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The Berlin crisis

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History

Why were people forced into using inventive techniques like hot air balloons or underground tunnels to try to flee East Berlin after 1961?

On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to a makeshift barbed wire and concrete block fence separating West and East Berlin. Named the ‘anti-fascist protection wall’, more concrete blocks were added over the next couple of months to create a permanent two-metre-high barrier between East and West. This looming concrete structure would come to be known as the Berlin Wall and would separate families across East and West Germany for over 20 years. But, why were such drastic measures necessary? Let's find out more about the Berlin Crisis that preceded the wall's construction.

Fascism

A form of far-right ultra-nationalist ideology. The East German government associated it with Hitler and Nazi Germany and felt that West Germany still had elements of that ideology.

The causes of the Berlin Crisis

The Berlin Crisis refers to around a year's worth of discussions and arguments between the USA and the USSR over the status of Berlin. The Soviet Union wanted Western forces to remove their troops but the US refused on the grounds that West Berlin would become vulnerable to Soviet invasion. But why was Berlin such a contested topic? To truly understand the arguments between the two powers, we first need to look at why Berlin caused so many disputes.

The ‘Berlin question’ had sparked tensions from the beginning of its division between the powers after the Second World War. Arguments about it dominated both Stalin and Khrushchev’s political interactions with US presidents, leading it to be described as the epicentre of the tension between the US and the USSR. Khrushchev likened it to a

bone stuck in our throat.1

The Division of Berlin

After the Second World War, Germany was split into four occupied zones, administered by Britain, France, the US, and the USSR. Berlin was situated in the Soviet zone of Germany but was split into:

  • East Berlin: a Soviet-occupied zone that became part of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949.
  • West Berlin: consisted of the French, British and American zones that merged and became the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1949.

The Berlin crisis Map of divided Berlin (West Berlin in grey, East Berlin in green) StudySmarterMap of divided Berlin (West Berlin in grey, East Berlin in green), Wikimedia Commons.

The Berlin Blockade

One of the first major disputes over Berlin occurred 13 years prior to the building of the wall.

On 24 June 1948, fearful about the prospect of the Western Allies combining forces (Britain and the US had just merged their zones to create Bizonia) and taking over the Eastern zones, Stalin cut off the Allies’ land access to West Berlin. This decision was not an act of war but intended as a demonstration of the power that the Soviets had in Germany.

Supply routes being cut off meant that West Berliners were left with a supply of only 36 days’ worth of food, prompting action from the US, Britain, and France. For one year until the Berlin Blockade was ended, the US had to airlift over 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and other goods to West Berlin.2

Whilst the Blockade stopped in 1949, tensions continued over Berlin. It also set a precedent for the USSR making impulsive decisions over the city.

The Berlin crisis Photograph of the Berlin airlift StudySmarterPhotograph of the Berlin airlift, Wikimedia Commons.

The refugee crisis

Although the GDR government claimed that the wall was to protect the GDR from western fascists, it is generally accepted that the Berlin Wall was built primarily to stop East Germans from fleeing to the West.

During the 1950s, it was becoming increasingly apparent that East Germany was losing a large amount of its population. Between 1949 and 1961 over 2.5 million East Germans defected to the West.

To defect

To abandon or flee one’s own country in favour of an opposing one.

A window to the West

For East Germans, Berlin offered a ‘window’ into what life was like in the West. The West of Germany was thriving thanks to the help from Marshall Aid, which resulted in the creation of many new jobs, good wages, and high living standards. In contrast, the German Democratic Republic, run by hardliner Walter Ulbricht, had poor living conditions, food shortages, low wages, and restrictions on goods.

Marshall Aid

Money that came from the Marshall Plan, a US economic recovery plan that provided aid to West Germany and other Western European countries after the Second World War.

The Workers' uprising of 1953

Thousands of East Germans fled to the West for more freedom as well as for economic reasons. The brutal suppression of the Workers' Uprising of 1953, where workers demanded better living and working conditions, emphasised the lack of freedom in the East. The revolt was put down brutally by the Soviet Red Army, resulting in at least 50 deaths. This repressive reaction to the East German people’s discontent shocked East Germans and further encouraged them to flee the country. During this year, thousands of people left for the West.

Closed borders

The GDR closed the internal borders between East and West Germany in 1952 to quell the flow of refugees. However, this attempt to halt the refugees failed and arguably accelerated the problem. People continued to leave through West Berlin where the border was still open, and by 1961, up to 3000 people were leaving East Germany each day.

The brain drain

The refugee crisis put a strain on the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union. The exodus of East Germans to the West projected a negative image of East Germany, and the economic impact of their departure widened the imbalance between the prosperous West and the weaker East. The constant flow of refugees highlighted this contrast between the two states and sullied the East’s image.

Many of the East Germans that defected were also highly skilled or educated. The East German authorities were concerned about losing these bright and talented citizens, worrying it would lead to a ‘brain drain’. These worries were not unfounded. The loss of so many professionals like engineers, teachers, and lawyers lost East Germany billions of dollars in manpower. Thousands of farmers left too, leaving land fallow, and creating food shortages across East Germany.

Fallow

Land that is ploughed but left idle. No seeds are sown so nothing is grown.

A vicious cycle

The loss of workers and farmers led to even deeper economic problems and food shortages that resulted in worsening living conditions for those that remained in East Germany. This deterioration then encouraged more East Germans to leave for a better life in the West, hence creating a vicious cycle.

Summary of the Berlin Crisis, 1961

The Soviet Union was desperate for a solution to stop this exodus as East Germany needed these skilled workers to rebuild the economy. Furthermore, people leaving East Germany was bad publicity for the USSR.

Khrushchev pushed for the US to remove their troops from the city and hand the East/ West border responsibilities over to the East German Government (essentially allowing them to deny East Germans passage to the West). Eisenhower, president of the US at the time, refused as he wanted to protect the freedom of West Berlin.

The leaders met on multiple occasions to try and resolve the crisis of Berlin; in September 1959 they met at Camp David but no agreement was reached. A later summit in Paris in May 1960 collapsed due to the Soviets noticing an American spy plane flying over the Soviet Union and shooting it down.

The Vienna Summit

The Berlin Crisis was top of the agenda at the Vienna Summit in 1961, but Kennedy and Khruschev’s discussions there did not solve it, instead arguably contributing to the Berlin Wall’s construction. Prior to this meeting, Eisenhower and Khrushchev had met on several occasions to try and negotiate a deal about Berlin but to no avail. The Vienna Summit ended much the same way.

As no agreements were reached regarding Berlin, Khrushchev gave the US another six months to comply but Kennedy continued to reject his demands.

Some historians believe that Khrushchev’s impressions of Kennedy after the summit also led to his impulsive decision to build the wall. Historian Frederick Kempe suggested that if Kennedy had been tougher at the Vienna Summit, the Berlin Wall would never have been built.3

The Berlin Wall

Since the Crisis couldn't be solved, the USSR made the decision to start building the wall in August 1961. The Berlin Wall separated families, trapped East Germans, and became a symbol of communist oppression, but it also helped ease high tensions between the US and the USSR as the refugee crisis improved.

Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie

The creation of the Wall resulted in one of the tensest moments of the Cold War. Soviet and US troops engaged in a standoff on either side of the diplomatic checkpoint of the wall (Checkpoint Charlie).

Foreigners (Americans, for example) were still allowed to cross the wall to the East but on 27 October 1961, Red Army tanks arrived at Checkpoint Charlie and refused to let anyone pass. For 18 hours, both sides faced each other in a tense standoff. This only ended when Kennedy suggested Khrushchev remove his tanks and the US would reciprocate.

The Berlin crisis Photograph of the standoff at Checkpoint Charlie StudySmarterPhotograph of the standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, Wikimedia Commons.

Restricted movement

The Berlin Wall restricted movement between East and West Berlin and had twelve checkpoints where East German soldiers controlled who was allowed to enter or leave. The refugee crisis, as a result, decreased in its intensity.

People did, however, still try to escape although the consequences could be fatal. Those that tried to cross the Wall without permission were often shot at and at least 171 people were killed trying to get to West Germany.

The death of 18-year-old Peter Fechter in 1962, who was shot trying to escape and left to bleed to death, caught the world's attention. The brutality of the Wall and the East German government was laid open for the West to see.

However, many East Germans (including guards) did escape. They crossed using inventive measures such as jumping out of adjacent windows, climbing over the barbed wire, tunnelling under or even using hot air balloons.

The Berlin Crisis and the Cold War

The Berlin Wall remained a symbol of communist oppression from its construction to its fall. The US often used it as a means of criticising communism and the Soviet Union. They stated that the GDR had to imprison their citizens to make them stay there, which ultimately reflected badly on communism. US presidents such as Kennedy and Reagan even went to visit the Wall to make speeches about fighting communism and uniting Berlin.

For Soviet leader Khrushchev, the Berlin Wall represented one of the final blows to his time as leader. Critics felt his actions in Berlin and later in the Cuban Missile Crisis were impulsive and painted the Soviet Union in a bad light. He was forced into retirement in 1964 and succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev.

Did you know?

President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and made a strong defiant speech about the struggle against communism. Is it true that Kennedy proudly declared himself a ‘jam doughnut’ whilst giving this speech? (Answer below).

What caused the fall of the Berlin Wall?

The Berlin Wall ‘fell’ quite suddenly and surprisingly in 1989 after several events led to crowds of people arriving at the wall to cross. Known as the peaceful revolution, images of people climbing this repressive structure and crossing over to the West spread across the world. Its fall was sudden and unexpected. In fact, on this fateful night, many East Germans just went to bed, unaware that they would wake up to a completely different life. But, what caused the Berlin Wall to metaphorically fall? To understand, we need to look at events a few months beforehand.

Hungary opening its borders

Hungary opening its borders to Austria in the West arguably set off the chain of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 1989, reform movements were gaining ground in the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Poland with the Solidarity movement.

Hungarians launched mass demonstrations in March and a couple of months later border guards dismantled 150 miles worth of barbed wire along the border to Austria. In August, Hungary completely opened its border with Austria resulting in thousands of East Germans using this opening to flee to the West. Others fled to the West German Embassy in Czechoslovakia where they could claim asylum, inundating the country with East German refugees.

Demonstrations

Revolution had, by October, spread to East Germany. Protests started emerging across the big cities and in Leipzig, around 70,000 people took to the streets during the GDR’s 40th-anniversary celebrations. These demonstrations empowered east Germans and encouraged many to crowd the Wall on the night of 9 November. They also demonstrated the will of the East Germans and prevented the SED from acting.

A mistake

The decisive blow to the Wall was, however, a mistake by East German public relations minister Gunther Schabowksi.

Czechoslovakia and East Germany needed to reach a resolution to stop the inundation of East German refugees. So they agreed that East Germans with a passport would be allowed to leave the country.

At a press conference broadcast to the nation, Schabowski accidentally stated that East Germans would be able to leave the GDR immediately at all border crossings with West Germany. Hoards of East Germans rushed to the border upon hearing the announcement. Guards, overpowered and confused themselves, allowed East Germans through and over the Berlin Wall. This signified its fall.

What were the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall?

After the Wall ‘fell’ it was quickly dismantled, as was the GDR regime. On 3 October 1990, East Germany officially ceased to exist, and a new united Germany emerged. The peaceful revolution inspired others across the Eastern Bloc leading to the fall of the Iron Curtain and regimes in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Did you know? (Answer)

When Kennedy came to Berlin to give his famous Berlin speech, he proudly declared ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ to express that he stood alongside the East Berliners and was one of them. A ‘Berliner’ is also a type of jam doughnut in Germany but this term was not used in the area surrounding Berlin, which used the word Pfannkuchen. It is therefore an urban myth that many misinterpreted his statement as ‘I am a jam doughnut’.

The Berlin crisis - Key takeaways

  • Berlin had been a point of contention since its division, as West Berlin represented a small Western island in the Soviet zone.
  • In 1948, tensions came to a head in the Berlin Blockade when the Soviets blockaded Berlin and the US had to airlift in supplies.
  • One of the major reasons for the construction of the Berlin Wall was the number of refugees fleeing from East to West Germany through Berlin.
  • Many were fleeing due to the better living conditions and freedom in the West.
  • This mass exodus painted the Soviet Union and the GDR in a bad light and contributed to a brain drain.
  • After the Berlin Wall was built, the US and the USSR engaged in an 18-hour tense standoff at Checkpoint Charlie.
  • The Wall became a symbol of communist oppression across the world.
  • Hungary opening its borders and the spread of revolutions led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • The decisive blow was an accidental announcement that East Germans could move freely across the border. This led to crowds approaching and finally jumping over the Berlin Wall.
  • The fall of the Wall inspired similar revolutions across the Eastern Bloc, resulting in the fall of the Iron Curtain.

1. Raymond L Garthoff, ‘Berlin 1961: The Record Corrected.’ Foreign Policy, no. 84, Washingtonpost. Newsweek Interactive, LLC, 1991.

2. Tara Finn, ‘Coal, Calories and Candy Bombers: the Berlin Airlift 1948-9’, Gov.uk, 2018.

3. Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961, 2011.

The Berlin crisis

The Berlin Crisis caused heightened tensions between the USA and the USSR. An 18-hour standoff between the sides threatened full-scale nuclear war but it was fortunately de-escalated by communications between Khrushchev and Kennedy. After the Berlin Wall was erected, tensions eased over Berlin but the wall became a symbol of Communist oppression and was often used in US propaganda.

The Soviet Union was desperate for a solution to stop the exodus of East Germans to the West. East Germany needed these skilled workers to rebuild the economy and it was bad publicity for the USSR. Khrushchev pushed for the US to remove their troops from the city and hand the East/ West border responsibilities over to the East German Government (essentially allowing them to deny East Germans passage). Eisenhower, president of the US at the time, refused as he wanted to protect the freedom of West Berlin. Arguments ensued between the two leaders and then between Khrushchev and Kennedy. The dispute was essentially settled by the construction of the Berlin Wall, which decreased the flow of refugees from East to West.

The Berlin Crisis was essentially settled by the construction of the Berlin Wall, which decreased the flow of refugees from East to West.

Thousands of East Germans were fleeing the GDR for the West, using Berlin as their gateway. Khrushchev wanted to quell the number of refugees so demanded the US relinquish their presence in the West so that he could better control the border. Eisenhower refused, wanting to protect West Berlin’s freedom, leading to disputes between the two.

The Berlin Crisis was a dispute between Khrushchev and Eisenhower (and later Kennedy) over Berlin. Thousands of East Germans were fleeing the GDR for the West, using Berlin as their gateway. Khrushchev wanted to quell the number of refugees so demanded the US relinquish their presence in the West so that he could better control the border. Eisenhower refused, wanting to protect West Berlin’s freedom, leading to disputes between the two.

Final The Berlin crisis Quiz

Question

Which countries held zones of occupation in Germany? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

France

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Question

What precedent did the Berlin Blockade set?

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Answer

It set a precedent for the USSR making impulsive decisions over the city.

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Question

What methods did the East German authorities employ to try and prevent the flow of refugees? (Choose two answers)


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Answer

They closed the inner borders.

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Question

Why was Berlin such an important city in the refugee crisis?


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Answer

The borders between East and West Berlin were not closed so refugees could use it to flee to the West.

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Question

Which event caused thousands of people to leave for the West in 1953?


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Answer

The Workers’ Uprising and its brutal suppression.

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Question

Did closing the internal borders between East and West Germany in 1952 help quell the refugees?


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Answer

It did not help quell the number of refugees fleeing and arguably accelerated it. People continued to leave through West Berlin where the border was still open, and by 1961, up to 3000 people were leaving Germany each day.

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Question

 Which plan helped the German Federal Republic to recover economically?


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Answer

The Marshall Plan

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Question

How was the standoff between US and Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie eased?


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Answer

Kennedy suggested Khrushchev remove his tanks and the US would reciprocate.

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Question

How many checkpoints did the Berlin Wall have?


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Answer

12

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Question

Did the Berlin Wall completely prevent refugees from fleeing the country?


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Answer

No, still many East Germans (including guards) escaped after it was erected.

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Question

Which of the following were ways East Germans used to escape? (Choose three answers)


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Answer

Hot air balloons

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Question

How did the Berlin Wall affect Khrushchev’s leadership?


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Answer

For Soviet leader Khrushchev, the Berlin Wall represented one of the final blows to his time as leader. Critics felt his actions in Berlin and later in the Cuban Missile Crisis were impulsive and painted the Soviet Union in a bad light. He was forced into retirement in 1964 and succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev.

Show question

Question

What happened in Hungary in 1989 that set the chain of events in motion for the fall of the Berlin Wall?


Show answer

Answer

Hungary opened its border to Austria in the West. This led to thousands of East Germans using this opening to flee to the West.

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Question

Which German city held mass demonstrations on the GDR’s 40th anniversary?


Show answer

Answer

Leipzig

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Question

How did Gunther Shabowski’s mistake cause the fall of the Berlin Wall?


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Answer

 At a press conference broadcast to the nation, Schabowski accidentally stated that East Germans would be able to leave the GDR immediately at all border crossings with West Germany. Waves of East Germans rushed to the border upon hearing the announcement. Guards, overpowered and confused themselves, allowed East Germans through and over the Berlin Wall. This signified its fall.

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