The Second World War officially ended on September 2, 1945, when Japan surrendered to the Allied powers after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. However, Germany had waved the white flag way before the Japanese did. It happened a week after Hitler committed suicide and Admiral Karl Doenitz (the leader of Germany as per Hitler’s will) signed for unconditional surrender. Celebrated as VE Day (Victory in Europe), May 8, 1945, marks the day when the Allies and the Soviet Union cornered and, finally, wore down the Nazis. Nevertheless, this did not mean that Germany was out of trouble. Once the war was over, the two emerging ‘superpowers’ – US and Soviet Union – wanted to exert their influence and leave their mark in the post-war world. The alliance between the Allies (US, UK, and France) and the Soviets started turning cold (it led to the Cold War); so much so that the Soviets insisted on having their own surrender process on May 9. And this is where we begin with the story of the Berlin Wall.
Once the war was over in Europe, Germany was carved into four administrative zones, each controlled by a separate power; the Soviets in the east, and the Americans, the British and the French in the west. This was pre-decided at a conference in Yalta, Ukraine in February 1945. The leaders had also agreed to similarly split Berlin, the capital of Germany, into four zones. What’s interesting to note is that Berlin was located well within the Soviets’ zone, i.e. 180 kilometers from the western zones. The Allies were granted access to it by land, using narrow rail and highway corridors. This sort of arrangement was bound to ‘blow-up’ in their faces one day.
Differences between the ideologies of the Allies and Soviets became more pronounced and Germany formally split into the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany); it was West Berlin vs. East Berlin; democracy vs. communism. So, basically, there was a small democratic island of 480 sq. km., i.e. West Berlin, in the sea of Communist East Germany! And then came the ‘conflict’ in the story of the Berlin Wall.
Since the war, the West and East Germany had grown poles apart. West Germany had set up a ‘capitalist’ economy, which experienced such rapid growth that it came to be known as ‘the economic miracle’. Its people were affluent and enjoyed freedom. On the other end, the communist government in the ‘socialist’ East Germany, though provided subsidized goods, experienced poverty, and labor strikes; it was chaos. Not wanting to live in a repressed state, many East Germans sought refuge in the ‘free’ West. In response to this, the Soviets raised the ‘Iron Curtain’, i.e. they closed the borders of the ‘Eastern Bloc’ nations to stop the mass migration. However, amidst all this, people could still migrate from East Germany to West Berlin, from where they would then fly to West Germany. West Berlin was “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat”, in the words of Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
Soviets had already made several attempts to just take over West Berlin. Finally, in June 1948, they blocked all rail and road routes, in and out of West Berlin, hoping to ‘starve the city’. Although at first, it appeared that the West would have to give up its part of Berlin, they proved the Soviets wrong by supplying essentials to its people through a massive ‘airlift operation’, aka the ‘Berlin Airlift’. The Allies flew cargo planes over East Germany, keeping West Berlin sufficiently supplied for almost 15 months, delivering over 2.4 million tonnes of food and fuel!
The Soviets finally gave up as eastern factories couldn’t function without goods from the West, and so they resumed the land travel. But the problem did not go away. West Berlin was the only gap in the ‘Iron Curtain’. It is estimated that between 1949 and 1961, as many as 3 million of East Germany’s population of almost 18 million, fled the country. On August 12, 1961, around 2,400 left the GDR through the gap in the curtain, the largest number of ‘defectors’ to leave in a single day! This was the last straw, giving way to the climax of the Berlin Wall story!
On the night of August 12, 1961, Nikita Khrushchev, along with Walter Ulbricht (German communist party leader), gave the order to close off the border between East Germany and West Berlin, for good! This meant that West Berlin would be blockaded from all sides. However, it wasn’t going to be easy. As Ambassador Pervukhin explained, “We cannot let the GDR’s action [i.e., closing the border] be seen as its only plan; this could provoke the Federal Republic and its allies to an intervention.
The Soviet Union and the entire Warsaw Pact must stand in front of the GDR so that it will be clear to all that there is no way back.” (The Warsaw Pact was a mutual defense organization that put the Soviet Union in charge of the armed forces of its member states.) So, it was all planned out, ironing out every detail, and finally, when the city was asleep at one in the morning, barbed wire was laid down, fences were built, and entry points into West Berlin sealed off. Thousands of East German soldiers, army units and militiamen were deployed. By the time residents woke on the morning of August 13, 1961, there was a wall cutting right across the heart of the city!
This came as shock to both sides. There were rumors floating that the border between the East and the West might be tightened, but no one expected the scale or the speed with which it arrived. Many people criticized the lack of response from the West, despite the fact that it violated the agreement that the Allies and the Soviets had after the Second World War. The Kennedy administration had seemed to accept the fact that the Soviets had the right to ‘protect’ their borders.
However, the lack of any counter-attack ultimately stabilized the situation. While there was a lot of tension in the air for the next few years, it did not threaten to boil over and turn into a World War! So, this was the story of the Berlin Wall and how it came to be. Over the years, the barbed wire was modified into what is famously known as the Berlin Wall.