What became Nikita Khrushchev in 1958

Allied Museum

Within six months, the Western powers were to withdraw from Berlin and their sectors were to be converted into a free, demilitarized city. Khrushchev threatened to conclude a peace treaty with the GDR and transfer control rights to Berlin, including the access routes. Because they did not recognize the East German state, the Western powers saw it as an act contrary to international law.

Khrushchev kept his real goals to himself. He not only wanted to strengthen the GDR, but above all to shake the credibility of the leading Western power, the USA, and thus split the NATO defense alliance.

The reactions of the West and the escalation of the crisis

The western capitals were by no means unanimous in their response to the ultimatum. But one point was clear: withdrawing the troops from West Berlin was out of the question. The Western powers also maintained their right to free access to Berlin. US President John F. Kennedy affirmed this position in July 1961 in his three principles, the "Three Essentials". This created a stalemate. Moscow and Washington threatened each other with war. Up until this escalation, negotiations between East and West had at least been carried out. After the unsuccessful Geneva Foreign Ministers' Conference (1959) and the failure of the Paris Four Power Summit (1960), the Berlin crisis reached its low point with the American-Soviet summit in Vienna (1961).

In relation to the GDR, the Vienna summit was a turning point for the Soviet Union: The state and economic crisis in the GDR had meanwhile worsened to such an extent that the GDR leadership in Moscow was increasingly pressing to seal off East Berlin. The last loophole to the west should be closed. In view of the dramatic increase in the number of refugees, Khrushchev approved the construction of the Berlin Wall in July 1961, which he had originally rejected.

The operation was prepared under the leadership of the Red Army. On August 13, 1961, GDR organs began erecting barbed wire barriers in Berlin and, from one day to the next, cutting up the city's lifelines. The Western powers did not want to go to war because of Berlin and reacted cautiously. Because the population was outraged and disappointed, the US quickly set an example: its garrison was reinforced by a brigade. At the same time, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited West Berlin. Kennedy also sent former military governor Lucius D. Clay as a special envoy. Armed patrols were set up along the wall.

In October 1961 the situation in Berlin came to a head. The highest US diplomat in Berlin wanted to pass Checkpoint Charlie when border police of the GDR asked for his passport. US tanks took a position on Clay's orders: The Allied right to access East Berlin without such controls should be enforced by force if necessary. Thereupon Soviet tanks drove up on the other side. Apparently the USSR held on to its four-power status - a signal to the West that they did not want to let the conflict escalate. The tanks faced each other for 16 hours. The "tank confrontation" was finally defused via secret channels that Washington and Moscow used a year later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The risk of a nuclear war and emergency planning for West Berlin

The risk of nuclear war hovered over the second Berlin crisis. The Soviet Union had risen to become a nuclear power at the end of the 1950s, which gave particular weight to its Berlin ultimatum. Your nuclear weapons arsenal was only partially operational. But what was decisive was the strong impact the news and images of Soviet nuclear weapons tests had in Paris, London and Washington.

In West Berlin, given the threatening backdrop of the GDR's National People's Army and the Red Army, the military presence of the Western powers was primarily symbolic. The military mission of the Western Allied garrisons resulted from the unequal balance of forces: In street and house wars, an attacker was to be held up until the government headquarters had decided on a militarily appropriate reaction.

In order to avoid an escalation in the access to Berlin, the military planning staff "Live Oak" was set up at NATO in 1959. The Western powers were particularly vulnerable to road, rail and air connections between West Germany and West Berlin. This was exactly what sparked the first Berlin crisis in 1948. "Live Oak" drafted conflict scenarios and recommended countermeasures, which included political and economic sanctions as well as military operations and even the use of nuclear weapons.

In view of the nuclear war risk, social resistance formed in the Federal Republic. The "Fight against Atomic Death" campaign and the Easter march movement go back to this second Berlin crisis.