In August 1961, East German premier Walter Ulbricht, after consultation with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, decided to close the border separating East and West Berlin. Ulbricht’s chief motivation was to halt the ‘brain drain’: the growing emigration of educated and skilled workers from East Germany to the West. Khrushchev, though not originally in favour of a wall, hoped to apply pressure to newly-elected United States president John F. Kennedy. The border was closed in the early hours of August 13th 1961 and the East German military immediately began construction of a wall dividing the city. In the days that followed, Allied and Soviet commandants in Berlin exchanged notes protesting against the developments in Berlin:
From Allied commandants at Berlin to the Soviet commandant, August 15th 1961:
“During the night of August 12th-13th, the East German authorities put into effect illegal measures designed to turn the boundaries between the West sectors of Berlin and the Soviet sector into an arbitrary barrier to movement of German citizens resident in East Berlin and East Germany.
Not since the imposition of the Berlin Blockade has there been such a flagrant violation of the Four-Power Agreements concerning Berlin. The agreement of June 20th 1949, in which the USSR pledged itself to facilitate movement within Berlin and between Berlin and the rest of Germany, has also been violated.
In disregard of these arrangements, and of the wishes of the population of this city… freedom of circulation throughout Berlin has been severely curtailed. Traffic between the east sector and western sectors of Berlin has been disrupted by the cutting of S-Bahn and U-Bahn service, the tearing up of streets, the erection of roadblocks and the stringing of barbed wire. In carrying out these illegal actions, military and paramilitary units, which were formed in violation of four-power agreements and whose presence in East Berlin is illegal, turned the Soviet sector of East Berlin into an armed camp.
Moreover, the East German authorities have now prohibited the many inhabitants of East Berlin and East Germany who were employed in West Berlin from continuing to pursue their occupations in West Berlin. They have thus denied to the working population under their control the elementary right of free choice of place of employment.
It is obvious that the East German authorities have taken these repressive measures because the people under their control, deeply perturbed by the threats on Berlin recently launched by communist leaders, were fleeing in large numbers to the West.
We must protest against the illegal measures introduced on August 13th and hold you responsible for the carrying out of the relevant agreements.”
From the Soviet commandant at Berlin to the Allied commandants, August 18th 1961:
“As has already been repeatedly emphasised, the command of the Soviet garrison in Berlin does not interfere with the affairs of the capital of the German Democratic Republic [East Germany]. The matter which you referred to me lies entirely within the competence of the government of the German Democratic Republic, in the fulfilment of the normal rights of each sovereign nation to protect its illegal interests. Every government establishes on its borders a regime which it considers necessary and fitting for the situation. Consequently, your remarks pertaining to these measures are entirely out of place…
It has been pointed out many times that there are based in West Berlin, under the cover of the occupying powers, diversions, undermining and spying organisations which are conducting their activities against the GDR, USSR and other socialist governments… The politicians of the Federal Republic of Germany [West Germany] have openly named West Berlin the ‘front-line city’ and called upon it to interfere with the peaceful work in the GDR and other socialist countries.
All this was done in spite of frequent serious warnings regarding the consequences of such hostile acts. The authorities of the USA, Britain and France have done nothing to put an end to the use of the territory of West Berlin for such intolerable international provocations…
Therefore, I decisively reject your pretensions as expressed in the letter of August 15th as devoid of any basis whatsoever.”