The Partitioning of Berlin
As World War II ended in 1945, two Allied peace conferences at Potsdam and Yalta determined what would happen to Germany’s territories. They divided the defeated nation into four “allied occupation zones”: The western part went to Great Britain, the United States and France, while the eastern part went to the Soviet Union.
Although Berlin was situated totally within the Soviet part of Germany, the Potsdam and Yalta agreements divided the city into similar sectors. The Allies took the western half and the soviets took the eastern half. This four-way occupation of Berlin started in June 1945.
The Berlin Wall: Blockade and Crisis
The existence of West Berlin stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat. The Russians started maneuvering to get France, Britain and the US out of the city for good. A Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948 aimed to starve the western Allies out of the city. However, rather than retreating, the US and its allies supplied their half of the city from the air. This attempt, known as the Berlin Airlift, lasted for over a year and supplied more than 2.3 million tons of fuel, food and other products to West Berlin. The blockade was called off by the Soviets in 1949.
After 10 years of relative calm, tensions sparked up again in 1958. Conferences, summits and other negotiations came and went without resolution. At the same time, the flood of refugees continued. Some 19,000 people left the GDR through Berlin in June 1961. The next month, 30,000 fled. 16,000 East Germans crossed the border into West Berlin in the first 11 days of August, and 2,400 followed on the 12th – the biggest number of defectors ever to leave East Germany in one day.
The Berlin Wall: Building the Wall
That night, Premier Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, gave permission to stop the flow of emigrants by closing its border permanently. Construction of the Berlin Wall was completed in two weeks and divided one side of the city from the other.
Prior to the building of the wall, Berliners would move quite freely: They crossed the East-West border to shop, work, go to the movies and the theatre. Subway lines and trains carried passengers back and forth. However, after construction of the wall, movement between East and West Berlin became impossible except through one of three checkpoints. East German soldiers screened diplomats and other officials before they were permitted to leave or enter.
The Berlin Wall: 1961 – 1981
In time, the East German officials built a sturdier wall that was more difficult to climb. Behind the Berlin Wall on the East German side was the “Death Strip” – floodlights, soft sand (to show footprints), trip-wire machine guns, vicious dogs and soldiers ordered to shoot escapees on sight.
In total, at least 171 people were killed attempting to get over, around or under the Berlin wall. People still managed to cross the Berlin Wall though; between 1961 and 1989 over 5,000 East Germans managed to cross the border by any means possible – including crawling through sewers, flying in hot air balloons and climbing over the barbed wire.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
As the Cold War started to thaw across Eastern Europe, on November 9 1989, East Berlin’s Communist Party proclaimed a change in the city’s relations with the West. He said that citizens of the GDR were free to cross the country’s borders starting at midnight that day.
Soon the wall was gone and Berlin was unified for the first time since 1945. The reunification of West and East Germany was made official on October 3 1990, nearly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.