Ulbricht and Khrushchev discuss closing the borders (1961)

On August 1st 1961 East German leader Walter Ulbricht met with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. They discussed the logistics for the closure of the East German borders, particularly in Berlin:

Khrushchev: “Many engineers have fled the GDR. You should consider shouldn’t we send you perhaps some engineers from the Soviet Union? They won’t run away. But you should know yourself whether this would create political difficulties from a national perspective. Decide this among yourselves. But something must be done.

I have asked our ambassador to explain to you my thoughts that we should use the current tensions with the West and place an iron ring around Berlin. This will be easy to explain: we are threatened with war and we don’t want spies sent into our midst. The Germans will understand this explanation. Then you can act in the interests of the Warsaw Pact and not just in your own interests. I think our troops should lay down the ring, but your troops should control it.

First, this must occur before the conclusion of a peace treaty. It would be a means of pressure and will show that we take the problem seriously. If we are forced into war, then there will be war. Second, it will help you, since it will reduce the refugee exodus.

We must also come to a joint agreement on demonstrative measures of strengthening our military forces. I have received a report from our General Staff, and we will do everything necessary. Our tanks will dig in behind your soldiers on the border with the FRG… Our comrades in the military thought that perhaps something should be done by the Germans too. Perhaps it would be good to undertake an increase in your divisions. But I said that we must ask Comrade Ulbricht how the Germans would respond to this. Under the circumstances, this could lead to negative reactions, and these measures would have no decisive significance as a demonstration [of East German power]. These are the thoughts I wanted to lay out for you”…

Ulbricht: “The population [in East Germany] has demands that cannot be satisfied. With an open border, we cannot solve the problem of the buying power re: the availability of goods, since we must freeze wages and sometimes raise prices. We have already started freezing wages, but we can’t explain it to the people. We aren’t saying why we have reduced the plan figures, but every engineer can see it. We have reduced investments by two billion. The intelligentsia feels this and expresses displeasure.

In addition to West Germany’s hostile acts, there are also a series of issues that can’t be resolved with the open border. We are experiencing great losses due to the Grenzgnger [border-crossers] (people who live in one part of Berlin and work in the other) and people who have fled. Therefore we can’t fulfil some of our tasks.”…

Now on closing the border. When is the best time? What will we do about this?…”

Khrushchev: “Before instituting the new border regime you shouldn’t explain anything, since this would only increase the refugee exodus could lead to lots of traffic [with people trying to get out while they still can]. We need to do it as we did with the currency exchange. We will give you one, two weeks so that you can prepare economically. Then convene the parliament and announce the following communique: ‘As of tomorrow guards will be posted and it will be forbidden to go through the border. Anyone who wants to pass through can only do so with permission from the designated GDR authorities. An order will be carried out and no one will be allowed into Berlin [meaning from the surrounding East German territory into Berlin] or through the border of Berlin with the West [meaning the East-West Berlin border]. If the matter was presented in such a way now, then the bourgeois citizens… would try to leave. On the streets leading to Berlin, long lines of traffic could then develop, which would be a certain demonstration…

I have a technical question. How will the border control be realised on streets in which one side is in the GDR and the other is in West Berlin?”

Ulbricht: “We have a specific plan. In houses with exits into West Berlin, they will be walled up. In other places, barbed wire barriers will be erected. The barbed wire has already been delivered. It can all happen very quickly. It will be harder with transportation routes. We will then reconstruct the train platforms of the city trains and underground trains that go to West Berlin.”

Khrushchev: “Who will then get off the trains there?”

Ulbricht: “The part of the population that has permission to travel. For example, there are 14,000 people, among them many of the intelligentsia, who live in West Berlin and work in [East Berlin].”

Khrushchev: “Another question. If you allow your people to live in West Berlin, then can people who live in East Berlin also work over there in West Berlin?”

Ulbricht: “No, that will not be allowed, that is a bit different. We also have a few thousand children, primarily from petty-bourgeois families, who live in East Berlin and go to school in West Berlin.”

Khrushchev: “That must be stopped.”

Ulbricht: “Yes, we won’t let them go over there any more.”

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