Berlin Wall: From its start to its demise

People watching man swing pickax against wall covered with graffiti (© Robert Wallis/Corbis/Getty Images)
A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickax on November 9, 1989. (© Robert Wallis/Corbis/Getty Images)

The Berlin Wall — symbol of a divided city within a divided nation within a divided continent — was grounded in decades-old historical divisions. Most proximately, Nazi Germany could only be subdued by the combined power of many nations, led by the democratic capitalist Anglo-Americans and the communist Soviets. Their joint liberation of Axis-occupied Europe naturally raised the question: Whose system would prevail, and where?

The victors’ inability to agree on an answer also reflected real historical divisions. The Soviet Union conceived of itself as the vanguard of a global proletarian uprising, “waiting,” in Lenin’s words, “for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief.” Western governments in turn understood communist movements in their nations to be subservient to Moscow, and that far from “waiting,” Soviet leaders worked steadily and stealthily to hasten revolution. And the British and Americans remembered, (along with Poles, Finns, Latvians, and many others) that the Second World War began with a bargain between dictators — Hitler and Stalin partitioning Poland between Germany and Soviet Russia. Only with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, did the democracies and the leading communist power join forces.

Row of soldiers standing on ledge (© Reg Speller/Getty Images)
Russian, American and British troops in Berlin, July 1945. (© Reg Speller/Getty Images)

The Second World War did not end with a definitive peace treaty. Instead, the powers whose armed forces liberated a nation from the Nazis ultimately shaped that nation’s subsequent political character and geopolitical alignment. Western Europe emerged free, democratic, and generally aligned with the United States. Countries behind the Iron Curtain were ruled by communist regimes acceptable to Moscow, their foreign and military policies subject to Soviet diktat.

Germany was a special case, Berlin even more so. The British, Soviets and Americans each defeated the Wehrmacht in part of Germany. At the Yalta Conference of February 4–11, 1945, the “Big Three” had agreed that Germany would be divided into four temporary occupation zones, France being the fourth occupying power. Berlin, Germany’s capital and leading city, lay 110 miles inside the Soviet occupation zone. At the Potsdam Conference (July 17–August 2, 1945) the Allies agreed to a similar four-power division of Berlin.

Police and truck behind wall with barbed wire, sign warning about leaving American sector (© Reichert/AP Images)
Communist police evacuate people living in East Berlin apartment houses that border West Berlin, September 1961. (© Reichert/AP Images)

Even then, it was understood that control of German manpower and industrial resources would change the postwar balance of power. Germany had invaded Russia twice in 40 years; the Soviets were determined that postwar Germany be either Communist dominated or else permanently weak, neutral and disarmed. The western allies soon concluded that unless Germany and the other nations of Europe were both democratic and prosperous, Soviet power might expand throughout the rest of the continent. Over $13 billion in Marshall Plan aid from the U.S. helped to secure this prosperity. The Soviet Union and the East European nations under its sway rejected Marshall aid. Meanwhile, in the Soviet occupation zone, the Red Army began dismantling and transporting to Russia German factories and other industrial structures, as reparations for the tremendous damage the Wehrmacht had inflicted on the Soviet Union.

Later, in 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev likened West Berlin to “the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.” His predecessors might not have phrased it quite the same way, but they also viewed West Berlin, a dangerously exposed western enclave within the emerging Soviet bloc, as a place where they could exert pressure. In June 1948, as the western allies and the Soviets failed to agree on whether Germany should be rehabilitated economically, the Red Army blockaded West Berlin. In response, the British- and American-led Berlin Airlift ferried by air some 13,000 tons of food daily, until Stalin lifted the blockade in May 1949. A few days later, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was proclaimed in the western occupation zones. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was founded in the Soviet occupation zone that October.

Aircraft overhead, people in ruins looking up at it (© Walter Sanders/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Berliners look up at a C-47 cargo plane bringing them food during the Berlin Airlift. (© Walter Sanders/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

For the next 12 years, Berliners possessed an opportunity offered few Cold War Europeans: the chance to vote with their feet. Between September 1949 and August 1961, some 2.7 million East Germans, many of them young and educated, crossed into West Berlin and thence by plane to the Federal Republic. In an ideological contest over claims of which system could best meet its citizens’ material needs and other aspirations, this mass emigration (the GDR actually lost population during this period) represented a powerful indictment of the communist system, as did the suppression of the 1953 East German workers’ rebellion, the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the 1968 Czech revolution, and Polish protests in 1956, 1970 and 1981.

Uniformed men placing glass on top of concrete wall (© Werner Kreusch/AP Images)
Two East German workers put pieces of broken glass on the top of a 4.5-meter-high section of wall to prevent East Berliners from escaping, August 1961. (© Werner Kreusch/AP Images)

In August 1961, the GDR began to construct the Berlin Wall. At first it was barbed wire, but soon it expanded into a 5-meter-high, 165-kilometer-long network of concrete walls topped with barbed wire and guarded with gun emplacements, watchtowers and mines. Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, feared the wall would turn his city into “a concentration camp.” He warned U.S. President John F. Kennedy that West Berliners’ morale might collapse. Kennedy was sympathetic, but insisted that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” But Kennedy also flew to West Berlin, delivering there in June 1963 a moving address, and insisting to at least a quarter-million Berliners (one-fifth of the city’s population) gathered that day, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner).

At one level, the Berlin Wall afforded Europe stability. The periodic international crises over the city eased. As the French man of letters François Mauriac quipped, “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”

Woman dangling from window, crowd gathered below (© Alex Waidmann/ullstein bild/Getty Images)
A woman escapes to West Berlin out the window of her apartment in East Berlin. (© Alex Waidmann/ullstein bild/Getty Images)

But the communist bloc was not as stable as it appeared. East Berliners continued to seek freedom in the west. As the historian David Reynolds observes: “The fugitives kept on coming — jumping from windows, cutting the wire, tunneling beneath the wall, even ballooning above it.” Nearly 200 died trying to cross. And within the Soviet bloc, communism was failing. East European nations fell further behind their western peers and knew it. New technologies proved more compatible with the western models of personal autonomy and economic entrepreneurialism. By 1989, the contradictions within the Soviet bloc, as an earlier generation of communists might have put it, had been heightened — higher even than the Berlin Wall itself.

A version of this essay, written by Michael Jay Friedman, was published in The Berlin Wall: 20 Years Later in 2009.

Learn how and why the Berlin Wall crumbled with a collection of essays by historians and writers created for the event’s 20th anniversary in 2009.

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The Berlin Wall: 20 Years Later