- After World War II, four victorious countries wanted to divide Germany.
- The Eastern part of Germany followed the Soviet Union and the Western part went to the US, Great Britain, and France.
- The city of Berlin was divided in two as well for many years. The Berlin Wall split the city in two.
- The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful symbols during the Cold War.
The Potsdam Conference
The Potsdam Conference was a meeting of Allied leaders. They met to talk about how they would divide Germany and where the occupation forces would be. The people at the conference were Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, US President Truman, and Joseph Stalin.
Despite many disagreements, the British delegation, Stalin and Truman did manage to agree on some things at Potsdam. It was decided that Germany would be occupied by Allied forces from America, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.
They also agreed to disarm Germany and dismantle their military equipment. Other things they agreed on were ending Nazi laws in German society and punishing Nazis for war crimes.
A split Germany
In 1949, Germany split into two separate countries. One was the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR). The other was the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
They were allied to different things: FDR was allied with Western democracies and GDR with the Soviet Union. In 1952, GDR closed its border to West Germany but allowed East Germans to escape through Berlin.
Even though Berlin was entirely in the Soviet part of the country, a treaty split it into 4 different parts. The Soviets had the eastern half, while the other countries each had their part too. This four-way occupation began in June 1945.
On August 13, 1961, the Communist government in East Germany began building a barbed wire and concrete wall between East and West Berlin. The official reason was to stop Westerners from entering East Berlin. But it was because people were escaping to West Berlin.
Until November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall stood. People could not go over the wall.
The city of West Berlin was a capitalist city in the middle of East Germany. The Russians wanted to remove the western Allies from West Berlin, but they didn’t succeed because the Allies had airplanes that could fly supplies into West Berlin. The blockade lasted for about a year and more than 2.3 million people were helped by the airlift.
Tensions between the Soviets and the Allies had been calm for ten years after the war. Then they started again.
The Soviets were scared because they saw that they were losing many talented people who were fleeing to the West. Their tone became more aggressive. This led to many conferences and summits where nobody couldn´t agree on anything.
The situation in East Germany was getting worse. There were not enough doctors and skilled workers there. Because of this, the country’s leaders decided to build a wall. The Berlin Wall was built to stop people from entering East Germany. But they also needed it because of the more serious problem- too many people were leaving!
Many refugees were coming to West Berlin. In June 1961, 19,000 people came through Berlin. The following month 30,000 refugees came to the city. In August 1961 16,000 people left East Germany and more than 2 times as many as had before that in a single day (2,400) went with them.
So then the East German government decided to introduce measures to keep people leaving for the West. On June 15th, it was announced that there were no plans to build a wall. But on August 12, 1961, a wire barrier was built around West Berlin.
The Associated Press reported that Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate was closed. This was a big event and something we will never forget. That is how the Berlin Wall began to be built.
Building the wall
Premier Khrushchev let the East German government stop people from leaving. The people on one side of Berlin were cut off from those on the other side. In two weeks, they built a big wall that separated them.
Before the wall was built, Berliners could go where they wanted. They crossed to and fro West Berlin and East Berlin. They could go by train or subway.
But after the wall was built, there were only three checkpoints to cross: at Helmstedt (Alpha), Dreilinden (Bravo), and in the center of Berlin at Friedrichstrasse (Charlie).
When people from West Berlin tried to go to East Berlin, they were always stopped at the checkpoint. The soldiers looked to make sure that the person was allowed to cross and if they weren’t, then they couldn’t go into East Berlin.
The Wall was a long wall that divided East and West Berlin. It separated families because you could not cross it. From this barbed-wire barricade, the Wall turned into a concrete wall around West Berlin, which isolated it from East Germany.
The Berlin Wall was 155 kilometers (96 miles) long and 4 meters (13 feet) tall.
When people first tried to escape from East Berlin, they put up temporary fences in the area. When East Berlin was closed off, there were many fences. These fences were around the border area and allowed soldiers to see well and shoot into the area if necessary.
More and more fences were also put up in this “death strip.” In the 70s a 2nd wall was built around those areas to keep people out of them.
The first thing people had to get past was an inner wall. Then they had to climb over a signal fence that activated an alarm when touched and could have sharp ends pointing going up or down.
These two walls were separated by a very dangerous area where guards could shoot people if they tried to escape into West Berlin. The Wall had 302 watchtowers. Dogs helped border control by blocking a path, warning soldiers, and stopping fugitives.
The Berlin Wall stopped the refugees from going from East to West. President John F. Kennedy was not happy about it, but he said that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
After 2 years, John F. Kennedy gave an important speech in front of 120,000 people outside of West Berlin’s city hall. He said to the public the words, “I am a Berliner” to show his sympathy.
People who wanted to leave East Germany tried in many different ways. Many were successful but 171 people in total died trying to get across the border during those years. Nevertheless, more than 5,000 people managed to cross the border from 1961 until 1989.
For example, a man named Joachim Rudolph made a tunnel to help people escape from East Berlin. After he escaped himself, he dug the tunnel so other people could escape too.
The fall of the Berlin Wall
After Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, people’s lives and political situations changed slowly. In 1988, Gorbachev said he would not use the Brezhnev Doctrine to limit the sovereignty of other countries.
These changes on borders allowed the Eastern Bloc states to have their own policies. Hungary’s shift towards the West led it to dismantle its border fence on May 2, 1989. This was the first hole made to the “Iron Curtain” which was a symbolic wall dividing West and East Europe.
East Berlin’s communist government was not interested in adopting the same policies as the Soviet Union. But people were angry and wanted to travel. They were very tired of the Berlin Wall.
On November 9, 1989, in the middle of the Cold War, East Berlin’s Communist Party announced that they would change relations with West Berlin.
At midnight on this day, people were free to pass through the country’s borders. When an emigration law was announced, people went to the border and started taking down the Wall with their own hands. The fall of the Wall led to a new government being created.
People from East and West Berlin came together to tear down the Berlin Wall. They drank beer and champagne while chanting “Tor auf!,” which means “Open the gate!” in German.
More than 2 million people from East Berlin came to visit West Berlin for the street party. The Berlin wall was pulled down and unified. One person said that “Only today is the war over.”
Some people took pieces of the Wall as souvenirs because they were happy that it had opened. People started going across to East Berlin more often, so there were big gaps in the Wall left behind from where the border soldiers dismantled things like fences.
The government in East Germany also began thinking about how to market this new thing – selling pieces of broken-off Wall all over the world! Finally, in June 1990, they started taking down parts of the wall until most of it was dismantled.
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is the longest section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. The wall came down and people from all over the world painted over it interesting mural paintings.
Artists from 21 countries accepted the invitation to paint over the wall. In 1990, it became a memorial site, so it would not be sold or torn down.
Some of the paintings are popular, like Dimitri’s painting of a kiss and Birgit’s painting of a car going through the wall. The East Side Gallery is on the open-air so it can get bad weather, but people try to fix it every year.
Tränenpalast means “palace of tears” in German. People in Berlin felt sad when Germany was split. They created this museum of tears to show people what the division meant for many families.
This museum has interviews with people who lived in Berlin at the time and had to cross the Wall. More than 570 original objects are recreating how the Wall separated Berlin from 1962 to 1990.
Some customs controls have open suitcases with luggage in them so you can see what’s inside them. The feeling in this narrow corridor for passport control is still oppressive because of all the signs telling you what to do when crossing a border.