What was the impact of the construction of the Berlin Wall on East-West relations and the Cold War?
The city of Berlin is in the eastern portion
of Germany about thirty-five miles west of the post-1945, Polish border and
located on the Spree River. The early town had become the capital of
the Mark of Brandenburg at the end of the fifteenth century and later capital
of the kingdom of Prussia. When the German states created the German
Empire in 1871, Berlin became the capital of the new Germany. The city
remained the capital of Germany until after World War II, when the United
States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union occupied four separate
zones of the city.
As cooperation between the Soviet Union and
the West disintegrated after 1945, Germany ended up formally divided into
two separate countries. In 1949 the Western powers sponsored the formation
of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or West Germany, while the Soviet
Union sponsored the creation of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), or
East Germany. The problem with this arrangement was that East Germany contained
the city of Berlin, but the western half of the city itself remained under
the administration of the Western powers, and thus became a part of West
Germany, despite its physical isolation from West Germany (a little more
than one hundred miles inside the East-West border.)
In 1948, in an effort to forestall the imminent
creation of the FRG, the Soviet Union blockaded ground access to West Berlin
in order to speed a resolution of the "Berlin question," i.e., the incorporation
of Berlin into East Germany.) To avoid a direct confrontation with the Soviet
army, the Western allies used an enormous air lift to supply the Western
sectors of the city for almost a year. The Soviet gamble had failed,
but Berlin remained a thorny issue of East-West relations.
In November 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
issued an ultimatum giving the West six months to agree to withdraw from
Berlin and make it a free, demilitarized city or else the Soviet Union would
turn access to the city over to East Germany. When the U.S., Great
Britain and France rejected Khrushchev's ultimatum, the Soviets withdrew
the deadline and instead agreed to meet with the Western powers in a foreign
ministers' conference. Although the three-month-long sessions failed to reach
any agreement, they did lead to Khrushchev's visit to the United States in
In June 1961, Khrushchev renewed the crisis
over Berlin during a meeting with the new American president, John Kennedy,
in Vienna. Khrushchev again threatened to sign a separate peace treaty
with East Germany that would end existing four-power agreements guaranteeing
Western access to West Berlin. Kennedy wanted to make sure that Khrushchev
understood Western determination to maintain access to the city at any
East Germans, stirred by the crisis, fled to
West Berlin in increasing numbers. In July alone there were some 30,000.
(All told it has been estimated that between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5
million East Germans had fled from East to West). The stead loss of
skilled workers, professionals and intellectuals threatened to destroy the
economic viability of the East German state. Suddenly, on the night of 12-13
August 1961, the Soviets began to erect a wall (the Berliner Mauer) between
the east and west sectors of Berlin, forcibly sealing off the inhabitants
of East Germany.
The original wall of barbed wire and cinder
blocks was later replaced by a more formidable series of concrete walls (fifteen
feet high) topped with barbed wire and guarded with watch towers, gun emplacements
and mines. By the 1980s this system of walls, electrified fences and
fortifications extended almost thirty miles through the city and an additional
seventy-five miles around West Berlin.
The Soviet government never did sign a separate
peace treaty with East Germany. The
Berlin Wall became the symbol of the Cold War and the division of East from
West until its destruction in the fall of 1989.
1948, June: Berlin airlift began.
1949, May: Berlin airlift ended.
1961, 3-5 August: Politburo decided to
close the border between East and West Berlin.
1961, 12 August, 4 PM: Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, signed
the order to close the border.
1960, 31 August: East Germans closed the
West Berlin border to check flow of refugees.
1961, 13 August: Berlin Wall erected.
1989, 11 November: Berlin Wall
1990, 3 October: East and West Germany
There are quite a few sites devoted to the
Some other interesting resources include:
Letter From Chairman
Khrushchev to President Kennedy on a German Peace Treaty, September 29,
The John F. Kennedy
Speech at the Berlin
Wall, 1963 (part of an exhibition at the National Archives); also at the
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
You can also
order pieces of the
Wall. There are several such sites.
Books devoted specifically to the Wall include:
Some interesting articles include:
Katie Hafner, The House at the Bridge: A Story
of Modern Germany (1995)
James McAdams, Germany Divided: From the Wall
to Reunification (Princeton, 1993)
Doris Epler, The Berlin Wall: How It Rose and
Why It Fell (1992)
Leland Rice, Photographs of the Berlin Wall
Peter Wyden, WALL: The Inside Story of Divided
Berlin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989)
John Delman, Flashpoint: The Division of Berlin
(Vero Beach, 1988)
Norman Gelb, The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev
and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe (New York, 1986) [THE
Berlin Air Lift
John F. Kennedy
1989 Berlin Wall Comes Down
William Ellis, "The Morning After: Germany Reunited,"
National Geographic, September 1991, pp. 2-41.
"The Boy Who Died On The Wall," Life Magazine,
August 1962, pp. 16-22.
Don Cook, "Digging a Way to Freedom," The Saturday
Evening Post, 1 December 1962, pp. 30-37.
"The Other Side Of The Wall," The New York Times
Magazine, 8 October 1961, pp. 4-5.