Preventing World War III

by AMB. STEPHEN BARRETT

I was Deputy Political Adviser in the British Military Government Berlin from 1959 to 1962. In August 1961 I was 29 years old. My career was entirely in the British Diplomatic Service where I worked successively in Cyprus, Berlin, Helsinki, Prague, Ankara, Teheran, finishing as ambassador in Prague (1985-88) and then Warsaw (1988-91). I have omitted intervening postings back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a year spent at Harvard in the 1970’s. I am now 80 and retired.

My responsibilities in Berlin centered around the quadripartite status of the city, access between Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany and movement within Berlin as a whole. This covered movement by land, air, railroads and water. I knew well as colleagues and friends my American and French opposite numbers as well as senior officers in the British military in Berlin.

No one should make the make the mistake of thinking that the personal reflections and comments that follow are in any way representative of an official view.

Events on August 13 and The Following Days

I was alerted to the beginning of the East German operation early in the afternoon of Sunday August 13. Later that day on the orders of the British Commandant a troop of British tanks went to the eastern end of the Strasse des 17 Juni, stopping some tens of yards short of the end of the British Sector where the East Germans were putting in place the early barricades to the west of the Brandenburg Gate. These were probably the first Western tanks to go up to the sector border between West and East Berlin. It was done to show some Western response and bolster West Berlin morale. Later that day I went to where our tanks were positioned and had a conversation with Senator Lipschitz (responsible in the West Berlin government for internal security and police matters). He pressed me hard on the need for a firm Western response.

A day or so later the British Commandant ordered that barbed wire should be placed around the Soviet war memorial in the Tiergarten. This was partly to show opposition to the barriers going up between East and West Berlin and partly to protect the memorial and the Soviet guards there against possible action by angry West Berliners. At any rate the Soviets hated it and a few days later I had the Soviet Political Adviser come to see me (I was for a time acting Political Adviser) to ask for the barbed wire to be removed. At the time we had a problem on the border between the British Sector and the DDR proper where the boundary ran down the middle of a road north of Staaken. Here the East Germans had for some reason dug an enormous hole on their side of the road that threatened to engulf any passing British patrol vehicle. The Soviet officer said this was an East German responsibility. I contested this on the usual lines. The meeting ended with no result but a couple of days later the hole was filled in by the East Germans and shortly after we removed the barbed wire from around the war memorial.

Under quadripartite agreements military personnel in uniform had freedom of movement throughout Berlin. Thus even after the construction of the Wall the Soviets could change guard at the Tiergarten memorial and take their month of guard duty at Spandau Prison every four months.

The position of civilian members of the Allied military governments the position was different and there has been some criticism of the difference between US and British policies over movement through the East German controls in Friedrichstrasse/Checkpoint Charlie. US instructions were that their civilian officials should refuse to show identity documents to East Germans (e.g. the Lightner incident), whereas British civilian officials (such as me) were permitted to display (but not hand over) these. What lay behind this is that the vehicles of US civilian authorities in Berlin had license plates identifying the vehicle as Berlin-based and as such should have been permitted to pass straight through the controls. However, the cars of their British opposite numbers had plates similar to those used by the British Forces in Germany and occupants in civilian clothes could not be instantly identified as entitled to free movement throughout Berlin. Trivial, one might well think, but a difference that could and was exploited and misunderstood.

Later a not entirely dissimilar problem arose at Helmstedt (Checkpoint Alpha). The Soviets had difficulty in counting the number of soldiers in some US Army trucks because the height of the tailgate was such that a short Soviet officer could not see into the back of the truck. The British vehicles with lower tailgates did not encounter this problem. I like to think that some of the lack of automaticity and the insistence on a high level of political control over countermeasures or other responses in the event of Soviet or East German harassment may have very sensibly reflected the importance of distinguishing between an identity document and a true casus belli.

A few days after August 13 I saw a telegram/cable from the British Chiefs of Staff to our military in Berlin and the Federal Republic. To the best of my recollection it underscored the importance of not being the first to use force. Although by then we were generally aware that Soviet forces around Berlin had been put on a high state of alert, the reasons for this instruction were clearly at least as much political as military. I had this instruction very much in mind when the episode described in the following paragraph took place.

It was a few days after August 13. British Military Police used to patrol by Land Rover the border between the British Sector of Berlin and the DDR. North of Staaken the British Sector included an area of farmland bulging into the DDR known as the Eiskeller. Here the Military Police patrol drove over country tracks where the exact border was not clearly marked. Being both soldiers and police, from time to time by mistake they strayed into East Germany proper and this is what happened on this particular day. They were stopped by some East German police, arrested and taken away. I was telephoned by the officer in charge of the British forces in Berlin who told me what had taken place, saying also that he knew that our soldiers were being held in a building a few hundred yards inside the DDR. He asked me if he could he send in a fighting patrol to get his soldiers back. Having seen the clear instructions in the preceding paragraph, it was not difficult for me to tell him that he certainly must not do this. A few hours later, our military police were handed back, unharmed, at the Staaken border post and I may have stopped the outbreak of world War III! It may also have helped that I knew of occasions when British soldiers returning by S-Bahn after a night on the town had fallen asleep, failed to get off the train at the last station in the British Sector and had been stopped on arrival in the DDR, only to be returned shamefaced us after a couple of hours detention in East Germany.

In the months following the construction of the Wall there was a lot of Western concern over Soviet action to carry out exercises in the three air corridors between the Federal Republic and Berlin that had been created by the immediately post-war quadripartite agreements. We continued to hold the Soviets responsible for avoiding trouble in the air corridors. There was contingency planning about what to do in the event of Soviet interference but this, as I recall, did not take place.

A Final Note

I was British ambassador in Warsaw when the communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Wall came down and shortly afterwards the two Germanys became one again. Having been a junior diplomat when the Wall went up, I was and remain glad to see that something had gone right in that part of our world.

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