*** war and social upheaval: The Cold War -- the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall (1961-89)

Figure 1.--The Berlin Wall was finally breached on November 9, 1989 as crowd of East Germans surged through Check Point Chrlie at the Brandenberg Gate. East and West Beliners began assaulting the Wall by hand with sledge hammers.

The most visible aspect of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall and the Wall The Communists built between East and West Germany. Until 1961, East Berliners and other East Germans could take a subway car to flee to fleet to West Berlin and on to West Germany. The number of East Germans fleeing to West was an embarrassment to the Communists who after all claimed to be creating workers' paradises. The glaring differences between the vibrant economic life of Berlin and the gray, drudgery of a Communist People's Republic was particularly apparent. The number of trained professionals in particular threatened the economy of East Germany. The Wall changed this. It did stop the flow of people West, although heart rending sites of small numbers of people braving the increasingly lethal dangers of the Wall moved West Germans. President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1962 to demonstrate American resolve in this vulnerable outpost of freedom. He told Berliners. "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." The Wall effectively separated Germans for nearly 30 years. Once completed only small numbers succeeded in crossing it. Many died in the process.


Berlin had been the capital of NAZI Germany. It was here that Hitler made his last stand. The Battle of Berlin in which the Red Army conquered the city in the last major World war II battle in Europe (April 1945). After the NAZI surrender, Berlin was divided into occupation zones as had been previously determined at the Yalta Conference. As the Cold war developed, Berlin became a dangerous flash point as here American and Soviet tanks faced each other and it was the weakest point of the Western defense. Stalin's attempt to force the Western Allies out resulted in the Berlin Air Lift (1948). Stalin eventually backed down, but during the 1950s, Berlin became an increasing concern to the East Germans..

West Berlin

The city of Berlin was by itself of only minor importance. Actually it was very costly for the West Germans to make West Berlin a viable symbol. It was, however, a very important symbol for the Germans. American officials, including President Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy considered it a key symbol of American resolve. If America backed down in Berlin, American allies would question the value of American security pledges. The impact on NATO could have been potentially devastating.

Open Border

Until 1961 there was an open border between East and West Berlin--the only open border between the Communists and the West. Since World War II, daily about 0.5 million million people cross the border separating different parts of Berlin. Most of the traffic was Eat Berliners crossing into West Berlin. East Berliners could attend movie theaters showing Western films. Many had jobs in the strong economy if West Berlin, heavily subsidized by the West German Government. Many shopped in the well stocked stores in West Berlin. Items like jeans, fashionable dresses, and seamless panty hoses which were unavailable in East Berlin shops were readily available in West Berlin shops. There were many other luxuries available such as tropical fruits. In addition, East Berliners and other East Germans could simply take a subway car to flee to West Berlin and on to West Germany.


The number of East Germans fleeing to West was an embarrassment to the Communists who after all claimed to be creating workers' paradises. The glaring differences between the vibrant economic life of Berlin and the gray, drudgery of a Communist People's Republic was particularly apparent. The number of trained professionals in particular threatened the economy of East Germany. Gradually it became more than an embarrassment. East Berliners began to move to West Berlin in droves and other East Germans tried to get to Berlin to cross the border. There were some 2,000 people a week crossing over to Wet Berlin (1960). East Berlin was week by week virtually disappearing into prosperous West Berlin. The East German Communists were still true believers. Most believed if they could simply stop the outflow of people that they could then build a prosperous worker's paradise. As was the case throughout the Communist world, Party and state officials were convinced that they knew better than ordinary individuals.

Crime Against the Future

Flight from the East German worker's paradise was not just embarrassing, but was a threat to the DDR. It was seen as a deprived against the future and Communism's creation of a 'new and more beautiful life'. The Communists despite the double-speak name of the state did not permit democratic elections in which the population could register their assessment of the state. Allowing people to leave was permitting individuals to vote with their feet. And it meant that East Germany was losing many of its 'best and brightest' individuals it had invested in by educating. Thus the Communist officials made attempting to leave East Germany a crime tantamount to treason. East German made an art of double-speak. The governing party was the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) which mean the Communist Party which achieved unity by not permitting political opposition or criticism. An SED propaganda booklet describes the seriousness of 'flight from the republic': "Both from the moral standpoint as well as in terms of the interests of the whole German nation, leaving the DDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity. Those who let themselves be recruited objectively serve West German Reaction and militarism, whether they know it or not. Is it not despicable when for the sake of a few alluring job offers or other false promises about a 'guaranteed future' one leaves a country in which the seed for a new and more beautiful life is sprouting, and is already showing the first fruits, for the place that favors a new war and destruction? Is it not an act of political depravity when citizens, whether young people, workers, or members of the intelligentsia, leave and betray what our people have created through common labour in our republic to offer themselves to the American or British secret services or work for the West German factory owners, Junkers, or militarists? Does not leaving the land of progress for the morass of an historically outdated social order demonstrate political backwardness and blindness? ... [W]orkers throughout Germany will demand punishment for those who today leave the German Democratic Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the imperialists and militarists." [Socialist Unity Party's Agitation Department]

Vienna Summit (June 1961)

Newly-elected President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev met for direct talks at a summit conference in Vienna (June 4, 1961). The discussions touched on a range of topics, including Laos, nuclear disarmament and ideological musings. The discussions, however, were dominated by the discussions over Berlin. Khrushchev threatened to sign a peace agreement with East Germany that would impinge on Western access to Berlin by turning over control of the access roads and air routes. Kennedy was shocked at the tone and threats made. Khrushchev told Kennedy, "Force will be met by force. If the US wants war, that's its problem." "Its up to the US to decide whether there will be war or peace." "The decision to sign a peace treaty is firm and irrevocable, and the Soviet Union will sign it in December if the US refuses an interim agreement." Kennedy replied, "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be a war. It will be a cold winter."

Communist Action

The construction of the Berlin Wall was seen at the time as a Soviet action carried out by their East German puppets to pressure the United States. In fact the motivating force for the Wall was East German leader Walter Ulbricht who for years was pressuring Khrushchev and the Soviets to allow him to close the border. Khrushchev for several years restrained Ulbricht. In fact Ulbricht was not puppet. He considered himself to be a more sophisticated Communist than Khrushchev and was close to arrogance in his dealings with Khrushchev. Ulbricht was determined to get Soviet support to close the border which he thought was needed for the future of his regime. The correspondence between Ulbricht and Khrushchev makes for some fascinating reading. Ulbricht bombarded Khrushchev with multiple-page letters insisting that the border be closed and detailing the problems created by trained professionals fleeing East Germany. Khrushchev wrote Ulbricht saying that if he would improve conditions, people would not want to leave. Ulbricht replies, blaming post-World War II Soviet repatriation policy! Khrushchev writes Ulbricht saying that it took the Soviets 16 years to gain recognition by the United States. Recognition of East Germany by the United States after only 10 years would be an insult to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev thought that Ulbricht should wait at least 7 years. [Harrison] Khrushchev finally gives Ulbricht the go ahead and planning begins in secret. Khrushchev met with the leaders of the Communist parties of the Commecon in Moscow, a kind of rubber stamp event (August 3-5, 1961).

Building the Wall (August 1961)

The most visible aspect of the Cold War became the Berlin Wall and the Wall The Communists built between all of East and West Germany. East German leader Walter Ulbricht secretly signed the order to close the border (afternoon of August 12). The East German army, police and the "Kampfgruppen" in a well coordinated operation began building the Wall at midnight Sunday (August 13). Berliners awoke to a makeshift barricade separating their city. The first step was barbed wire, behind which the East Germans began building a crude cement block wall. Soon Berlin's most prominent symbol, the Brandenburg Gate. was isolated. The Wall first erected was a fairly simple concrete block wall. Streets as well as railway and the S-Bahn links were broken. Stations of the U-Bahn were closed. Even cemeteries were cut in two. There were some complications as the border of Western Berlin was not a series of straight lines. There were some jigs and jags that made wall building completed. One such complication was 12-year old Erwin Schaba. The East Germans, however, in 2-3 weeks managed to surround all of West Berlin with a rudimentary cement-block wall topped with barbed wire. As a result of the completed Wall, the East Germans ended virtually all crossings, Very limited crossings were possible at only a few breaks in the Wall, notably Checkpoint Charlie. At first, East Germans could still peek over the Wall, hoping to catch glimpses of family and friends. The Communist authorities, however, would soon put a stop to that.

Ulbricht and the East Germans

Ulbricht got his Wall. In the process, however, he lost his creditability in Moscow. Khrushchev was not about to carry out the threat made in Vienna to turn over control of the access routes to Ulbricht. This was in fact a valuable lever that could be used to escalate and descalate the Cold War. He prudently decided to keep control in Soviet hands. Ulbricht also loss his creditability among Germans. With Soviet backing and the Stasi, Ulbricht could keep himself in power. The Wall was, however, a permant reminder that he and East Germany was a failure. The East German Communists were still convinced that Communism was the road to the future and convinced themselves that the Wall would allow Communism to work by stoping the hemorrhaging of educated professionals. They were right that they could stop the movement of people. But the Wallldid nothing to address the fundamental problem -- the inherent inefficiencies of socialism. The Wall could keep East Germans from seeing the West and prevent West German magazines and newspapers from reaching the East. It could not, however, prevent East Germans from listening to West German radio and television. Some observers argue that in the end, West German commercials of all things proved the most effective propaganda and indictment of the failure of Ulbricht and his associates. The Wall allowed Germans and other Europeans to see a clear example of liberal democracy and capitalism compared to Communist totalitarianism. With the wall separating two groups of the same people, Ulbricht not only could no longer make excuses for the failures of Communism, but he created a crystal clear demonstration of the impact of freedom. The relative economic effectiveness of freedom (capitalism) and state control (socialim).

American Response

The East Germans built their Wall entirely within the East German sector. There was no action taken against Western access to West Berlin. The United States thus took no action beyond diplomatic protests. President Kennedy said privately to his advisers, "A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." Berlin had since the inception of the Cold War, the most likely potential flashpoint. Berlin was the one place in the world where American and Soviet tanks were mussel to mussel. Separating the two sides made a direct American-Soviet conflict less likely. It meant that the Cold War for three decades would be fought out on other battlefields. Battlefields in which American and Soviet forces did not face each other directly and wgich for the most part were in the Third World. Here Viet Nam would be the focal point. And the United States, unlike Korea, failed to prevent a Communist victory. But while Viet Nam made the headlines, important Third World leaders gradually began to see that socialism did not work. This begn first in the countries that America and the British wereable to keep out of Communist hands (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwn). These countries became known as the Asian Tigers. These countries demonstrated the transformative power of economic freedom (capitalism) and theirsucess was in sharp contrast to the abject failure of Communiam (Cambodua, China, North Korea, and Vietnam). Their success eventually achieved what many perceived as impossible, turning Maoist Chin jnto a capitalist country.

Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962)

Berlin was a learning experience for Khrushchev. The lesson he took from the Berlin incident that carefully prepared plans executed in secret had the best chance of success. This lead to the mot dngerous confrontation of the Cold War and the cloest the world came to thermonucler war. Khrushchev decided to present the new American President with another fait accompli, this time in Cuba. His assessment of Kennedy was that he was nexperinced and weak. He expected that the President would again passively accept the Soviet move and there would be no military response. This time the Soviet move was to introduce ballistic missiles in Cuba which Fidel Castro had led into the Communist block. There was, however, a major difference. Where the Soviets held a clear military advantage in Central Europe with the Red Army, the Americans held the military advantage in the Caribbean with its powerful fleet. Not only would Khrushchev eventually have to remove the missiles. Kennedy allowed Khrushchev some face saving compromises. But the missles were removed. Khrushchev was removed from power 2 years later (October 1964), both for his failue as well as his 'adventurism'.

President Kennedy (June 1963)

President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 to demonstrate American resolve in this vulnerable outpost of freedom. How time has changed. Berlin when President Kennedy was a young ban, was the NAZI capital and seen as a center of evil. Now thanks to the Soviets, Berlin was now a symbol of freedom and of American resolve to protect that freedom. Before a huge crowd in West Berlin he delivered one of the seminal speeches of the Cold War. He told Berliners and the Free World, "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." Along side the President was the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben Choir which served as an inspiration for the people of Berlin during the darkest days of the Cold War. President Kennedy's speech along with Prime-Minister Churchill's Iron Curtain and President Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech are the best remembered public statements during the Cold War. Interestingly the best remembered Soviet appearance was Premier Khrushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations.

Design and Extent

The Wall was a massive undertaking. The Berlin Wall was initially a barbed wire barrier around Berlin. Ulbricht was determined, however, to have cement barrier. He wanted a formidable barrier to make a visual statement. He was determined to force the East German people to come to terms with Communism. The Wall eventually extended 155 km. It was a barbed wire barricade and concrete wall with an average height of 3.60 meters. There were barriers, gun posts, motion sensors, and mine fields preventing East Berliners from even approaching the Wall itself. The barrier between East and West was also constructed all along the border between East and West Germany. From the West the Wall could be approached. The high wall prevented a view of what was built to prevent passage. From the East, the Wall could not be approached.


The Wall changed the hemorrhaging of East Germans west. No nation can exist when people leave for a better life, especially the trained people like scientists, technicians, doctors, and others. The DDR was investing in their eduction and training and then they simply picked up and left for a life in prosperous West Germany. As long as this continued it put a lie to the claims that the Communists made that they were creating a prosperous new society. And it should be remembered that the DDR was the most prosperous province of the Soviet Empire. Stalin in the Soviet Union had effectively sealed the Soviet Union off, keeping the truth from the Russian and other Soviet peoples as well as from Communist supporters in the West. Communist DDR officials could not do that. DDR officials steadily worked at making the Wall increasingly deadly to cross. Some at first took their chances with mine fields. Some tried to hide in concealed car compartments. One person tried to escape under the motion / works of a steam locomotive. He succeeded. The guards didn't' even think of looking there. Officials could not even trust the guards . They were always deployed in pairs to ensure that they would not make a dash West. The Wall could effectively stop the flow of people, but not knowledge of conditions in East and West Germany. And over time successive generations of the Wall made crossing it increasingly difficult. The heart rending sites of small numbers of people braving the increasingly lethal dangers of the Wall moved West Germans. The Wall effectively separated Germans for nearly 30 years. Once completed only small numbers succeeded in crossing it. Many died in the process. Eventually it became impossible to cross. Considerable ingenuity was used by those attempting to reach the West. It became impossible to cross the Wall. So East Germans tried to go under or over. There were tunnels. Some tried balloons. The numbers involved were miniscule, Crossing was just too difficult. Say what one may about the Wall, there is not doubt that it was effective.

Walling in Paradise

Europeans and people all over the world bought into the Marxist idea that Capitalism with its inevitable inequities was evil. The ideal of scocialism was appealing. Every one would get what they needed. There would be ni inquities. Hunger and want would be ended. The only problem was that socialism did not work. Lenin found that out within a few years of the Bolshevik Revolution and attempting to rule Russia. As a result, he reintroduced capitalism--the New Economic Program (NEP). The Bolshevik Government adopted the NEP at the 10th Congress of the All-Russian Communist Party (March 1921). It was later ended by Stalin who had the people involved either shot or sent to the Gulag. It was not immediately apparent because the Bolsheviks pursued autarky-meaning that there was no competition with western capitalism. Stalin's policies failed to produce a prosperous economy and included the brutal supression of the independent peasantry bordering in genocide. Stalin used the NKVD to make sure that the reality did not get out. Here the NKVD proved highly capable. They even pervented news of the murder of the Ukranianian peasantry (6-7 million people, perhaps more) from reasing the west. What did get out was the Soviet propaganda line of a workers and peasant paradise. And the success of the Red Army in World War II convinced others. The Red Army brought Comminism into the heart of Europe, ncluding Germany--the most advanced country in Europe. Communists were a minority in the countries occupied by the Soviets, but the Red Army and NKVD turned over the various countries of Eastern and Central Europe. The new Communist leaders assumed that their socialism would soon allow them to create the worker's paradise they envisioned. And of course it did not happen, just as it did not happen in the Soviet Union. The Communist officials involved, however, did not want to give up power. And any admission that Communism did not work meant trouble with their Soviet masters ready to deal with heresy. The answer for the Soviets was the Iron Curtain. The same hardened border that the Soviets had established before the War. Thefurther West, the more difficult it was to maintain the socialist fiction. (It is no accident that the revolts against the Soviets occurre in the West--Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Hungary.) Berlin proved a special problem as it was an open city and people could move freely within the city. And the people of Berlin could see that socialism did not work. Even worse, East Germand could come to Berlin and reach the West. The Soviets were able to maintain their fiction in Russia. Germany proved much more difficult, especially when the German economic miracle begn to kick in. Socilism sounded great on paper--much better than capitalism. Only whereever tried it does not work. And it was a little difficult to explin why a wall was needed to hold people in a paradise. A real paradise would attract not drive people out. Even the most inspired Communist propagandist had trouble explaining why the Germans were fleeing paradise. The Berlin Wall was in fact an admission of the failure of Communism--although it would take three decades and changes in the Soviet Union for that failure to play out and the wall to come down.

Willie Brandt: Ost Politik (1970s)

Willie Brandt first became known internationally as mayor of West Berlin, from 1957 to 1966. He initiated what he became best known for--his Ost Politik, openings to the East. Brandt by 1961 was the leading figure in the Social Democratic Party. He was disappointed that the Western Allies didn't respond more vigorously to the wall. He was with President Kennedy when the President gave the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech as was concerned that the crowd reaction might result in an incident at the Wall. He was elected chancellor (1969) and he retained this office in the general election of 1972. His work toward relaxing the tension between Eastern and Western Europe. His policy led to the signing of nonaggression pacts between West Germany and both the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Poland (1970). He continued pushing for openings to the east--not matter how small. In 1974, however, Brandt resigned assuming responsibility for the infiltration of an East German secret agent who was working on his staff. Willy Brandt was awarded Nobel Peace Prize (1971) for his contribution to the relaxation of tension between Western and Eastern Europe (so-called d�tente or Entspannungspolitik). What Ost Politik did not do was to change the oppressive character of the DDR or question the right of the Soviet Union to maintain the division of Germany. The Wall not only remained firmly in place, but DDR officials diligently worked to strengthen it all throughout the era of Ost Politik.

Personal Experiences

A German reader writes, "Thanks for remembering the communist wall construction in Berlin. Let me add a remark. In 1985 I attended an international scientific conference in West-Berlin. There was a sight-seeing tour on a free afternoon. The tour bus took the normal route, leading also to the Brandenburger Tor [Brandenburg Gate] from the West side. Suddenly, they became nervous because the guests/conference participants from the USSR and the Eastern Block sitting in the bus, on the second level of the typical two-level buses in Berlin (like the red "Doppeldecker" in London). What to do? Well, the people from the East, certainly filtered to be allowed to go to a conference in West Berlin remained seated with white faces when the guide explained (in English, of course) the Wall, its history, and the politics behind it. One of them, later at the conference banquet, told a German colleague that for him it was a big experience to see the Wall (without any means to avoid that the so-called 'imperialists' attack the East). Well, time has changed."

President Reagan (June 1987)

President Reagan believed rather than accommodating the Soviets that they should be confronting on issues of human rights. He rejected the "detente" approach of previous administrations. There are two seminal moments in the Cold War, both roughly book mark the Berlin Wall. The First was President Kennedy speaking at the Wall, proclaiming, "Ich ein Berliner". The other was President Regan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, challenging the Soviets. The occasion was the 750th anniversary of Berlin (June 12, 1987). The President used the occasion to challenge General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev who was speaking about Glasnost--openness. And who believed that there was no contradiction between Communism and individual liberty. President's Reagan challenge was simple and eloquent. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this Gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall." Nothing so captured the inhumanity of Communism and the limits on freedom imposed by the Soviet Union and its East German satellite. Less well known is the German woman who inspired those words. Peter Robinson was the President's speech writer who went to Berlin to research the speech. He met a German woman at the Wall. She told him that if Gorbachev was serious he would come here and do something about the Wall. Robinson knew instantly that this should be the heart of the President's speech. As soon as he circulated a draft in Washington, it ignited a controversy. The State Department, the National Security Council, and others were more interested in placating the Soviets and not stirring up trouble. Reagan let them debate, but he knew instantly when he saw the draft that this was what he wanted to say. In a car with Robinson, he told him, "The boys in the State Department are going to kill me for this." He slapped Robinson on his knee and added, "But it is the right thing to do." And as we mow know, President Reagan was right. His speech proved to be the beginning of the final chapter of the Cold War.

Breaching the Wall (November 1989)

Following the success of Solidarity in Poland, the people of East Berlin began to demonstrate against the Easter German DDR Government. Large scale demonstrations became increasingly common. DDR officials prepared to use the security services to suppress the street demonstrations. Chairman Gorbachev in a departure from his predecessors refused to approve such measures. Unable to forcibly suppress the demonstrations, DDR officials were forced to resign. The Berlin Wall was finally breached on November 9, 1989. The SED government announced that travel restrictions for East Germans had been lifted. That night the people of East Berlin surged into the western part of the city. Hundreds of thousands of Berliners celebrated throughout the night. Even more East Berliners crossed the next day. Soon Berliners with hammers and chisels and sledge hammers began demolishing the hated wall by hand.


Harrison, Hope. Driving the Soviets Up the Wall (2004).

Socialist Unity Party's Agitation Department. "Wer die Deutsche Demokratische Republik verl��t, stellt sich auf die Seite der Kriegstreiber" Notizbuch des Agitators ("He Who Leaves the German Democratic Republic Joins the Warmongers" Agitator's Notebook (Berlin: November 1955).

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Created: February 26, 2003
Spell checked: 6:07 PM 11/25/2013
Last updated: 10:22 PM 1/26/2016