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Essay: The Division of Germany: How World War II Shaped the Nation’s Fate

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: World War II

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On the 7th of May, 1945, Germany surrendered the war, three days prior to Germany’s surrender Hitler killed himself along side his wife, Eva Braun. Joseph Goebbels also killed himself, his wife and his six children only a few days after Hitler committed suicide.

With the end of the war, it was decided by Churchill, Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt that Germany should be divided up into four different zones for France, America, Britain and Russia. It was discussed two years prior to the end of the war at the Moscow Foreign Ministers’ Conference that the allied powers main task after the war was to construct a new order in Germany. This lead to the division and occupation of Germany. The allies wanted to implement certain precautions with Germany given its history in being a driving force behind  three major wars, two of which turned into world wars.

The division of Germany was significant because it affected the life of an entire nation for the prevailing nearly four and a half decades, from 1945 until the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1990. The Potsdam Conference, which was held in July and August, 1945, was an attempt to try and resolve the confusion which was shared with the ‘big three’.   Churchill and Roosevelt thought that they had convinced Stalin to accept a political division of Germany, while allowing it to remain as a single economic unit. However, it is understood that Stalin had every intention of doing otherwise in running the Soviet zone as a separate political and economic unit under communist rule.

With few arrangements set in place by the former Allies, Germany became an ideal location for competition to arise between the emerging Cold War enemies. The division of Germany and the intent to develop a joint administration for Germany failed because Stalin had other intentions.

In the West, the agenda was to rebuild Germany politically and economically so that it could be both independent and self sufficient, to  stand on its own two feet and support itself. The US became extremely confident that Germany would recover quickly, but they were also confident in the strength of their defences against Germany.  They believed it could counter any threat from Germany with the threat of the atomic bomb. The US was far more worried about Russia than they were of a new German uprising. Nazism had become a dead force, communism was the new menace.

It agreed that France should get a zone to administer as they had suffered at the hands of the Germans. The French, like Russia, sought to exercise their influence and control and felt that they had the right to control the flow and resources and commerce.  They sought to strip their zone of food, raw materials and whole factories as a repayment. The Soviet’s plan was to strip East Germany of all of its machines and resources and they wanted to set up a strong communist government that would make sure that Germany didn’t have the chance to re-arm its forces. Stalin was fearful that Germany might still somehow re-arm and cause a threat that would result in another war.

1.1 The First and Second Conflict

The first conflict between the US/UK and Russia was over the reparations that the US was supplying to the Soviet zone. In May 1946, the US/UK became aware that Russia was stripping its German zone of wealth and resource and driving in to poverty.  It became apparent to the western allies that the likelihood of the eastern zone, now controlled by Russia, being able to rebuild at all was remote.  They were struggling to even be able to feed the population.  Three million people started fleeing the USSR zone to zones controlled by the western allies. The US then refused to send any more reparations from the US zone to the USSR, until it loosened its communist policies, stripping the population of power and resource.

The second conflict between the powers was over a new economic zone that the US/UK decided to create in January 1947, this was called Bizonia.   Bizonia became the consolidation of the two zones  previously controlled by each of these western governments and became a single economic unit. The French later joined the zone in August 1948 creating Western Germany under democratic philosophies.  This was in stark contrast to Stalin’s communism East Germany building on existing tensions.  

1.2 The Development of the Federal & Communist Government in Germany

The Western powers had begun to give some political freedom back to the German people in the western sector. The idea behind giving some political freedom to the German people was so that they could begin their political recovery as a nation. State governments were set up in all three zones and elections were held through 1946 – 1947. The most powerful political party to emerge was the conservative Christian Democratic Union. This was one of four political parties to emerge in the post war era under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer. In June 1948, a proper constituent assembly was elected to represent the three western zones by one federal government. For the Allies to make sure that Germany did not recover and start fighting again, they prevented Germany from remilitarisation. They also put the German industry in the Ruhr Valley under international control. At the current time,  Adenauer and the other politicians like him were almost certain that West Germany would never be able to co-operate with the USSR zone.

Stalin became enraged at the development of the western powers in contrast to his more oppressive communist government. He also had the intention of dominating the whole of Germany. The USSR had been working hard to create a communist economy since July 1945. They nationalised all banks and collectivised all farms larger than 250 acres. In addition,  all citizens and businesses had to hand in their money, jewels and property titles to the state.   Communist style control was exerted in all aspects of the east German civilisation.  

The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) under Walter Ulbricht was by far the most powerful to emerge. The party later joined the Social Democratic Party and dominated the elections of 1946. With the western powers founding the German Economic Council, Stalin responded with his own version called the Economic Council for Eastern Germany. The Socialist Unity Party began to create a constitution for a seperate East German state in March 1948. By mid 1948, pressure led to the inexorable division of Germany into two political systems and two economic systems.

1.3 Events leading up to the Berlin Blockade

If the division of Germany was political only, there may not have been a problem between the powers. However as the USSR, US,UK and France began to develop different and conflicting economic zones and systems, Berlin became unbearable. The USSR felt as though it could not succeed in building a successful communist state if the East German people were allured by a more wealthy capitalist state next door, offering seemingly greater freedom and opportunity. The US were determined not to withdraw from Berlin because it would mean giving into USSR pressure which would again increase the potential for conflict.

The USSR came up with a quintessential way of wielding pressure onto the western powers to try and force them out of Berlin. The plan was to make all rail and road traffic go through the Russian zone, so that the USSR could control the flow of people in and out of Berlin and preventing the trains and cars from entering Berlin.  On the 30th March 1948, the USSR began to stop and search western military trains, thus leading the US and the UK to move troops by air instead.

On the 22 April 1948, the USSR cancelled the train express and tried to stop night time flights. The USSR then stopped all rail traffic for two days starting on the 11 June 1948. Seven days later on the 18 June 1948, the US, UK and France introduced a new currency to replace the highly inflated Reichsmark, in the western parts of Germany. With the current currency a worker was earning 300 – 400 RM per month while coffee could cost as much as 1,500 marks. To counter this, the USSR announced that it would introduce its own communist currency in its zone three days later on the 23 June 1948. Following the introduction of the new currency, West Germany’s economy boomed. In Berlin, people were left trying to decide whether they should convert their money into ‘Western’ or ‘Communist’ money.

The Role of Berlin During the Cold War

2. 1948/49 – Blockade/Airlift

The Berlin Blockade started on the 24 June 1948, with the USSR closing all road and rail traffic into Berlin. Not only did they block of access to Berlin by ground but they also cut the supply of power, leaving factories and offices unable to function. The Western allies instantly retaliated by imposing a blockade on the eastern sector of Berlin. With all roads and rail traffic entering Berlin closed, the Western allies now had to find a way to keep up supplies to more than two and a half million people who were isolated in Western Berlin. It was calculated that the Western allies would need to move 4,500 tons of food and fuel daily. Without the supplies, West Berlin would only have 36 days of food and 45 days of coal to survive on before they ran out, this meant a solution had to be found quickly.

Stalin was almost certain that it would be impossible for the western allies to find a way to supply Berlin. To Stalin, it seemed like an ideal way of forcing the allies out of Berlin. General Lucius Clay an American wanted to fight back against the Russians and he wanted to hold them off. He sent an armed convoy along the road and dared the Russians to shoot at it. It was quickly discovered that there was still the 1945 agreement with Russia that allowed for planes to be flown over Russian air-space, in only three specific ‘corridors’ each 20 miles wide. They were also allowed to fly into the two main Berlin airports, Tempelhof and Gatow.

2.1 The Berlin blockade starts

On the 26th June 1948, the US and the UK started the Berlin Airlift which went on for 320 days. The idea of suppling food and coal to West Berliners by plane was ingenious as Stalin had no way of stopping the planes without being forced to shoot them down. The only military action Stalin took against the airlift was having his fighter jet dive and swoop the larger planes.

Even though the airlift was very successful it was also quite dangerous; planes were heavily loaded and often flew in poor weather conditions. Planes that carried coal often got dust in their controls, causing the planes to fly poorly. The Americans later discovered how to fly with their hatches open, allowing air to circulate and blow the dust out. Not only did the planes have troubles, the pilots also became very fatigued despite the fact that they were limited to three flights per day. As the airlift went on the planes were able to unload their cargo at a much faster pace increasing the number of planes able to fly in and out of the airport. For example, one plane carried 9 tons of coal; the ground handlers learnt to unload the plane and turn it around in under 10 minutes.

2.2 The ‘Chocolate’ man

In January 1949, not only were they delivering 13,000 tons of food and coal on 1,400 planes daily but, they were also starting to put Berliners on outgoing flights. Gail Halvorsen, one of many Airlift operators, thought that he would fly into Berlin and make small movies on his camera in his ‘off time’. On the 17 July he landed at Tempelhof airport and walked over to a group of children who started asking him questions about the planes. Gail decided he would hand out two pieces of gum to the kids as a goodwill gesture. He was so impressed by how they divided up the gum and shared it as best as they could that he promised the children he would drop more candy to them.

On the next day, during his approach to Berlin, he dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below. Every day after that the number of children increased and he made several more drops.

As the blockade was dragging on the US tried tactics to scare the Russians, one tactic they tried was ‘nuclear posturing’. The US sent a flight of B29 bombers which were capable of carrying nuclear bombs to  a base in the UK, to make the Russians believe that they might bomb the Russian zone. However Truman did not want to start another war, even when General Clay again asked for a ‘shoot out convoy’, Truman simply refused and gave him more planes.

As the winter approached, life in West Berlin was becoming somewhat miserable, for the first time since the blockade, luckily it was the only time that it was miserable. Stalin used the winter to try and attract West Berliners into East Berlin by allowing them to buy food and take salvage as it was still light and warm. The blockade ended on the 12 May 1949. With the end of the blockade East Germany was set up, it was proclaimed in October 1949.

The Role of Berlin During the Cold War

3. 1953 – June Uprising

On the morning of the 16 June 1953, 300 East Berlin construction workers went on strike after a work quota was announced in July 1952 at the second party conference of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The workers marched down the Karl-Marx-Allee, towards the government buildings. The protest turned into a mass demonstration as more workers gathered as they walked first to the headquarters of the Free German Trade Union Federation. As the workers marched towards the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus thousand more workers joined the protest. Banners where held by the worker exclaiming “We want to be free, not slaves.” They also had signs asking that the work quota be decreased.

The next day, on the 17 June 40,000 protestors gathered in East Berlin, with more arriving throughout the day. The original demands of the workers to reinstate the previous lower work quotas turned into political demands. After their demands were not met the workers demanded the East German government to resign. The government reaction to this was to violently suppress the protesters and turned to the Soviet Union for military support. 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers were sent to quash the uprising.

The Role of Berlin During the Cold War

4. 1961 – The Wall

After the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, almost 3 million people fled from East Berlin to go to the West. In June 1961, 19,000 people fled and a month later 30,000. In August 16,000 people fled from the East in the first 11 days of the month and on the 12 August more than 2,400 people followed, this was the largest amount of people to leave East Germany in a single day.

That night the Soviet Premier Khrushchev gave permission to the East German government to close the border of East Germany and thus, stop the flow of emigrants. Over night on the 12 and 13 August 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected overnight. The East Germany army, police force and volunteer construction workers completed building a makeshift barbed wire and concrete block wall in just two weeks.

4.1 The Construction of the Wall

Before the wall went up Berliners on both sides of the city were able to cross and move around freely. Many people crossed to get into West Berlin to work, shop and watch movies. This also applied to people in the Western zone. There was also trains that took people back and forth from the West to the East. However after the wall was built it was impossible to get from East to West Berlin except through three checkpoints, “Checkpoint Alpha” at Helmstedt, “Checkpoint Bravo” at Dreilinden and “Checkpoint Charlie” which was in the centre of Berlin at Friedrichstrasse.

With the construction of the Wall, refugees stopped flowing out of the East into the West. The construction of the wall also provided stability between the US and the USSR. President Kennedy believed that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”. Over time the East Germans replaced the makeshift wall with a much larger and harder to climb wall. A new 12 foot tall, 4 foot wide reinforced concrete slabs with enormous pipe made climbing the wall practically impossible. Behind the massive slabs of concrete wall on the East German side was a massive dead zone which was covered with soft patterned sand to show footprints, floodlights, dog runs, trip-wire machine guns and soldiers that patrolled the area and had the order to kill anyone who tried to pass.

In total 171 people were killed trying to cross the wall by going under, over and around it. There may have been many more deaths but the Soviets covered up a lot very effectively. Even though it was thought that the wall was impossible to get over, around and under from East Germany more than 5,000 East Germans including 600 border guards managed to get over the wall. People dug tunnels, zip lined, flew a hot air balloon and jumped out of buildings adjacent to the wall to get over it.

The Role of Berlin During the Cold War

5. The Fall of the Wall

On November 9, 1989, the spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party announced that there would be a change in relations between the West and the East. He announced that citizens of the GDR would be allowed to cross the country’s borders. When a journalist asked him when they would be allowed to cross he stupidly replied with “now”.

Millions of people flocked to the wall and started drinking beer, partying and crossing through the gate into both East and West Berlin. None of the Guards had been notified that the gate was open and that people were allowed to pass.  There was confusion as to why there was millions of people at the wall all of a sudden. People began to use hammers and picks to break the wall down, until bulldozers and cranes later arrived to help demolish the wall.

The Role of Berlin During the Cold War

6. 1990 – Reunification

On 3 October, 1990, the German Reunification took place, East Germany and West Germany was incorporated into one nation. In August 1989, the Hungarian government removed its border restrictions with Austria and allowed their people to pass through. This was the first breach of the “iron curtain”. More than 13,000 East Germans had managed to escape into the west through Hungary, in September, 1989.

On 6 and 7 October, 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev visited the East Germany to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR, and pushed the East German leadership to accept that there would be change. Erich Honecker the East German leader did not want any change in the East. One month later on the 7 November the entire East  German Cabinet resigned. Two days later the new leadership removed the travel restrictions on the East Germans. Subsequently the Berlin Wall fell.

On 28 November, 1989, the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl put forward a 10-point plan for the reunification of the East and the West. Free elections would be put in place in the East and the two economies would be merged.

Germany officially reunified on 3 October, 1990, with the five federal states of East Germany joining West Germany. Germany then signed a treaty with Poland to set in place Germany’s boundaries as permanent on 14 November, 1990.  The first German only free elections since 1932 were held, they resulted in a majority for the coalition government whose Chancellor was Helmut Kohl.

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