The Berlin Crisis (Century of German History, #1)

Welcome, readers! You have just come upon my first post in the new series A Century of German History. This year, I will post ten articles, one for each decade of the 20th century. The century was the most dramatic in our history.[1] And it was possibly nowhere more so than in Germany, a country that found itself sometimes on the wrong side of history, sometimes on the right, and sometimes even on both at the same time. The series does therefore not only attempt to show you some German history, but also shed light on the wider processes of those times in which Germany was both a subject and an object. Each article will feature one focal event (all of them in the year ending in a 9) and use one – and only one! – board game to illustrate it. Today, we begin with the superpower bickering over Berlin during the Berlin Crisis (after looking at West Berlin’s special situation). The board game to come with that, however, focuses on Cuba: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games). Why did I choose this game then? Read and find out.

Island West Berlin

During World War II, the Allies had agreed to put Berlin under a joint administration once they had won the war. Accordingly, the city was partitioned into four sectors after the war (a Soviet, American, British, and French one) – just like Germany as a whole – but the responsibility for Berlin as a whole remained quadripartite. Soviet-Western cooperation, however, fell apart soon after the war ended. As Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, the three Western sectors made for an island in the Red Sea. The Soviets were quick to seize on this advantage. In 1948, they denied all access to the Western sectors of Berlin from the outside – the Berlin Blockade. Stalin hoped to either incorporate West Berlin into the Soviet Occupation Zone, or gain concessions in West Germany for lifting the blockade. However, the Western Allies were able to supply West Berlin entirely through the air, and their counter-pressure succeeded in having the Soviets end the blockade. The quadripartite status of the city remained unchanged. So did the uneasy feeling in West Berlin: The Soviets continued to harass Western traffic to West Berlin every once in a while, and they could blockade the city again at their leisure.

occupation zones

The occupation zones of the allied powers in Germany: Soviet (red), American (orange), British (green), and French (blue). Berlin is divided in four sectors and entirely surrounded by the Soviet occupation zone. Image CC-BY-SA 3.0, created by Wikipedia user glglgl.

The Berlin Crisis

Ten years after the Berlin Blockade, the Soviet Union under her new leader Nikita Khrushchev had thawed in relation to the West. Khrushchev had made concessions in the Vienna treaty about the future of Austria and had closed a Soviet military base in Finland. Now, however, he wanted something in return. And to accompany demands with deeds, Khrushchev decided to apply pressure to isolated West Berlin as the West’s weak spot again. In Khrushchev’s earthy language: “West Berlin is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze West Berlin.” So, on November 10, 1958, Khrushchev announced he was ready to cede Soviet rights in Berlin (like controlling access) to the Soviet-backed East Germans. Two weeks later, Khrushchev doubled down and suggested West Berlin be made into a “Free City” (that is, unaligned with the West) within six months. Otherwise, he’d let the East Germans do as they pleased.
Khrushchev’s proposals would have had a double effect if implemented: First, they would have forced the Western powers to de facto recognize Soviet-backed East Germany if the East Germans did the access checks. Second, they would have removed the quadripartite status of the city and the rights of the Western allies to be there. This would have made it easier to remove the Western presence in the middle of the Soviet bloc altogether – as West Berlin was a window to the West for many East Germans. Through this window, they could see how prosperous and free the West was – and they could also climb through it. The exodus of East Germans to West Berlin amounted to hundreds of thousand people every year and was a severe drain on the prestige and economy of East Germany.
The Western allies were divided on how to deal with Khrushchev’s move. The French preferred a hard stance toward Moscow, the British wanted negotiations, the Americans were somewhere in the middle. In the end, they settled for four-power talks with the Soviets in Geneva in 1959, but could reach no conclusion. The summit in Paris the year after was not even brought to its orderly end: Shortly before it began, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev made the talks contingent on Eisenhower apologizing for the incident. Eisenhower refused, and the summit was cancelled after only two days.
Two years had passed since Khrushchev’s original threat to cede Soviet rights in Berlin to the East Germans, and nothing had happened (a strong indication that Khrushchev was happy to talk the talk, but shied away from walking the walk). Maybe a new leader in the White House could change the stasis? After John F. Kennedy took office, it did initially seem so – but only because he entirely bungled his first meeting with Khrushchev. Kennedy only asserted Western rights to West Berlin (instead of the entire city) and called the quadripartite status of Berlin which the US had always fought to preserve “abnormal”. Khrushchev, however, failed to capitalize on that. His mind had moved on. Instead of the grand designs of 1958, all he wanted by 1961 was to preserve the status quo – and close that damn window to the West.
In the night before August 13, 1961, East German forces put up barbed wire at the borders of West Berlin and closed most of the previous 88 checkpoints into the Western sectors. The Western allies reacted tepidly. Large parts of the White House, including Kennedy, were privately quite content with the solution of a divided city which might save them so many worries. On the other extreme, Kennedy had plans for nuclear first strikes prepared. While nothing came of these, East Germany turned its barbed wire border into a concrete wall and kept closing checkpoints. That was too much for even the most complacent American policymakers, and the haggling over access rights – by now the East Germans and Soviets demanded all Allied traffic pass through only one checkpoint – continued. It culminated in a standoff between American and Soviet tanks at that famous Checkpoint Charlie on October 27, 1961. Not much came of that either. The US scored a minor prestige victory, and the Soviets continued unperturbed with their limiting of Western access rights. The Berlin Wall would remain standing for almost 30 years, and Western administrations lived well with it, using it for its propaganda value in contrasting liberty and tyranny.
The Berlin Crisis, however, was still not over. In October 1962, news reached Kennedy that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba. That would have put almost the entire US mainland in attack range of intermediate-range missiles. Nonetheless, the White House interpreted these new developments first not as an attempt to shift the nuclear balance of power, but rather as a new stage of the Berlin Crisis: They feared the Soviets might either grab West Berlin while the US were distracted or offer missile removal in exchange for control of West Berlin. And indeed, Khrushchev regarded Cuba and Berlin as closely linked. His goal of gaining concessions by applying pressure on vulnerable spots of the West had not changed, just the approach to it: Instead of “squeezing the testicles of the West” in Berlin, he now described his scheme, much closer to the American mainland than before, as “planting a hedgehog in Uncle Sam’s underpants”.[2]
The US implemented a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent further shipments from arriving there, calling it a “quarantine”. This term was chosen because a blockade might be legally interpreted as an act of war, but also because “blockade” was so closely associated with Berlin by then that it would have just invited Soviet retribution there. In addition to the “quarantine”, the White house maintained direct contact with Moscow, made sure the allies of the United States were on board with their course of action, gathered support from the American people via televised speeches, and prepared conventional and nuclear contingency plans. In short, the response to the crisis was multifaceted, assertive, but measured – everything the response to the Berlin Wall had not been. Khrushchev’s original plan had counted on the missiles being fully deployed so that he could present the US with a fait accompli. Instead, he found himself in a fluid nuclear crisis against a formidable opponent. Consequently, he de-escalated and announced the missiles would be removed from Cuba (in exchange for a removal of US missiles from Turkey, which was not to be made public, though).
Peering into the abyss of nuclear war in Cuba made the superpowers wary of fighting over Berlin. That gave West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt (read more about him here) leeway to pursue a “policy of small steps” – incremental improvements to the status quo, the first being some travel permits to East Berlin for Westerners. Brandt’s approach to East-West relations of gradual, pragmatic change by negotiations became the official policy of West Germany when he won the chancellorship in 1969 and influenced the superpower détente of the 1960s and 1970s as well.

Berlin in 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis

13 Days is an unintuitive choice for a game to illustrate the Berlin Crisis. After all, the game is about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which, as you’ve read above, only touched on Berlin. However, it’s a marvelous example for Cold War politics: As the bickering over Berlin showed, the city served as a pressure point, a bargaining chip, and a weak spot. 13 Days shows how Berlin was but one piece in a big puzzle and how fighting about one thing can, in fact, be much more about another.

berlin battleground

The influence in Berlin is piling up during the Cuban Missile Crisis (red cubes: Soviet influence, blue cubes: American influence). The Soviet flag marker in Berlin signifies that it is a potential agenda (scoring card) selected by the Soviets this round.

Berlin is one of the “battlegrounds” on the map of 13 Days, and, consequently one of the secret agendas the superpowers can have. US and USSR can place their influence in Berlin, and if one of them selects Berlin as their agenda for a round, whoever has more influence there at the end of a round scores prestige (victory points). Berlin is a military battleground (as opposed to political and public opinion battlegrounds), emphasizing that military forces might make a difference there (as in the tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie or when the Soviets might block off access to the city).
The Soviet start with the advantage of having already placed one influence in Berlin, reflecting their advantageous position with Berlin surrounded and their previous advances that walled in the West. The US face therefore an uphill battle in Berlin, and when they suspect that the Soviets have secretly selected Berlin as their agenda, they will feel as uneasy as Kennedy did in 1962 – but maybe a special effort can turn the tide? Or maybe the Soviets can be distracted elsewhere? Or maybe the Soviets are just faking it and have indeed set their eyes on another prize? Those are kinds of thoughts you’ll have playing 13 Days.

berlin agenda

Agenda card “Berlin” from 13 Days. ©Jolly Roger Games.

But, of course, Berlin was valuable in itself as well. As the symbol of the division of Europe (and of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany), taking it might be worth for the Soviets despite the risk of nuclear war (after all, a risk is nothing but a probability). That is reflected in the Berlin Blockade card – when the event is triggered, the Soviets gain two prestige (which is a huge swing in this game), but they also give the US a big opportunity to manipulate the level of Soviet escalation – and if you start a war, you lose in 13 Days.

Blockade 13 Days

Strategy card “Berlin Blockade” from 13 Days. Going for Berlin is a high risk/high reward play for the Soviets. Image ©Jolly Roger Games.

Which other games do you know that feature the very special role of Berlin in the Cold War? Let me know in the comments!


Further Reading

You’ll find a comprehensive (if sadly riddled with some factual inaccuracies) account of the Berlin Crisis in Tusa, Ann: The Last Division. Berlin and the Wall, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1996.
Hope M. Harrison makes the case for the Soviets ultimately only giving in to East German demands and provocations in the crisis, see Harrison, Hope M.: Driving the Soviets up the Wall. Soviet-East German Relations, 1953—1961, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ/Oxford 2003.
The opposing view – that Khrushchev remained firmly in the driver’s seat – is espoused by Wettig, Gerhard: Chruschtschows Berlin-Krise 1958 bis 1963. Drohpolitik und Mauerbau [Khrushchev’s Berlin Crisis. Politics of Threats and the Building of the Wall], Oldenbourg, Munich 2006 (in German).
For the Cuban Missile Crisis, a detailed study of the sources from both sides is Fursenko, Aleksandr/Naftali, Timothy: “One Hell of a Gamble”, John Murray, London 1997.


1. As a historian specializing in the 20th century, I am bound to think so. Scholars of other eras will, of course, disagree and name their respective times as more dramatic. As Blumin’s Law states: No matter the subject, every historian will pipe up and claim it to be most pronounced in their era of study: “It happened in my period!”
2. Khrushchev’s colorful imagery never ceases to amaze me. It also gave the Moscow- or Leningrad-educated part of the Soviet elite the feeling that this Ukrainian peasant was a bit of an embarrassment for the Soviet Union.


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