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Why did Ulbricht build his Wall?

Sixty years ago, on Sunday 13 August 1961, the citizens of Berlin woke up to a whole new reality – a divided city. In the early hours of the morning, East German police and border guards had created a physical barrier around the British, American, and French sectors of the city, cutting them off from the surrounding Soviet zone. The Berlin Wall was born.

Much has been written about the Berlin Wall, the Death Strip, the brave escape attempts, and the numerous human tragedies associated with it. My latest book, Cold War Berlin: An Island City Volume 2, The Berlin Wall, 1950 – 1961, explores the subject in some detail, but in this second volume of my mini-series on Cold War Berlin for Helion & Company, I’ve also tried to explain the background to the decision to build the Wall, the personalities involved and the wider political situation that prompted Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader to take these drastic steps. This blog post investigates that side of the Berlin Wall story.

East Germany (the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR, the German Democratic Republic) was formed on 7 October 1949 out of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany in response to the creation of West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, FRG) on 23 May 1949, which was made from the British, American, and French occupation zones. Joseph Stalin, the leader of Soviet Union and the wider Communist world, gave the go ahead to Walter Ulbricht, the head of the East German Communist Party (the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany), to form a sovereign state, although there was never any doubt that the DDR was a ‘satellite’ or ‘client’ state of the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, Stalin had successfully built his Iron Curtain, a buffer zone of Soviet ‘puppet’ states between the Soviet motherland and the warmongers in the West, and the DDR was the last piece in that puzzle.

Soviet Union’s sphere of influence after the Second World War (Map: George Anderson)

Berlin, the former capital of the Third Reich, was located 100 miles inside the DDR, and was divided into four sectors, administered by the four victorious Second World War powers in a similar way to the former occupation zones of Germany. However, although the former British, American and French zones had merged to become West Germany, the British, American and French maintained their individual sectors of the city, collectively forming West Berlin. East Berlin, the former Soviet sector was now the capital city of the DDR, while the Federal Republic had its capital in Bonn. This unique territorial split would be the cause of considerable international strife throughout the Cold War.

The Soviet zone of Germany which became the DDR, and the four-power administered city of Berlin, which lay 100 miles inside it. (Map: George Anderson)

The DDR was founded as the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ State’ under veteran Communist Walter Ulbricht. An avowed Stalinist, Ulbricht had succeeded in securing an unassailable position in East German politics through his relationship with the Soviet leader, with the Soviet Military Administration in Germany and through extensive lobbying in Moscow. He’d also managed to purge any meaningful opposition, with the SED ruling supreme, and with Ulbricht, as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party, as its unquestioned leader.

Walter Ulbricht (Image: Deutsche Fotothek‎)

Despite his status, Ulbricht was not respected by the Soviet leadership, and was tolerated as an able administrator rather than as an inspirational leader. However, Ulbricht was Machiavellian and a talented manipulator, who often got his own way by sheer persistence, wearing down his opponents. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, his ultimate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, did not share Stalin’s tolerance of Ulbricht, but was not yet strong enough to replace him with someone more compliant.

The DDR adopted a centrally planned Soviet style economy, with forced collectivisation of agriculture and privatisation of businesses. History had shown that such economies were doomed to failure, but Ulbricht persisted with Stalinist policies, even as Khrushchev was trying to liberalise some aspects of the Soviet Union. As well as being highly inefficient, with managers being promoted because of the political connections rather than their ability, the economy also suffered with most industrial production being exported as reparations to the Soviet Union, or to generate ‘hard’ foreign currency needed to purchase raw materials. The industrial sector had also not recovered after being comprehensively looted of infrastructure by a vengeful Soviet Union immediately following the war.

For the average East German, this meant a very poor standard of living, with constant shortages of food and consumer products. The reach of the Party could also be felt in every corner of society, where education and employment opportunities depended on party affiliation and fealty. Woe betide any deviation from the party line, where transgressions would have lifelong implications for the transgressor and their families. The infamous East German secret police, the Staatssicherheitsdienst or Stasi, had its tentacles everywhere and dissent was crushed with characteristic German efficiency.

For a growing number of East Germans, the suffocating repression and constant promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ led them to make the monumental decision to uproot their families and flee to the West. Such behaviour was frowned upon – the State called the refugees Republikflüchtlinge, literally those that flee the Republic, but immediately after the East German state was created, an increasing number of ordinary East Germans voted with their feet and moved to the West. This exodus was made easier by a long porous border between the DDR and the FRG, and several reception centres just inside West Germany began processing hundreds and then thousands of refugees a week. In 1950, an average of 3,804 East Germans a week made it to the West. By 1952, this was steady at 3,508/week. These were normal citizens who had turned their backs on Ulbricht’s workers’ paradise; skilled workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, administrators, managers, along with a proportion of dissidents who had escaped the clutches of the Stasi. Most were young, educated and of military age – exactly the sort of people East Germany could not afford to lose.

Ulbricht had to stop the exodus that was bleeding his country dry. With Stalin’s blessing, he enacted the ‘Decree on Measures regarding the Demarcation Line between the German Democratic Republic and the Western Occupation Zones of Germany’ (26 May 1952) and closed the 1,400 km border between East and West Germany. This began with barbed wire, then with chain link fences, before developing into one of the most fortified borders on the planet (second only to the border between North and South Korea). This should have solved the problem for Ulbricht, but all it succeeded in doing was funnel the would-be refugees to Berlin. Travel within the DDR was unrestricted, and once inside the East German capital, it was reasonably easy to hop over the inter-sector border into West Berlin. Once there, refugees were directed to a purpose-built reception centre at Marienfelde, where they were processed and eventually flown over to West Germany to begin their new lives.

Refugees from Berlin’s East Zone wait to be processed at the Marienfelde Refugee Camp in West Berlin in July 1961. (Image: CIA)

A 3-year-old East German girl waits in the rain as her parents line up to register at a refugee centre in West Berlin in July 1961. (Image: CIA)

Berlin became the ‘escape hatch’ for the DDR and by 1960, an average of 3,831 refugees a week were making it to freedom and the number just kept increasing. In 1961, the crisis had reached a head. In the 12 years since the DDR was formed, about 2.8 million people had fled to the West out of a population of around 17 million (approximately 1 in 6), which was not sustainable for Walter Ulbricht’s socialist state. Ulbricht had been continually lobbying his Soviet masters for a solution to this crisis, and Khrushchev knew that he could only deflect the East German for so long. He needed stability on his western flank, and it was clear that he needed to act before the country reached meltdown.

Khrushchev sensed an opportunity with the election of the youthful John F. Kennedy as US President in November 1960 and even before Kennedy was inaugurated, he began ramping up the pressure on his new adversary. Khrushchev had given Kennedy’s predecessor, President Eisenhower, an ultimatum to quit Berlin back in 1958, but the Soviet was forced to back down and withdraw the threat to declare a unilateral peace treaty with the DDR and terminate the Potsdam protocols giving the victorious powers access rights to the city. In January 1961, however, he reinstated the ultimatum as a way of pressuring the President-elect and also placating Ulbricht. At every opportunity, Ulbricht nagged his boss about his country’s plight: moaning about the population exodus; complaining about the Western radio stations who were broadcasting uncomfortable material to his citizens; and accusing the West of using Berlin as a spy base against the Warsaw Pact (which wasn’t too far from the truth). He also blamed the Soviets for the state of his economy (which was only partially true) and used his many contacts in Moscow (known collectively as the ‘Ulbricht Lobby’) to lean on Khrushchev. For some months he’d been suggesting that the only solution was a hard closure of the inter-sector border between East and West Berlin, to effectively close that ‘escape hatch’, and he took the opportunity of Khrushchev’s new ultimatum to reiterate those demands.

Khrushchev didn’t want to be rushed and ignored Ulbricht’s increasingly plaintive cries while he tried to get the measure of the new US President. This came to a head in June 1961, in a very heated summit meeting between the two leaders in Vienna.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit on 4 June 1961, a meeting that was characterised by heated exchanges over Berlin. (Image: CIA)

Kennedy was soundly outmatched by the wily old Bolshevik, but Khrushchev had discovered that his opposite number was not going to let go of Berlin without a fight. Ulbricht was quick to jump on the bandwagon post-Vienna and renewed the offensive on his boss to act decisively on Berlin. Picking up on some mixed messages coming out of Washington, Khrushchev began to think that Ulbricht’s closure plans might solve a number of problems, not least in getting that troublesome East German off his back, and indicated that he may consider a hard border closure. On 15 June 1961, Ulbricht called a press conference in East Berlin, which a number of Western journalists attended. Ulbricht droned on, bragging about what he would be able to do once the peace treaty with the Soviets had been signed and in a surreal piece of real-life theatre, Ulbricht, in an answer to a journalist’s question about the state border at the Brandenburg Gate, famously volunteered that ‘Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten’ – ‘Nobody intends to put up a Wall’, when no one had previously mentioned anything about a Wall. The significance of this was missed by almost everybody in the room.

The following day brought the biggest one-day exodus of East German refugees, numbering 4,770, which equates to an annualised total of 1,740,000, out of a population of just 17 million. On 6 July Ulbricht was informed that the Kremlin had approved in principle his proposals to seal off the sector borders in Berlin and that he should proceed with detailed planning for their implementation, although the East Germans had already been secretly working on the plans for some months. Ulbricht was delighted and tasked Erich Honecker (who ousted Ulbricht as leader in 1976) with responsibility for the detailed planning and subsequent implementation. The plans were submitted to Moscow on 25 July, and on 1 August, at a meeting in Moscow, Ulbricht was given the go-ahead. The date was set for Sunday 13 August 1961 and Berlin’s fate was sealed.

The operation to close the inter-sector border between East and West Berlin was christened Operation Rose and went down with typical Prussian efficiency in the early hours of Sunday morning. The operation itself, christened Stacheldrahtsonntag (Barbed Wire Sunday) by the West, is described in detail in the book, as is the Berlin Wall’s development until that fateful day in November 1989 when peoplepower tore it down, but it’s interesting to reflect on the decision to lock the East German population up behind a Wall, in effect creating a giant prison. The West were quick to point out the failings of a system of government that had to lock up its own people to stop them escaping, and this was borne out in the eventual collapse of the DDR, followed a couple of years later by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end to Soviet Communism. In the intervening 28 years, it is truly tragic to consider how many lives were ruined by Walter Ulbricht’s obsession and history has gone on to demonstrate the complete moral bankruptcy of his regime.

For the full background to this fascinating and dangerous period in our history, get yourself a copy of the first book in the mini-series: Cold War Berlin: An Island City Volume 1, The Birth of the Cold War and the Berlin Airlift, 1945 – 1950, which explores the origins of the Cold War or my new book: Cold War Berlin: An Island City Volume 2, The Berlin Wall, 1950 – 1961, both available at

Andrew Long

13 August 2021

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