12 August 1961 – East Germany began building the Berlin Wall

4 minute read.

In 1961, in an “effort to stem the tide of refugees attempting to leave East Berlin, the communist government of East Germany begins building the Berlin Wall to divide East and West Berlin.”

Construction of the wall caused a short-term crisis in U.S.-Soviet bloc relations, and the wall itself came to symbolize the Cold War.

At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Berlin, although located within the Soviet zone, was also split amongst the four powers. The American, British and French sectors would form West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The division of Germany and the nature of its occupation had been confirmed by the Allied leaders at the Potsdam Conference, held between 17 July and 2 August 1945.

By 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to emerge as ideologically opposed ‘superpowers’, each wanting to exert their influence in the post-war world. Germany became a focus of Cold War politics and as divisions between East and West became more pronounced, so too did the division of Germany. In 1949, Germany formally split into two independent nations: the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR or West Germany), allied to the Western democracies, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), allied to the Soviet Union.

In 1952, the East German government closed the border with West Germany, but the border between East and West Berlin remained open. East Germans could still escape through the city to the less oppressive and more affluent West.

Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, thousands of people from East Berlin crossed over into West Berlin to reunite with families and escape communist repression. In an effort to stop that outflow, the government of East Germany, on the night of August 12, 1961, began to seal off all points of entrance into West Berlin from East Berlin by stringing barbed wire and posting sentries.

In the days and weeks to come, construction of a concrete block wall began, complete with sentry towers and minefields around it. The Berlin Wall succeeded in completely sealing off the two sections of Berlin.

The U.S. government responded angrily. Commanders of U.S. troops in West Berlin even began to make plans to bulldoze the wall, but gave up on the idea when the Soviets moved armored units into position to protect it.

The West German government was furious with America’s lack of action, but President John F. Kennedy believed that “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

In an attempt to reassure the West Germans that the United States was not abandoning them, Kennedy traveled to the Berlin Wall in June 1963, and famously declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (“I am a Berliner!”). Since the word “Berliner” was commonly referred to as a jelly doughnut throughout most of Germany, Kennedy’s improper use of German grammar was also translated as “I am a jelly doughnut.” However, due to the context of his speech, Kennedy’s intended meaning that he stood together with West Berlin in its rivalry with communist East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic was understood by the German people.

 

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