World War II, which lasted from September 1, 1939, to September 2, 1945, was one of the world's most catastrophic events. Germany, one of the dominant forces in that war, lost the battle and was literally and ideologically divided into two nations by the Berlin Wall. The rise and fall of this wall, one of the great symbols of the Cold War, is one of the significant events in world history. Let us examine the reasons for these events.
At the end of the Second World War, Germany was defeated and divided into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Although located within the Soviet zone, Berlin was also split among the four powers. According to History.com, the American, British, and French sectors would form West Berlin, and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The Allied leaders had confirmed the division of Germany and the nature of its occupation at the Potsdam Conference, held between July 17 and August 2, 1945.
After the Second World War, two new political and economic systems emerged. One was the Socialist Bloc led by the Soviet Union, and the other was the Capitalist Bloc (also known as the Western Bloc/Free Bloc/Democratic Bloc/American Bloc/NATO Bloc) led by the United States.
Later, the world saw an ideological and materialistic competition between these two groups. Germany became a hotbed of this ideological struggle. Consequently, in 1949, Germany was officially divided into two countries. The United States, Britain, and France territories were known as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The territory under the Soviet Union was known as the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
In 1952, according to History.com, the East German government closed the border with West Germany, but the border between East and West Berlin remained open. The residents of Berlin had the freedom to travel, shop, and go to the theatre in the Berlin area of both countries.
Before the wall was built, Berliners from both countries could travel, work and shop freely in East and West Berlin.
Due to capitalism, West Germany was economically better off than East Germany, and it was the place where the standard of living was better. Hence, the migration of more people to West Germany was a natural phenomenon.
Berlin Wall goes up
In 1961, a rumour spread in both countries. The talk was regarding a wall that would close the border in Berlin. Interestingly, on June 15, 1961, the East German leader announced that no one intended to build a wall. However, according to Britannica , on the 12th and 13th of August, East Germany cut Berlin in two and erected a barbed wire fence along its border. Soon the barbed fence became a concrete wall. The Berlin Wall was not one but two walls and was 155 km long. The East German government closed all crossing points between the Western and Soviet zones.
Politics and crises that led to the Berlin Wall
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that West Berlin, a city of distinctly capitalist character, was "a bone stuck in the Soviet throat”. The Soviet Union was trying to oust Britain, America, and France from West Germany since they were proponents of capitalism. This strategy unfolded on June 24, 1948, when the United States, France, and Britain were embargoed by the Soviet Union, rendering them unable to reach their West Berlin territories by road, canal, and rail.
Consequently, first the United States and then Britain airlifted food, fuel, and other supplies to West Berlin. This lasted until the Soviet Union lifted the embargo on May 12, 1949. During the blockade, the American and British air forces delivered about 2.3 million tons of fuel and food. This event, according to History.com, is called the Berlin Airlift.
After the blockade was lifted in 1949, approximately three million people left East Germany. About 19,000 left East Germany in June 1961. About 2,400 crossed the border on August 12 that year. This became a major crisis for East Germany.
Premier Khrushchev authorized the East German government to curb the migration by closing the Berlin border that night. In just two weeks, the East German army, police force, and volunteer construction workers had completed building a makeshift barbed wire and concrete block wall–the Berlin Wall–that divided one side of the city from the other.
During the blockade, the American and British air forces delivered about 2.3 million tons of fuel and food.
Before the wall was built, Berliners from both countries could travel, work and shop freely in East and West Berlin. After the construction, three check posts were established, and travel was not allowed except through one of them. However, that checkpoint was exclusively meant for diplomats or officials. Passengers from East Germany could only travel to West Germany under special circumstances.
When Berlin was divided by the wall, people who did not accept it constantly tried to cross the wall and travel to West Germany. Getting over the wall was not impossible. People had crossed the wall by jumping from windows adjacent to the wall, driving over weak parts of the wall, and crawling through the sewers. However, between 1961 and the fall of the wall in 1989, more than 5,000 Germans died in the attempt.
Protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall
By 1989, the intensity of the Cold War, which had begun after the Second World War, had decreased. The protests and mass demonstrations regarding the travel restrictions and the wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West through other channels kept increasing. This caused difficulties for both countries, and the ministerial administration decided to address this issue while announcing the new regulations. According to History.com, notes about the new regulations were handed to a spokesman, Günter Schabowski - who had no time to read them before his regular press conference. Reporters were stunned when he read the note aloud for the first time.
"Private travel outside the country can now be applied for without prerequisites," he said. Surprised journalists clamoured for more details. Shuffling through his notes, Mr Schabowski said that as far as he was aware, the new regulations, including the removal of travel restrictions, were to take place with immediate effect.
According to History.com, it had in fact, been planned to start the next day, with details on applying for a visa. But the news was all over television, and East Germans flocked to the border in huge numbers.
Countless people made their way to the wall with sledgehammers and pickaxes and began tirelessly chipping away at the wall. They became known as 'Mauerspechte' or Woodpeckers. Cranes and bulldozers were also used to demolish the wall. Four days later, the Berlin Wall was completely demolished. The wall that divided one country into two was gone, and the capital city of Berlin was no longer divided. And so, the wall, a landmark in the history of the Cold War, was gone.
On October 3, 1990, about a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East and West Germans officially united to become a unified Germany.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the incidents that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Can you think of why the Berlin Wall is called a landmark in the history of the Cold War?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children, and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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