Berlin Essay, Research Paper

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Source: History in Dispute, Volume 1: The Cold War, First Series

Editor: Benjamin Frankel


Why did the Berlin crises occur?

Viewpoint: The Berlin crises occurred not because the city had any intrinsic strategic value, but because it was a powerful symbol of the cold-war conflict between capitalism and communism.

Viewpoint: The Berlin crises took place because of the vital strategic importance of the city to both the West and the Soviet Union.

Introduction: Allied agreements about the occupation of Germany after the Second World War created an unusual status for the city of Berlin. Like Germany itself, Berlin was divided into four separate occupation zones. As the cold war became the dominant factor in international relations, the British, French, and Americans combined their zones of the country and the city into one economic and administrative unit to form what became the Federal Republic of Germany, leaving West Berlin in an especially precarious situation one hundred miles within the separate Soviet occupation zone, which soon became East Germany.

The exposed position left the population of West Berlin dangerously dependent on Soviet willingness to allow supplies through. In 1948-1949 the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in response to the introduction of currency reform in the Western sectors without Moscow’s consent. Although an American airlift that lasted for more than a year saved the city and persuaded the Soviets to relent without a military confrontation, the city remained in a delicate situation for the rest of the cold war.

In 1958 Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, who described West Berlin as “the testicles of the West,” demanded that the West withdraw its military presence from the city within six months. If the Western powers failed to comply, he threatened to conclude a separate peace treaty with the Soviets’ East German satellite and give it control of access routes to the city. The West resisted Khrushchev’s demands. In August 1961–in the face of this defiance and a continuing problem of mass emigration from East Germany to the West–the Soviets and East Germans constructed one of the most evocative symbols of the cold war, the Berlin Wall, which remained standing until 1989, when East Germany announced the opening of its borders with the West.

Children in West Berlin waiting for a U.S. supply plane to land during the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949


Viewpoint: The Berlin crises occurred not because the city had any intrinsic strategic value, but because it was a powerful symbol of the cold-war conflict between capitalism and communism

The Prussian city of Berlin, the capital city of Germany during the Third Reich, was one of the most profound symbols of the cold war. The occupation of Berlin by American, French, British, and Soviet troops for

four decades after the Second World War reminded the world of the military and political foundations of the cold war. Berlin was the only place in Europe where American and Russian forces faced one another directly, for they were separated elsewhere on the continent by the buffer of central Europe. While troops confronted one another at the Checkpoint Charlie and Friedrichstrasse border crossings, Berlin was also the center of high level intrigue and espionage and of competing claims for the German political soul, with the imported glitz and prosperity of West Berlin contending with the grim and ostensibly egalitarian East Berlin. It was also the home of the infamous Berlin Wall. Its erection in 1961 demonstrated like nothing else an admission by the Soviet Union that their working–class paradise was failing–while its destruction in 1989 symbolized like nothing else the final collapse of the myth.

The significance of Berlin in the history of the cold war, however, lies not in its historical and ideological symbolism, as important as these were. Rather, Berlin’s central role was as a direct stake in the military and political rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union over central Europe. On three separate occasions–in 1948-1949, 1958-1959, and 1961–the superpowers pushed their squabble over control of the western sectors of Berlin into bona fide cold-war crises. The evolving status of Berlin from 1948 to 1961 represents quite accurately the growth of Soviet military power to the point of effective thermonuclear parity with the United States. This fact makes Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to build the wall in 1961 a great irony of recent history.

At the end of the Second World War, the four allies-Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union-each occupied sectors of Berlin, as victorious nations often divide a vanquished nation’s capital. Once the Second World War was over, the formal purposes of occupation were becoming distant memories, subsumed by the cold-war division of Germany into East and West. Berlin, in the eastern German region of Prussia, rested well inside the Soviet-held portion of Germany, which had also been divided into occupied regions. The cold war turned these three former allies into enemies of the Soviets, and there arose the peculiar situation of having American, British, and French soldiers and diplomats ranging about a large city the middle of the Soviet bloc. Naturally, the Soviet Union was eager to see the three Western nations leave Berlin. During meetings of the Allied Control Council in 1947-1948, the Soviet delegates demanded with increasing impatience that the Western powers pack up and leave.

Nevertheless, many in the West, particularly Americans stationed in Berlin, as well as non-or anti- communist West Berliners, argued that the Soviet demand should be rebuffed. Secretary of State George C. Marshall emphasized that the Western powers still had a legal right to remain in Berlin, since a formal peace treaty ending the Second World War had never been completed.

Berliners, such as Willy Brandt, mayor of Berlin (1957-1966) and later chancellor of West Germany (1969-1974), called attention to the plight of two million West Berliners who would be consigned to the Soviet bloc should the Western powers depart. Robert D. Murphy, a State Department expert on Germany, and General Lucius D. Clay, U.S. Army commander in Berlin, provided the most compelling argument: a departure by the West would demoralize Western Europeans, making them feel that the Americans would abandon them at the first sign of trouble. So after Soviet premier Joseph Stalin decided to raise the stakes by establishing a formal ground blockade around Berlin in the summer of 1948, President Harry S Truman decided to contest it by airlifting supplies to the isolated citizens during the winter of 1948-1949. The heroic efforts of American and British airmen and the endurance of the citizens of West Berlin made the airlift a success. In early 1949 the Soviet Union gave up, abandoned its blockade, and reconciled itself, for the time being, to a divided Berlin.

Though the moral obligation to the West Berliners and the fear of a “bandwagon effect” certainly influenced the American decision to stay, the basic reason the United States chose to remain in Berlin was because it could. At that moment the United States held a monopoly over the atomic bomb, making the Soviet Union extremely averse to pushing matters toward war over a stake such as Berlin. The Americans could afford to take a hard-line position on Berlin. They exploited this accident of history because the Soviets were not prepared to go to war. Even with the American “occupation” as aggravating as it was, the massive Red Army could not stop planes from dropping atomic bombs on Russian cities. The Americans perceived the Soviets’ unwillingness and exploited the U.S. advantage.

As with so many other events and trends of the cold war, the gradual Soviet attainment of a thermonuclear arsenal in the late 1950s changed the dynamics of the debate over Berlin substantially. In November 1958, having put up with the Western occupation of West Berlin for thirteen years, Khrushchev issued an ultimatum: the Western powers would have to leave in six months. The continued occupation, he said aptly, was like “a bone in my throat.” Now that the Soviet Union had thermonuclear bombs, Khrushchev believed, the determination of the West to stand tough over its Second World War occupation rights in Berlin would falter.

Despite the official North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) policy of refusing to negotiate while under an ultimatum and treating any Soviet move against West Berlin as an act of general war, the Western powers, led by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, scrambled to find some kind of compromise. The British in particular were aghast at the idea of initiating a thermonuclear world war over the political status of West Berlin. Eisenhower deftly played on these British fears, quietly going along with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s plea for a four-power summit (despite the no-negotiation policy) and put off contingency plans for a war to defend Berlin. Khrushchev, despite his tough rhetoric, gladly seized the opportunity to negotiate. Delegates from all four powers met in Geneva in the spring of 1959. Khrushchev even visited the United States that fall and was prepared to finalize a compromise over Berlin with Eisenhower at the Paris summit in 1960 when the downing of an American U-2 spy plane in Soviet territory derailed the talks, leaving the Berlin question unresolved.

As many in the West predicted, Khrushchev revived his ultimatum once a new American president, John F. Kennedy, assumed office in January 1961. The failure of the U.S. sponsored invasion of Cuba in April 1961 persuaded Khrushchev that Kennedy was weak, and at a June 1961 summit meeting in Vienna the Soviet leader delivered his ultimatum to Kennedy. The Kennedy administration thus had to confront the same issue that Eisenhower had: whether or not the United States should go to war to protect West Berlin.

Despite Kennedy’s campaign rhetoric about waging a virile and dynamic cold war, the new administration, like the previous one, declined to take a hard line on Berlin. Realizing that the military policy left to them by Eisenhower allowed for little choice in a war over Berlin–street skirmishes or global thermonuclear exchange– Kennedy administration officials began to consider how to avoid actual conflict while at the same time appearing to give in to the ultimatum. Khrushchev, equally nervous about going to war over the issue, provided the answer: a wall around West Berlin. The wall would allow the Western powers to retain their formal occupying status, while stopping the exodus of East Germans and eliminating the temptation to East Germans of Western capitalist prosperity and glamour. Best of all, it would allow Khrushchev to cancel his ultimatum. In August of 1961 East German leader Walter Ulbricht, with Khrushchev’s approval, ordered his soldiers to begin erecting a large wall around the western sectors of Berlin. This wall gradually developed into a formal cold-war boundary, replete with watchtowers, guard dogs, and barbed wire: a sad, unmistakable symbol of the unpopularity of Soviet communism.

While publicly expressing outrage, Kennedy and his advisers privately breathed a sigh of relief. Not one major official in the White House advocated a military challenge to the wall. When Lucius Clay, the newly appointed ambassador to the enclosed city of West Berlin, tried to start a war anyway in October, the White House was forced to reel him in. The wall put an end to the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union over the status of Berlin: it remained an artificially divided city, a cold-war peculiarity (not unlike Korea) until the Soviet empire began to collapse in the late 1980s and Berliners knocked the structure down.



The Berlin crises took place because of the vital strategic importance of the city to both the West and the Soviet Union.

One provision of the wartime agreements among the four Allied powers provided for their joint post-Second World War occupation of Germany with a sharing of administrative authority. Although the city of Berlin was located well within the Soviet zone of occupation, it, too, was divided among the four allies. The onset of the cold war and loss of the wartime strategic partnership of the three Western allies with the Soviet Union meant that the future of Germany stood little chance of being decided by its mutually hostile occupiers. The future of Berlin was even more clouded.

The crisis atmosphere that surrounded the city must be understood in the context of the developing cold war. By 1946 Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, while trying to maintain a conciliatory relationship with the West, also followed his obsession with Soviet security and attempted to expand Soviet influence as far and wide as possible without drawing the West into a general war that the Soviet Union was in no condition to fight. As a result, in July 1946 Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov demanded that the industrial Ruhr region, well inside the Western zones, be shared with the Soviet Union. There were no provisions for Soviet occupation there in the four allies’ occupation agreement, and the attempt to justify the demand by saying that the USSR was not getting enough reparation from Germany was ill founded. Indeed, accounts of the Soviet military administration’s transfer to Russia of almost all the heavy industrial base in its zone and its use of large numbers of the population for slave labor did not suggest to anyone that reparations were lacking. Rejecting the Soviet demand out of hand, the Western allies were becoming increasingly convinced that the USSR was an unreliable partner in joint occupation. Shortly thereafter, the three Western allies made plans to combine their zones politically and economically.

Further afield, Soviet attempts to extract military-base rights and territorial concessions from Turkey and Iran, two other places where no wartime agreement guaranteed the Soviets a future role, met with firm Western resistance. Although we now know that Stalin pressured Josip Tito, the leader of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia, not to arm or support the communist rebellion in Greece lest it provoke a Western military response, the West perceived that Moscow was behind the Greek uprising, and, in March 1947, President Harry S Truman elaborated the Truman Doctrine of U.S. resistance to communist expansion anywhere in the world. Irregularities in Soviet promises to allow democratic governments in eastern Europe also caused concern in the West.

When the announcement of the Marshall Plan in June 1947 caused Stalin to believe that the United States was trying to marginalize extreme ideologies, such as his own, throughout Europe, he used coercion to force the otherwise enthusiastic governments of eastern Europe to reject participation in the plan. Realizing that he had perhaps miscalculated what the West would tolerate, he moved to consolidate what already lay within his grasp. In September 1947 he reorganized the international communist movement into a Moscow-led organization, the Cominform, or Communist Information Bureau. Later that autumn he instructed east European communists to take control of their countries through extralegal means, a process that was completed by the following February when every east European state except Yugoslavia and Greece was governed by Moscow-directed communist regimes.

Despite these provocative actions, it is apparent that Stalin still believed he could reach some sort of accommodation over the German question. Indeed, the East German Communist Party had been deliberately left out of the first Cominform meeting, while even the French and Italian communists sent delegates. For Stalin the best outcome for Germany would have been a unified state that was politically nonaligned and disarmed. Indeed, there was much thought even among West German politicians (such as the leading Social Democrat, Kurt Schumacher) that was favorable to this approach. It was also possible that the dramatic economic and social reforms undertaken by the Soviet military administration in its zone, all of which were communist in complexion, could potentially lead to the full communization of the unified country.

Stalin had to find some way to stop the continued integration of the Western zones, a process started by Molotov’s 1946 demand. The joint introduction of a reformed German currency in the Western sectors of Berlin was the immediate cause of Stalin’s decision to declare a land and water blockade of the city in June 1948. He was creating a crisis over an anomalous feature of the occupation agreement in order to demonstrate his serious desire to promote a four-power solution to the German question (not a solution decided by three of the powers to his exclusion). In his strategic thinking the allies could either let West Berlin starve and fall under Russian control or come crawling to him for negotiations in which he would have the upper hand. Perhaps Stalin was also thinking about his own failure to prevent mass starvation during the siege of Leningrad. What he missed was that the West, especially the United States, had the capability and the will to risk aerial conflict and provide daily supplies of food, fuel, and consumer goods to a city of two million people for more than a year. The West carried out a tremendous feat. Its only alternative was to give in to Stalin either over Berlin or over Germany as a whole and look weak.

Stalin, however, was not full- estranged from a policy that would have resulted in German reunification. Even after the Western zones and the Soviet zone were made into two separate German states in 1949, East German officials were plagued by fears that Stalin would jettison their country if he could gain some strategic advantage by doing so. Indeed, the Soviet leader’s “peace notes” on Germany, written in March 1952, proposed a scheme for German reunification according to which both German states would enter a confederative structure on equal footing, even though East Germany was about one third the size and had about one-third the population of the West. The Western allies did not accept the plan. In addition to its absurd equivalence of the two German states, the strategic disadvantage that losing West Germany’s military and industrial potential was simply too great to countenance.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 and other evolving features of the cold war changed the situation without reducing the tension that surrounded West Berlin. In the power struggle that followed, Stalin’s designated successor, Georgy Malenkov, and his associates followed a “New Course” of developing a broad domestic economic base and trying to relax international tensions. Other Soviet leaders, led by Nikita Khrushchev, attacked this policy as weak and even as a betrayal of socialism. By 1955 Malenkov and his new strategic approach, which reached back to what appeared to be Stalin’s, were no longer factors in the Soviet government. Significantly, one of Malenkov’s associates, secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, was executed after a not-quite-so-fair trial in which he was accused of conspiring to sell out East Germany to the West.

Khrushchev’s confrontational approach was important for the city of Berlin and for Germany as a whole.

By the 1950s the dynamics of the Soviets’ relationship with their East German allies became skewed. When Khrushchev began his de- Stalinization campaign in February 1956, the East German leadership, under the Stalinist Walter Ulbricht, once again feared for its survival. Seeking to compete with the West in order to demonstrate the superiority of

socialism, Khrushchev simply could not afford to let East Germany be subsumed into a reunified German state, regardless of whatever strategic value that solution might have had for Stalin. Allowing a socialist state to revert to something other than socialism was not acceptable in an ideological struggle. The East German economy, moreover, was by far the best in eastern Europe. (Its geographic history as an integral part of industrial Germany predisposed it to be.) Khrushchev believed East Germany would serve as a “display window” (Schaufenster) for socialism.

Keeping East Germany viable, however, was a terrible problem. While the borders of the occupation zones had been relatively free, millions of people simply left to assimilate into the socially and economically freer West Germany. When the borders were closed after East Germany became a separate state, the four-power presence in Berlin still allowed free transit to the West for any East German who took the Berlin subway into the Western sectors. As East German socialism continued to stifle initiative and personal liberty, hundreds of thousands of East Germans chose that way out.

The loss of what were predominantly young, educated people to the West; the ruthless exploitation of the East German economy by the Soviet occupation; and Ulbricht’s continuing Stalinist communization of society and the economy raised serious questions about his regime’s ability to survive without significant help from the USSR. Recent research has revealed that Ulbricht had considerable leverage in the alliance relationship between the two countries; for Khrushchev could either support him to his complete satisfaction or let his state collapse. Demanding that the West evacuate Ulbricht’s capitol in November 1958, Khrushchev was attempting to shore up his ally’s legitimacy. (Having half one’s capital city occupied by mortal enemies does raise questions of legitimacy.) He was also trying to employ what many believed to be the Soviet advantage in strategic weapons to make a major play for Soviet foreign policy.

Khrushchev’s ploy did not work. Recently released evidence shows that President Eisenhower almost certainly knew that Khrushchev’s bluster about Soviet superiority in nuclear-missile technology was a bluff. Intelligence reports about the problems of the Soviet strategic-weapons program and the complete lack of aerial-espionage evidence to sustain the Soviet leader’s claims of superiority enabled the West to ignore him without suffering undue consequences over Berlin.

By mid 1959 Khrushchev was aware that his bid for strategic-weapons superiority was at an end and that the success of the American strategic-weapons program might well leave the Soviet Union at a disadvantage. The Soviet leader began to approach the West with what seemed to be a desire to relax tensions. After a successful visit to the United States in the fall of 1959, relations warmed for a time. The downing of an American spy plane over Soviet territory in April 1960, however, threw a wrench into a planned summit between Khrushchev and Eisenhower in Paris and caused the attempt at an early d tente to founder.

Despite some efforts to renew the relationship with the Kennedy administration, which came into office in January 1961, the pressures of the East German alliance evolved into a major disruption. After a relatively unpromising meeting with Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961, it seemed apparent to Khrushchev that the best the Eastern bloc could hope for was a solution to the flight of East Germany’s population. This problem became more pronounced in Soviet strategic thinking after Kennedy resisted attempts to lure him into firm American military commitments in Cuba and Laos. On 13 August 1961, with no real hope of dislodging the West from Berlin and the continuing exodus of East Germans for the West, the Soviet leader consented to the implementation of a plan code-named “Rose”: building a wall around West Berlin. The stability crisis in East Germany was shored up, the battle lines of the cold war were solidified, and the Berlin crisis was over.



On 18 August 1961, five days after the East Germans began building the Berlin Wall, President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to Willy Brandt, mayor of West Berlin. In the following excerpt, Kennedy expressed his feelings on the Soviet actions and outlined how the United States planned to respond.

The measures taken by the Soviet Government and its puppets in East Berlin have caused revulsion here in America. The demonstration of what the Soviet Government means by freedom for a city, and peace for a people, proves the hollowness of Soviet pretensions; and Americans understand that this action necessarily constitutes a special blow to the people of West Berlin, connected as they remain in a myriad of ways to their fellow Berliners in the eastern sector. So I understand entirely the deep concerns and sense of trouble which prompted your letter.

Grave as this matter is, however, there are, as you say, no steps available to us which can force a significant material change in this present situation. Since it represents a resounding confession of failure and of political weakness, this brutal border closing evidently represents a basic Soviet decision which only war could reverse. Neither you nor we, nor any of our allies, have ever supposed that we should go to war on this point.

Yet the Soviet action is too serious for inadequate responses. My own objection to most of the measures which have been proposed-even to most of the suggestions in your own letter-is that they are mere trifles compared to what has been done ….

On careful consideration I myself have decided that the best immediate response is a significant reinforcement of the Western garrisons. The importance of this reinforcement is symbolic-but not symbolic only. We know that the Soviet Union continues to emphasize its demand for the removal of Allied protection from West Berlin. We believe that even a modest reinforcement will underline our rejection of this concept ….

More broadly, let me urge it upon you that we must not be shaken by Soviet actions which in themselves are a confession of weakness. West Berlin today is more important than ever, and its mission to stand for freedom has never been so important as now. The link of West Berlin to the Free World is not a matter of rhetoric. Important as the ties to the East have been, painful as is their violation, the life of the city, as I understand it, runs primarily to the West-its economic life, its moral basis, and its military security. You may wish to consider and to suggest concrete ways in which these ties might be expanded in a fashion that would make the citizens of West Berlin more actively conscious of their role, not merely as an outpost of freedom, but as a vital part of the Free World and all its enterprises. In this double mission we are partners, and it is my own confidence that we can continue to rely upon each other as firmly in the future as we have in the past.

Source: “Letter from President Kennedy to Governing Mayor Brandt,”Foreign Relations of the United States. 14 (1961-1963): 352-353.


Michael R Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (New York: Edward Burlingame, 1991);

Campbell Craig, Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998);

John Lewis Gaddis, We Now, Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997);

John P. S. Gearson, Harold Macmillan and the Berlin Wall Crisis, 1958-62: The Limits of Interests and Force (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998);

Hope Harrison, “Ulbricht and the Concrete ‘Rose’: New Archival Evidence on the Dynamics of Soviet-East German Relations and the Berlin Crisis, 1958-1961,” Working Paper of the Cold War International History Project, May 1993;

Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, translated by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974);

Vojtch Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996);

Norman Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History, of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Avi Shlaim, The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948-1949: A Study in Crisis Decision-making (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1983);

Ann Tusa, The Last Division: A History of Berlin, 1945-1989 (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997);

Andreas Wenger, Living With Peril: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nuclear Weapons (Lanham, Md.: Rowman R Littlefield, 1997);

Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).

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