The Two Sides of the Berlin Wall

Historical narratives are often boiled down to simplistic and self-serving storylines that influence how people see the world, when a more sophisticated and fair-minded account would offer a different perspective, as William Blum writes about the Berlin Wall.

By William Blum

November 9 will mark the 25th anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The extravagant hoopla began months ago in Berlin. In the United States we can expect all the Cold War clichés about The Free World vs. Communist Tyranny to be trotted out and the simple tale of how the wall came to be will be repeated: In 1961, the East Berlin communists built a wall to keep their oppressed citizens from escaping to West Berlin and freedom. Why? Because commies don’t like people to be free, to learn the “truth.” What other reason could there have been?

First of all, before the wall went up in 1961 thousands of East Germans had been commuting to the West for jobs each day and then returning to the East in the evening; many others went back and forth for shopping or other reasons. So they were clearly not being held in the East against their will. Why then was the wall built? There were two major reasons:

A portion of the Berlin Wall as photographed in 1975, toward the east. (Photo credit: Edward Valachovic)

A portion of the Berlin Wall as photographed in 1975, toward the east. (Photo credit: Edward Valachovic)

1) The West was bedeviling the East with a vigorous campaign of recruiting East German professionals and skilled workers, who had been educated at the expense of the Communist government. This eventually led to a serious labor and production crisis in the East. As one indication of this, the New York Times reported in 1963: “West Berlin suffered economically from the wall by the loss of about 60,000 skilled workmen who had commuted daily from their homes in East Berlin to their places of work in West Berlin.”

It should be noted that in 1999, USA Today reported: “When the Berlin Wall crumbled [1989], East Germans imagined a life of freedom where consumer goods were abundant and hardships would fade. Ten years later, a remarkable 51% say they were happier with communism.”

Earlier polls would likely have shown even more than 51% expressing such a sentiment, for in the ten years many of those who remembered life in East Germany with some fondness had passed away; although even 10 years later, in 2009, the Washington Post could report: “Westerners [in Berlin] say they are fed up with the tendency of their eastern counterparts to wax nostalgic about communist times.”

It was in the post-unification period that a new Russian and Eastern Europe proverb was born: “Everything the Communists said about Communism was a lie, but everything they said about capitalism turned out to be the truth.”

It should be further noted that the division of Germany into two states in 1949 setting the stage for 40 years of Cold War hostility was an American decision, not a Soviet one.

2) During the 1950s, American cold warriors in West Germany instituted a crude campaign of sabotage and subversion against East Germany designed to throw that country’s economic and administrative machinery out of gear. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence and military services recruited, equipped, trained and financed German activist groups and individuals, of West and East, to carry out actions which ran the spectrum from juvenile delinquency to terrorism; anything to make life difficult for the East German people and weaken their support of the government; anything to make the commies look bad.

It was a remarkable undertaking. The United States and its agents used explosives, arson, short circuiting, and other methods to damage power stations, shipyards, canals, docks, public buildings, gas stations, public transportation, bridges, etc; they derailed freight trains, seriously injuring workers; burned 12 cars of a freight train and destroyed air pressure hoses of others; used acids to damage vital factory machinery; put sand in the turbine of a factory, bringing it to a standstill; set fire to a tile-producing factory; promoted work slow-downs in factories; killed 7,000 cows of a co-operative dairy through poisoning; added soap to powdered milk destined for East German schools; were in possession, when arrested, of a large quantity of the poisoncantharidin with which it was planned to produce poisoned cigarettes to kill leading East Germans; set off stink bombs to disrupt political meetings; attempted to disrupt the World Youth Festival in East Berlin by sending out forged invitations, false promises of free bed and board, false notices of cancellations, etc.; carried out attacks on participants with explosives, firebombs, and tire-puncturing equipment; forged and distributed large quantities of food ration cards to cause confusion, shortages and resentment; sent out forged tax notices and other government directives and documents to foster disorganization and inefficiency within industry and unions all this and much more.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, of Washington, DC, conservative cold warriors, in one of their Cold War International History Project Working Papers (#58, p.9) states: “The open border in Berlin exposed the GDR [East Germany] to massive espionage and subversion and, as the two documents in the appendices show, its closure gave the Communist state greater security.”

Throughout the 1950s, the East Germans and the Soviet Union repeatedly lodged complaints with the Soviets’ erstwhile allies in the West and with the United Nations about specific sabotage and espionage activities and called for the closure of the offices in West Germany they claimed were responsible, and for which they provided names and addresses. Their complaints fell on deaf ears.

Inevitably, the East Germans began to tighten up entry into the country from the West, leading eventually to the infamous wall. However, even after the wall was built there was regular, albeit limited, legal emigration from east to west. In 1984, for example, East Germany allowed 40,000 people to leave. In 1985, East German newspapers claimed that more than 20,000 former citizens who had settled in the West wanted to return home after becoming disillusioned with the capitalist system. The West German government said that 14,300 East Germans had gone back over the previous 10 years.

Let’s also not forget that while East Germany completely denazified, in West Germany for more than a decade after the war, the highest government positions in the executive, legislative and judicial branches contained numerous former and “former” Nazis.

Finally, it must be remembered, that Eastern Europe became communist because Hitler, with the approval of the West, used it as a highway to reach the Soviet Union to wipe out Bolshevism forever, and that the Russians in World War I and II, lost about 40 million people because the West had used this highway to invade Russia. It should not be surprising that after World War II the Soviet Union was determined to close down the highway.

For an additional and very interesting view of the Berlin Wall anniversary, see the article “Humpty Dumpty and the Fall of Berlin’s Wall” by Victor Grossman. Grossman (née Steve Wechsler) fled the U.S. Army in Germany under pressure from McCarthy-era threats and became a journalist and author during his years in the (East) German Democratic Republic. He still lives in Berlin and mails out his “Berlin Bulletin” on German developments on an irregular basis. You can subscribe to it at [email protected].

His autobiography: Crossing the River: a Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War and Life in East Germany was published by University of Massachusetts Press. He claims to be the only person in the world with diplomas from both Harvard University and Karl Marx University in Leipzig.

William Blum is an author, historian, and renowned critic of U.S. foreign policy. He is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, among others. [This article originally appeared at the Anti-Empire Report, .]

10 comments for “The Two Sides of the Berlin Wall

  1. Mischa Strgow
    October 22, 2014 at 18:55

    It was not only the “brain and labor force drain” from the East to the West (East Germans became automatically full West German citizens) but also the growing black market that forced the East German government to act.

    On the black market just behind the border was everything sold what could be purchased cheaply in the East and sold with a profit in the West. Goods for daily use as well as antiques, gold, patents or trademark papers.
    Without treaty on legal assistance, the West was also a safe haven for all kinds of criminals, from laisy debt and rent payers to real war criminals who wanted to avoid the much harsher prosecution in the East.

    Many “West-Berliners” remember that time as a real gold rush. But also some of the fellow allied forces soldiers made a little fortune. Not to mention the daily pleasure of cheap sexual amusements better known as the “Fräulein Wunder”.

    Greetings from Berlin, the Russian Sector.

  2. Abe
    October 21, 2014 at 14:30

    The ruling Communist party, known as the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), was formed in April 1946 from the merger between the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) by mandate of Joseph Stalin.

    The two former parties were notorious rivals when they were active before the Nazis consolidated all power and criminalized their agitation. The unification of the two parties was symbolic of the new friendship of German socialists in defeating their common enemy; however, Communists who made a majority had virtually total control over policy.

    Walter Ulbricht had played a leading role in the creation of the Weimar-era KPD and had spent the years of Nazi rule in exile in the Soviet Union. Ulbricht noted that everything was made to look democratic while in reality Communists retained control in the background. They were totally loyal to Stalin, and realized their regime would collapse if it lost the backing of the Soviet army (as indeed happened in 1989).

    There were two phases of denazification in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany (SBZ).

    The first phase was under the influence of Allied Control Council Directive 24 (1946 to September 1947), and the second phase was in connection with Order No. 201 of the Soviet Military Administration (October 1947 to March 1948)

    Ulbricht was anxious to speed up the process, punish the worst perpetrators, and get back to other work. Meanwhile, German Communists like Johannes Becher, the poet and Kulturbund leader, urged a more thoroughgoing approach to denazification, one that would turn political and social life into a permanent confrontation with Germany’s terrible past. The Soviet authorities themselves were typically inconsistent in this connection. The result was a great deal of autonomy for the local commissions.

    Formal denazification procedures were abandoned in the SBZ in March 1948. In May 1948 the National Democratic Party of Germany, the party of the so-called “little Nazis,” was formed. In this connection denazification was declared completed, and there was to be no more talk of Nazis in government, industry, and the police.

    Soviet occupation authorities began transferring administrative responsibility to German communist leaders in 1948, and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) began to function as a state on 7 October 1949.

    Soviet forces, however, remained in the country throughout the Cold War to counter the heavy US military presence in the West.

    Founded on 8 February 1950, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, commonly known as Stasi, was established to defend the state against political subversion and was helped by the Soviet Army to suppress an anti-Stalinist uprising in 1953.

    Erich Mielke, head of Stasi between 1957 and 1989, continued to chase down ex-Nazis, while the East German regime basked in self-satisfied triumphalism about its antifascist purity.

    Meanwhile in West Germany, under the glare of a free press and subject to genuine oppositional politics, very similar formal processes of denazification were roundly condemned as cosmetic and were subjected to critical scrutiny.

  3. Lutz Barz
    October 21, 2014 at 05:27

    Gotcha! Re Nazis. Whilst the West was not totally cured and made pure regarding denazification the East [DDR] had no problems using their necessary expertise to keep the new state under total control. The sabotage mentioned worked both ways. I was over there twice and remember [as a kid] my parents telling me we were being followed by the Stasi on a visit to Rugen. Man in a trenchcoat and a hat. No joke. Returning to West Berlin got hauled off the U-Bahn in the last Eastern stop as the Grenzpolizei thought us doing a runner. Red faces when they saw our true identity. And don’t forget it was Soviet money that were funneled to Nazi splinter groups so they could point to the West and it’s Nazi presence. Furthermore the DDR helped the Red Army Faction big time. Your article is sadly more ideology than hard historically valid information

    • Abe
      October 21, 2014 at 14:53

      Gotcha? Eh, not so much.

      The Deutsche Grenzpolizei (German Border Police) were formed in December 1946. In 1961, the Grenzpolizei were reorganized as the Grenztruppen der DDR (Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic).

      As part of the reorganization, the Grenztruppen der DDR were moved from the GDR Ministry of the Interior to the GDR Ministry of National Defense (MfNV).

      By the early 60s, the East German state rightly had come to view border defense as a matter of national economic survival.

      In 1961, East Germany took action to deal with the brain drain problem, i.e. the outflow of East-Germans via Berlin.

      The matter of denazification in East and West Germany was complicated by the international politics of the Cold War. See the following comment for details.

      Thanks for sharing your recollections.

    • Abe
      October 21, 2014 at 18:43

      It was claimed in the West German press that the DDR aided the Red Army Faction ‘big time.’ Again, the historical reality was not so much:

      “for most of its history, there is absolutely no indication that the RAF was choosing its targets or formulating its ideology to please foreign patrons. This would become more debatable near the end, but certainly in the 1970s, the RAF-Stasi connection seems to have been casual if not ephemeral.”

      “At most, one might perhaps argue a case of the GDR egging the guerilla on as a way to get at the Americans, in the context of the ongoing conflagration in Vietnam.”

      André Moncourt and J. Smith (2009). The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History. Volume 1: Projectiles for the People. Pp. 58-59.

  4. mike H
    October 20, 2014 at 20:36

    This article gets more tired every time I read it.

    • Brian
      October 21, 2014 at 16:29

      Being ripped from your fantasy world really sucks doesn’t it?

  5. Abe
    October 20, 2014 at 12:56

    The long-term implications of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the potential to modernize the under-developed economic potentials of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union around the emerging unified Germany were alarmingly clear for policy strategists in London and New York. In a weekly report to investor clients, as well as the general financial community, David Hale, a U.S. economist with reported close ties to the Bush Treasury Department, warned in January 1990 of the strategic “dangers” for the U.S. financial markets if German unity were to succeed: “One of the most extraordinary features of Wall Street economic research during recent weeks is its complacency about the potential consequences of eastern European economic developments for the global financial equilibrium which permitted America to borrow over a trillion dollars externally during the 1980’s.”

    Hale then noted, “Indeed, when the financial history of the 1990’s is written, analysts may look upon the fall of the Berlin Wall as a financial shock comparable to the long-feared Tokyo earthquake. The destruction of the Wall symbolized an upheaval which could ultimately divert hundreds of billions of dollars in capital towards a region which had only been a minor factor in the world credit markets for six decades. Nor,” concluded Hale, in a message he was reportedly asked to circulate by influential Washington circles, “should Americans take comfort from the fact that Germany itself has been only a modest investor in the U.S. during recent years. The biggest investor in the U.S. since 1987 has been Britain (over $100 billion of takeover bids) and the British could not have undertaken such large investments without access to surplus German savings.”

    On November 29, 1989, days after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, highly professional assassins blew up the protected car of Deutsche Bank head Alfred Herrhausen, a key adviser of the Kohl government who had told the Wall Street Journal only days before of his plans for reconstruction of East Germany into Europe’s most modern economic region within a decade.

    The assassination of Herrhausen was seen by knowledgeable Germans as a direct echo of the assassination more than sixty years earlier of Walther Rathenau, architect of the Rapallo plan to industrialize Russia with German industrial technology. But the Bonn government proceeded with plans to unify Germany, and with discussions to assist the economic rebuilding of the collapsing Soviet economy as part of the terms for Moscow’s agreeing to German unification.

    The German Chancellor addressed the nation that late November about his dream of constructing a modern rail link connecting Paris, Hanover, and Berlin, on to Warsaw and finally to Moscow, as the foundation for the infrastructure of the emerging new Europe. The old de Gaulle concept of a Europe economically cooperating from the “Atlantic to the Urals,” was suddenly a real probability for the first time since 1948.

    In this climate, observers in the City of London noted a dramatic increase of French and British informal contacts, on the level of senior business and diplomatic persons. British strategy was to play on latent French fears of a strong Germany. Mitterrand, the Socialist French President with a life-long personal anglophile inclination, was a ready listener. Britain began quietly to rebuild the old Dual Alliance of the pre-1914 era, and to set the stage for a new “Entente Cordiale” against the “German threat.” But the actual strategic battle was waged far from Central Europe.

    Sometime during 1989, the decision was made to make a bold offensive, using the Middle East and its vast oil reserves as the staging ground. Again, as during the 1970’s, U.S. and British strategists determined that the serious threat of an economically expanding Continental Europe must be countered through using the Anglo-American “oil weapon.” The form this would take was soon to astonish the entire world.

    — F. William Engdahl (1993). A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, pp. 236-237.

    • Abe
      October 20, 2014 at 13:06

      Today one may assert that Washington and London are striving to thwart a new “German threat,” (a Berlin-Moscow-Beijing “Axis”), and the actual strategic battle is being waged both near (Ukraine) and far (Syria-Iraq-Iran) from Central Europe.

  6. Abe
    October 20, 2014 at 12:40

    While condemning the Berlin Wall in Public, U.S. Officials saw “long term advantage” if potential refugees stayed in East Germany. Three days before the Berlin Wall went up, the CIA expected East Germany would take “harsher measures” to solve the refugee crisis. Disturbed by the lack of warning, JFK asked intelligence advisers to review CIA performance.

    National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 354

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