A Failed Propaganda Exercise: Christmas at the Berlin Wall, 1963

For 18 days over Christmas in 1963 there was a rift in the Berlin Wall. For the first time in over two years the 87 mile barrier could be crossed and divided families were — briefly — reunited.

A ‘border pass agreement’ — Passierscheinabkommen — between the West Berlin Senate and the East German government meant that 24-hour visas were available between 18 December 1963 and 5 January 1964, allowing West Berliners to visit their families in the East of the city. East Berliners were not permitted to travel.

The short lived opening of the Wall was hardly a magnanimous act. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev put pressure on Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, to reach an agreement because he felt the Eastern Bloc was falling behind in the battle for international opinion.

In July, President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech had been a propaganda coup. By proclaiming that ‘All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin’, the president lifted the spirits of a population marooned far behind the Iron Curtain. In December, the Soviet Union hoped a border pass agreement would have a similar effect on public opinion.

The visa agreement heralded a joyful but austere Christmas for East German families. Presents carried by West Berliners could not be wrapped – in order to permit inspection at the border – and severe restrictions were enacted: Only half a pound of coffee, tea, or cocoa was allowed to be taken across the border. Audio recordings were banned outright; there would be no rocking around the Christmas tree.

Nethertheless, the opportunity was enthusiastically welcomed by families fractured by the Wall. 730,000 West Berliners took advantage of the travel agreement, making 1.2 million journeys. Many queued for up to 10 hours in the cold to receive the necessary visa stamp.

As intended, the agreement generated international press interest. Newsreels featured Christmas at the Wall. An iconic image of two brothers reuniting resonates even today. It seemed that humanity had broken out in Cold War Berlin.

However, it’s difficult to portray the Berlin Wall’s Christmas opening as a propaganda coup for the Socialist Bloc. Paul Schultz was one of 136 victims killed at the Wall between 1961 and 1989. He was shot by East German border guards on Christmas Day 1963. The 18 year old’s death sparked instant protest in West Berlin: should any agreement be signed with a regime willing to shoot teenagers at Christmas?

The episode was, however, an important marker in relations between the two German states. Until this point, East and West Germany had no formal relationship – in fact, even the 1963 border passes were issued by the post office in order to avoid the use of official diplomatic channels.

Ulbricht delighted in the fact that the West Berlin authorities had recognised his regime as legitimate negotiation partners. He hoped this would be the first step in normalising relations between the two Germanys and establishing East Germany as a legitimate state. Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, advocated a ‘policy of small steps’ to overcome the division of Europe. In this way, the 1963 border pass agreement was an important precursor to Ostpolitik later in the decade.

But there would be no easy path to cordial relations, as the shooting of Paul Schultz and subsequent protests made painfully clear. Recognising an East German government that shot citizens simply trying to move to the West would remain unpalatable to many.

Perhaps this is why the 1963 Christmas at the Berlin Wall is less well remembered as a propaganda exercise than the JFK speech which preceded it in July. While families were briefly reunited – the agreement would continue over the festive season for the next three years – the Berlin Wall continued to claim its victims, even at Christmas.