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date: 09 May 2021


A Dictionary of Contemporary World History

Christopher Riches,

Jan Palmowski


The German capital which came to epitomize the Cold War. It surrendered to the Russian troops on 2 May 1945, but according to the Yalta Conference was divided into four sectors which were administered separately by the four victorious Allied powers, France, the UK, the USA, and the USSR. Even though in subsequent years most powers were passed on to the civilian local authorities, the four powers continued to hold sovereignty over the city until 1990.

Despite an initial commitment to cooperation, relations between the Western Allies and the USSR deteriorated rapidly., Matters came to a head when reform of the West German currency was also carried out in Western Berlin. In an attempt to assert its control over all of Berlin, the USSR closed all roads, canals, and railway lines leading into the western part of the city. In response, the American and British air forces organized the Berlin Airlift (24 June 1948–12 May 1949). In almost 200,000 flights (one flight about every three minutes) the Allies supplied the western half of the city with 1.5 million tons of goods and enabled the city to survive, forcing the USSR to give up after eleven months. This impressive display of resolve in the first direct confrontation of the Cold War effectively guaranteed the security of the western half of Berlin against any further attempted encroachments from the USSR or East Germany. As living standards improved in West Germany (and West Berlin) in the following years, and as dissatisfaction with the East German regime grew, more and more East German citizens moved to West Germany by crossing into West Berlin.

In response, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall (13 August 1961) to stop this exodus particularly of young and skilled people. West Berlin became surrounded by a complex system of watchtowers, manned with guards ready to shoot to kill, minefields, and underground corridors to enable quick movement of the border guards. It is estimated that 125 people were killed in the attempt to cross it. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 became the most potent symbol of a new world order that emerged with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Since the status of Berlin had been at the heart of the division of Germany, the event also paved the way for German reunification. Berlin once again became the capital of Germany, and the united city became the epitome of many of the difficulties between the Eastern and Western halves of Germany.

See German Question