The Berlin Wall

At the Yalta Conference of 1945, Germany and its capital Berlin were both divided into four zones of occupation.

Berlin lay well inside the Soviet zone of occupation and was a source of tension throughout the Cold War. This had first become apparent in 1948 with the crisis over the Berlin Blockade.

The East German government, led by Walter Ulbricht, was pressurising Khrushchev to support them in weakening the power of the Western Allies in West Berlin. Khrushchev had suggested signing a peace treaty with East Germany, without the involvement of the Western Allies, which would put East Berlin under the jurisdiction of the East German government, rather than it being a Soviet zone of occupation. The East Germans would take a harder line than the Soviets on issues concerning Berlin.

On 13 August 1961, the Soviet authorities in East Germany sealed off East Berlin – their zone of occupation - by constructing a huge barbed wire barrier. This was soon replaced by a concrete wall, complete with lookout towers and armed guards who had orders to shoot anyone trying to cross into the Western sector.

Image shoing East Germna workers laying bricks during the construction of the Berlin wall in November 1961.

Why was the Berlin Wall built?

  • The Brain Drain: Throughout the 1950s thousands of East Germans had fled to the West through Berlin, leaving behind the harsh political climate and economic hardship of life under communism. Many of those who defected were educated or highly skilled workers and the East German authorities could not afford to lose their best and brightest citizens.
  • Lure of the West: During the 1950s travel was relatively easy between the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin. People living under communism in the Eastern sector could visit the West and see what capitalism offered. There was better housing, shops full of goods and relative freedom: all provided by the Western Allies.
  • Espionage: Berlin was a Western island in a communist sea – an ideal place for American spies to gather intelligence on the Soviet military.
  • Asymmetry of the Cold War: Khrushchev was very aware of the imbalance between the two sides in the Cold War, and nowhere was this more obvious than in Germany, where the eastern part was always weaker than the prosperous west. Berlin was the one place where the west was vulnerable, because they were surrounded by the eastern bloc. For Khrushchev, pressurising Berlin was a way of evening up the balance in the Cold War.