The beginning of the 1960s marked a new stage in the history
of East Germany. Although it certainly had not solved all its
security problems, the country had made significant progress.
Control over society had been stabilized, and party authority was
well established. The basic governmental structures necessary to
guarantee the internal and external security of the state had
been created and were functioning at a surprisingly high level of
efficiency. In grudging acceptance of these realities, the Soviet
Union had given the republic increasing authority over its own
internal affairs, and the neighboring East European states had
accepted it as a full member of the Warsaw Pact.
There were, however, serious national security problems to be
faced. The most serious was the mass exodus of East German
citizens to West Germany from East Berlin to West Berlin and
through the east-west border. The figures are indeed monumental.
In 1959 about 144,000 persons fled; in 1960 the figure rose to
199,000; and in the first seven months of 1961, about 207,000
left the country. The damage caused by this exodus was compounded
by the fact that the defectors represented a high proportion of
the young, better educated, and most productive members of
An equally important though less pressing problem concerned
international recognition. Although the East German government
received formal recognition within the communist world, the
noncommunist world either ignored it or refused the regime
recognition on the basis of its being a puppet government.
National security efforts during the 1960s were devoted to
resolving these problems.
During the early months of 1961, the government actively
sought a means of halting the emigration of its population to the
West. By the early summer of 1961, Ulbricht apparently had
persuaded the Soviets that an immediate solution was necessary
and that the only way to stop the exodus was to use force. This
presented a delicate problem for the Soviet Union because the
four-power status of Berlin specified free travel between zones
and specifically forbade the presence of German troops in Berlin.
Although it is not known who made the actual decision to erect
the Berlin Wall, it is generally accepted that overall operations
were directed by Marshal Ivan Konev, commander in chief of the
GSFG. Apparently Konev appointed Major General Martin Blek of the
NVA as the operational commander.
During the spring and early summer, the East German regime
procured and stockpiled building materials for the erection of
the Berlin Wall. Although this extensive activity was widely
known, few outside the small circle of Soviet and East German
planners believed that East Germany would be sealed off.
It may have been that neither the Soviets nor the East
Germans were certain of the reaction that they would have to face
from the East or the West. For this reason, 8,000 Working-Class
Combat Group's personnel from East Berlin, Saxony, and Thuringia
were employed as the so-called first line of the operation. The
Working-Class Combat Groups, a workers' militia, were present in
a police capacity to ensure that the troops and the local
population remained passive during the construction of the Wall.
Approximately 32,000 NVA combat and engineer troops were used
in building the Wall; they constituted the second line. Once
their efforts were completed, the Border Police assumed the
functions of manning and improving the barrier. The third line
consisted of the Soviet Army, which was present to discourage
interference by the West and presumably to assist the NVA in the
event of large-scale riots.
The operation started at 2:00 A.M. on August 13, 1961.
Construction of the Berlin Wall proved three important facts.
First, the NVA could plan, organize, and rapidly execute a
large-scale operation in complete secrecy. Second, the government
could and would take tough and brutal measures to ensure its own
survival. Third, the operation resolved questions concerning the
reliability of People's Police units that had originated during
the June 17, 1953, uprising.
Differentiation between the Ministry of Defense and the
Ministry of the Interior was still in progress in the 1960s.
Another issue in this process was the subordination of the Border
Police. On September 15, 1961, by order of the National Defense
Council, the entire Border Police was transferred to the NVA and
redesignated the Border Troops of the NVA. Various explanations
for this shift have been offered by different authorities. The
official reason stressed improvement in the level of training
through closer relationship with the NVA and provision for
reinforcement of the Border Troops with other NVA assets. The
actual reason probably had more to do with standardization within
the Warsaw Pact since similar reorganizations occurred in roughly
the same time period in all the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact armies.
By the end of the 1960s, the security forces had probably
achieved the maximum strength possible under existing conditions.
Military service was not extremely popular with the postwar
generation, and any move toward conscription during the 1950s
would have only added to the flood of emigration. After the
building of the Berlin Wall, however, this restriction vanished.
On September 20, 1961, little more than a month after the Wall
was built, the People's Chamber passed the Act on the Defense of
the German Democratic Republic, which, among other things,
prescribed personal obligations for national service. Although
the act did not legislate conscription, it set the base for the
National Service Act of January 24, 1962, which required military
service for all males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six
and made all males up to the age of fifty liable for military
service. In a declared "state of defense," males were made liable
for service until sixty years of age, and women between the ages
of eighteen and fifty could be drafted for medical or supply
service in the NVA.
As the 1960s progressed, Soviet confidence in the new
republic and its armed forces reached ever higher levels. As the
decade drew to a close, the position of the country within the
socialist camp was far more certain than it had been at the
beginning of the 1960s. All was not well, however, in the rest of
the socialist camp. Liberalizing forces were appearing, their
most apparent manifestation occurring in the Prague Spring in
neighboring Czechoslovakia. Given East Germany's own uncertain
history, liberalization was then, as it continued to be, an
unsettling thought for the East German leadership.
For this reason, Ulbricht was willing to support a Soviet
initiative to re-establish a "reliable" government in
Czechoslovakia. When the Warsaw Pact states declared the
situation in Czechoslovakia "absolutely unacceptable," East
Germany was in full agreement and was ready to follow the Soviet
lead. On the night of August 20, 1968, when the forces of five
Warsaw Pact nations invaded and occupied the country, NVA troops
were among the participants. Although NVA participation was minor
(limited to two divisions that were kept out of populated areas)
and its forces were withdrawn after only five days, the invasion
of Czechoslovakia marks a watershed in the history of East
Germany. For the first time since World War II, German troops
marched upon foreign soil.
East Germany's participation in the invasion of
Czechoslovakia showed the world that the NVA could--and
would--use its newly created military might to function
effectively outside its borders. In addition to the other
political repercussions in the world, it was now clear that East
Germany could no longer be ignored. The invasion also had an
internal impact. East Germans, who were able to watch footage of
the invasion on West German television, were well informed about
the events in Czechoslovakia. Within seven days after the
invasion, over 5,000 East Berliners went to the Czechoslovak
embassy to sign protests against the occupation. Throughout the
country, there were numerous antiregime and anti-Soviet
incidents. In Erfurt, People's Police Alert Units went on patrol
to forestall planned protest demonstrations, and in Leipzig the
Soviet consulate had to be protected. In Schwerin police used
water cannons to disperse demonstrators.
East German reaction to the invasion clearly showed that the
government had not captured the hearts and minds of a significant
portion of its citizens. The use of massive repressive measures
demonstrated that the government was not in complete control. In
contrast to the situations in 1953 and 1961, however, East German
security forces quickly and effectively managed the 1968 crisis
without Soviet participation or support.
Data as of July 1987