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Berlin Wall (in detail)


In 1945 Berlin was divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones. Berlin itself was deep inside the Soviet zone of eastern Germany. This created a curious situation in Berlin. The American, British and French zones joined together to form a single area known as West Berlin. It became an island of Western capitalism in the middle of the communist sea of East Germany. In 1961 a wall was built to separate East and West Berlin. This became the most famous symbol of the Cold War.


Why was the Berlin Wall built?

Berlin and Moscow

The existence of West Berlin was very annoying to Soviet leaders in Moscow:


It was much more prosperous than communist East Germany and was an advertisement for the economic success of Western Europe.


Western governments used Berlin as a headquarters for their spying activities.


German people could move freely from communist East Germany to West Berlin. Many decided to flee via West Berlin. Between 1949 and 1960, 3 million East Germans fled to the West through Berlin. These people were often young, talented and well-educated. The communist government could not afford to lose its future managers and leaders.


The crisis over Berlin was not simply about the problems the city posed for East Germany. It was part of the wider Cold War struggle between the USA and the USSR. In the early 1960s both countries had confident aggressive leaders. The Soviet leader was Nikita Khrushchev and the American leader was John F. Kennedy. Each one was convinced that his side was right and each one was ready to threaten war to get what he wanted.


Khrushchev and the Soviet challenge

Nikita Khrushchev had emerged victorious from the power struggle that followed the death of Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev was confident that Soviet communism would eventually triumph over Western democracy and capitalism. He believed that the communist world was just about to overtake the West in wealth and scientific research.


In October 1957 the Soviets launched the world's first ever satellite, called Sputnik. Khrushchev thought that this proved the strength of the communist world. Convinced of the increasing power of communism. Khrushchev decided to extend communist influence in Europe. He chose Berlin as the place for a trial of strength.


Khrushchev calls for a neutral Berlin

The crisis that led to the building of the wall started in 1958 when Khrushchev called for the end of the four-power control of Berlin. He set a time limit of six months for the settlement of the future of Berlin. There was a vague threat of war if the matter was not resolved. His own plan was that Berlin should become a neutral free city and Western troops should withdraw.


The Western powers were divided about how to react to Khrushchev. The West German leader, Konrad Adenauer, was strongly against any deal. By contrast, the US President, Eisenhower, was ready to negotiate over the future of Berlin. As the deadline approached Eisenhower made it clear that he did not want to risk a war over Berlin. Khrushchev dropped his ultimatum. At a summit meeting in September 1959 Eisenhower said that he was prepared to make concessions on the future of Berlin.


The U-2 spy plane incident

So far, Khrushchev had been very successful. Through threatening war he had divided the Western allies and won a promise of change from the US President, Eisenhower. Khrushchev and Eisenhower agreed to meet for further discussions about Berlin in May 1960.


This meeting did not take place. Just before it was due to start, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory. The pilot, Gary Powers, was taker prisoner and put on trial. Khrushchev demanded an apology. Eisenhower refused to apologize. Khrushchev cancelled the summit meeting. As a result he missed his chance to do a deal over Berlin.


A change of president

Eisenhower retired at the end of 1960. The new President was the young John F. Kennedy. In his election speeches Kennedy said that he was going to be tougher with the Soviets than Eisenhower.


The threat of war

Kennedy brought a new firm approach to the argument over Berlin Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna in June 1961. This was unfriendly and unsuccessful. Khrushchev demanded that Berlin should become neutral. He angrily talked about the danger of war if the USA refused to pull out of Berlin. Banging his hands on the conference table. Khrushchev said. 'I want peace, but if you want war, that is your problem.' Kennedy ended the conference by saying, 'It's going to be a cold winter.'


Afterwards Khrushchev repeated his demands in public and insisted, as he had done with Eisenhower, that the USA must act within six months. At the same time he increased Soviet spending on defense by 30 per cent. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy was in no mood to do a deal.


At the end of July Kennedy announced a complete rejection of the Soviet demands. He ordered a massive increase in the American armed services: the number of troops was increased by 15 per cent, spending on defense was increased by $3 billion and many new aircraft and warships were ordered. In public speeches both Kennedy and Khrushchev suggested that they were ready for war over Berlin.


Behind the angry words it seems that neither side was really willing to start a nuclear war over the future of Berlin.


Building the wall

While Khrushchev threatened nuclear war, he secretly planned a different solution to the Berlin crisis. The continued uncertainty over Berlin increased the number of East Germans who fled to West Berlin. Every day over a thousand East Germans entered the Western part of the city. In the early hours of 13 August 1961 barbed wire and barricades were erected all around West Berlin. When the people of West Berlin woke up their city was sealed off from East Germany. The barbed wire was later replaced by more substantial barriers; the Berlin Wall was created.


Who gained and who lost from the building of the Berlin Wall?


The flow of refugees from East to West stopped almost completely. This allowed the communists to consolidate their control over East Germany.


Enemies of communism could argue that communism was so awful that people had to be walled in to make sure that they did not run away from communism.


Between 1948 and 1960 there was a real possibility that arguments about Berlin would lead to a Third World War. This possibility stopped with the building of the Berlin Wall.


People in East Germany who did not support communism were now trapped. Those who tried to get over the wall were shot.


The building of the wall was the beginning of a period of calm in Europe. On both sides people accepted that there was no immediate prospect of change and the level of tension went down.