The Berlin Wall: Symbol of the Cold War's Iron Curtain

The Berlin Wall: Symbol of the Cold War's Iron Curtain

For three contentious decades the Berlin Wall symbolized the true dividing line between freedom and tyranny during the Cold War.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Berlin Wall was a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain.

In June 1961, Walter Ulbrecht, longtime Communist party leader of East Germany, denied that his government had any intention of building the Berlin Wall, which would separate East and West Berlin. “The construction workers of our capital are for the most part busy building apartment houses, and their working capacities are fully employed to that end,” Ulbrecht said indignantly. “Nobody intends to put up a wall.”

On first glance, constructing a wall seemed a drastic solution to a major East German problem, the hemorrhaging of the “best and brightest” to freedom in the West. The wall would cut off the flow of people between the two parts of the city, which helped the economy of both sides. Putting up a wall would also provide the West with a ready-made symbol for the oppressive nature of a tyrannical system that needed a wall to keep its own people from leaving.

The Berlin Airlift

By 1961, Berlin had long been a symbol of freedom and resistance to Communist expansionism during the Cold War. The conflict began in late June 1948, when the Soviet Union cut off all land communications to West Berlin. Within days, all supplies to the city, including electricity, were cut off. General Lucius Clay, the commander of American forces in Germany, immediately proposed that an armored convoy fight its way into Berlin. The British commander in Germany, General Sir Brian Robertson, rejected the idea as too dangerous. Robertson had already anticipated the Soviet move and had been preparing an alternative. British figures showed that it would be possible to fly food and supplies, particularly coal, into Berlin by air. The Allied governments quickly approved, and the first flights began on June 26.

Technical problems had to be worked out. Landing fields in Berlin were not equipped to receive coal. Some B-29 bombers had been sent from Great Britain as a kind of subtle threat to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. One of these B-29s had its bomb bay loaded with coal. It flew low over the Berlin Olympic Stadium, site of the Jesse Owens-dominated 1936 Olympics, and opened the doors. Unfortunately, when the coal hit the floor of the stadium it was pulverized into useless dust. For subsequent drops, the coal was wrapped in canvas bags, which made it possible to unload the cargo normally.

With flights eventually landing in Berlin 24 hours a day, sometimes only one minute apart, accidents were sure to happen. The first crash occurred on July 9. Two weeks later, a C-47 coming into Berlin’s main Tempelhof Airport crashed into an apartment building. The two pilots were killed and the building was damaged, but there were no casualties on the ground. Berliners put up a plaque at the crash site reading, “You gave your lives for us,” and brought flowers every day.

The Berlin blockade ended on May 4, 1949, and the airlift stopped soon afterward. On June 20, the four occupying powers formally agreed to ensure normal functioning of rail, water and road transport between Berlin and West Germany. During the 11 months of the airlift, 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and medical supplies had been flown into the city.

Lessons of the Airlift

The Americans and British learned several lessons from the airlift. First, they learned restraint, but also the need to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the people of Berlin, Germany, and all of Western Europe. Technically, as the Soviets noted, Berlin was behind the Iron Curtain. But Berlin was an outpost of freedom, a symbol of Western commitment to democracy. The Iron Curtain was not just a border between democracy and Communism, but also a defensive line for democracy, a limit to the expansion of Soviet control in Europe. Maintaining that border required both a practical and a verbal commitment. The Americans and British rejected a direct ground attack on Soviet forces. The Soviets, for their part, made sure never to intentionally shoot down any airlift planes. With some dramatic exceptions, this practice evolved into a system of “managing” the Cold War, in Europe and elsewhere. Outside of Berlin, every major confrontation of the Cold War would occur in such peripheral areas as Korea and Cuba.

Kennedy Squares off Against Khrushchev

The American presidential election of 1960 guaranteed a generational change in leadership. Incoming Democratic President John F. Kennedy believed that his Republican predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had not been tough enough with the Soviets. (Read all about Eisenhower’s World War II exploits inside WWII History magazine.) Kennedy would stand up to the Soviets in Europe and the developing world. At the same time, he would respond to any hopeful signs of Soviet desire to cooperate. Kennedy said in his Inaugural address that he would “never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.”

Kennedy’s message to the Soviets may have been a bit confusing, conveying elements of both confrontation and cooperation. Kennedy, however, was also responding to a tough-minded speech Nikita Khrushchev made on January 6, 1961. As a Soviet expert noted at the time, “There is a new administration and [Khrushchev] feels compelled to show that he is not going to be intimidated, that he is going to continue on his merry way. He wants to test our resolution, as he has done in earlier instances. Above all, he wants to intimidate the new leaders. An old Communist trick is to execute ‘tests of strength’ at the beginning of a new administration to find out how far they can go.”

At a face-to-face meeting with Kennedy in Vienna that spring, Khrushchev came out swinging, doing his best to intimidate the new president, who was about 20 years younger than the Soviet leader. Khrushchev declared that the Soviets were bound to eventually win the battle of ideas. Kennedy warned about the dangers of nuclear war by miscalculation, at which point the Soviet leader angrily responded that the Soviets did not make war by miscalculation. The most ominous point of the meeting came near the end, when Khrushchev announced that he was going to sign a peace treaty with East Germany in December. This would give the Western allies six more months of free access to West Berlin. Kennedy assumed that Khrushchev meant that the West would be expelled after six months. Khrushchev likely meant merely that the West would have to renegotiate a new long-term agreement with the East German government.

“The Endangered Frontier of Freedom Runs Through Divided Berlin”

On June 4, 1961, the Soviets issued a document demanding a four-power conference to come up with a peace treaty for both Germanys and a final settlement of the Berlin issue. They were willing to accept another temporary settlement, but only for a limited and specific period of time. Should the West not agree to Soviet conditions, the Soviets would sign a separate treaty with East Germany. The West would then have to negotiate access with East Germany. The Soviets were going public with what Khrushchev had told Kennedy privately at their meetings.

The Americans’ response to the Soviet note was cleared in advance with their European allies. There were some curious differences of opinion, with Great Britain favoring negotiation and France and West Germany wanting to stand firm. The United States finally decided to express a willingness to negotiate, but to refuse to do so under pressure. The official American reply declared that “with regard to Berlin, the United States is insisting on, and will defend, its legal rights against attempts at unilateral abrogation because the freedom of the people of West Berlin depends upon the maintenance of these rights.”

Kennedy spoke to the nation on July 25, 1961, declaring the American intention not to back down over Berlin. “The endangered frontier of freedom runs through divided Berlin,” Kennedy said. Concrete measures included sending a 1,500-man military force from West Germany to Berlin, accompanied by Vice President Lyndon Johnson. It was allowed to pass. A scary postscript occurred in October, with a brief face-off by American and Soviet tanks at the border. Both sides soon withdrew their forces.

Emigration from the East

The underlying cause of the new Berlin crisis was not just Soviet bluster or Khrushchev playing power politics within his own government. The Iron Curtain effectively did not yet exist between East and West Berlin. People went back and forth daily by the thousands. However, sizable numbers of people who went across to West Berlin stayed there permanently. East German border controls tried increasingly to stop those who were fleeing. People with luggage got particular attention at the border, as did families traveling together. The creators of a security-based, arbitrary border could not continue to tolerate its effective nonexistence in one key location, especially when this endangered the total border.

Fleeing to West Berlin had some risk, although nothing close to later situations. Those who fled were people with the most initiative. They also tended to be the more economically productive members of society, the more talented and better educated. Nearly 200,000 people fled East Germany in 1960, the population of a good-sized city—and not just any city, but a very productive one at that. Khrushchev’s aides, presumably not in their boss’s presence, had begun joking that “soon there will be no one left in the GDR except Ulbrecht and his mistress.”