Post-war Germany: Politics, Developments & Partitioning

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  • 0:02 Postwar Germany
  • 0:32 Defeat & Partition
  • 2:38 Unequal Development
  • 3:27 Two Germanys
  • 5:29 Reunification
  • 7:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore Germany after the end of World War II, from its partitioning due to its part on the front line of the Cold War to its eventual reunification in 1990.

Postwar Germany

When I say 'Germany', what do you think of? Perhaps you think of sausage, their excellent soccer teams, or their delicious beer. What you may not know, however, is that only a quarter century ago you might have asked a follow up question: 'Which Germany?' This is because for nearly a half-century after the end of World War II (WWII), Germany was split into two states. With one communist government and one capitalist government, Germany was on the front lines of the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century.

Defeat and Partition

At the end of WWII, Germany had suffered total defeat at the hands of the Allies. As Soviet troops conducted a prolonged siege of Berlin in the first few months of 1945, Adolf Hitler, Germany's chancellor-cum-dictator and the orchestrator of the murder of six million Jews during the war, committed suicide in his bunker. Soon after, Germany's remaining generals surrendered to the Soviet Union and the Allies.

The three chief Allies, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union, now had to decide what to do with a defeated and broken Germany. Indeed, due to Germany's willingness to fight until the very last man and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin's insistence on Germany's unconditional surrender, the Allies had fought their way through the German heartland, wreaking devastation along the way. Additionally, the German political structure, which in the past decade had increasingly become a centralized dictatorship under Adolf Hitler, had entirely collapsed. Several high-ranking officials followed their chancellor's lead and committed suicide, while others attempted to flee.

Fortunately, these circumstances had been foreseen by the Allied leaders. In the final year of the war, multiple conferences were held between Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to determine just what to do with Germany when the country was finally defeated. At the most important of these conferences, at Yalta in the southern Soviet Union, the three leaders agreed to split Germany into four different occupation zones, with roughly the eastern third of the country controlled by the Soviet Union, and the western two-thirds split between American, British, and French control.

The German capital, Berlin, although seated squarely in the middle of the Soviet zone, was also split in half between the three Western allies and the Soviet Union. Additionally, the U.S. and the U.K. acquiesced to Soviet demands of influence over most of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union claimed it needed buffer states in Eastern Europe to protect against future Western aggression, but in reality it wanted the states to help spread the reach of communism further into Europe.

Unequal Development

Once this settlement had been realized and Western and Soviet troops had taken control of their respective zones, the rebuilding of Germany began with its further dismantling. Indeed, Germany was largely to blame for the two major wars of the 20th century, World War I (WWI) and WWII, both of which cost millions of lives. As a result, all sides wanted to make it nearly impossible for Germany to ever start a war in Europe ever again.

German states, regardless of their occupying country, were outlawed from keeping any sort of standing army or military presence whatsoever, and any factories in Germany's industrial military complex not already destroyed in the war were dismantled. Furthermore, the main industrial sector of Germany, the Rhine Valley in the southwest, was turned into a quasi-police state under French control.

Two Germanys

As tensions between the West and the Soviet Union increased, Germany found itself on the front lines of the Cold War. Indeed, the Soviet occupation zone and the three Western occupation zones were completely cut off from one another. A few years after the end of WWII, Germany was officially separated when the Soviet Union set up the communist government in East Germany and the Western three occupiers fostered the creation of West Germany.

Over the following decades, the West German government was largely allowed to operate as an independent state with democratic republican institutions, although the Western military presence remained and they were still not allowed to have a domestic military. For example, West Germany became a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1957. This six-nation agreement facilitated the exchange of resources between Western European countries and promoted economic growth throughout the region. The ECSC was the earliest formation of what later became today's European Union.

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