In this lesson, we explore the history of the Berlin Wall, from its beginnings as a makeshift barrier between East and West Berlin, to its final demise as communism fell across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.
Fall of Berlin Wall
It seems people are always talking about figurative walls. Whether it's 'throwing up walls' in your personal life, at your job, or socially, cutting yourself off from the rest of society is generally considered a bad thing. This colloquialism is prevalent in modern language, possibly due to a very real wall which existed for a quarter century that divided one half of a German city from another. The Berlin Wall, which existed for nearly 30 years, was even more detrimental than your personal foibles, literally cutting off families and friends from one another.
Germany's defeat in World War II (WWII) presented a bit of a problem for the Allied nations. The Western allies had advanced from the west and south, with Russia advancing through German territory from the east, achieving the unconditional German surrender that Stalin demanded only through a prolonged siege of Berlin. As Hitler committed suicide and his generals surrendered, the Allied nations had to decide what to do with the defeated German nation.
At conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to allow the Soviet Union to have direct control or influence over most of Eastern Europe, including the Eastern third of the German state. The Western two-thirds was split into zones and controlled by the U.S., the U.K., and France. However, the German capital, Berlin, presided smack in the middle of the proposed Soviet zone of occupation. The Western allies did not want the traditional German seat of power entirely in Soviet hands and, as a result, agreed to split the city of Berlin down the middle in a similar fashion as the rest of Germany.
The Soviets accepted this situation although they did not like having a partially capitalist city in the middle of the communist zone. As a result, they attempted to drive the Western allies out of West Berlin by blockading the city. The allies showed their resolve to hold on to West Berlin by conducting the Berlin Airlift in 1948, which flew millions of tons of food and supplies into the ailing West Berlin.
With the Soviet Union forced to live with the capitalist West Berlin, it had to face a far more serious problem in the city: the mass exodus of Berliners from the Eastern half. In the 1950s, thousands each month left East Berlin, permanently relocating in West Berlin. To make matters worse, these were largely young, highly-skilled professionals (doctors, lawyers, and engineers) who could make far more money and live a better life in West Berlin. The Soviets did not want an empty city to govern, and even worse, they feared the bad publicity for communism and the Soviet Union that this emigration would cause.
The Soviets met this problem in the bluntest way possible. To stem the flow of migration, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered a barbed wire and concrete wall built to separate the two sides of the city. The army of workers shipped in to construct the wall took just two weeks to complete it in August 1961.
Over the following years, the wall would be built higher and fortified with concrete and steel until it rose to 12 feet in some areas. Eventually the wall stretched for over a hundred miles, as it not only divided the Western half of the city from the Eastern half, but wrapped around West Berlin to entirely isolate the capitalist enclave. There were only three checkpoints where people could cross from East to West, and these were heavily guarded and reserved only for military personnel and diplomats.
Normal citizens required special papers to be allowed to cross, and after several years virtually no German citizen was allowed in or out of West Berlin. Despite the massive wall, the impetus for escape was still there, and many attempted to escape East Berlin by scaling the wall, digging tunnels, or executing other elaborate schemes.
Fall of Communism and Berlin Wall
The Wall existed in various forms throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The Soviets continued to fortify and strengthen portions of the wall until it was virtually impregnable. Escape attempts became fewer and more complicated. Moreover, escape to West Berlin was incredibly dangerous as the Wall's guards were instructed to shoot on sight anyone even near the Wall.
However, as the 1980s wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the Soviet Union was having major problems of its own. Economic growth in the Union and in its client states was stagnant, and the government's structure was too hierarchical and the problems too endemic to enact quick and meaningful change. Despite Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts at saving the Union through reform, communism and the Soviet Union's authority slowly eroded in Eastern Europe.
After Poland secured free elections for itself and with the Baltic states clamoring for independence from the Soviet Union, the communist official for East Berlin announced that free passage from East to West Berlin would open up at midnight of November 9, 1989. Berliners rejoiced at the news and an impromptu, city-wide party began and the Wall started to come down.
Revelers joyously chipped away at the wall with hammers and chisels, and within a few short days heavy equipment began dismantling the wall piece by piece. With Berlin reunited and communism crumbling across Eastern Europe, the entire German nation was reunified the following year, in 1990, and Berlin once again took its rightful place as the capital of a unified Germany.
The Berlin Wall is often seen as a symbol of the Cold War and the half-century long struggle between communist East and capitalist West. A literal manifestation of the Iron Curtain, which Winston Churchill poetically claimed separated the two regions of Europe, the Berlin Wall was built by the Soviet Union to stop the emigration to the capitalist West Berlin.
The harsh treatment of attempted escapees and the wall's stark features are representative of the tensions that existed during the Cold War between the Soviet East and the Western world. After nearly 30 years of separating former neighbors from one another, the communist-built wall crumbled just as other communist institutions disintegrated across Eastern Europe.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain why the Berlin Wall was constructed
- Discuss what led to the Berlin Wall being torn down and recall when that occurred