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Berlin Wall

In 1945, at the end of WWII, Germany was divided into a Soviet Zone in the East, and British, French and American Zone in the West.

The border between East and West Germany was closed on 26 May 1953. Control of the city of Berlin was also split.

President John F Kennedy brought a new firm approach to the argument over Berlin. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met in Vienna in June 1961. This was unfriendly and unsuccessful, with Khrushchev demanding that Berlin should become neutral.

He angrily talked about the danger of war if the USA refused to pull out of Berlin. Banging his hands on the conference table. Khrushchev said, “I want peace, but if you want war, that is your problem”.

Kennedy ended the conference by saying “It’s going to be a cold winter”.

Afterwards, Khrushchev repeated his demands in public and insisted, as he had done with Eisenhower, that the USA must act within six months. At the same time, he increased Soviet spending on defence by 30 per cent. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy was in no mood to do a deal.

At the end of July, Kennedy announced a complete rejection of the Soviet demands.

He ordered a massive increase in the American armed services and the number of troops was increased by 15 per cent, spending on defence was increased by $3 billion, and many new aircraft and warships were ordered.

In public speeches, both Kennedy and Khrushchev suggested that they were ready for war over Berlin, but behind the rhetoric and angry words, it seems that neither side was really willing to start a nuclear war over the future of Berlin.

While Khrushchev threatened nuclear war, he secretly planned a different solution to the Berlin crisis.

The continued uncertainty over Berlin increased the number of East Germans who fled to West Berlin, and every day over a thousand East Germans entered the Western part of the city.


In the early hours of 13 August 1961 barbed wire and barricades were erected all around West Berlin. When the people of West Berlin woke up their city was sealed off from East Germany.

Train services were halted and the 50,000 East Germans who worked in West Germany were turned back. Building materials stored in warehouses close to the line were brought forward and work started immediately on a wall which began to snake across Berlin, being made taller and stronger every day.

Soldiers were told to open fire on anyone who tried to cross and the Berlin Wall was created – a potent symbol of the Cold War.

While Western powers were outraged by this swift and brutal action, it quickly became obvious that there was nothing they could do about it.

By 1964, more than 40 people had lost their lives in escape attempts, most of them shot dead.

The Wall encircled West Berlin for a distance of 155km, and its barriers and surveillance systems evolved over the years into an advanced obstacle network. The Intra-German Border ran from the Baltic Sea to the Czechoslovak border for 1,381km and was where NATO forces faced the Warsaw Pact for the 45 years of the Cold War.

Guards from 250 observation turrets could fire at anyone who tried to climb over it, and at least 64 people were shot dead while trying to escape from East Berlin – the last two in February 1989.

In September 1989, Hungary created a route for East Germans to cross to the West by opening its border with Austria. This breach destroyed the reason for the Berlin Wall’s existence.

In November 1989 the wall was opened and East and West Germany were reunified.

Scenes of widespread euphoria were beamed across the world as East and West Berliners dragged down slabs of the hated symbol of their separation.

Gorbachev‘s effective go-ahead for this part of the “Iron Curtain” to be breached meant that things would never be the same again.

By October 1990, East and West Germany were reunited, and the Berlin Reichstag was once again the seat of government. Here, politicians would eventually put East and West back together again, marrying a totalitarian, atheist, communist system with a democratic, Christian, capitalist one.