The History Cat Classroom
In February 1945, the Nazi’s were on the run. The combined armies of Great Britain and the United States had liberated France and the Netherlands while the Soviet Red Army was pushing in from the east. Hitler’s days were numbered. As Word War Two drew to an end, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin-- the leaders of the three great Allied nations, sat down at the Russian town of Yalta to work out the details for a post-war Europe. During the Yalta Conference, the ‘Big Three’ agreed to demand an unconditional surrender from Germany and to divide the conquered nation into four zones of occupation. Stalin, also agreed that fair and democratic elections would be held in areas occupied by the Red Army. But as soon as the war was over it became obvious that Stalin’s promise to his allies of free and fair elections turned out to be as worthless as red lights in Grand Theft Auto.
After the War
Joseph Stalin was not the kind of man who left things to chance and instead used force, intimidation, and even murder to make certain that voters in Soviet-occupied territories chose communism. Backed by Soviet tanks, Stalin installed pro-Soviet puppet governments by literally liquidating the opposition. Non-communists were denounced as Nazi spies and collaborators that were shipped off to Russian labor camps or shot on the spot. With Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany under Soviet occupation, Europe was transformed into a divided continent.
Soviet and American soldiers pose for a picture showing the friendship of the two Allies in April, 1945
The Iron Curtain Drops
In March of 1946 Winston Churchill paid a visit to the United States where he gave a speech warning against the rising threat of Communist aggression. Churchill described the situation in Eastern Europe using the metaphor of an iron curtain to drive home the point that Europe was divided between the free and democratic nations of western and the communist police-states of Eastern Europe. Even more frightening, Churchill spoke of secret “communist fifth columns” operating in Western and Southern Europe whose goal was to bring the entire continent under the red banner. Churchill warned that only a strong military stance could stop Soviet expansion and that the United States was the only country strong enough to take up the challenge.
The Truman Doctrine
The warhawks in Congress were calling for military action against the Soviets and 97 Russian cities were drawn up as potential targets for nuclear bombing. But President Truman took a more level-headed approach, instead asking Congress for $400 million to help counter communist aggression.The Truman Doctrine laid out a plan to contain the spread of communism by providing money and resources to any country under threat of a communist takeover. The only other alternatives were either to do nothing and allow communism to expand worldwide or to start a war that probably couldn’t have been won. The Truman Doctrine became the basis for how the U.S. would fight the Cold War leading to U.S. intervention in Korea and Vietnam a few years later.
Europe in Chaos
In 1947, the Americans were the only ones with the atomic bomb but Stalin had a weapon every bit as deadly: human misery. After the war Europe was a shriveled corpse of what it had been in 1939. It’s great cities had been bombed into dust, factories, bridges, and railroads had been demolished, and miles of weed choked fields stretched across the continent. The death toll reached into the hundreds of millions but it was the living that were the real problem. Sixty million people were homeless refugees where only starvation and unemployment awaited them once they returned home. The postwar economy had sunk back into a depression and millions were on the verge of starving to death. Amid the chaos, membership in the communist party was growing throughout Europe. In France and Italy communists, instigated by Moscow, were staging massive strikes. Many feared that if something wasn’t done to stabilize Europe then the whole continent could fall to communism.
The Marshall Plan
Secretary of State George Marshall came up with a plan that called for pumping an additional $13 billion in US aid to get Europe’s economy moving again. By this point, the United States had already given billions of dollars in aid to help ease the suffering but Europe’s economy remained hopelessly stalled. One of the biggest reasons was Germany. Before the war, Germany had been the largest producer and consumer on the continent. No one objected to helping America’s allies but many Americans objected to sending aid to a defeated enemy.
Predictably, the Russians fiercely objected to the idea of giving money to rebuild a country that had twice declared war on it. In fact, the Russians had in mind the exact opposite plan for the defeated Germans. Stalin had already begun dismantling German factories and shipping them, along with thousands of slave laborers, back to Russia. But Marshall argued that like it or not, European recovery could not happen without a strong Germany.
Convincing Congress to hand over that kind of money seemed like another impossible task. Conservatives claimed that we were giving away free money to Europe, liberals were afraid that the Marshall Plan would only antagonize the Soviets. And then, the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk mysteriously “fell” out of a window, followed by a communist overthrow of the Czech government. Congress saw the writing on the wall and approved the funds.
The Marshall Plan worked like a charm. The whole thing would be paid for with American money but the Europeans themselves would have to come together and cooperate on how the money was to be spent. The plan also called for an end to trade barriers to stimulate free trade and end the competition which had led to so many European wars in the past.
The Marshall Plan succeeded in putting Europe back on the road to recovery. In fact, it worked so well that by 1951 output was 35% higher than it had been in 1939. The years of the Marshall Plan overlapped the most rapid economic growth in the history of Europe. But the icing on the cake was with rising employment and food production the communist backbone in Italy and France had been broken. After all, what did Soviet communism have to offer a prosperous people?
For and Against
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Marshall Plan Propaganda Film- 1951
If for no other reason watch because the way narrators talked back then is so darn amusing.
The Berlin Crisis
At the Yalta Conference, it was agreed that Germany would be temporarily divided into four occupation zones until it could be de-nazified and it’s economy stabilized. The French, British, and Americans each controlled zones in the western half of the country while the Soviets controlled the east. The city of Berlin, deep within the Soviet Zone, had been divided in the same way. At some point in the future, the four zones would be merged into a unified Germany... or at least that was the plan.
As the Cold War began to harden it became obvious that Germany would not be reunited as one country. The Americans wanted to rebuild a strong and peaceful Germany. The Soviets on the other hand wanted revenge. What they had in mind was to split Germany and reduce it to an agricultural country that could never again wage war on its neighbors. For a while the other Allies had been on board with restricting German industry. However, after the Marshall Plan, the Americans had a change of heart and they ceased sending German factories and machines to the Soviets.
After the Marshall Plan, cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union fell apart faster than a dollar store water gun. President Truman decided that it was time to stop “babying the Soviets” and went ahead with plans for unifying Germany without the cooperation of the Soviet Union. In 1948, the French, British, and Americans introduced a new German currency, the deutschmark, and announced the merger their three sectors into what soon would become West Germany.
Stalin immediately retaliated by announcing the complete blockade of Berlin, severing all land travel between West Germany and West Berlin. For months open access between the zones had been allowed and Germans freely moved between east and west without any problems. But all that came to an abrupt halt when a directive came from Moscow declaring that “free and unrestricted use of the established corridor (between West Germany and Berlin) would no longer be permitted…”
The Soviets were effectively holding Berlin hostage in an effort to force the Allies to surrender it. But instead, the plan backfired. The Americans weren’t going to lose face by giving up control of Berlin and instead decided to bypass the Soviet blockade by simply flying food, clothing over Soviet controlled East Germany. For fifteen months more than 250,000 flights were made to save the people of West Berlin from starvation. The Soviets could have shot down the American planes but that would have certainly sparked a war and so they helplessly sat back and watched their scheme go up in smoke. In the end, the Soviets had no choice but to admit defeat and on September 30, 1949 abandoned the blockade.
But the division between East and West Germany was complete. In 1949, Stalin responded by creating the dubiously named Germany Democratic Republic, “East Germany”. With East Berlin as its capital. East Berliners found themselves living under a communist dictatorship. However, many East Germans continued to travel to the western half of the city where they made their escape to West Germany. That is until 1961 when the Soviets ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall which sealed East Germans behind a barrier or concrete, barbed wire, and machine gun nests until 1989 when East Germany and Soviet communism fell apart.
(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).
The Berlin Wall
For thousands of East Berliners it perfectly normal to cross the invisible border each day into West Berlin to work and then return home to East Berlin at night. After all, the wages paid in West Germany were far higher than in the east. To the state controlled East German media these people were “parasites” and “capitalist spies” But the biggest problem for the East German government was that between 1949-1961 more than 3 million people (20% of the population) had crossed the border and never returned. It was all too easy for people to book a flight from West Berlin and move to West Germany or some other place in Europe. Even worse, many of these runaways were professionals: doctors, engineers, and teachers who took their skills with them. To prevent this “brain drain”, the Soviets decided to literally imprison the people of East Berlin inside their city.
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 about to happen 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. Subway and railway lines were literally torn up to disconnect the city. Concrete posts were sunk into the ground and barbed wire stretched across the entire length of the East and West Berlin border. 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 temporary barbed wire barricade would be replaced with a 12 foot high concrete wall that would remain in place until 1989. The wall cut through streets, factories, and parks. Where the wall ran through neighbors the East German police went from house to house throwing people out of their homes.
Saying that escape was difficult would be an understatement. After it was complete, 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. On the eastern side two walls were built: an inner and an outer wall with 300 yard no man’s land known as the “death strip”. Anyone foolish or desperate enough to try and escape had to first cross two rows of barbed wire; then run through death strip guarded by 116 machine gun towers and high powered searchlights trained on you. Guards were posted in pairs to prevent the other from defecting.