Cold War Germany
The History Cat Classroom
Germany Carved Up
The East Germans called the Berlin Wall the 'anti-fascist protection barrier'. But the guns along the 103 mile long concrete barrier were pointed inward.
On the night of August 23, 1961 Berliners on both sides of the invisible barrier that divided their city went about business as usual. Before construction of the wall, people were, for the most part, free to cross from East to West. But shortly after midnight all that came to an abrupt halt. Most Berliners had gone to bed not having a clue of what was going on outside their windows. That is until the jackhammers started up. Those caught out in the streets saw firsthand the ten thousand East German and Soviet troops ringing the Soviet sector of the city.
Soon a small army of construction workers began tearing up the streets. Concrete posts were sunk into the ground and barbed wire stretched across the border between East and West Berlin. The East Germans had done a great job at keeping their plans hush hush. But the noise of construction soon brought people out of their homes. West Germans, used to enjoying freedom of speech, screamed at the workers and guards. East Germans remained silent or quickly made a run for freedom wherever they could find an opening.
Over the next two years the barbed wire barricade would be replaced with a 12 foot high concrete wall that would remain in place until 1989. This is the story of the most infamous wall in history.
East Meets West
For the next decade, the city of Berlin would become the poster child for the standoff between the communist ‘East’ and capitalist ‘West’. It turns out that the Soviets and their former Allies never really trusted one another. (shocking!)
The United States, Great Britain, and France were capitalist countries with democratic governments while the Soviet Union was run by a pathological dictator by the name of Josef Stalin. The fact that the four allies didn't really care for one another was no big surprise. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, once called Stalin (his ally at the time) a “devil-like tyrant”. But, what no one in the West saw coming was the post war stalemate known as the Cold War.
Within a few years it was crystal clear that there were now two Germany’s; the French, American, and British sectors had united their zones into a single unit known as West Germany. The Soviets kept a tight leash on their zone which developed into East Germany.
With the help of billions of dollars in foreign aid money under the American Marshall Plan, West Germany was on its way to full recovery by the beginning of the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Soviets were mostly concerned with rebuilding their own economy at the expense of the Germans. After all, the German army had wrecked enormous damage on Mother Russia during the war. Factories, railroad lines, and workers (“volunteers”) were literally packed up and shipped to the USSR.
Berlin was a real-life tale of two cities. The western half was bouncing back with the rapid construction of new housing cinemas, cafes, and most importantly good-paying jobs. On the other hand the Soviet-controlled sector had cleaned up but not nearly as well as the west. The Soviets focused all of their time and resources on creating a communist government in East Germany modeled after the Soviet Union. The government took control of farms and factories. The result was that while unemployment was history so too were good paying jobs. The East German economy lagged behind their West German neighbors.
One of the reasons for this lag is good ol' fashioned corruption. Promotions for management and government positions were given to those who were most loyal to the Communist party rather than the most qualified. Construction was shoddy. Some told stories of having the ceiling or walls of their apartment crumble in buildings less than a year old. The East German currency was also worth much less than the one currency used in West Germany.
Life in the new East Germany was tough especially as the government began banning books and newspapers from the west. Free speech was dead. Ironically, the East Germans called their country the German Democratic Republic, but democracy was something that existed on paper only. The new government relied on the Stasi– the East German secret police– and a network of East German spies to keep a tight leash on the people. It is estimated that one out of ten East Germans– lured by the promise of foreign travel– agreed to spy on their neighbors and friends. Those who were caught making un-comrade like statements could lose their jobs or find themselves in a concrete cell with only their torturer for a companion.
Hagen Koch, age 21, stood in the middle of Potzdammer Platz on August 15, 1961 painting a 31 mile white line down the middle of the city of Berlin. Behind him was the barbed wire barrier that had gone up three days before. The white line would mark the place where the permanent concrete wall would divide the city of Berlin in half.
Potzdammer Platz was once the Times Square of Germany. Now it was a bombed out shell that was being turned into the Berlin Wall’s most infamous crossing: Checkpoint Charlie which led into the American Sector. The East Germans went to great lengths to keep their people from escaping and the East German people went to even greater lengths to escape. Subway and railway lines were literally torn up to disconnect the city.
The wall cut through streets, factories, homes and parks. The police went from house to house forcing people out. On the eastern side two walls were built: an inner and an outer wall with 300 yard no man’s land known as “death strip”. To escape to the western side you had to first cross two rows of barbed wire. Then run through death strip with its 116 machine gun towers and high powered search lights trained on you. Guards were always posted in pairs to prevent the other from defecting.
The wall was painted stark white, not to make it prettier, but to make it easier for troops to shoot at people escaping over the wall. In some spots anti-tank barriers zig zagged across the road to prevent cars from racing through the gates. East Germans had been literally sealed off from the rest of the world behind the concrete and barbed wire barrier that would become known as the Berlin Wall.
For thousands of East Berliners it made perfect sense to cross the invisible border each day into West Berlin to go to work or visit friends and then return home to East Berlin at night. After all, the wages paid in West Germany were far higher than in the east.
The state controlled East German newspapers called these people “parasites” and “capitalist spies” The problem for the East German government was that between 1949-1961 more than 3 million people (20% of the population) crossed the border and never returned. People booked a flight from West Berlin and moved to West Germany or some other place in Europe. Many of these people were professionals: doctors, engineers, teachers who took their skills with them. East Germany was experiencing a serious “brain drain”.
The Cold War Thaws
For four decades the Berlin Wall symbolized the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Several times a situation along the Berlin Wall would lead the two super powers to the brink of nuclear war. Neither side wanted to start a war of annihilation,but they weren’t about to completely lose face by giving into the demands of 'the enemy'. So, Berlin remained divided and nothing much was done to help reunite Germany except for a lot of strong words and vicious threats.
By the 1980s, the Cold War was beginning to thaw. All across the communist bloc cracks were beginning to form. Food shortages were common, everyday goods like a decent pair shoes were hard to come by. You had to stand in long lines to buy anything. Not to mention that people were fed up with being oppressed. In 1989, a new kind of Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was on the scene. At first, there was little reason to think that this guy would be any different from past Soviet leaders. But if anyone doubted this quiet, balding man with a giant birthmark on his forehead they would soon be forced to rethink their position.
Gorbachev could see the writing on the wall. Communist countries lagged behind the west in almost every way. Even in East Germany, the richest of any communist country, East Germans had only to look over the wall (watch out for the guards!) to see how poor they were compared to their neighbors. Gorbachev promised a kinder, gentler communism with free speech, open elections, and the right to travel freely. Gorbachev even went so far as to say the Soviet Union was wrong for interfering in their neighbors’ affairs.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
As soon as it became clear that Soviet tanks wouldn’t come rolling across the border, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia opened their borders. East Germans had always been free to visit other communist countries and now they had a backdoor from which to sneak into West Germany. At first the East German government tried to stop people from emigrating. But without Soviet backup they couldn’t do much to stop it. East Germans began openly protesting in the streets holding signs that read “we want out”. No one knew what to do. In some cities the police just stood by. In others they were ordered to shoot into the crowd. However, even the East German leaders knew it was time for a change. In 1989, they forced out their hardline communist leader Erich Honecker, and replaced him with Egon Krenz who promised reform.
"Wir wollen raus!"
("We want out!")
The Wall Comes Down
Then on November 9, 1989 the unexpected happened. East Germany announced that the border would be totally re-opened. When East Germans approached the crossing they were probably expecting to be met with gun fire. Instead, soldiers just stood by and watched them go by. East Germans were flooding into the other side of the city that for so long they could only look at from across a wall.
The city was wild with celebration. Strangers hugged and kissed. Families searched through the chaos to meet with loved ones they had been separated from. Horns blared for days without end. Many brave West Germans tested the limits by climbing the wall and chatting with the soldiers on the other side. Within hours people had come to the wall with pickaxes and jackhammers and began breaking down the wall that had symbolized the oppression and isolation of Germany. One East German woman just wandered among the shops of West Berlin not able to buy anything but amazed by how bright and colorful everything was.
"I had a lot of relatives in West Germany that I never knew existed until the Wall came down and we were able to travel."
One Germany: Two Places
At midnight on October 3, 1990 the two Germany’s reunited for the first time since the end of World War Two. After the speeches were made and fireworks fizzled out Germans began focusing on holding the first free all-German elections since 1932. Hundreds of thousands of people celebrated in the streets. Some even rioted, angry that reunification was bringing unwelcome challenges to the new Germany. That November leaders from every European nation (plus Canada and the United States) gathered in Paris at the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Conference was a turning point for a new Europe that would settle its difference with cooperation rather than violence. Germany was once again one of the strongest countries in Europe (and still is) but this time it wouldn’t happen by dominating its neighbors through war.
Tearing down the wall was going to be the easy part. Putting the two Germany’s back together again was by far the biggest challenge. The reality of reunification was much different than the dream had been. In East Germany everyone had been guaranteed a job. Unemployment and homelessness was unheard of. But, workers also had little incentive to improve their lives or work harder because there were few rewards to work hard for. East German goods were inferior, the factory equipment was outdated, and many West Germans looked down on East Germans as lazy or under qualified.
East Germans were also paid much less (about one-fourth) of a West German doing the same job. East Germans might have been excited to be able to buy TVs and microwaves which cost more than a three months wages for most workers; they were horrified that the rent paid by West Germans was much higher than their own. The average rent paid by an East German was 70 marks but a West German had to pay 400 marks for a similar place.
The problems faced by the two Germany’s were enormous. Roads, sewers, waterlines, farm equipment, telephone systems all had to be brought up to West German standards. Schools had to be modernized and millions of new students had to be retaught using a brand new curriculum focused on capitalism and democratic values.
East German hospitals were outdated and their doctors sadly under trained compared to their West German counterparts. The economy of East Germany was in the tank and it was only going to get worse before it got better. Unemployment for East Germans rose to almost 25% as many factories shut down either because they were in too bad of shape to stay open or because nobody wanted to buy East German made stuff. West Germany spent billions trying to help out their East German neighbors. This of course made many West Germans angry that they had to support millions more people, suddenly overnight.
That November, leaders from every European nation (plus Canada and the United States) gathered in Paris at the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Conference was a turning point for a new Europe that would settle its difference with cooperation rather than violence. Germany was once again one of the strongest countries in Europe (and still is) but this time it wouldn’t happen by dominating its neighbors through war.