What Was the Berlin Wall?
The Berlin Wall was both the physical division between West Berlin and East Germany from 1961 to 1989 and the symbolic boundary between democracy and Communism during the Cold War.
Dates: August 13, 1961 -- November 9, 1989
Overview of the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was erected in the dead of night and for 28 years kept East Germans from fleeing to the West. Its destruction, which was nearly as instantaneous as its creation, was celebrated around the world.
A Divided Berlin
At the end of World War II, the Allied powers divided conquered Germany into four zones, each occupied by either the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union (as agreed at the Potsdam Conference). The same was done with Germany's capital city, Berlin.
As the relationship between the Soviet Union and the other three Allied powers quickly disintegrated, the cooperative atmosphere of the occupation of Germany turned competitive and aggressive. Although an eventual reunification of Germany had been intended, the new relationship between the Allied powers turned Germany into West versus East, democracy versus Communism.
In 1949, this new organization of Germany became official when the three zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France combined to form West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany). The zone occupied by the Soviet Union quickly followed by forming East Germany (the German Democratic Republic).
This same division into West and East occurred in Berlin. Since the city of Berlin had been situated entirely within the Soviet zone of occupation, West Berlin became an island of democracy within Communist East Germany.
Within a short period of time after the war, living conditions in West Germany and East Germany became distinctly different. With the help and support of its occupying powers, West Germany set up a capitalist society and experienced such a rapid growth of their economy that it became known as the "economic miracle." With hard work, individuals living in West Germany were able to live well, buy gadgets and appliances, and to travel as they wished.
Nearly the opposite was true in East Germany. Since the Soviet Union had viewed their zone as a spoil of war, the Soviets pilfered factory equipment and other valuable assets from their zone and shipped them back to the Soviet Union. When East Germany became its own country, it was under the direct influence of the Soviet Union and thus a Communist society was established. In East Germany, the economy dragged and individual freedoms were severely restricted.
By the late 1950s, many people living in East Germany wanted out. No longer able to stand the repressive living conditions of East Germany, they would pack up their bags and head to West Berlin. Although some of them would be stopped on their way, hundreds of thousands of others made it across the border. Once across, these refugees were housed in warehouses and then flown to West Germany. Many of those who escaped were young, trained professionals. By the early 1960s, East Germany was rapidly losing both its labor force and its population.
Having already lost 2.5 million people by 1961, East Germany desperately needed to stop this mass exodus. The obvious leak was the easy access East Germans had to West Berlin. With the support of the Soviet Union, there had been several attempts to simply take over West Berlin in order to eliminate this exit point. Although the Soviet Union even threatened the United States with the use of nuclear weapons over this issue, the United States and other Western countries were committed to defending West Berlin.
Desperate to keep its citizens, East Germany decided to build a wall to prevent them from crossing the border.
The Berlin Wall Goes Up
There had been rumors that something might happen to tighten the border of East and West Berlin, but no one was expecting the speed nor the absoluteness of the Wall.
Just past midnight on the night of August 12-13, 1961, trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled through East Berlin. While most Berliners were sleeping, these crews began tearing up streets that entered into West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire all across the border between East and West Berlin. Telephone wires between East and West Berlin were also cut.
Berliners were shocked when they woke up that morning. What had once been a very fluid border was now rigid. No longer could East Berliners cross the border for operas, plays, soccer games, etc. No longer could the approximately 60,000 commuters head to West Berlin for well-paying jobs. No longer could families, friends, and lovers cross the border to meet their loved ones. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on during the night of August 12, they were stuck on that side for decades.
The Size and Scope of the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall stretched over a hundred miles. It ran not only through the center of Berlin, but also wrapped around West Berlin, entirely cutting West Berlin off from the rest of East Germany.
The wall itself went through four major transformations during its 28-year history. The Berlin Wall started out as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but just a few days after the first fence was placed, it was quickly replaced with a sturdier, more permanent structure made out of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire.
The Cold War was a sustained state of political and military tension between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States with NATO and others) and powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its allies in Warsaw Pact). Historians have not fully agreed on the dates, but 1947-1991 is common. It was "cold" because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, although there were major regional wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany, leaving the USSR and the US as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences over capitalism and democracy. A deliberately neutral grouping arose with the Non-Aligned Movement founded by Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia; this faction rejected association with either the US-led West or the Soviet-led East.
The two superpowers never engaged directly in full-scale armed combat but they each armed heavily in preparation of an all-out nuclear World War III. Each side had a nuclear deterrent that deterred an attack by the other side, on the basis that such an attack would lead to total destruction of the attacker: the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or MAD. Aside from the development of the two sides' nuclear arsenals, and deployment of conventional military forces, the struggle for dominance was expressed via proxy wars around the globe, psychological warfare, propaganda and espionage, and technological competitions such as the Space Race.
THE COLD WAR
The Berlin Wall