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Berlin Wall

In 1961 Berlin became the focal point of increased tensions between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. Dissatisfied with the economy and the political conditions in East Germany, thousands of East German refugees fled into West Berlin, the only gap in the Iron Curtain running from the Baltic to the Black Sea. To stop the exodus of their nation's elite -- doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals -- the East German government sealed the border between East and West Berlin. During the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 13, 1961, East German troops and workers, backed by Soviet tanks, ran barbed wire and built barricades.

The wire soon gave way to heavy concrete segments topped with a concrete tube. A parallel barrier later went up in the East, leaving between them a brightly lit Todesstreifen (death strip), consisting of tank traps, fixed guns, attack dogs and land mines. Although the most common view of the Berlin Wall is a 27-mile-long concrete barrier through the heart of the city, there were two parts to the blockade: one separating the eastern and western parts of the city and a 70-mile long blockade separating the Allied enclave from East Germany. Wooden observation platforms were set up along the wall in the West.

Post World War II diplomacy faced innumerable challenges as the Nuremburg Trials judged Nazi war criminals and the Cold War froze relations between the Allies and Soviets. The Potsdam Conference divided Germany and Berlin among the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain and later France. Initially, the Allies hoped relations with Joseph Stalin might improve, but instead, they deteriorated as an "Iron Curtain" descended across Eastern Europe. People-to-people, or public diplomacy, became a major way to "fight" communism, especially through the cultural, informational and democracy promoting programs of the America Houses throughout West Germany.

The 1945 Potsdam Agreement dividing Germany among the Allies, came as a considerable shock to the State Department, which had planned to proceed more slowly. By 1949, responding to continuous Soviet attempts to cut power, food, transportation and fuel to Berlin, the Allies created the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) with a capital in Bonn and a mission in Berlin. In response, the Soviets established the German Democratic Republic (GDR), maintaining Berlin as its capital.

According to the Federal Ministry for All-German Affairs, from 1950 to 1961 more than 2.7 million refugees from East Germany flocked to freedom in West Berlin, many moving on to West Germany. The great majority were professionals; their loss greatly weakening the East German economy. In 1961, Soviet Premier Khrushchev, emboldened after a meeting with the new and unseasoned President John F. Kennedy, threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with the harsh East German regime. Hearing this, the number of refugees fleeing East Germany tripled. It became increasingly apparent that the Soviets had to stop the depopulation of East Germany if they were not to lose total control.

When workers divided Berlin on August 13, 1961, American diplomats discovered construction of the barrier underway during the night. U.S. radio, broadcasting live news segments, warned listeners who might want to escape. Allied protest against the Wall was delayed more than 48 hours, due in part to President Kennedy's reluctance to provoke confrontation. This delay especially angered West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. In response, Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Clay to Berlin and mobilized U.S. troops. In October 1961, U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other over a border crossing incident involving U.S. diplomats. The confrontation took place at Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. crossing point, but both sides withdrew.

When the Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961, U.S. diplomats watched human tragedies unfold as family members wept across barbed wire. Many wondered if the next war would start because of Berlin. Despite the Wall's awful presence, Assistant Secretary Thomas Niles spoke for many when he recalled, "Once the Wall was built, it created a sort of stability. It imprisoned 17 million people in East Germany, but it did guarantee, in its perverse and obnoxious way, a stability in a potentially unstable area."

Willy Brandt's policy for change titled "New Ostpolitik" in the late 1960s and diplomats' involvement in formulating major treaties in the early 1970s led to clarified Allied relationships in Berlin. These two influences eased some relationships between East and West Berlin and established the groundwork for German unity in 1990. In 1974, the two Germanys gained diplomatic recognition and U.N. membership. U.S. diplomats emphasized that their new East Berlin embassy was to East Berlin not in it, clarifying Berlin's special status since the U.S. embassy could not be in the sector held by the occupying Soviets. U.S. diplomatic relations with a rigid East Germany began.

By the 1980s the Quadripartite Agreement of 1971 enabled more legal border crossings, including thousands of East Germans working in the West. Gorbachev, in expressing hope, said, "It is not easy to change the approaches on which East-West relations have been built for fifty years. But the new is knocking on every door and window." U.S. political officer G. Jonathan Greenwald took a clue from Gorbachev, reporting that in East Germany he was looking to changes "from the top, the kinds of changes Gorbachev was trying to institute in the Soviet Union."

At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued his famous challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." President Ronald Reagan's 1987 exhortation to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was a visceral response to a monstrosity. In the mid-1980s, through glasnost-openness and freedom- and perestroika-economic restructuring-Gorbachev had demonstrated willingness to loosen government strangleholds in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including East Germany. While his openness was praised in the West, he met resistance from East German leader Erich Honecker and his regime. The incipient freedoms Gorbachev encouraged in Eastern Europe and Germany led to an unforeseen outcome on November 9, 1989 when the Wall fell.

In 1989 communist governments collapsed across eastern Europe, and on Nov. 9, the East German government partially opened the border in Berlin. When East Berlin police withdrew at the Wall that night, diplomacy helped secure peoples safety. Berlins mayor, fearing a stampede, contacted US diplomat, Minister Harry Gilmore, who was in charge of West Berlin, his monthly rotation with Allies Britain and France having begun that November. Making a command decision, Gilmore mobilized West Berlin police immediately instead of following a lengthy command chain with potentially fatal consequences, sensibly enabling West Berlin police to direct the throngs.

A resulting flood of East Germans rushed to West Berlin, and following celebrations at the Brandenberg Gate and other locations, the Berlin Wall began to come down. November 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On this date each year millions of people across Germany celebrate the reunification of Germany.

Throughout the Cold War, many Germans kept hope alive for national unification. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III endorsed Chancellor Helmut Kohl's 1989 proposal seeking unity, despite resistance from Britain and France. U.S. and German diplomats worked collegially together on the Two Plus Four Agreement - Two Germanys and Four Allies, finally bringing an end to conflict that emerged in post-War Germany. On August 31, 1990, two Germanys signed a Unification Treaty and on October 1, 1990, the Allies suspended rights to Germany. On October 3, East and West Germany joined together. A new national holiday was born.

During the 28 years it separated East and West Berlin, more than 5,000 people escaped over, through and under the wall. Approximately 100 people died making the attempt -- most shot by border guards.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2014 21:15:29 ZULU