Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
East Germany, though technically its own state, was essentially a client state of the Soviet Union. The East German government was dominated by a Communist Party that was closely allied with Moscow and further outlawed the existence of any other political party. Whereas West Germany developed a strong capitalist economy fully integrated with the rest of Europe, East Germany was fully integrated into the Soviet communist economy. Over the next few decades, these different economic philosophies would lead to huge economic disparities between the two Germanys - the West's economy eventually being far healthier than the East's.
The West's economic productivity and Soviet-U.S. tensions led to the creation of arguably the most recognizable symbol of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was built in only two weeks in 1961 to separate East and West Berlin. It was built by the Soviet Union in order to prevent the constant emigration of young, East Berliner professionals who could make more money and live a better life in the capitalist West than in the communist East.
After several decades of moving in wildly different directions politically and economically, the possibility of reunifying Germany came surprisingly quickly. In the 1980s, the Soviet economy, with which East Germany was fully integrated, was floundering. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev's attempted reforms did little to solve the crisis and the relaxation of political suppression gave citizens of Eastern Europe greater freedom to protest communism.
As demonstrations broke out across Eastern Europe, the East German government actually began banning Soviet publications within its borders in a vain attempt to hold onto power. However, after East Germany's neighbors like Czechoslovakia and Hungary began opening their borders to the West, East Germans flocked to their neighbors to permanently resettle in West Germany.
Destabilized by these developments, East Germany erupted in protest in 1989. On November 9, the Berlin Wall fell and soon after East Germany's communist regime collapsed. Both East and West Germans wanted their country to be reunified, and after East Germany held its first free elections in March of 1990, a joint East-West Bundestag passed several laws during the summer of 1990 preparing to reunify Germany. The reunification became official in October 1990.
Though reunification was joyously celebrated across Germany, spending nearly a half-century separated caused some problems moving forward. After all, the Western two-thirds of Germany had been fully integrated into the capitalist global market since WWII, while East Germany was ill-prepared to enter the Western markets and its industry was grossly inefficient by capitalist standards. As a result, economic conditions got worse in eastern Germany before they got better. This exacerbated the already stark disparities in wealth between eastern and western Germany, a situation that is still somewhat present today.
The creation of East and West Germany after the end of WWII largely occurred for two reasons: the rest of the world blaming Germany for instigating WWI and WWII and the development of a global rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States and its Western allies. Indeed, without the rise of the worldwide struggle between communism and capitalism, Germany may have merely been occupied by the four different countries until the occupiers could agree Germany was sufficiently rehabilitated. Instead, East and West Germany grew in wildly different directions depending on which side of that global battle they fell on. As the Cold War ended, Germany was quickly reunified, but the legacy of the division still remains in Germany today.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
28 chapters | 268 lessons | 22 flashcard sets