(3 of 10)
The man the mob wanted to lynch was nowhere within noose's range. In the first hours of crisis, paunchy Communist Boss Walter Ulbricht stayed out of sight in his office, blocks away in the ugly little square headquarters of his Socialist Unity Party. He was constantly on the telephone, receiving reports, issuing crisp commands. As he talked, the little white-streaked beard bobbed incessantly below flaring nostrils. But there was no animation in the cold clear eyes behind the rimless bifocals. Just back from Moscow, where he had sought and finally won Nikita Khrushchev's personal permission to close the Berlin escape route, Ulbricht himself had planned much of the border crackdown. But not until two days later did he get out to visit the troops. Then, protected by a swarm of security police, he appeared at Potsdamer Platz in a light grey suit and cream-colored straw hat to pat a Vopo on the back, gaze briefly at the sullen West Berliners through the barbed wire. Seconds later he was off again in his big black Zil limousine. No rubbernecking West Berliner recognized him. "Thank God," sighed a West Berlin cop. "I doubt that we could have stopped them. There were too many."
"Pfui, Pfui." Hate followed Ulbricht through his own East Berlin streets; as the Zil headed next toward the Brandenburg Gate, 50 East Berliners on the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse let loose with Berlin's Bronx cheer: "Pfui! Pfui!" The police entourage stopped long enough to chase the crowd and arrest one man. Walter Ulbricht rolled on, unmindful of the curses of his own people.
The crowd could jeer, but Ulbricht had the guns. For 16 years he had handled his detractors with little difficulty, and now, with 20 Soviet divisions to back him up, he could handle them again. He was proudly boasting that he could even handle the Western imperialists. "Terrific the way everything clocked," gloated Ulbricht's party paper Neues Deutschland. "Here is proof that in Germany a strong state has arisen ... see how our worker and peasant power asserts its authority!"
The Communists noted with glee the West's initial wait-and-see reaction. Moscow's massive bluff seemed to have worked wonders. For weeks Khrushchev had been waving his bombs around, threatening the Greeks and Italians with nuclear destruction, frightening the British with talk of rockets. And even as the Berlin border seal-off was in progress, the Red army invited Western military attaches in Moscow to a show of Soviet infantry alleged to be armed with nuclear-tipped tactical rocketsa strong hint that this was precisely the way Marshal Konev's divisions around Berlin were equipped for a scrap.