refused Lightner and his wife access, and their car sat in no man’s land.  The Stasi stood in front of Lightner’s car guns ready. Lightner contacted his US military base, and a jeep with a platoon of American soldiers was deployed. These soldiers then escorted Lightner’s car 200 yards into the Eastern Sector, where it turned around and returned to the West.

The following day, Lightner returned to the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint and again refused to show any ID. This time a truckload of armed Stasi surrounded his car, and once again an armed US military escorted the car into the Eastern sector and back out. 

Lightner’s actions may have seemed petty, but they masked a more terrible game that was about to commence.

Kennedy was made aware of Lightner’s actions, and the response by the Stasi, by his military adviser Colonel Clay. Clay was a hawkish Republican, who had been the hero of the Berlin Airlift in 1946,  where the Russians had blocked all access to West Berlin, hoping to starve the West Berliners into submission.  Clay saw the building of the Wall, and the incident over ID cards, as a golden opportunity to invade East Berlin and reclaim the city for the West.

This was exactly what Ulbricht had hoped would happen.  While trouble brewed on Friedrichstrasse, Ulbricht was in Moscow, at the Communist Party Congress, pestering Khrushchev to sign a peace treaty with East Germany. But Khrushchev was in no hurry to do so, as he waited to see how the “young American President” would respond to events in Berlin. Kennedy bluffed Khrushchev and did nothing.

Meanwhile, Lightner again attempted to cross into East Berlin. Again he was stopped, and yet again his vehicle was escorted under US armed guard back into the Western Sector. But this time, Khrushchev had made a fatal error.  Under pressure from Ulbricht, he had agreed the East German leader could deploy Red Army tanks onto Friedrichstrasse.

Kennedy’s bluff had worked and Khrushchev had shown his hand. Now Kennedy had Clay deployed American tanks into the Western side of Friedrichstrasse to face the Red Army.

The world held its breath. The two strongest nations on the planet had gone head-to-head for the most trivial of reasons, and were now playing a game of “who would blink first” in the heart of Europe. 

East and West faced each at a distance of 100 yards. Their tank engines running, their cannons loaded, the tank commanders trained their sights on the opposing armored vehicles.  All it would take was one false move for a war to begin.

Russia put their nuclear bases on standby. The US deployed all of their nuclear submarines to the coast of North Germany. Both sides dispatched troops into Berlin. America and Russia were gearing up for war.

Kennedy knew the Russians did not have the capability to fire nuclear missiles into the USA, but he had the capability to target Moscow, Leningrad and key Russian cities from European silos and his fleet of nuclear submarines.

The minutes ticked by. The hours dragged. More soldiers arrived on both sides of the barrier. The rest of Europe was only too aware of what would be sacrificed if war began. The only possible winner would be the USA, at a cost of millions of lives

Ulbricht, who was responsible for this face-off, had also made a fatal error.  His arrogance had led him to force Khrushchev into a difficult and highly embarrassing situation. Now Ulbricht demanded a peace treaty to ensure his own safety, and his excuse to annex West Germany. Khrushchev realized he had been outfoxed and outmaneuvered, not only by Ulbricht but by the “young President” who he had decried.  Nuclear war beckoned.  The longer the standoff continued on Friedrichstrasse, the greater the inevitability of war.

Kennedy knew he had the winning hand, but he also knew a war would be folly, and that he must somehow reach a compromise that allowed both sides to back down without losing face. Kennedy used his brother Bobby to send word to an intermediary in Moscow. Kennedy’s solution was simple: neither he nor the Russians should go to war over what was, in fact, a border issue for the Stasi. Wouldn’t it be easier if we agree to show ID cards and you reverse your tanks from Friedrichstrasse?  The Red Army tanks would not be leaving the scene, merely moving one street away, where they would not be seen, but their presence known.

The suggestion was passed onto Khrushchev, who quickly claimed it as his own. Khrushchev’s take was: Why don’t we move away from Friedrichstrasse, so allowing the Americans to retreat. This young President has made a foolish error of judgment, and we will overlook his naivety.  However, we will expect the Americans to show their ID cards when crossing our borders.

The Red Army tanks retreated behind Friedrichstrasse. Hours later, the Americans tanks did the same. The war between Russia and America was over.  Nobody had been killed.  No nuclear weapons used.  No honor lost.

Of course, Ulbricht was furious. Not only had his plan failed, but Khrushchev refused to sign his peace treaty. This meant East Germany was not independent but a mere satellite of Moscow power. More importantly, the Wall Ulbricht had built to achieve “the victory of his Workers and Peasants Socialist Heaven over the debauched, fascist West” had failed. The Berlin Wall was now the head stone marking the failure of Communist and Socialist ideology. But this was only Round One in the games between Russia and America. Round Two would take place in Cuba, nearly two years later.

The Berlin Wall created a “surreal cage” behind which Ulbricht carried out his obsessive games on the people of East Germany.

In his book, Frederick Taylor says, the Berlin Wall also signified that the Cold War, to all intents and purposes was over, and what followed during the 1960s and 1970s was mere shadow-play, for the Cold War had been fought and won on Friedrichstrasse in October 1961.

The Wall became a focus for writers like Len Deighton, John Le Carre Adam Hall, and Derek Marlowe, whose books formed the basis for such classic films as Funeral in Berlin, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Quiller Memorandum and A Dandy in aspic. The Wall also became a focus for US media. 

In 1962, NBC Television paid for the building of a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, on the agreement that they could film the escape of East Germans to West Berlin.  Tunnel 29 was built and in some of the most moving and dramatic footage of the Cold War, NBC filmed helpers advancing through the tunnel bringing the escapers to the West on June 22nd, 1963. Though the tunnel had sprung a leak, one woman was determined to look her best on arriving in the West and sported a Dior dress. Faces of “hope, joy and jubilation” were recorded.
There are many explanations for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The usual suspects from Star Wars to the influence of Pope John II and Ronald Reagan, but as Taylor points out, the real cause goes back to 1976, when East German Head of State, Erich Honecker, signed the Helsinki Accord, as part of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

Honecker signed the Accord in Denmark, alongside US President Gerald Ford, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Little did Honecker realize that he was signing the end of East Germany and his prized Berlin Wall, for Central to the Helsinki Accord was the agreement that all citizens were allowed free and open access to and from their homeland to other countries – something East Germans had never been allowed. 

However, it would take the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as Russian President and his revolutionary policies of glasnost, perestroika  and uskoreniye , for the peoples of East Germany to feel secure enough to demand their right to free and open travel as legally given by the Helsinki Accord.

As Gorbachev brought change and freedom to the countries behind the Iron Curtain, more East Germans applied for travel visas to former Communist countries. By early 1989, over 1 million had applied to travel. As East Germans were legally allowed to travel to other Communist countries, Honecker could not stop the movement of citizens, traveling en masse to Hungary or Czechoslovakia where they quickly crossed the border to Austria and claimed political asylum.

Less than a week before the Wall fell, Honecker gave a speech stating that the Berlin Wall would “still be standing in 100 years as a testament to the glory of his Socialist State.” 

Days later, on the verge of bankruptcy to the West, and without the support of Mother Russia, Honecker decreed that the gates between East and West would be open from midnight on the 9th November.

At first, no one appreciated the importance of this decree. In fact, it took the western press almost an hour to fully comprehend the meaning of this momentous statement. By 9 pm on the 8th November, West German TV News announced the opening of the Wall.  This was followed by reports on US, UK and all European news broadcasts. 

Word spread quickly. West Germans began to gather at the Wall.  One German reporter took a taxi from Poland to Berlin to be present at this incredible event.  A schoolboy from Stuttgart flew to Berlin to photograph the events.  Hundreds of people on the Western side took out their video cameras in preparation to record the opening of the gates.  Over the next few hours and days, the incredible images of East and West meeting were seen all around the world.  People began to dismantle the Wall, and a street party began which lasted weeks.

And what of Private Hagen Koch? After the Wall fell, Koch became Minister of Monuments, his first job was to auction the remnants of the Berlin Wall off at an auction on the Cote d’Azur. Koch now gives guided tours of where the Berlin wall once stood.
Michael Caine visits Berlin in the 1960s for ‘Funeral in Berlin’

Originally posted 02/01/11.

Posted by Paul Gallagher
01:20 pm



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