East German leader Walter Ulbricht had never written a letter of greater consequence. He wanted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to quit making excuses, to quit dithering and to finally launch a bold Berlin move that would stop the refugee bleed and his country’s economic decline.
Though his letter to Khrushchev was marked SECRET, Ulbricht intended it to circulate among all the top Soviet leadership and communist allies around the world. Ulbricht argued the time was right for forceful Berlin action because President-elect Kennedy, who would be inaugurated in two days, would go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation during his first year in office. Adenauer would want to maintain peace as well before his September elections, Ulbricht wrote.
January 5, 1961
Friends speculated that it had been his inconsolable concerns over President Kennedy’s fitness for office that had worsened Konrad Adenauer’s illness; a cold he had contracted before the U.S. elections deepened to bronchitis and then pneumonia. On the occasion of the West German chancellor’s 85th birthday, others attributed his fragility to age.
Whatever the truth, Adenauer still sniffled badly as he posed for birthday photos next to orphans dressed as Snow White and her dwarfs. His birthday celebration was spread over two days, to protect his health while accommodating the dozens of people who wished to congratulate him for having built upon Nazi ashes an economically strong, politically reliable and democratically vibrant state – and in only 16 years.
Adenauer, however, knew the free country that he had built out of the post-war French, British and American zones could only survive concerted Soviet pressures if he could maintain unwavering American commitment. In the best of times, he worried about U.S. abandonment without cause, but now Adenauer had found in Kennedy far greater reason for concern.
“It was just minutes before midnight, and Nikita Khrushchev had reason to be relieved 1960 was nearly over. He had even greater cause for concern about the year ahead as he surveyed his two thousand New Year’s guests under the towering, vaulted ceiling of St. George’s Hall at the Kremlin.
As the storm outside deposited a thick layer of snow on Red Square and the mausoleum containing his embalmed predecessors, Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev recognized that Soviet standing in the world, his place in history, and – more to the point – his political survival could depend on how he managed his own blizzard of challenges.”
I first visited four of my elderly East German aunts as a college student in the late 1970s, they were willing to discuss almost anything except the final days of World War II and the first days of Soviet military occupation. Only over time and in whispers, did one of my aunt’s share the story. She and her sisters, she said, had each suffered either rape or some other sexual abuse at the hands of troops that history recorded as their liberators and allies.
So when I began to reconstruct the atmosphere of Berlin in 1961, having chosen to illustrate it through vignettes of individuals throughout the book, I thought long about whether to include Marta Hiller’s own story of rape. Though the details were sensational, the story was sadly routine.
Five years after his forced retirement, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1969 would concede to the American physician A. McGhee Harvey, a specialist who had visited Moscow to treat his daughter, that his watershed political event – the moment after which he “was no longer in full control” of the Kremlin — had been the Soviet shooting down of the U-2 American spy plane in May of 1960.
Finding that morsel of insight in a Life magazine interview with Dr. Harvey was the confirmation I had been seeking. There was ample evidence that Khrushchev was in a weakened political state as 1961 began, helping to explain the volatile swings in his behavior toward Kennedy early in the year, but to read Khrushchev’s corroboration of May 1960 as a turning point was powerful.
“The Great Man Theory,” first developed by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle in the 19th Century, argues that history can be largely explained by the influence of towering historical figures from Shakespeare to Attila the Hun. Its detractors contend that the societal forces and trends which produce these people are more decisive.
It wasn’t the purpose of BERLIN 1961 to settle that dispute, but four primary protagonists and their colliding ambitions drove the narrative. Their societies and systems may have produced them, but it was their individual decisions and motivations that determined events.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s face turned red with rage. Leaning in close to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev said that Cold War Berlin was “the most dangerous place on earth.” He told Kennedy he would “perform an operation on this sore spot – to eliminate this thorn, this ulcer…to the satisfaction of all peoples of the world.”
It was June of 1961, and the setting was neutral Vienna. This first and last Kennedy-Khrushchev summit would prove to be one of the most explosive and decisive meetings ever of the two most powerful leaders of their time. It was the dawn of the live, television age, and more than 1,500 journalists had converged on the city with all their paraphernalia.