The Berlin Wall, Part I
November 9th marks the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin
Wall, the end of the Cold War. To mark this historic event I am
going to have a little two-part series on how the Wall came to be
and the story behind those who helped bring about the eventual
collapse of it.
It was April, 1945 and 2.5 million Soviet troops faced some one
million Germans, many of them young boys or old men, on the
outskirts of Berlin. By April 25th the city was encircled. By May
9th, Marshal Zhukov had accepted the German government''s
Around this time Stalin had told a delegation of Yugoslavian
Communists that "the war will soon be over. We shall recover in
15 or 20 years and then we will have another go at it." For
awhile, it seemed like 15 or 20 years would have been wishful
In 1946, the four powers (US, France, Britain, and the Soviet
Union) decided to divide up Germany, each with its own zone. It
was also agreed that the city of Berlin, itself, would also be
divided into 4 parts. Remember, Berlin was, overall, in the Soviet
zone which was to become East Germany.
By 1948, it was apparent that the West was there to stay in
Germany. The Soviets had failed both to persuade the Americans
to leave Europe and to prevent the growing integration of
Germany''s Western zones. As long as America was involved,
Western Europe could only grow in stature. The Soviets felt a
need to act. They didn''t want to risk a direct assault; but they
could demonstrate their hold on the vulnerable, and highly
symbolic, city of Berlin.
On April 1, 1948 Soviet patrols began interfering with traffic in
the corridor between Berlin and the Western zones, but to no
effect. Then the matter of currency gave them a reason for
On June 18, 1948, as a purely administrative measure, the 3
Western allies announced a new German currency for their zones.
There was to be an exchange of ten old Reichsmarks for one new
Deutschmark. The Cold War had officially begun.
Stalin took this move as a pretext for an attempt by force to
extinguish the Berlin enclave, by blocking road access to the
Western zones there.
As historian Paul Johnson wrote, "This was an event of peculiar
significance." Khruschev later characterized Stalin''s Berlin move
as "prodding the capitalist world with the tip of a bayonet," to see
what would be the response. President Harry Truman
immediately made clear what that would be: "We would stay,
The US zone commander, General Lucious Clay, recommended
clearing the approach roads by armed convoys. Truman rejected
this. Instead, he sent B29 bombers to bases in Britain and
Germany. They weren''t equipped to deliver A-bombs but
Truman rightly assumed that Stalin would think they were and he
was, in fact, prepared to use them if necessary.
But rather than confront the Soviets, militarily, Truman launched
the Berlin airlift, an awesome demonstration of both British and
American air power. Picture a city of 2 million, running out of
fuel, food and raw materials. By the end of 1948, the airlift was
flying in 4500 tons a day. By the spring of ''49, it was 8000 tons.
The airlift required 277,264 flights. At its height flights were
touching down every minute and the pilots were flying in all
kinds of weather, entering incredibly tricky airspace, often with
just their instruments to guide them when the weather was bad.
By May of 1949 the blockade was lifted by Stalin, though the
airlift continued through September to ensure that the supplies
were getting into the right hands.
So the powers resumed their old ways, safeguarding a city with 4
zones. West Berlin was a showplace of Western democracy and
prosperity, a listening post for Western intelligence, and a funnel
through which news and propaganda from the West penetrated
what Winston Churchill had called the "iron curtain." Although
East Germany had sealed its western borders, refugees could still
pass from East to West Berlin.
East Berlin had, of course, been in control of the Soviets. In May
of 1958, Khruschev threatened to give East Germany control of
East Berlin. This would officially abrogate the agreement among
the four Powers and lay the groundwork for recognizing an
independent East Germany, something the West had failed to do.
President Eisenhower "thought the greatest danger in the Berlin
crisis was that the Russians would frighten the US into an arms
race that would bankrupt the country."
Relations between the US and the Soviet Union, however, were
okay at this time. Things began to deteriorate with the
shootdown in 1960 of Gary Powers U-2 spy plane, an incident for
which Eisenhower denied any US involvement. American
credibility was not at its highest after that.
The Powers incident was followed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April
1961. Khruschev was looking for a way to test the young President
Kennedy, admittedly shell-shocked by the scope of the disaster.
By June 1961, the East Germans began to string barbed wire
around their section of Berlin. On August 13th all crossings
between East and West Berlin were sealed.
Between 1950 and 1962 - 2.6 million East Germans left for the
West, most to the Federal Republic. 500,000 moved in the
opposite direction, from West to East, between 1950 and 1964,
ostensibly to be with families in the East.
John F. Kennedy went to Berlin and defiantly stood beside the
Wall, shouting, " Ich bin ein Berliner." "I am a doughnut." True.
He should have just said, "Ich bin Berliner."
On August 17th, East German workers started building the Wall.
Ground floor windows that permitted escape from East to West
were boarded up. Telephone lines leading to West Berlin were
Over the years many escaped, dashing across no-man''s land,
swimming across rivers, flying small planes or home made
balloons into West Germany, digging tunnels, and hiding in trunks
and cars. But about 700 were shot to death.
It is now commonly accepted that JFK''s acquiesce in allowing the
Wall to go up led Khruschev to conclude that he could install
missiles in Cuba without a fierce response from the US.
Next week, the Wall comes tumbling down in 1989.
"A History of Modern Europe," by John Merriman
"Europe: A History," by Norman Davies
"The Oxford History of the 20th Century."
"A History of the American People," by Paul Johnson
"Russia: A History," by Gregory Freeze