The Berlin Wall
September 2008 JCR
By: Cathryn Bauer, RPR
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev referred to the Cold War’s most tangible symbol, the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall enclosed West Germany, the challenge was made in 1987, an era in which the radical separation of Communist states from the Western world was moving toward its end.
The Berlin Wall consisted of two parallel barriers which separated the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR) and the communist-controlled German Democratic Republic (DDR) from the years 1961 through 1989. The space between the parallel walls was a barren no-man’s-land known as the Death Zone. At most points, the Berlin Wall was 11.8 feet high. When first erected in August 1961, it extended about eight miles through the city of Berlin. By 1975, it extended 97 miles throughout the Berlin environs. Three checkpoints, or Wall openings, served to provide limited, carefully monitored traffic between East and West Germany. Studded with watchtowers and heavily guarded, the Berlin Wall isolated West Berlin from the surrounding Communist bloc. In the popular imagination, the Berlin Wall symbolized the Cold War, a large segment of 20th century-history which was dominated by a sharp ideological division between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Wall, called die Mauer (dee MOW-er) in German, was widely perceived as the physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain, the ideological divide between the Communist states and the remainder of the world. German people refer to its opening on November 9, 1989 as die Wende (dee VEN-day) or turning point, the decisive moment when all could see that the world would never be the same again.
On November 9, 1989, the checkpoints were flung open and abandoned by their uniformed guards. Many Berliners attacked the Wall with hammers, chisels, and other tools of destruction. East Berliners, or Ossis, poured through to the West side of their city. Wessis, or West Berliners, cheered and pounded on the Ossis’ car roofs as they drove through the open, unmanned checkpoints into the Western segment of their city. Some threw money into the car windows so that the Ossis could purchase Western goods. Stereos blared, and many clambered on top of the Wall to dance. For most Ossis, this was the first view of the world beyond the Wall.
After the celebration, the daunting task of integrating East and West awaited. Germany was formally unified on October 3, 1990. As the cheers faded, it began to face enormous challenges. The forced division of East from West Germany had Berlin resulted in different political and socioeconomic differences between the two. The German people faced the enormous task of coming together. It would soon become clear that this was far more difficult and vaster in scope than initially realized. But those first, momentous days were to be enjoyed. German people around the world rejoiced that the divisiveness, oppression, and fear symbolized by the Berlin Wall were over.
How the Wall came about
The Berlin Wall made its sudden appearance on the morning of August 13, 1961. Its earliest structure, primarily constructed of barbed wire, was literally built in one night by East German soldiers and police. For weeks, rumors had been flying about dramatically increased restrictions on travel between East and West Berlin; a formal decree of the Volkskammer (People’s Congress) on August 12 solidified the plan. During the night, Soviet troops encircled West Berlin with temporary fencing, soon to be replaced by a concrete and steel structure, with several heavily-policed openings. Armed guards, many with military dogs, patrolled the Wall and its environs. Travel between the two segments of the city was rigidly controlled. Many German families were divided because one or more members had been on a different side when the Wall was built. In subsequent years, the Wall sheared the city of Berlin into two separate cultures with widely differing government and socioeconomic systems.
The division of Germany and its capital city into sectors had its formal beginning in February 1945, several months before the end of World War II. Leaders of the Allied forces who fought Germany, the chief executives of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom, and the United States convened at Yalta in the Crimea, an area in the U.S.S.R., to formulate a plan for postwar Europe. Ultimately, the Yalta Conference attendees agreed to proceed along guidelines formulated in London in November 1944 which provided for German war reparations and granted that a more or less evenly-divided control of the defeated Germany by the Allied powers including France. Germany and its capital city, Berlin, would be split into segments, each controlled by an Allied power and its commander-in-chief. Postwar Berlin required special consideration because it would be surrounded completely by Soviet territory. Any matter which concerned more than one sector, however, or Germany as a whole would only be decided by the leaders as a group; it could act only with the approval of all four of its members. This governing body was to be called the Allied Control Council.
On April 16th, 1945, Soviet forces descended on Berlin. The resulting Battle of Berlin lasted several weeks, destroying a third of the city. The week before Nazi Germany’s May 8th surrender to the Allies, its leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Immediately following the surrender, Soviet troops occupied Berlin. The troops systematically removed railway tracks and communication networks and dismantled industrial facilities in Berlin and its environs, further damaging its infrastructure.
In the months following Germany’s surrender, the Allied Control Council plans formulated at the Yalta Conference were put into place. A conference on August 2, 1945 resulted in the Potsdam Agreement which finalized the Council’s plans to rebuild Germany’s infrastructure and provide for a consistent military administration throughout the country.
Germany Conquered and Divided
Following Germany’s surrender to Allied troops, Germany was divided into areas controlled by the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There were sharp differences of opinion between the Soviet Union and the other governing countries about postwar restructuring. The United States, France, and Great Britain favored the extensive rebuilding of Germany with the goal of an autonomous, democratic state. The Soviet Union, twice invaded by Germany, had suffered severe war losses. Its priority was preventing a German military build-up, pressing to keep Germany divided country with strict controls on communications, travel, and the restoration of industry; Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin believed this would render Germany unable to wage war.
Through an extensive program called the Marshall Plan, the United States poured massive resources into the building of a democratic Germany. By doing so, markets were strengthened and strong postwar ties were built between the former warring states. After the successful installation of a democratic constitution and government, the U.S., France, and Great Britain agreed to unite their zones. On January 1, 1947, this unified state, known as the Bizone, was formally instituted, much to the dismay of the Soviet leadership. The U.S.S.R. insisted maintaining a guarded border around its zone, requiring citizens who wished to travel between the sectors to obtain an official pass. It refused to allow Marshall Plan monies to be used in rebuilding its sector. Conflict over postwar German autonomy highlighted the ideological differences between the United States and Soviet Russia. The Cold War, a period when world politics was largely dominated by the two countries’ conflicts and the fear of nuclear war, is generally considered to have begun around the time the Bizone was established.
The conflict came to a head in early 1948 when British and American representatives prepared a plan for the currency reform that ultimately created the Deutschmark, a solid step toward the creation of an autonomous West German state. The Soviets responded by establishing a new Eastern currency, and they closed off all land and rail routes that led to and from the Western sector.
The Berlin Blockade and Its Aftermath
The three Western sectors of Berlin were now completely isolated with their population of approximately 2,500,000 dependent on reserve stocks and goods brought in by air. Soviet authorities announced that this attempt at mass starvation was an effective blow to the Western states’ authority in Germany. However, the Allied response was swift. On July 1, 1948, the first flights of the Berlin Airlift began under the direction of General Curtis LeMay. Ten-ton capacity C-54s brought in food and fuel supplied by Great Britain, the U.S., and France. German citizens called the airplanes Rosinenbombers, or Raisin Bombers. During most of the blockade, “LeMay’s Feed and Coal Company,” as it was popularly known, supplied West Berlin with an average 5,000 tons of supplies per day.
The Berlin Blockade fueled Allied fears of a Soviet attack on a vulnerable West Germany. They stepped up plans for the new government, intending to speed the creation of a strong state that could mobilize to defend itself from such an invasion. The Western powers also wanted organized international security to counter Soviet threat. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949 by 12 nations including the Allies, Belgium, Denmark, and Canada. Its essential premise was that an attack on one of the member states would be considered an attack against all of them who would respond with military force if necessary. The North Atlantic Treaty provided for the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a bulwark against the threat of Soviet aggression. Stalin was forced to admit that the Berlin Blockade had failed to annihilate the Allies’ authority over postwar Germany. Its primary legacy was a dangerous polarization between Communist and non-Communist states. Following the Blockade’s formal lifting on May 12th, 1949, the airlift continued supplying Berlin through September. The NATO powers agreed that Berlin should stockpile reserve stores in case there was another blockade.
The Federal Republic of Germany, commonly known as West Germany, was formally established on May 23, 1949. Its new leadership consisted of an elected parliament; its economy was capitalist. Building on Marshall Plan resources, the FDR soon embarked on a strong economic recovery. Although the GDR soon came to be known as the wealthiest, most technologically advanced country in the U.S.S.R.-controlled bloc, its managed economy did not produce comparable results. Inevitably, many East Berliners moved to the West, resettling in Western Germany or going on to other non-Communist countries. Between 1949 and 1961, approximately 1949, approximately 2.5 million East Berliners left for West Berlin. Many of those immigrants were academics, professionals in fields such as medicine and law, and skilled blue-collar workers. The East German leadership, backed by then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, sought to contain their losses.
The Wall is Built
On August 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to a divided city. During the night, East German troops and hired workers constructed a barbed-wire barrier just inside the border. The barrier was entirely on East German territory. Streets which ran alongside the barrier were torn up to prevent access, and soldiers were stationed at intervals. They had orders to shoot defectors on sight. West Berlin was encircled with a barrier that consisted primarily of barbed wire, but was soon replaced with walls, chain-link fences, and minefields. The Wall crossed public areas, streets, and private property. Photographs from that era show western windows in buildings abutting the Wall bricked up from roof to ground. Numerous Berliners were cut off from jobs and family members by what the East German government described as a barrier against fascists. Willy Brandt, West Berlin’s mayor, called for U.S. intervention and led demonstrations against the Wall. He spoke bitterly of the United States’ failure to respond aggressively to this blatant violation of Allied agreements.
U.S. government representatives informed the Soviet government that the U.S. would not physically attack the Wall. This demeanor of acceptance, however, hid serious concerns on the part of the Western powers about the defensibility of West Berlin. President John F. Kennedy’s response was to order reinforcements of U.S. troops already stationed in West Berlin. As the Cold War wore on, the Wall was widely seen as an all-too-tangible symbol of the tense balance between what came to be known as the international superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. On a visit to West Berlin, U.S. President Kennedy made a speech at the Wall in which he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berlin citizen). It was generally accepted that he meant that the world outside Berlin suffered with its citizens. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and its allies formally pursued a guarded tolerance for Soviet policies regarding the divided Germany. This policy became known as Ostpolitik (loosely translated as political policy on the East).
The Divided City
For the most part, the East Berliners remained sealed behind the Wall. Visits to the West, even to see family members, were primarily restricted to those considered too old or ill to work. Until September 1971, few West Berliners were able to visit East Berlin. However, non-German tourists were welcomed, although their luggage and vehicles were subject to inspection by East German police at the checkpoints. Officers routinely ran mirrors underneath the wheels of cars traveling to the West to look for escaping Easterners. Approximately 5,000 people managed to escape East Germany during the Wall years. The earliest attempts involved jumping or climbing the Wall in its rudimentary stages, or leaping from windows in high-storied buildings alongside it. As the Wall was built up in a more sophisticated fashion, escape attempts also increased in sophistication. Tunnels were dug under the wall, and light planes flew over it. One man even drove a low sports car underneath a barrier at Checkpoint Charlie, particularly well known for its stringent searches of travelers, primarily East Germans, military and diplomatic personnel. Tragically, many others lost their lives in their pursuit of life in the West. Sometimes the means of escape failed, but more often, the would-be Westerners perished at the hands of the East German guards who were under orders to shoot to kill those caught in the Wall’s Death Zone. It is thought that approximately 200 people met their deaths trying to escape East Germany. After the Wall fall, several former guards were prosecuted for these Cold War killings.
The Beginning of the End
The 1980s brought new hope for the end of the Cold War. The Communist system began to implode while communication with the West increased. On both sides of the Wall, protests against the East Berlin leadership gathered and grew. A culture of protest art developed, attacking the Wall in literature, song, and graphic art. West Berlin’s artisan community declared the Wall a giant public canvas. Graffiti and pictographs dotted its western side expressing the artists’ demands for a unified city, peace, and personal autonomy. Many art works featured the popular slogan, “Wir sind ein Volk!” (We are one people!) The East German leader, Erich Honecker, scoffed at the unrest, declaring in January of 1989 that the Wall would stand for another century. The public had other ideas. That summer, Hungary removed restrictions on its Austrian border, and more than 13,000 East Germans fled East Berlin via Hungary and then on through Austria. Most eventually settled in West Germany. Mass street demonstrations against the Honecker government began in September. Mr. Honecker resigned under duress on October 18, 1989, replaced by Egon Krenz. In the face of the disruption, the Krenz government decided to permit East Germans to apply for travel visas to visit West Germany. This was seen as a clear signal that the Soviet Union was giving up on its policy of isolating East Germany. East German Minister of Propaganda Gunter Schabowski was assigned to announce this. At a press conference on November 9, 1989, he was handed a note that said East Germans could travel across the border. Unclear on his government’s intentions, he announced that this was effective immediately. Thousands of Berliners rushed to the checkpoints, and the fall of the Wall began.
The Wall Today
Throughout the fall and winter of 1989-1990, German citizens brought tools and heavy equipment to the Wall and tore it apart, piece by piece. Some of the art work was preserved, and pieces of the Wall were soon making their way around the world. Many were displayed in public places before making their way into public and private collections. These include CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the cafeteria at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus, and the men’s room at the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
October 3rd, 1990 the official date of German unification, is a national holiday known as National Unity Day. Each year, the celebration highlights a different German state with its particular culture, history and traditions. Concerts, theater, and flag displays mark the holiday. To date, November 9th, is not marked as an official holiday in Germany. Even though the day the Wall fell is widely perceived as the beginning of unification, that date has other, shameful associations – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not. November 9, 1923 is the date of the Beer Hall Putsch when Bavarian government leaders were held at gunpoint in a Muenchen beer hall by a thuggish, self-proclaimed revolutionary named Adolf Hitler. November 9, 1938 was the day of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), the first systematic Nazi pogrom against Germany’s Jewish citizenry. Church groups in present-day Germany commonly hold memorial services for Holocaust victims on this day. There is discussion about designating November 9th an official day of national reflection.
The Berlin Wall was the symbol of a conflict which shaped 20th century politics and ultimately affected the entire world. It remains a symbol of alienation, one whose memory, it is to be hoped, helps prevent another divided world.
The Berlin Wall Test
1. What was the Cold War?
a) A bloody 20th-century conflict between the Soviet Union and Northern European nations.
b) Post-WWII era in which international politics were greatly influenced by U.S.-Soviet rivalry.
c) A dispute over oil rights in polar regions of the globe.
d) (a) and (c)
2. Which part of Germany was Communist-controlled during the Cold War?
a) The German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik)
b) The Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland)
3. The Iron Curtain was:
a) The Russian people’s slang term for their country’s borders.
b) The barrier which separated East Berlin and West Berlin.
c) A metaphor for the division between Communist countries and the U.S. and its allies.
d) (b) and (c)
4. Which four countries controlled separate zones of postwar Germany?
a) The United States, France, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United Kingdom.
b) The United States, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Austria-Hungary, and France.
c) The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Italy, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
d) None of the above.
5. The U.S.S.R.’s plan for postwar Germany:
a) Conflicted sharply with the plans of the United States and Great Britain;
b) Was to prevent further aggression by keeping its infrastructure weak;
c) Was to keep it divided;
d) All of the above.
6. What was the Marshall Plan?
a) A map laying out the zones governed by the Allied powers in postwar Germany.
b) A plan for German reparations to countries it attacked.
c) A massive program of U.S. aid aimed at rebuilding postwar Germany.
d) An important new system of currency reform.
7. The Cold War began:
a) Largely because of ideological differences highlighted by conflict between U.S.S.R. and Western leaders over postwar
b) In 1947
c) Before the Berlin Wall was built.
d) All of the above.
8. Who was General Curtis LeMay?
a) The U.S. Army general who headed the Berlin Airlift operations.
b) The U.S. representative on the Allied Control Council
c) An important administrator for the Marshall Plan
d) The chief of intelligence operations in the Bizone
9. The Soviet premier at the time of the Berlin Blockade was:
a) Iosif Stalin
b) Nikita Kruschev
c) Vladimir Lenin
d) Vyacheslav Molotov
10. The approximate number of individuals who left East Berlin between 1949-1961 was:
b) Less than a million
c) At least 5 million
d) 2.5 million
11. The first version of the Berlin Wall was made primarily of:
a) Concrete barriers reinforced with steel rods.
b) Wide, deep trenches filled with water.
c) Barbed wire.
d) None of the above.
12. What was the Death Zone?
a) An area where prisoners of war fated for execution were housed.
b) The sites of former concentration camps.
c) The heavily-guarded area between the two barriers of the Berlin Wall.
d) The area close to the border of the Bizone.
13. Throughout its existence, the Berlin Wall was entirely on East German territory.
14. Non-German civilian visitors to East Germany had to pass through:
a) Checkpoint Alpha.
b) Checkpoint Bravo.
c) Checkpoint Charlie.
d) All of the above.
15. Ich bin ein Berliner translates into English as:
a) I love Berlin.
b) I am a jelly doughnut.
c) I am a citizen of Berlin.
d) I know Berlin very well.
16. The last East German president was:
a) Erich Honecker
b) Egon Krenz
c) Gunter Schabowski
d) None of the above.
17. Ostpolitik is:
a) The East German diplomatic corps
b) Stalin’s stated policy on dealing with opponents of the Berlin Blockade
c) The policy of the U.S. and its allies toward the East German political situation
18. November 9th is associated in German history with:
a) the building of the Berlin Wall.
b) the collapse of the Second Reich.
c) the Beer Hall Putsch.
19. Pieces of the Berlin Wall may be found today in:
a) CIA Headquarters
b) The Microsoft cafeteria
c) A casino men’s room
d) All of the above.
20. Some former Berlin Wall guards were prosecuted for their treatment of East German escapees: