August 13, 1961, was a Sunday. People were able to sleep in, and most shops and workplaces were closed. That probably explains the choice of this day, or rather the nighttime hours starting around midnight Saturday, to launch construction on the Wall that would divide Berlin for 28 years. And not just Berlin, but Germany: the stretch of wall confined to Berlin was 43 kilometers long, but in total it extended 155. When you get right down to it, the Wall divided not just Germany, but the entire world.
What was the point? Why was so much manpower, money, and material expended on a project that flew in the face of the policy of “peaceful coexistence” that had been announced just five years earlier? In a way, this was classic Khrushchev: none of his endeavors – from the 20th Party Congress, to the campaign to boost agriculture, to plans to reduce international tensions – were carried out systematically. Nikita Sergeyevich, of course, deserves a degree of gratitude, first and foremost, for releasing millions from the camps, for giving the country at least a taste of freedom that set off a flourishing of culture, for sincerely caring (I feel certain) about ordinary people, and for constructing thousands upon thousands of inexpensive residential buildings, enabling people to escape communal apartments. He also deserves thanks for opening the Iron Curtain just a chink and letting us get at least a peek at foreign films, books, and even the real-live foreigners who attended the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow.
On a personal level, I certainly appreciate all these new-and-improved policies, but as a historian – alas! – I see how short they fell. The impression is that Khrushchev put great enthusiasm into applying a fresh coat of paint to a rusty, dilapidated, old fence. He really needed to tear it down and build a new one, but he could not bring himself to go so far. The red blood of Soviet communism ran through his veins.
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