Understanding post-World War II and the Cold War requires understanding the Berlin Wall. These facts will point you in the right direction.
The Berlin Wall represents division. It's only appropriate, therefore, that a historical account of the wall's construction involves division.
- At the end of World War II, Berlin, the capital city of a defeated Germany, is divided into four zones: (1) the American sector; (2) the French sector; (3) the British sector; (4) and the Soviet sector. Despite the fact that the four nations are allies during World War II, tensions between the Soviet Union and the other three nations are at an all-time high.
- The entire country of Germany is divided into two zones following the war, and in 1949 both the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic are founded. This increases tensions between the Soviet Union, which establishes a totalitarian communist state in East Germany, and France, Great Britain, and the United States, who establish a free West Germany.
- Because of the restrictions and lack of economic development in East Germany, East Germans flee--en masse--into West Germany. The fact that Berlin's physical location is in East Germany makes it relatively easy for East Germans to sneak into the West German-held sector of Berlin and become free citizens.
The East Germans and Soviets realize that more will be required to prevent the emigration of East Germans into the West.
When learning about the Berlin Wall, it's critical not to overlook this most important fact: the wall is put in place to imprison East Germans in their own economically downtrodden, communist country. As East Berliners attempt to flee, the East Germans and Soviets need to respond:
- In 1952, the border between East Germany and West Germany and between West Germany and East Berlin is officially closed. Citizens of East Berlin are still able to travel between East and West Berlin, and many East Berliners take advantage of the opportunity to gain their freedom.
- By 1957, the number of East Berliners looking to escape forces the East German government to strictly prohibit travel between East Berlin and West Berlin. Violators are subject to three years' imprisonment. This still doesn't stop East Berliners from escaping into the West.
- Between 1949 and 1961, over 2.5 million people escape from East Berlin to West Berlin. On August 13, 1961, the border between East and West Berlin is closed. Soviet and East German troops create a series of barbed wire fences and trenches to prevent citizens from crossing. In a matter of 24 hours, the Berlin Wall, stretching nearly 100 miles and standing nearly 12 feet tall is constructed.
- The wall was improved over the next decade with the construction of more concrete barriers and watchtowers. It became a symbol of Cold War hostilities between the free West (Western Europe and the United States) and the communist East (the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe).
Many Germans feel the wall will never come down. They are wrong.
The Wall Comes Down
As Eastern Europe craves democracy, Western leaders take a tough stance on communism. The wall coming down illustrates the change freedom-loving people can effect:
- United States President Ronald Reagan visits the wall in 1987 and challenges Soviet Premier Mikail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Reagan's vision comes true two years later.
- In August of 1989, communist-controlled Hungary opens its borders with Austria. In September, Hungary opens its borders with East Germany. Over 13,000 East Germans take advantage and flee East Germany for the freedom of Austria.
- After the East German government resigns on November 4, 1989, following a heavily attended pro-democracy protest, East Berliners are allowed to pass into West Berlin. Thousands pass through and citizens of East and West Berlin begin tearing down the wall.
- Less than a year later, East and West Germany reunite.
The destruction of the wall sets off jubilant demonstrations throughout Germany and the West.
The Wall is Remembered
Tear down your ignorance of the Cold War's most daunting symbol:
- The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years--1961-1989.
- The Wall underwent several renovations. The last one in 1980 brought the total number of watchtowers to 302.
- The Wall included eight border crossings. These crossings were intended for official travel only and were heavily guarded.
- Unofficial statistics claim that over 200 East Germans were killed attempting to traverse the wall and another 200 shot, but not killed.
- It is estimated that approximately 5,000 East Germans successfully traversed the wall from 1961-1989.
- Two United States Presidents gave famous speeches denouncing the wall: (1) John F. Kennedy in 1963; and (2) the aforementioned Ronald Reagan in 1987.
- The total length of the wall was 96 miles. One-third of those miles divided East Berlin from West Berlin. The rest closed off West Berlin from East Germany.
Those who lived during the Cold War will never forget the Berlin Wall. Nor will those who memorize this article.