It is part of the high art of politics to “sell” a defeat to the outside world as if it had been a victory.

Since the founding of the state in 1949, the leadership of the GDR had developed considerable skills in constructing their very own realities.

In the summer of 1961, of course, the propaganda had to work particularly hard.

The people ran away en masse from the “workers and peasants state”.

They saw neither economically nor politically even halfway positive prospects for themselves in the GDR.

Peter Sturm

Editor in politics, responsible for "Political Books".

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It was particularly easy to run away in the urban area of ​​Berlin, where the sectors controlled by the three Western powers literally outshone the eastern dreariness.

Crossing the border was possible without too much problems because the entire city was under four-power administration and continued to be treated politically and legally as a unit.

For the leadership in East Berlin and their mentors in Moscow that summer, the problem arose more and more emphatically of how they could end the embarrassment of their system that was visible to the whole world without, however, causing a great war.

"Roll back" exposed as propaganda

The years before had certainly given those in power an impression of how something like this could work. When Soviet troops bloodily suppressed the popular uprising in Hungary in 1956, the West protested violently and took in many refugees from Hungary. But the United States had also given the Soviet Union to understand that Washington would ultimately respect Moscow's sphere of influence. This exposed the slogan of a “roll back” of communism, which the Eisenhower government liked to cultivate, as propaganda.

Now, a few years later, the new President John F. Kennedy also signaled that the attempt to conquer West Berlin would be a reason for war and another blockade of the Halbstadt as in 1948/49 would not be accepted, but that measures at the border would have a different quality . Accordingly, the commander in chief of the Soviet troops in the GDR, Marshal Ivan Konev, assured the western allies a few days before the event that none of what might happen would be directed against West Berlin and the allied interests there.

In the days before, Western secret services had observed extensive troop movements in the GDR.

So it cannot be said that the governments in the west were as overwhelmingly surprised by the events of August 13, 1961 as the people in the east and west, who on that Sunday in August, for obvious reasons, wondered whether the borders would be closed through the GDR would ultimately lead to a military conflict in Germany.

Practical test for Politburo member Honecker

On the side of the GDR leadership, what went down in history as the “building of the wall” became a test for SED politburo member Erich Honecker. The Saarlander had shown himself loyal to party leader Walter Ulbricht when his internal party rivals were dislodged in 1958. He rewarded him with the post of secretary to the Central Committee, responsible for security issues. In this capacity, Honecker oversaw the operations that led to the closure of the borders.

Punctually at midnight on the night of August 13, the National People's Army, which had been placed in increased combat readiness, marched around Berlin and blocked access to the western sectors.

The surprised people quickly realized that this was not a temporary closure, because at the same time police officers and workers began to erect barbed wire barriers.

These temporary barriers were later replaced with concrete barriers.

In their final stage of expansion, the wall and the barriers on the western border of the GDR reached a level of perfection that made crossing the border into a life-threatening, fatal undertaking.

The first deaths on the wall were soon to be mourned.

Internal stabilization of the GDR

From Honecker's perspective, the campaign was a complete success. The East Berlin propaganda sounded correspondingly triumphant, among other things with a song that sang "die 13", which according to the text brings one bad luck, but the other good luck. Indeed, if you look at the world through the eyes of the SED, the years after the building of the Wall are a phase of internal stabilization in the GDR. The way to the west was blocked for the people, so they somehow had to settle in the second German state.

The construction of the wall fell in the middle of the final phase of the federal election campaign, in which Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had an increasingly difficult position against the ruling mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt. Verbal curses were hailed against the "wall of shame" that the SED had erected. But in reality the West could not and would not do anything to eliminate the monster. In Germany in 1961, which was in a state of shock, nobody could have dreamed that 28 years later it would only take one press conference to first make the wall permeable and finally overturn it.

With the consent of the Soviet Union, the SED created new legal facts a few weeks after August 13 by integrating East Berlin as a district into the territory of the GDR. Although this contradicted the four-power status still valid for the whole of Berlin, according to the Western view, it was also one of the things that was first to regulate history.