Tensions continued to escalate throughout the late 1940s. The Greek Civil War, which lasted from 1946-1949 and was fought between the Greek government army (backed by the US and Britain) and Democratic Army of Greece (the military branch of the Greek Communist Party, backed by the USSR), became one of the first battlegrounds for the Cold War. In response to the growing concern that the Communists might overrun Greece and spread into Turkey, President Truman spoke before Congress to ask for aid to be sent to combat the Communists. This address came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, which was delivered on March 12, 1947 and stated:
This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.
The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries, there have been similar developments.
At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.
One way of life is based upon the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.
I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.
The Truman Doctrine came to dominate American responses to international crises throughout the last half of the 20th century. From Greece and Turkey to Korea and Vietnam, the Truman Doctrine pledged to aid democracies in the fight against tyranny, and this was no more evident than in Berlin.
The Berlin Blockade & Airlift
In February 1948, Communists launched a successful coup d’état in Czechoslovakia, further tightening their control on the region and strengthening their buffer against a possible Western invasion. By June, the Western powers introduced currency reform in western Germany, which was meant to stbilize the economy and to combat the black-market economy that had dominated since the end of the war. In response to the perceived economic threat by the Western Allies, the Soviet authorities imposed a blockade of West Berlin. They also announced that the four-power administration of Berlin was no longer valid and that the Western Allies had no right to occupy Berlin. Blocking off all communication by rail, road, or waterway with Western sectors, the Soviets attempted to push the Western Allies out of Berlin to consolidate their foothold in Europe.
Since Berlin was located in the middle of the Soviet zone of Germany, the Western sectors depended on the land routes and waterways of East Germany for transporting supplies. The Western Allies responded to the Soviet attempt to cut off the city by airlifting vital supplies to the blockaded western sector of Berlin. Between June 24, 1948 and May 12, 1949, Allied planes flew nearly two million tons of food, coal, and other necessities to the besieged city. At the peak of the airlift, planes were landing every ninety seconds in West Berlin. After eleven months and 277,000 Allied flights, the Soviets were forced to abandon the blockade. The airlift saved West Berlin and frustrated the blockade. It also solidified the ties between the people of West Germany and the Western Powers, who now viewed Germans living in western Berlin as good democrats and partners in the fight against Communism. West Berliners were also deeply appreciative of western efforts against the Russians. Only four short years after the end of World War II, the western sectors of Berlin had been transformed in western eyes from a bastion of Nazism to the symbolic last outpost of democracy under threat in Europe.
In 1949, the division between the Soviet and Western zones of Germany became official. Two separate German states were established, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or West Germany, under Western influence, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East, under Soviet influence. According to the Potsdam agreement, however, these states were to be considered temporary. In the West, an economic upswing already promised the return to normal life. Life in East Germany, however, underwent serious changes.
Sovietization & Its International Consequences
In July 1952, on Stalin’s order, East German Communist Party General Secretary Walter Ulbricht initiated an intensification of Sovietization. The growing concentration on heavy industry further exacerbated the shortage of food and consumer goods. Authorities also hoped to increase the required work and quotas for the same wages, which was meant to take effect on June 30, 1953. As a result of the harsh living conditions, thousands fled from the East. This mass emigration led to a “brain drain,” the flight of qualified workers. In response to the emigrations and hoping to lessen Stalin’s demands prior to his death in March 1953, Soviet authorities ordered East Germany to loosen its stronghold. However, the damage had already been done.
On June 17, a general strike erupted at the Stalin-Allee construction site. The boulevard, which was meant to be the leading achievement of GDR reconstruction in East Berlin, was now overflowing with tens of thousands of protestors who not only marched against the unfair working conditions, but also against Communist control. Within a few hours, Soviet troops and tanks had opened fire and cleared the area. It is estimated that as many as several hundred died, although the exact number remains unclear. June 1953 became a defining moment in East German identity and solidified the government’s ties to their Soviet backers. As a result of the protest and in true Soviet style, the GDR intensified the surveillance of its citizens through the use of the Stasi, the state secret police.
In 1955, in response to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was an organization of Western countries that vowed to defend one another against attack, the Soviet Union forced its Eastern European satellites to sign the Warsaw Pact. The Pact was similar to NATO in that it promised mutual military aid and was the military counterpart to COMECON.
Despite the Warsaw Pact, in 1956, the Soviets were again forced to enter the Bloc to ensure their power. A student protest erupted in Budapest on October 23 and soon grew into a mass demonstration across the whole of Hungary, which led to the collapse of the government. The Soviets, however, were unwilling to lose their grip on the country, sending in an enormous force to regain control. Several thousand Hungarians died, and the invasion showed what the Soviets were capable of in order to retain control.
In 1957, the Western countries saw a need to further integrate their economies in order to match the East. The Treaty of Rome sought to break down economic barriers and establish a common market for West European goods, thereby creating the European Economic Community (EEC), the capitalist answer to COMECON. The common market established standardized regulation of goods and labor and abolished protective tariffs between member nations (originally, France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg). It was thought that uniting former enemies economically would help to prevent further conflicts. The European Economic Community (in addition to the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951 by the Paris Treaty to create a common market for those products specifically, and the European Atomic Energy Community [EURATOM]), established in 1958 to regulate the distribution of nuclear power, eventually formed the basis of the European Union and grew to include 28 member states.
Exodus West & Enforced Division
The further integration of the West (and especially West Germany) no doubt put the Soviets on edge. By 1958, the USSR sought once more to push the Western powers out of West Berlin, demanding that all representatives of Western countries leave Berlin. Nikita Khrushchev, who assumed leadership of the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death, issued an ultimatum that led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from East Germany via West Berlin. Allied troops did not move, however, and the ultimatum was rescinded a month later.
Despite the political crises and heightened tensions between the FRG and the GDR, the border between East and West Berlin still remained somewhat permeable. Residents from the East were able to hold jobs in the West and could visit friends and family there. Moreover, between 1949 and 1961, more than 2.5 million East Germans fled to the West. Some resettled in West Berlin, but most quickly completed the political step they had taken by making themselves part of the West German economy.
On arrival (by foot, by subway, or surface transportation, which still connected the sectors of Berlin), refugees from East Germany were directed to the West Berlin suburb of Marienfelde and the busy reception center devoted to registering and the initial processing of newcomers. Few East German refugees chose to remain in West Berlin. Not only was the employment picture less promising compared with the burgeoning prosperity of West Germany, but, as the newcomers knew only too well, West Berlin was still surrounded by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces prepared to swallow the city and its inhabitants on short notice. Instead, the recent arrivals, with new identification papers, were promptly flown to Hanover or Frankfurt for further processing. After a week or two spent in a second reception center, marked by more screening and indoctrination to life in the West, the new “Bundesbürger,” as citizens of the Federal Republic, were released to tackle the job market and begin a new life in the capitalist world.
To stem the flow of refugees from the GDR through Berlin, the East German government had long sought Russian authorization to cut off all access to West Berlin.
On August 13, 1961, GDR soldiers and labor gangs began erecting fence posts and barbed wire along the border separating the Soviet and western sectors of the city. All streets connecting the eastern and western sectors of the city were blocked, subway lines that crossed the border were closed, and telephone service between the two sectors was abruptly cut off. The Berlin Wall eventually stood 13 feet high and extended 43 kilometers (roughly 27 miles) within the city. Another 112 kilometers (approximately 70 miles) of fortified barriers, known as the “outer ring,” encircled the city, enclosing Berlin. Along much of the eastern side of the inner city wall ran a broad “death strip’” surrounded by a smaller wall and electrified wire fence. The only points of passage along the wall were 11 closely guarded openings, the most famous being “Checkpoint Charlie,” which was initially designated for military and diplomatic traffic. During the remainder of August, an additional 25,605 East Germans managed to escape through remaining gaps in the Wall. Soon after, soldiers were given orders to shoot at refugees trying to flee. Between August 1961 and November 1989, at least 81 people were killed trying to escape; another 5,000 made it to the West and about as many tried, but failed. No longer divided merely by the metaphoric “Iron Curtain,” Berlin, Germany, and Europe were now divided by a reinforced cement wall.
West Berlin was now more than ever an island within the surrounding German Democratic Republic (GDR). At the same time, it became the quintessential symbol of Western freedom, in contrast to a system of government that had to wall in its citizens to prevent them from leaving. This message was emphasized by President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech delivered in 1963 to thousands of Berliners in front of City Hall in the Schoenberg district of West Berlin. From 1949 until the formal establishment of two states on August 13, 1961, more than 2.5 million Germans had fled the GDR to the West, the majority of whom did so through West Berlin. Despite ongoing political tensions, the border between the two sides remained open until the Wall was built. Residents on both sides were able to hold jobs in West or East Berlin and visit family members on either side. The Wall immediately divided the two cities physically, leaving many individuals suddenly separated from and unable even to contact family and friends or their employment.