Thirty years ago, the world watched as the Berlin Wall fell. The physical divide between East and West Berlin, the wall was also a symbolic divide in a country that had been torn in two and divided up by the victorious western allies and the Soviets at the end of the Second World War.
Here’s all the background you need to know in 500 words:
A divided city within a divided country
Despite falling entirely within the boundary of Soviet-controlled East Germany, at the end of World War II the administration of the German capital was divided into four separate zones, with one each being controlled by Britain, The United States, France and the Soviet Union.
Less than a year later, fundamental differences between the communist and capitalist systems resulted in the agreements breaking down. As a result, the western powers moved to combine their three zones into a single, centrally administered western zone, and on 23 June 1948, the West introduced a new currency into their combined zone.
Fearing the combined western zone would have considerably more power in the repatriation of Germany than it did with its single zone, the Soviet Union cut off land access to West Berlin. In what became known as the Berlin Blockade, the western allies commenced a series of massive airlifts, flying vital supplies of food, fuel and other necessities into West Berlin. A situation that continued until May 1949 when the Soviet Union abandoned their blockade.
By 1958 the divided city was an increasingly liability for the Soviet and East German government. Its existence highlighting the sharp contrast between the communist and capitalist systems, and freedom of movement between the sectors had resulted in a mass exodus from the East. In a speech on 10 November 1958, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev called for the Western powers to pull their forces out of Berlin.
Khrushchev’s speech was interpreted as an ultimatum by the west and resulted in further tension as U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower refused point-blank to give in to Soviet demands. Between 1959–1961 bilateral talks were held been the U.S. and the Soviets; however little was achieved.
On 13 August 1961, under orders from East German leader Walter Ulbricht, a barbed-wire fence was erected dividing East and West Berlin. This barbed wire fence was quickly expanded to include cement walls and guard towers.
Shortly after the erection of the wall, a standoff between U.S. and Soviet troops at the diplomatic checkpoints became one of the tensest moments of the Cold War in Europe. The dispute, which centred on whether East German or Soviet guards were authorised to check travel documents of U.S. diplomates, resulted in the U.S. positioning tanks at the checkpoints. Fearing that the U.S. would attempt to remove the wall, or force their way through, the Soviets responded by placing their tanks on the East facing the West. The standoff had the potential to spark a war between the two nuclear superpowers, however, back-channel negotiations ended the stalemate with the Soviets agreeing to remove their tanks on the condition that the U.S. did the same.
It is estimated that during the 27 years that the wall divided Berlin over 5000 people managed to escape from East to West. However, doing so was not without risk as during that period at least 101 people, most of whom were shot by East German border guards, died while attempting to get past the wall.
The Berlin Wall remained in place until 9 November 1989, when the border between East and West Berlin reopened, and the wall was dismantled.