After the 2nd World War the four victorious superpowers, USA, Great Britain, France and the USSR (Soviet Union), split up the capital of the defeated German Empire. Berlin was divided into 4 zones, each power controlling their own.1
The USSR received the biggest area in the East and the West was shared between the western powers. However, in 1946 disagreements about reparation payments rose between the Soviet Union and the western powers and this lead to a decision to merge US’s, Britain’s and France’s zones into a western block in 1947.
The western powers wanted to make Berlin an efficient and prosperous economically independent state. A new currency was introduced in West Germany in June 1948 and this initiated the Berlin Blockade the USSR started right after the currency introduction.3 The US answered with an Airlift that was meant to supply West Berlin with food and gas. In 1949 both the airlift and the blockade stopped and now 2 new states were established; The Federal Republic of Germany (West) and German Democratic Republic (East). Berlin was clearly divided between the democratic, much more free West and the communistic East. Less and less freedoms were granted to the eastern citizens and in December 1957 it became illegal to them to leave East Berlin. Many eastern citizens tried to escape to west Berlin in hope for a better life and so the Soviets built the Berlin Wall which set an actual physical barrier in the middle of the divided the city. The construction of this thirty-mile long wall was started on the 12th of August 1961.4 The border between the blocks was officially closed on August 13th.5
Events leading up to the crisis 1958-61
On November 10th 1958 the Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev held a speech that demanded that the western allies pull their forces out of West Berlin within half a year. This was not accepted by the west and so the two zones got even more strained relations. West Berlin was located deeply in East Germany and as so the protection of it was a constant challenge for the allies. The Berlin Blockade in 1948 was a severe threat to the zone, because now the area was much too populated to be saved by an airlift. If a similar situation would occur, the west would have trouble in keeping their part of Berlin. West Berlin was blooming with wealth and economic success and this capitalistic system tempted East Germans furthermore and was strongly opposed by the East. The closing of the border had lead to a mass exodus, i.e. departure of people, in eastern Berlin. The problem had to be taken care of and so the prime ministers of US and Soviet met in a conference in Geneva to discuss the issue. The USSR claimed that the US had to leave Berlin in order to unify the city, but the PM of the US opposed this with the argument that US presence was needed in order for West Berlin to continue its economic growth. The situation looked a bit better, until the incident in 1960 when the Soviets shot down an American plane on Soviet territory. Now there was no chance of a mutual agreement.6 In 1961 Nikita Khrushchev met John F. Kennedy in Vienna and desperately wanted to negotiate the allies leaving Berlin for good. This, however, was to be done on Soviet terms. The western allies refused to give their part of Berlin to the USSR leading to that in early August 1961 the Soviets started to cut of all communication and roads between West and East Berlin. Troops from Soviet mobilised to secure the border. This alarmed the allies and US rapidly moved almost 150 000 guards to the area to protect West Berlin.7 On the night of August 13th, a wire-fence was set up in the heart of Berlin by the Soviets. The wires were to be replaced by cement walls and guarding towers later on. USA immediately disapproved of the situation, but it was no help.8
Construction of the Berlin Wall
On the night of August 13th Soviet troops and East German policemen started to tear up roads and other communication between the two sides. Buildings on the border were destroyed and soon gave place to the wire cutting the city in half. In 3 days more than 200 km of fence had been set up and the East German government named it as “Die anti-Faschistischer Schutzwall”, i.e. the anti-fascist protective wall. Soon, however, it was known as the Berlin Wall. East Berlin argued that the wall was to protect the Berliners from unfair tradesmen and western spies.
The erection of the fence broke through in news all around the world. The allies were terrified of the possibility of an eastern occupation of their part of Berlin and so US again quickly ordered reinforcement to West Berlin. More than 1 500 men were transported to Berlin along with planes carrying food in case of another blockade.9 Now with troops on both sides of the fence, the standoff between the US and the USSR was more severe than ever.10 Neither of the sides wanted a war to erupt, John F. Kennedy even said that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”, but these kinds of tensions between two great nuclear powers could cause harm in a very rapid episode.11 Even the tiniest little step in the wrong direction could have caused a start of a nuclear war, which was feared by everyone. This standoff was definitely by far the most dangerous moment of the Cold War and it had not even begun fully. This tremendous fear was why Kennedy put himself together and by secretly communicating with Khrushchev, he persuaded the Soviets to remove their tanks and followed himself by ordering the U.S. army also to back down. Thus the standoff was ended without further harm.12
The Development of the Wall
By June 1962, the East Germans had put up another fence within 100m of the original and the area in between was called “no-mans land”. An unauthorised person moving in this zone could be immediately shot down without no further reasons. The East Germans used many methods, including fine gravel, spikes and barbered wire to spot any unwanted action or crossings of the zone. However, many attempted to break through the fence with cars and trucks and so it was that in 1965 the first concrete sections were put up. This 3,4 metre high wall was to become the famous Berlin Wall.
There were points in the Berlin Wall where one could legally pass through to the other side. For West Berliners it was generally easier to receive a day-pass to the other side to visit e.g. relatives, but the East Berliners had a tough time getting any permit what so ever. Approx. 230 people died attempting to cross the border illegally. Many methods were used. Climbing, flying, digging tunnels, escalating through the gates with vehicles etc. but most of the attempts failed, some of them turning out to be fatal. The border police, Grepo, had license to shoot any illegals trying to pass the border and the policemen surely did not hold the fire.13
Short-term effects of the Wall
The Berlin Wall became soon the most physical symbol for the Cold War and clearly represented the division between the West and the East. The West fed their people with the belief that the USSR had a failing communistic system and the exodus was their main proof. The West Germans called it “the wall of shame”. Many Americans and West Berliners wanted to answer with something equal as the Wall to prove they are not to mess around with. Kennedy however ensured that no such actions were taken and so managed to keep peace with the USSR.14
The Berlin Wall destroyed homes both physically and psychologically. Physically, where the fence and the no-man’s land were built, because the houses there were completely destroyed. And because of not granting visitation permits families were torn apart. People who had worked on the other side now lost their jobs and because of the loss of income they also lost the ability to buy food for their families. Many protested against the Wall immediately from the very first day and it was a symbol for taking away personal freedoms.15
With the evidence provided above it is clear that the Berlin Crisis between the years 1958 and 61 was a big turning point in the modern history and the eruption of the famous Berlin Wall put a start to a very difficult and elaborate episode of the 20th century. It is much debated when the Cold War actually began, but it was not until the year of 1961 when it got so serious. The wall became an icon for the whole dark time period. The post-war Europe was very vulnerable to any kinds of threats and a nuclear war between two super powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union would possibly have destroyed the most of the modern civilisation in Europe and America. The Berlin Crisis and the construction of the Berlin Wall could have ended in a very different manner if it was not for Kennedy’s peaceful negotiation techniques and Khrushchev’s willingness to co-operate. Thus, even though just a wall, it was and still remains one of the most dangerous and difficult factors dealt with in the Cold War.