West Germany

Did you know that, just over thirty years ago, two Germanies had been separated for fifty years? Why did this happen? Read on to find out more!

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    West Germany History

    The version of Germany we know and understand today rose from the ashes of defeat in World War II. However, there was a dispute between the former Allied powers about how the country would be split between them. This ultimately resulted in the formation of two states known as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

    Formation of West Germany

    Amidst the concerns of the Soviet occupation in the east of Germany, British and American officials met in London in 1947. They were already drawing up plans to create a Western-backed territory to retain their presence in central Europe.

    After the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime (see Hitler and the Nazi Party), the Allies, who also included the formerly Nazi-occupied nations of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, believed that the German people had no right to have a say so soon after the war's end. They created a list of new laws to govern the country.

    What was the new constitution?

    The new constitution, or 'Basic Law', gave hope of a free and prosperous future after the tyranny of Hitler. There were concerns in some quarters that it was too similar to the Weimar Consitution. Still, it had some important amendments, such as the removal of 'emergency powers' for the chancellor. Along with the $13 billion Marshall Plan from the United States that pledged to rebuild Europe in 1948, the Basic Law provided an excellent foundation for the growth of a successful nation. In the 1950s, the West German economy grew by 8% a year!

    The Frankfurt Documents were a proto-constitution which went through the Bundestag (parliament) and were polished, leading to the creation of a new state under chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1949.

    West Germany A photograph of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and US President John F Kennedy StudySmarterGerman Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (right) and US President John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1962, Wikimedia Commons.

    In opposition to the Federal Republic of Germany (west Germany), five states formed the German Democratic Republic in the east. Monitored and engineered into a one-party state by the Soviet Union, it was a repressive dictatorship marred by food shortages and hunger. Without the industrial heartland of the Ruhr and the economic leg up from the United States, the GDR struggled, and the execution of Soviet-influenced collectivism by early leader Walter Ulbricht just made matters worse. In 1953 there were huge protests, where hundreds of thousands clamoured for reform, but this was crushed after Soviet military intervention.


    A socialist policy where all land and crops are controlled by the state and strict farming quotas need to be met. It often resulted in food shortages and starvation.

    Map of East and West Germany

    West Germany bordered the eastern states of Mecklenburg, Sachsen-Anhalt and Thüringen. In Berlin, the border between the FRG-controlled West Berlin and the GDR-controlled East Berlin was marked by Checkpoint Charlie, which was the crossing point between the states.

    West Germany Map of East and West Germany StudySmarterThe United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) map of East and West Germany (1990), Wikimedia Commons

    From 1961, however, the Berlin Wall cast a clear divide across the city.

    West Germany Berlin Wall StudySmarterBerlin Wall (1988) with an abandoned building on the eastern side, Wikimedia Commons

    Former Capital of West Germany

    The capital of the Federal Republic of Germany during its years as West Germany (1949 - 1990) was Bonn. This was due to the complicated political nature of Berlin with its east and west divisions. Bonn was chosen as a temporary solution, instead of a bigger city such as Frankfurt, in the hope that the country would be reunited one day. It was a city of modest size with a traditional university and had cultural significance as the birthplace of composer Ludwig van Beethoven, but even today, it only has a population of 300,000.

    West Germany Cold War

    The history of the FRG can be viewed as one of prosperity under the economic aid of the United States, certainly in comparison with its neighbour, the GDR, which fell into a Soviet-style dictatorship.


    The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was an agreement between Western European and North American countries that swore collaboration and protection for each of its members in the effect of a military invasion.

    Let's have a look at some important events that shaped the fate of West Germany before reunification.

    West Germany Timeline

    1951The FRG joined the European Coal and Steel Community. This was a collaborative trade agreement that acted as a precursor to the European Economic Community and the European Union.
    6 May 1955NATO forces began to occupy the FRG as a deterrent against the Soviet threat. To the fury of Soviet leader Khrushchev, the FRG formally became part of NATO.
    14 May 1955In response to the West German economic agreements and their acceptance in NATO, the GDR joined the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.
    1961After millions of people escaped the hardships of East Germany through the FRG in West Berlin, the GDR government built the Berlin Wall, with the approval of the Soviet Union, to stop refugees from running away to seek better opportunities. Only 5000 people escaped after this.
    1970New Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt sought reconciliation with the east through his policy of "Ostpolitik". He began to open negotiations to cool relations with East Germany after the previous refusal of the FRG to acknowledge their existence as a sovereign state.
    1971Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as the leader of East Germany with the help of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
    1972The "Basic Treaty" is signed by each state. They both agree to recognise each other's independence.
    1973The Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic each joined the United Nations, an international organisation focused on the maintenance of peace and security around the world.
    1976Honecker became the undisputed leader of East Germany. He was desperate to avoid further reforms and his use of Stasi (secret police) informants led to a police state built on suspicion. However, due to improved relations more information about life in the West filtered through to East Germans.
    1986New Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to introduce liberal reforms. The crumbling Soviet Union no longer supported East Germany's repressive regime.

    That East Germany continued to exist for so long is largely down to their infamous secret police organisation.

    What was the Stasi?

    The Stasi was one of the most feared secret police organisations in history. Established in 1950 as a direct link to Moscow, their height of activity was during the 1980s, under the rule of Honecker. Employing 90,000 and 250,000 informants, the Stasi helped create a state of terror among the East German population, with their primary aim to stop communication with the West and consumption of Western media.

    The Stasi's delusional belief that the population would remain loyal to communism without the support of Gorbachev led to their downfall with the revolution.


    Despite the reconciliation and cooling of tensions between East and West Germany which culminated in the visit of Erich Honecker to Bonn in 1987, there was still fear of a revolution. As the wheels of communism began to come off in Central and Eastern European states, East Germans escaped through the border of other revolutionised countries in 1989.

    Demonstrations began around the country and finally, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall was pulled down, with the authorities powerless to stop the sheer number of protestors. People from East and West Berlin gathered together in celebration. After this, a single German currency was established and the five eastern states became part of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990.

    West German Flag

    Whereas the East German flag had a socialist hammer looming large over it, the West German flag had its origins in the nineteenth century. It took inspiration from the ensign of the Frankfurt Parliament (1848 - 1852) which was the first attempt to unify and liberalise the conservative German states.

    West Germany Flag of Germany StudySmarterWest Germany flag. Wikimedia Commons.

    These three colours appeared again during the interwar Weimar Republic years representing a departure from the tyranny of the Kaiserreich, which replaced gold with white on its flag.

    West Germany - Key takeaways

    • As a response to the Soviet threat in the east, Western Allies helped to create the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1949.
    • With the financial stimulation of the Marshall Plan and the freedom that the constitution provided, West Germany began to prosper as a nation in the 1950s.
    • In contrast, citizens of East Germany were hungry and any opposition to the state was destroyed.
    • The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop the mass exodus of East Germans to the West.
    • Although West German leader Willy Brandt pursued reconciliation with East Germany and there was more freedom to travel, his East German counterpart unleashed a campaign of repression with the secret police or Stasi his instrument of terror.
    • Finally, due to the other revolutions and the liberal reforms in the Soviet Union, the leaders of East Germany were powerless to stop reunification with West Germany and its involvement in the new Federal Republic of Germany.
    Frequently Asked Questions about West Germany

    When did Bonn stop being the capital of Germany?

    Bonn stopped being the capital of West Germany in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down and the two countries reunited.

    Why was Germany divided into East and West?

    Germany was divided into East and West because the Soviet forces remained in the East after World War II and the Western Allies wanted to halt their progress across Europe.

    What was the key difference between East and West Germany?

    The key difference between East and West Germany was their ideology. The US-backed West Germany favoured capitalism and democracy whereas Soviet-backed East Germany favoured communism and state control.

    What is West Germany today?

    Today West Germany makes up most of the Federal Republic of Germany, apart from the five eastern states that joined it in 1990.

    What is West Germany known for?

    West Germany was known for its strong economy, openness to capitalism, and Western democracy.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which organisation caused terror through repressive surveillance in East Germany?

    Which Soviet leader began to open up to the west with liberal reforms in the 1980s?

    Who was the first chancellor of West Germany?


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