The building of the Berlin Wall, and all the Berlin Wall symbolised, seemed to sum up what the Cold War represented to many – basically, a clash between good and evil. The Berlin Wall was to attract the attention of a young American president – J F Kennedy – who was to visit the Wall and who was to find his place in History with the part he played in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the Berlin Airlift, the unification of the three zones controlled by the western allies occurred in 1949. This formed the German Federal Republic; better known as West Germany. Stalin responded by making his eastern controlled section of Berlin the German Democratic Republic (better known as East Germany). This also took place in 1949.
West Germany was always the more prosperous of the two newly created states. Stalin had forbidden eastern Europe access to Marshall Aid whereas the new West Germany did have access to it. The difference in lifestyles between the two peoples who lived in the two new states was clear. East Germans suffered from poor housing, food shortages, low wages and with 25% of her industrial output going to the Soviet Union, East Germany could not see any obvious evidence that the situation would improve as the 1960’s approached.
Many East Germans simply left and went to West Germany to share in the growing prosperity of that state. The East German government had tried to stop the flow west in 1952 by building a fortified border. But there remained one place where any East German could go to and move to the west – Berlin, in the heart of East Germany itself.
By 1961, around 3 million people had done this. This was a major coup for the west as these people were leaving the communist system that supposedly looked after its workers and families and looking for a better life in the capitalist west. Among these 3 million people were highly qualified men who were of little value to the west but were skilled workers that East Germany could not afford to lose. By 1961, the number of refugees fleeing to the west represented about one-sixth of East Germany’s population.
On August 12th 1961, a record 4,000 people made their way to West Berlin to start a new life in the west. This pushed the communist authorities into doing something.
In the early hours of August 13th 1961, “shock workers” from East Germany and Russia shut off the border between the Soviet and western sectors of Berlin using barbed wire. The west was taken by surprise but their protests to the Russians were not listened to. By August 16th, the barbed wire was being removed and replaced with a wall of concrete blocks. Within days, West Berlin was surrounded by a wall four meters high and 111 kilometers long. The Wall had 300 watch towers manned by selected border guards (the ZOPO) and 50 bunkers. By the end of August, the Wall seemed all but impossible to cross.
The East German authorities tried to explain away the Wall by claiming that the West was using West Berlin as a centre for spying and that the Wall was for keeping out spies. They called the Wall “the anti-fascist protection barrier”.
People from East Germany still tried to cross into West Berlin. 190 people were shot dead on the eastern side of the Wall. The west called the Berlin Wall the “Wall of Shame” and it served to remind those who lived in Berlin that those in the Soviet controlled east lived far inferior lives to those who lived in western Berlin.