The city of Berlin became a centerpiece of the Cold War, playing a particularly significant role in Europe. East met West in this divided city where the Berlin wall was a tangible symbol of the "Iron Curtain."
After World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones administered by four nations: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Berlin, located in the Soviet occupation zone which was to become East Germany, was itself similarly divided into four sectors. Communism was instituted in the area controlled by the U.S.S.R. while the governments in the three remaining areas were modeled after the political systems of the West.
The open border between the Soviet sector and the Western controlled sectors in Berlin allowed hundreds of thousands of East Europeans to escape Soviet rule and persercution. Not only did this have a negative impact upon the economies of East Europe, but it served as a political embarrassment for the Soviet Union.
The three Western powers and the the U.S.S.R. were in conflict over the future political structure of Germany. The Western nations began to carry out their plans, which included a common currency for the three zones and three sectors controlled by them, in 1948. The Soviet Union objected to their plans for a common currency and threatened to blockade Berlin if they did not yield. The four nations were unable to resolve the issue, so on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union stopped all shipments to Berlin from West Germany and cut off electricity to the three Western sectors of Berlin, leaving about 2.5 million people without future supplies and without power.
The Berlin blockade lasted 320 days as Great Britain and the United States supplied up to 13,000 tons of food, fuel, and other items daily in an airlift codenamed "Operation Vittles" to the West Berlin. A total of 200,000 flights were made and a total of 1.5 million tons in supplies were delivered. Finally, the blockade ended on May 12, 1949 and the Soviet Union gave in to Western plans.
An uprising occurred in East Germany in 1953 which culminated in a general strike on June 17, 1953 to protest the lowering of wages and the lack of significant political and economic changes. Tens of thousands of workers striked and there were large demonstrations. This uprising, however, was swiftly put down by Soviet troops.
The border between East and West Germany began to close with the placement of barbed wire and machine-gun nests. Yet the Berlin border remained open until 1961 due to an agreement of 1949. In its continued use as an escape route, an estimated 2,750,000 East Europeans crossed over into Western territory, despite East Germany's attempts at regulation.
On August 12, 1961, the decision was made by the East German government to close the Berlin border. The next day, just minutes after midnight, East German troops erected barbed wire barricades and roadblocks.
This move came as a surprise to the West. To lessen criticism, East Germany still permitted some movement between the two halves of Berlin. Meanwhile, construction of the Berlin wall begun on August 17. Initially, it was six feet tall with barbed wire atop it along most of its length, but it was quickly rebuilt and reinforced. Guard dogs, machine-gun nests, flood lights, and observation towers were added. The Soviet Union later agreed to not block traffic to West Berlin through East Germany. From 1961 to 1981, there were 37,800 cases where people successfully traversed the Berlin wall from the East to the West. There were over one-hundred killed in attempts to climb over it.
The Berlin border reopened in November 1989, followed nearly a year later by the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990.