Fifty-six years ago, the Berlin Wall was erected and gave the West the ultimate propaganda victory in the Cold War. JFK certainly viewed it as such. While he enraged some of his military advisers by refusing to green-light an invasion (supply lines would have been impossible to maintain), he nevertheless pronounced the images of people fleeing with literally their clothes on their backs. (By August 1961, an average of 2,000 East Germans were escaping into the West every day.) While guerilla-faced East German guards batted and drug the slower back to the East as “a failure of communism.” He told his aides to release this footage to the networks.
Escapes were still attempted despite the barbed wire now extending to thirty miles. Perhaps one of the starkest images of the Cold War, and another propaganda victory for the West, was provided when Conrad Schumann, a 19-year-old East German soldier, was photographed leaping over the barbed wire to freedom.
By the end of 1961, fifteen-foot concrete walls were built, and on top were machine bun emplacements and mines. Kruschev called it a “People’s Anti-Fascist barrier,” to “protect” its citizens from the decadent temptations of the West. But for Kennedy, not given to throat-swallowing emotion, called the section “hell” when he peered through binoculars at the Eastern side. Kennedy, who had second and third thoughts about Vietnam, harbored no uncertainties when it came to protecting the Western side of Berlin. It was constantly on his mind during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And he gave one of his most bellicose speeches when visiting West Berlin in 1963. Communism, he once again declared, was failing.
Unfortunately, succeeding presidents accepted the Wall as a constant and vastly better than a war between East and West. Bellicose speeches were shelved. Even moral equivalence was offered, as in the case of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. No matter what he said after the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 (calling it evil and an example of an “ideology gone mad”), in the novel, there is little to chose from on either side and his protagonist Alec Leamus decides to be shot on the Eastern side.
But then came Reagan, who picked up the baton JFK dropped. In later years, thanks to Lech Walesa, a Polish solidarity worker often imprisoned recalled fellow prisoners cheering when the guards foolishly allowed the President’s speeches to be heard. Unlike Nixon and even Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who spear-carried and transformed JFK and RFK as apostles of peace, Reagan gave no quarter on the necessities of the Wall. “Tear Down This Wall” became, arguably Reagan’s greatest speech of the Cold War, and went further than Kennedy’s view of it as evil and a failure. For Reagan, there was no living with it, no matter how it arguably “preserved” the peace. When the Wall fell in 1989, and East Berliners could stick their hand through to the West for the first time, and East German guards even broke a smile, everything else followed.
Two days after sealing off free passage between East and West Berlin with barbed wire, East German authorities begin building a wall–the Berlin Wall–to permanently close off access to the West. For the next 28 years, the heavily fortified Berlin Wall stood as the most tangible symbol of the Cold War–a literal “iron curtain” dividing Europe.
The end of World War II in 1945 saw Germany divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet zone. The future of Germany and Berlin was a major sticking point in postwar treaty talks, and tensions grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity–the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In response, the USSR launched a land blockade of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. However, a massive airlift by Britain and the United States kept West Berlin supplied with food and fuel, and in May 1949 the Soviets ended the defeated blockade.
By 1961, Cold War tensions over Berlin were running high again. For East Germans dissatisfied with life under the communist system, West Berlin was a gateway to the democratic West. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. To halt the exodus to the West, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev recommended to East Germany that it close off access between East and West Berlin.
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid down more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin. East Berlin citizens were forbidden to pass into West Berlin, and the number of checkpoints in which Westerners could cross the border was drastically reduced. The West, taken by surprise, threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such an embargo be answered with a new land blockade of West Berlin. When it became evident that the West was not going to take any major action to protest the closing,
East German authorities became emboldened, closing off more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall, East German authorities declared, would protect their citizens from the pernicious influence of decadent capitalist culture.
The first concrete pilings went up on the Bernauer Strasse and at the Potsdamer Platz. Sullen East German workers, a few in tears, constructed the first segments of the Berlin Wall as East German troops stood guarding them with machine guns. With the border closing permanently, escape attempts by East Germans intensified on August 15.
In the West, the Berlin Wall was regarded as a major symbol of communist oppression. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
In 1989, East Germany’s communist regime was overwhelmed by the democratization sweeping across Eastern Europe. On the evening of November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West, and thousands demanded passage through the Berlin Wall. Faced with growing demonstrations, East German border guards opened the borders. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited.