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New Evidence on the Berlin Crisis 1958-1962

Khrushchev’s November 1958 Berlin Ultimatum:

New Evidence from the Polish Archives

Introduction, translation, and annotation by Douglas Selvage



't was on 10 November 1958, at a Soviet-Polish
friendship rally to cap off the visit of Polish leader

Władysław Gomułka to Moscow, that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev first publicly announced his intention to turn over the Soviet Union's control functions in Berlin to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Khrushchev's speech was the prelude to his letter of November 27 to the Western powers, in which he demanded that they enter into negotiations for a German peace treaty and on the issue of transforming West Berlin into a demilitarized, "free" city. If sufficient progress were not made within six months, Khrushchev threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with the GDR and to grant it control over the transit routes to Berlin.2

Recently-declassified minutes of a meeting between Gomułka and Khrushchev on November 10, the day of the Soviet leader's speech, shed light on the immediate prelude to the ultimatum of November 27. They tend to confirm Hope Harrison and Vladislav Zubok's main assertions in their recent studies about Khrushchev's goals in provoking the crisis: to differentiate himself from his ousted opponents, to counter the Federal Republic of Germany's (FRG) expanding role in NATO, and-above all else—to gain international recognition of the GDR.” The minutes highlight in particular the key role of the shifting nuclear balance in Khrushchev's thinking and provide insight into the evolving relationship between Khrushchev and Gomułka.

domestic and foreign policies, especially with regard to trade and cultural relations with the West. In contrast, Khrushchev's Berlin gambit presaged an increase in tensions between East and West. Although it might have been aimed indirectly at preventing West German access to nuclear weapons, the central goal was to gain Western recognition of the GDR. Khrushchev's Berlin ultimatum meant, in effect, that the struggle within the Eastern bloc between Poland and the GDR over what was to come first in Soviet-bloc foreign policy-regional disarmament or recognition of the GDR—had been decided in the East Germans' favor.?

In the session on November 10, Gomułka let Khrushchev do the talking. When the Soviet leader asked Gomułka if he had read Moscow's latest “suggestions” regarding Berlin, he said that he had. “We understand," Gomułka said, "that they are aimed towards liquidating the western part of Berlin.” Khrushchev quickly countered, “It is not that simple.” The announcement on Berlin was only the “beginning of the struggle.” Moscow intended to hand over its control functions in Berlin to the East Germans, and this would force the West to speak directly with the GDR-leading, in effect, to its recognition. The Soviet leader also suggested other possible reasons for his gambit. He tried to differentiate himself from his former opponents in the struggle to succeed Stalin by citing their policy towards the German question. Both KGB Chief Lavrentii Beria and Soviet Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Georgi Malenkov, Khrushchev declared, had favored a Soviet withdrawal from Berlin and the GDR in 1953.8 In the same year, Khrushchev had justified Beria's removal and execution by pointing to his German policy. Similarly, in June 1957, he had vindicated his purge of the “anti-party group" of Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich from the Soviet leadership by citing their opposition to credits for the GDR.' To help assure Gomułka's support, Khrushchev now alleged that his former opponents had even wanted to alter Poland's western border, the OderNeisse Line. Having differentiated himself from his opponents, he also brought up the issue of the FRG's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance "clearly directed against us." Bonn's membership in NATO, he declared, violated the Potsdam Agreement. It thus provided Moscow with a justification to renounce the existing arrangements for Berlin, agreed

Khrushchev's Goals

On the weekend of 8 November 1958, Gomułka received a draft of Khrushchev's proposed speech for the friendship rally on Monday. He was reportedly shocked. Although the GDR and the Soviet Union had sent notes to the Federal Republic and the Western powers in September calling for a German peace treaty and interGerman talks on reunification, there had been no mention of Berlin. Only days before the Polish foreign minister, Adam Rapacki, had renewed his proposal for a nuclear weapon-free zone in Central Europe to embrace both German states, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. The underlying goals of the initiative, the “Rapacki Plan," were to prevent West German access to nuclear weapons and to provide the basis for détente and disarmament in Europe. A relaxation of tensions between the two blocs would have allowed Poland more room for maneuver in its

upon at Potsdam, especially since the West was using West Berlin as an “attack base” against the Soviet Union.

settlement on Berlin and a peace treaty, so as long as sufficient progress was made within six months.12 He rescinded and renewed the deadline two more times before he finally abandoned it in October 1961, two months after the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Nuclear Brinkmanship and the West's Reaction

Khrushchev sought to calm the Polish delegation's fears about the possibility of war over Berlin by underlining the altered strategic balance since 1953. The West would not risk a war over Berlin, he suggested, because the Soviet Union had the hydrogen bomb and the means to hit the U.S. As Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov point out, Khrushchev believed that the Soviet threat to use nuclear weapons during the Suez Crisis exactly two years earlier had played a crucial role in forcing Great Britain and France to back down. His "nuclear-missile romanticism"10 also led him to believe that in order to avoid nuclear confrontation, the Western powers would have to acquiesce in East German control over the transit routes to Berlin. (In his meeting with Gomułka, Khrushchev did not mention the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the West over Berlin or a peace treaty.) “If a conflict results,” Khrushchev told Gomułka, “they (the West] know full well that we are in a position to raze West Germany to the ground. The first minutes of war will decide.... Their territory is small-West Germany, England, France-literally several bombs will suffice..." Although a war "might drag on for years," the Soviet Union could also launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. “Today, America has moved closer to us,” Khrushchev told Gomułka, “our missiles can hit them directly.”

Since war was no longer an option for the West, Khrushchev predicted, they would resort to some form of economic blockade against the GDR and Berlin. This time, however, unlike 1948-49, it would be the Soviet Union that would provide the residents of West Berlin with food. Since France and Great Britain-Khrushchev and Gomułka agreed—did not really favor German unification, they would not necessarily put up much resistance. Indeed, Khrushchev predicted—incorrectly, as it turned out—that French President Charles de Gaulle would not actively support West Germany during a crisis over Berlin." De Gaulle, he said, feared the Germans; if they attacked any country in the future, it would be France, not the Soviet Union. “De Gaulle," Khrushchev adjudged, “is a realist, a military man; he completely understands the danger to France."

Khrushchev, it seems, had not yet decided to leave open the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Western powers over Berlin. When Gomułka brought up the option of talks with the West, Khrushchev replied that Moscow was not planning a diplomatic approach to the Western powers. It would simply withdraw its representative from the Allied Control Commission, recall its military commander from Berlin, and hand over control of the access routes to the East Germans. By the time of his “ultimatum” on November 27, however, Khrushchev decided to leave open the possibility of a negotiated

The Polish-Soviet Relationship

The minutes also provide insight into the evolving relationship between Khrushchev and Gomułka. Only two years before, in October 1956, Khrushchev had flown to Warsaw on the eve of the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP]'s 8th Plenum to confront the Polish leadership about Gomułka's return to power.'3 In contrast, in November 1958, he talked openly with Gomułka about the ostensible differences within the Soviet leadership over Poland's western border, the Oder-Neisse Line. Not surprisingly, he suggested that he, Khrushchev, had always supported the Oder-Neisse Line and it was others—Beria and the “feeble" Malenkov—who had committed the "stupidity” of refusing to recognize it. Khrushchev’s statement was particularly ironic because it was he who had made veiled threats against the Oder-Neisse Line in two meetings with Gomułka in 1957. At the first meeting, in May 1957 in Moscow, Khrushchev had used the border issue to force Gomułka to renounce his demands for compensation for Moscow's economic exploitation of Poland during the Stalin era.' At the second meeting, in August 1957, he had pressured Gomułka to curb the reforms in Poland and combat “anti-Sovietism."15 Gomułka had responded in October 1957 with a crackdown in Poland. He had ordered the closure of the Warsaw student newspaper, Po prostu, the leading organ of the Polish reform movement.!6 When students protested the decision, they were brutally rebuffed by Poland's internal security forces. Then, in November 1957, Gomułka had ordered a purge ("review") of the PUWP's membership, which led to the dismissal of leading “revisionists."!? By the time of his meeting with Khrushchev in November 1958, Gomułka publicly supported Khrushchev's Berlin gambit, despite his private reservations. In return, the Soviet leader sanctioned—both in his speech on November 10 and more importantly, during a visit to Poland in July 1959—Poland's right to follow its own path to socialism.18

The excerpt below comes from the former Polish party archives, now a part of Archiwum Akt Nowych (AAN), or the Archive for Contemporary Documents, in Warsaw.!!



Minutes from the Discussion between the Delegation

of the PRL (People's Republic of Poland)

and the Government of the USSR,”
25 October - 10 November 1958

(Excerpt from session on 10 November 1958.]

Khrushchev: He turns to the German question and quotes the recent statement of [U.S. Secretary of State John Foster]



Dulles on the matter of Berlin.2

If a conflict results, they know full well that we are in a position to raze West Germany to the ground. The first minutes of war will decide. There the losses will naturally be the greatest. After that, the war might drag on for years. Their territory is small-West Germany, England, France-literally several bombs will suffice, they will decide in the first minutes of the war. We recently conducted tests, and we have such [delivery) vehicles that at the same strength they use ten times less fuel, so in the same space we can produce ten times as many bombs.

There were some among us who believed that we would have to withdraw from Berlin. Beria proposed this, and he was supported by “feeble” Malenkov. They believed that we should give up the GDR and Berlin. That was in 1953. What would we have accomplished after that? They did not even recognize the border on the Oder and Neisse, so that would have been complete stupidity. They would not have even recognized the Western border of Poland, but had pretensions to Gdynia and Gdańsk. We have to defend the border on the Elbe. Are we supposed to give up a population of 18 million in the GDR for nothing, without a fight? That's stupidity. We should fully support Ulbricht and Grotewohl. The FRG simply offered us gold, dollars, so that we would not support the GDR. They simply asked - how much do you want [?] Of course we rejected this, we do not negotiate on such questions.

You know about our latest suggestions with regard to Berlin.

Gomułka: We know. We understand that they are aimed towards liquidating the western part of Berlin.

Khrushchev: It is not that simple. I am only announcing that matter. That is the beginning of the struggle. Our announcement in our presentations is only the beginning of the action. Undoubtedly it is an exacerbation of the situation. The GDR will aggravate the issue of transport, especially military, and they will have to turn to them on matters of transport. Of course an exacerbation will result.

Gomułka: It is understood that in the longer term a situation cannot continue in which in the interior of one state, the GDR, stands another state—West Berlin. It would be different if the unification of Germany were a close prospect—and that was possible at the time of Potsdam, when it was considered a temporary statusuntil the unification of Germany. But currently the situation is different and such a prospect is lacking. Such a state of things cannot be maintained. There is not even a single state in the West that would support the unification of Germany. Even France and England do not wish that upon themselves.

Khrushchev: And France and England are afraid themselves of whether we might not give in on this issue. In 1956, they were full of happiness, they thought that Poland had perished as a socialist state. They were mistaken, but even if it had come to pass, even if we had

had some difficulties in Poland, it would not have saved them. We would have gone through Czechoslovakia, through the Baltic Sea, but we would have never withdrawn from the GDR. We would not allow the GDR to be swallowed up.

Gomułka: Do you intend to address the three states [i.e., Western powers) about liquidating the status of Berlin?

Khrushchev: No. My declaration today should be understood in such a fashion, that we are unilaterally ceasing to observe the agreement on Berlin's status, that we are discontinuing to fulfill the functions deriving from our participation in the Control Commission. Next, we will recall our military commander in West Berlin and our (military] mission. [East German Premier Otto] Grotewohl will ask the English and Americans to leave, along with their missions. Our military, however, will remain in the GDR on the basis of our participation in the Warsaw Treaty. Then the capitalist states will have to turn to the GDR on matters relating to Berlin, transit, and transport. They will have to turn to Grotewohl, and he is firm. And that's when the tension begins. Some form of blockade will result, but we have enough foodstuffs. We will also have to feed West Berlin. We do not want to, but the population will suffer from it.

Ignar:2. That political stance is of course right, as long as you say that it will not cause a war. If not, then it is correct and I, in any case, think so.

Khrushchev: War will not result from it. There will be tensions, of course, there will be a blockade. They might test to see our reaction. In any case we will have to show a great deal of cold blood in this matter.

Gomułka: They might try different forms of blockade. That might play a part in the summit meeting.

Khrushchev: According to the Potsdam agreement, the FRG should not join any alliance against the countries with which Germany fought. But they joined NATO, which is clearly directed against us. That is clearly in conflict with the Potsdam agreement. West Berlin is there to be used as an attack base against us. They are turning to blackmail. Five years ago—that was different. Then, we did not have the hydrogen bomb; now, the balance of forces is different. Then, we could not reach the USA. The USA built its policies upon the bases surrounding us. Today, America has moved closer to us—our missiles can hit them directly.

Gomułka: What about de Gaulle?

Khrushchev: He will not actively support them. De Gaulle fears the Germans. During a meeting in Moscow with the French (Guy Mollet), we said to them: Why would the Germans attack to the east? There they will meet the greatest resistance, there it will be difficult for them. Hence, they will certainly attack to the west. De Gaulle understands that if the Germans start looking for weak spots they will attack France, because if they want to attack the USSR, they will have to go through Poland. De Gaulle is a realist, a military man, he understands

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completely the danger to France.

On the matters relating to West Berlin, we consulted with the comrades from the GDR. They fully support these steps.

Gomułka: We have our trade agreements with the FRG. We ship goods to West Berlin.

Khrushchev: You can keep those agreements, but you should speak with the GDR about transport. The GDR also trades with them. They supply them with briquettes, and they receive coke, which they give to Poland....

the "Grotewohl Plan.” The major difference between the two initiatives had been the GDR's insistence that the two German states first sign an agreement on their own, which would have signified Bonn's recognition of the GDR. The Poles, in contrast, had been willing to settle for a series of unilateral declarations by Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the two German states not to permit the stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory—a solution that would not have forced Bonn to recognize the GDR. Stehle, Independent Satellite, 225-26. On GDR interference with the Rapacki Plan see, e.g., Dept. IV, MSZ, “Notatka,” 28 February 1958, and MSZ, "Wyciąg z raportu politycznego Ambasady Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej w Berlinie za okres od 1.IX. 1957 r. do 28.11.1958 r.," n.d., both in AAN, KC PZPR, p. 110, t. 17.

On the 1953 events, see Christian F. Ostermann, “This Is Not A Politburo But A Madhouse,” CWIHP Bulletin 10 (March 1998),


(Source: AAN, KC PZPR, p. 113, 1. 27. Translated by Douglas Selvage.]

pp. 61-72.

Douglas Selvage recently submitted his dissertation, Poland, the German Democratic Republic and the German Question, 1955-1967,at Yale University and received his Ph.D. in December 1998.


Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the United States Information Agency, and the US Department of State, which administers the Russian, Eurasian, and East European Research Program (Title VIII).

2 See the general background in Hope M. Harrison, “New Evidence on Khrushchev's 1958 Berlin Ultimatum," Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) Bulletin 4 (Fall 1994),


pp. 35-36.



9 John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 131; Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 197-98.

10 Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War, pp. 190-94.

Among the Western powers, De Gaulle's France, it turned out, took “the most uncompromising line” towards Khrushchev's ultimatum. Ann Tusa, The Last Division: A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997), p. 117.

12 Harrison, “New Evidence,” pp. 35-36.

13 On the confrontation in Warsaw, see L.W. Głuchowski, “Poland, 1956: Khrushchev, Gomułka, and the ‘Polish October,"” CWIHP Bulletin 5 (Spring 1995), pp. 1, 38-49.

Andrzej Korzon, “Rozmowy polsko-radzieckie w maju 1957 roku,” Dzieje najnowsze 25 (1993), pp. 121-30.

Andrzej Werblan, “Nieznana rozmowa Władysława Gomułka z Nikitą S. Chruszczowem,Dziś 4 (May 1993), pp. 75-84, esp. p. 82.

16 In an address to party journalists in November 1957, Gomułka justified the closing of Po Prostu by pointing to Poland's geopolitical situation. He stressed the need to combat anti-Sovietism in Poland; otherwise, given the Germans' revisionist aims, Poland would become a truncated “Duchy of Warsaw.” “Słowo kołcowe tow. Wiesława na spotkaniu z dziennikarzami dnia 5.X. 57," 5 October 1957, in AAN, KC PZPR, 237/V-255.

Andrzej Albert (Wojciech Roszkowski), Najnowsza historia Polski, 1914-1993, 5th ed., vol.2 (London: Puls Publications, 1994), pp. 368-71.

18 Stehle, Independent Satellite, pp. 39-42.

19 A Polish transcript of the talks from October 11 to November 11, 1958, has recently been published in Tajne dokumenty Biura Politycznego: PRL-ZSSR 1956-1970, introduction by Andrzej Paczkowski (London: “Aneks,” 1998), pp. 191-120. The relevant section can be found on pp. 112-14.

20 In a speech in October 1958, Dulles had drawn a parallel between the U.S. commitment to Taiwan during the Taiwan Straits Crisis and its commitment to Berlin. In talks with the Soviet ambassador to the GDR, M. Pervukhin, Ulbricht interpreted Dulles' statement as a warning that as soon as the crisis in the Far East was resolved, the “imperialists” would turn their attention to Berlin. Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War, pp. 198-99.

21 Stefan Ignar, Vice Chairman of the Polish Council of Ministers.

Hope Harrison, CWIHP Working Paper No.5: Ulbricht and the Concrete Rose': New Archival Evidence on the Dynamics of Soviet-East German Relations and the Berlin Crisis, 1958-61 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 1993), 12-16; Vladislav Zubok, CWIHP Working Paper No.6: Khrushchev and the Berlin Crisis (1958-62), (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 1993), pp. 3-9. On the role of the domestic power struggle in the Soviet Union, also see Robert Slusser, The Berlin Crisis of 1961: Soviet-American Relations and the Struggle for Power in the Kremlin, June - November 1961 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), passim.

* Hansjakob Stehle, The Independent Satellite: Society and Politics in Poland Since 1945, transl. D.J.S. Thompson (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1965), pp. 38-40. On the East German and Soviet notes from September, see Harrison, Ulbricht and the Concrete Rose,' pp. 8-12.

5 On the Rapacki Plan, see Stehle, Independent Satellite, 230-37; and the most recent study, which makes use of Polish archives: Piotr Wandycz, “Adam Rapacki and the Search for European Security,” Gordon A. Craig and Francis L. Loewenheim eds., The Diplomats, 1939-1979 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 289-317.

• Hope Harrison, “The Bargaining Power of Weaker Allies in Bipolarity and Crisis: The Dyanmics of Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961," (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1993), p. 144.

When Poland first announced the Rapacki Plan in October 1957, the East Germans had responded with their own proposal,



The Berlin Crisis and the Khrushchev-Ulbricht Summits

in Moscow, 9 and 18 June 1959

“If you have thrown the enemy to the ground, you don't need to then kneel on his chest”

—Khrushchev to Ulbricht, 9 June 1959

Introduction, translation, and annotation by Hope M. Harrison


These two summit meetings, between Soviet leader
Nikita Khrushchev and East German leader and

Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) First Secretary Walter Ulbricht, took place in June 1959 during the second Berlin Crisis (1958-61) while the Conference of Foreign Ministers (CFM) of the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, and France (with the two Germanys sitting in as observers for the first time) was occurring in Geneva, Switzerland.' The CFM met from May 11-June 19 and July 13-August 5 to discuss Germany.? Much of the discussion at the two Soviet-East German summits was about strategy towards the Western Powers concerning Berlin and Germany at the CFM. A top-level East German delegation was in the Soviet Union from June 8-20, visiting Moscow, Riga, Kiev, and Gorki and holding these two summit meetings with the Soviet leadership as well as learning about Soviet economic, cultural, and other institutions.

The Geneva CFM was convened in response to Khrushchev's ultimatum of 27 November 1958 to the Western Powers about Berlin and Germany. In the ultimatum, Khrushchev demanded that a peace treaty be signed by the four powers with both Germanys or with a united Germany and that West Berlin be transformed into a “free city” within six months or he would sign a separate peace treaty with the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) and turn over to the GDR control of access routes between West Germany and West Berlin." The six-month deadline was due to expire on 27 May 1959. The Western Powers relented beforehand, agreeing not yet for a summit of the heads of state (which is what Khrushchev really wanted), but proposing a meeting of the foreign ministers to discussed the issues raised in Khrushchev's ultimatum, as well as other topics. If progress was made at the CFM, then there might be a summit of heads of state. The Western proposal for the CFM on Germany, with the Four Powers and German representatives, was sent to Moscow on 16 February 1959. The Soviets responded on March 2 saying that they really thought a summit of the heads of state would be the most appropriate forum for discussing the German question, but if the West refused, they would agree to a CFM, with Czech and Polish, as well as East and West German, observers. In a note on March 26, Washington held to its position, supporting initially only a CFM and only with observers from the two Germanys. The Soviets accepted on March 30 the plans for the Geneva CFM to convene on

May 11 to discuss a German peace treaty and Berlin.

Thus, in less than six months, Khrushchev achieved two major objectives: negotiations with the West on Berlin and Germany, and de facto recognition of the GDR. Khrushchev made it clear to Ulbricht at their June 1959 summits that he had used the threat of a separate peace treaty threat as a “Damocles’ sword” to force the West to the negotiating table. On June 18, he told Ulbricht: "I don't know whether we will bring this issue of the signing of a peace treaty with the GDR to realization; however, such a prospect acts in a sobering way on the Western powers and West Germany. This, if you will, is pressure on them, Damocles' sword, which we must hold over them.” Presidium member Anastas Mikoian agreed: "Before they didn't want to talk about Berlin at all, but now they are forced to carry out negotiations with us on it.”

Now that Khrushchev had actually gotten the West to the negotiating table, however, it was not clear how hard he really wanted to push his adversaries. As he told Ulbricht on June 9, “Earlier we said that in the event of the Western powers' refusal to sign a peace treaty with the two German governments, we would sign a peace treaty with the GDR. But now it is necessary to create a safety valve. Therefore we are proposing the creation of an allGerman committee,” which he imagined would spend “one or one and a half years, until 1961,"working out a plan for unification. In fact, Khrushchev told Ulbricht on June 18, “Let's not set a time limit. . . Let's act more flexibly on this issue ...” Paul Scholz^ agreed with this idea for a very different reason. He pointed out that due to Khrushchev's 27 November 1958 ultimatum, on 27 May 1959, "is well known, on that day everyone in the GDR expected that something would happen. Therefore, it is better not to decree a concrete date, but to preserve freedom of movement for oneself.” He did not want the GDR to be in the embarrassing position again of not reaping the gains that Khrushchev had publicly promised it.

Khrushchev did not expect much from the CFM itself. On June 9, he said to Ulbricht that the conference “won't have any tangible results ... since the situation itself still doesn't have a basis for positive resolutions.” Besides, “not one self-respecting prime minister will allow his foreign minister, due to prestige considerations, to sign an agreement on concrete issues.” They would save this honor only for themselves. Thus, “Geneva—it's a test of



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