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6 November 2019

A tale of two cities

Thirty years ago this month the Berlin Wall came down and with it a stand-off between East and West that had defined the era of the Cold War.

By David Reynolds

What was all the fuss about? Traverse the windswept expanse of concrete and glass that is Potsdamer Platz. Ascend the spiral walkway into the Bundestag’s glass dome to survey the parliamentarians below. Walk through the Brandenburg Gate and along Unter den Linden to the Museum Island. Berlin in 2019 seems like any other classic European tourist city.

It is hard now to imagine Potsdamer Platz as a wasteland, the Reichstag in ruins and the Brandenburg Gate blocked off by concrete and barbed wire. Difficult to remember why Berlin was, for 40 years, the flashpoint of the Cold War. Because since the Berlin Wall fell, the city has been transformed. So it’s worth going back before the heady days of 1989, to remind ourselves that foreign policy is always a gamble. Nikita Khrushchev, the earthy Soviet leader of the 1950s, called Berlin the “balls” of the West. “Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”

This was where Europe’s Cold War nearly caught fire. Yet building the Wall actually turned Berlin into the “balls” of the Kremlin. And eventually the Wall fell without a war. But few imagined that before 1989. “Statesmanship” is the word we use for a gamble that pays off.

In the 1920s Potsdamer Platz was known as the busiest intersection in Europe. Like the Reichstag, it became a casualty of the Second World War, as Berlin was ravaged by Allied bombing and Soviet shells. The Red Army took possession of the city on 2 May 1945, and for a fortnight the high command turned a blind eye to the brutal rapes perpetrated by their troops on German women. All through the summer the Soviets systematically looted Berlin’s industry – sending everything usable back to Moscow, from industrial machinery and railway track down to furniture and bathroom fittings.

The USSR’s Western allies – America, Britain and France – weren’t allowed into Berlin until 4 July. When Winston Churchill and his entourage toured the ruined city on 16 July, they poked about in the rubble of the Reich Chancellery and inspected Hitler’s upturned desk. Gazing at the “evisceration” of people’s homes – clothes, shoes, bedding – Churchill’s doctor, Charles Moran, felt a rush of nausea: “It was like the first time I saw a surgeon open a belly and the intestines gushed out.”

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A good deal of West Berlin’s debris became an artificial hill in the Grunewald district known as Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) – some 80 metres high. Now grassed over, its flat summit is a popular spot for Berliners at weekends where they can enjoy the views, fly kites and model planes, or ski in winter. Many visitors don’t realise they are standing on a Trümmerberg – a mountain of rubble from the Hitlerzeit.


Long before the ruins were cleared, however, Berlin had moved from world war into Cold War. Officially the occupation of the city, like the country, was supposed to be a cooperative business among the four victor powers – the US, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union. The plan was to de-Nazify and demilitarise Germany, create a new democratic government and then leave. But the Soviets – having lost a seventh of their population between 1941 and 1945 – had no intention of enduring another German war. What they had, they would hold. And they also blocked any agreement on economic recovery, because that was the way to keep Germany – once the strongest power in Europe – at the level of a barter economy. American cigarettes became the main medium of exchange, with the price of butter or eggs set against a packet of Lucky Strikes.

On 20 June 1948, the Western powers broke the deadlock by introducing a new currency, the Deutschmark, into their occupation zones in western Germany and also into their sectors of Berlin. Overnight, goods reappeared in the shops. In retaliation, Stalin blocked access to Berlin by road, rail and river and cut off the supply of electricity. Since the city was located deep within the Soviet zone, the Western presence in Berlin now seemed untenable. But Washington and London – mindful of the tragedy of appeasement in the 1930s and the slide to war – decided they must make a stand. They did so by taking to the air.

The airlift, or Luftbrücke (air bridge) as the Germans called it, was a triumph of persistent improvisation. To feed some 2.2 million West Berliners required 4,500 tons of food and fuel a day – and those were only the basic necessities. The runways at Templehof and Gatow had to be vastly improved; a new airfield was built at Tegel. Together these handled 277,000 flights in 462 days: at the airlift’s peak, planes landed every 90 seconds. At any time they could have been shot down by Soviet fighters, but Stalin would not risk war. He had assumed the blockade would make the West abandon currency reform. Both sides gambled. Stalin lost.


During 1949 Germany was officially divided in two. The Federal Republic (FRG), formed from the three Western zones, established its capital in the sleepy Rhineland city of Bonn; while the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), with its capital in East Berlin. The new GDR government under Walter Ulbricht embarked on a crash programme of Stalinisation, investing mostly in heavy industry, which undermined food supply and living standards. Meanwhile the non-Soviet sectors of Berlin became an isolated outpost of the West within the GDR.

The Kremlin was initially ambivalent about its new client state. The GDR was not viable economically, and Stalin’s successors feared that the cost of propping it up would prove a huge liability. But when strikes in East Berlin in June 1953 over wages and prices sparked riots across the GDR, the Soviets decided to send in the tanks to crush the uprising and restore order. In 1954 the USSR recognised the GDR as a sovereign state and began pouring in huge amounts of aid.

The border with the FRG was sealed by the GDR authorities in 1952-53, but Berlin remained the regime’s weak point. Between 1949 and 1961, as many as three million East Germans went west. The GDR was the only Soviet bloc country to experience a net decline of population in the 1950s. Most of the refugees were young and skilled – people vital for the economy. The Soviets were also concerned that the US and its Nato allies had not extended diplomatic recognition to the GDR, while making West Germany a member of the alliance and deploying nuclear weapons on its soil.

Anxious to retrieve the situation, Nikita Khrushchev sparked a new crisis over West Berlin. On 27 November 1958 he denounced it as “a malignant tumour” on which he was going to do “some surgery”. He gave the West six months to negotiate a German peace treaty and transform West Berlin into a “free city” – demilitarised, neutral and self-governing. If not, he warned, the USSR would hand over all its rights to Ulbricht’s government – thereby forcing the West to recognise the GDR if it wanted to retain access to West Berlin.

Like Harry Truman ten years earlier, President Dwight D Eisenhower considered the Soviet action a test of US credibility. If America succumbed to Soviet pressure, he told his son John, “then no one in the world could have any confidence in any pledge we make”. Yet, as a retired five-star general, “Ike” was deeply unhappy that “our political posture requires us to assume military positions that are wholly illogical”.

Khrushchev was a gambler not a strategist. He hoped to scare the West into talks. “What if negotiations don’t work?” his son Sergei asked. “Then we’ll try something else,” his father responded irritably. “Something will always turn up.”

It didn’t. Khrushchev managed to attract attention – he even became the first Soviet leader to visit the US and to address the United Nations – but there were no breakthroughs on Berlin. The deadline was quietly dropped but the Kremlin ratcheted up the pressure periodically, especially when Khrushchev thought he could browbeat Eisenhower’s young successor, John F Kennedy. Face-to-face in Vienna in June 1961, the two leaders turned Berlin into a test of diplomatic virility during their acrimonious summit.

Khrushchev was also under pressure from Ulbricht. The East German leader wanted to annex West Berlin, thereby excising the Western cancer within his state and boosting GDR prestige. Khrushchev considered that far too risky. According to his biographer William Taubman, he believed West Berlin was “the lever” with which to break the international deadlock, while for Ulbricht it was simply “the prize”. Nor could Khrushchev ignore the growing East German exodus (5,000 during the Easter weekend of 1961 alone) – even though he brushed the problem off when questioned by the US ambassador Llewellyn Thompson. The total population of West Berlin, Khrushchev sniggered, was equivalent to “one night’s work” by Soviet couples.

Shake on it: John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev meet at the US Embassy in Vienna, June 1961. Ron Case/Getty

On 12-13 August 1961, the East Germans erected barbed wire fences along the entire border between West Berlin and the GDR and also between West and East Berlin – some 96 miles in all. It was months before they completed the full network of concrete blocks, death strips, watchtowers and bunkers, but the fence was crucial diplomatically. Khrushchev did not intend to go ahead with the wall until he had seen Western reactions to the wire.

The mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, condemned the events of 13 August as “an outrageous injustice”. If nothing were done, he warned the White House, West Berlin would become a demoralised ghetto. But Brandt’s appeal was unavailing. Kennedy made clear US determination to defend West Berlin but he had no intention of using force to reopen East Berlin, telling aides “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”. His European allies were also relieved that the crisis had been resolved. With Berlin, as with Germany, division brought stability. As the French writer François Mauriac put it, “I love Germany so much that I’m glad there are two of them.”

In a tactical sense, Khrushchev had won. He had squeezed the West’s balls, and got away with it. With West Berlin sealed off, the flow of refugees became a trickle and Ulbricht felt safe enough to embark on some Khrushchev-style de-Stalinisation, boosting consumer living standards. It was the start of the GDR’s modernisation into the Soviet bloc’s shop window. But the Wall in fact proved a huge propaganda own goal for the Kremlin. It became a standing reminder of Soviet coercion, especially since people kept trying to get free – jumping from windows, cutting the wire, tunnelling beneath the Wall, even ballooning over it.

In August 1962 18-year-old Peter Fechter was left to bleed to death under the Wall after being shot by GDR guards. The grisly images went round the world. Today, his memorial stone on the spot reads “He just wanted freedom”.

In June 1963, when Kennedy finally visited Berlin to help mark the 15th anniversary of the airlift, he addressed a cheering crowd at the city hall, looking out over the divide. To those around the globe who claimed not to understand “the great issue between the free world and the communist world”, the president’s response was simple. “Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.” 

Despite the Wall, Berlin remained a cockpit of the Cold War. In the 1950s, the relatively easy interaction of east and west had made the city the spy capital of Europe. After the Wall went up, the focus shifted from human to signals intelligence. On top of the rubble mountain of the Teufelsberg, “Field Station Berlin”, a state-of-the-art listening post, enabled US and British intelligence to eavesdrop on the radio traffic of the Warsaw Pact. The domes are still there, surrounded by decaying buildings covered in street art.

On the edge of the city, the Glienecke Bridge between Potsdam in the GDR and Wannsee in West Berlin became known as the “Bridge of Spies”, partly because it was the site of several East-West spy swaps but largely thanks to the hype surrounding Cold War novels and films set in the city by John le Carré and Len Deighton.

Yet the real Berlin was moving on. Willy Brandt never forgot his sense of disillusion with Kennedy. In 1961, he wrote in his memoirs, “A curtain was drawn aside to reveal an empty stage.” With no hope of Allied help for German reunification in the foreseeable future, Brandt developed a new policy of détente, which he implemented as the FRG’s chancellor between 1969 and 1974. Rather than insist that détente could only follow reunification Brandt and his aide Egon Bahr advocated “change through rapprochement” on the grounds that “small steps are better than none”. This meant starting with “the situation as it is”, to quote Brandt’s foreign minister Walter Scheel, without judging whether it was “good or not”.


In the early Seventies a flurry of agreements were signed by West Germany (and its allies) with the Soviet bloc. For Brandt the emotional heart of this détente was recognising the fact, though not the principle, of an East German state. This kept open the possibility of eventual reunification while allowing a web of human contact to be woven between the two Germanies and especially the two Berlins – via mail and telephone and the operation of the city’s S-Bahn railways. Above all, people could move to and fro with less harassment: in 1975 some four million visits were permitted between the two halves of Berlin as families and friends made contact again.

Each visit chipped away at the GDR’s policy of Abgrenzung, or strict segregation, in the hope that human interaction would gradually bring about political change. In the short term, however, détente shored up the GDR. There were extensive credits from Bonn, increased trade, aid to Protestant churches in the GDR, and the fees extracted in hard currency from Western visitors. In these and many other ways, West Germany kept East Germany going.

Boosted by détente, West Berlin itself also prospered. It started to attract young Germans, particularly men, since West Berliners were exempt from conscription into the FRG armed forces. Foreign guest workers also flocked in, particularly Turks, swelling the non-German population to nearly 300,000 in 1989 (out of a total of some two million). Business and tourism flourished.

Not to be outdone, East Berlin turned the old Alexanderplatz into a modernist open space with a TV tower that was the highest building in Germany at 365 metres: one for every day of the year – though prudently a little shorter than its counterpart in Moscow.

Despite the changes since 1961, however, this was still a tale of two cities. As the White House aide Peter Robinson saw quite clearly in 1987, when he flew across the city in a US army helicopter: “On one side of the wall lay movement, colour, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks, traffic. On the other lay a kind of void. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. Cars appeared few and decrepit, pedestrians badly dressed.”

During the Eighties the East-West confrontation ebbed and flowed. The collapse of arms control talks in 1981 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 ushered in a “New Cold War”. Then a dynamic new Soviet leader initiated a new round of détente. Mikhail Gorbachev developed an unlikely rapport with Ronald Reagan who, despite his hawkish image, shared Gorbachev’s abhorrence of nuclear weapons.

Preparations for the 30-year anniversary, Berlin​. Tobia Schwarz/AFP via Getty

Let old habits die hard. When Reagan was attacked by Republican hawks in 1987 for going soft on communism, the old actor decided to reprise Kennedy and squeeze Moscow’s balls. Standing with his back to the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate on 12 June 1987, the president declaimed: “Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” According to Robinson, who helped write the speech, those lines caused a battle royal with the US State Department. Diplomats did not want to upset the new détente with Moscow and favoured something anodyne and impersonal like, “One day, this ugly wall will disappear.” But Reagan held out. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he smiled, “but it’s the right thing to do.” (Not least because it appeased the right.)

Despite Reagan’s theatrics, the Wall’s disappearance “one day” in the future seemed the likeliest outcome. During 1989 the GDR regime prepared lavish celebrations in East Berlin for the 40th anniversary of their state in October, with Gorbachev the guest of honour. The GDR’s aged leader Erich Honecker blustered that “the wall will still stand in fifty and even a hundred years”. But during the summer the Soviet bloc began to crumble, as reform gathered pace in Poland and Hungary and protests shook the GDR. The inner-German border was still sealed and the Wall unbreached but, after the Hungarian government decided in April 1989 to open its border with neutral Austria, East Germans had a chance to escape by the back door. And they did – driving their clunky Trabants to Lake Balaton and then slipping across to freedom. (All East Germans had an automatic right to citizenship in the Federal Republic.)

The 40th anniversary events in East Berlin on 6-7 October took on a surreal air. Despite intense stage management, crowds chanted “Perestroika” and “Gorby, help us”. Even though the two leaders did manage the de rigueur comradely smooch, they were barely able to exchange a civil word. Gorbachev regarded Honecker as a “scumbag”, presiding over “a boiling pot with the lid tightly shut”, while the East German did not conceal his utter contempt for this betrayer of Marxism-Leninism. In private, Gorbachev gave the GDR Politburo a stiff wake-up call about the need for urgent reform – distilled by his press spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov into the soundbite “Life punishes those who come too late”.

But as Kristina Spohr points out in her new book, Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989, in a speech on 6 October Gorbachev rejected Reaganesque demands that Moscow dismantle the Wall in order to prove its “peaceful intentions”. While declaring that “we don’t idealise the order that has settled on Europe”, he insisted that “recognition of the postwar reality has insured peace on the continent”. In other words, division meant stability.

The end of the Wall came as suddenly as its beginning. Once the farce of the 40th anniversary celebration was over, popular demonstrations escalated, the Politburo toppled Honecker and the new GDR regime desperately started to reform. An easing of the travel law was one of the sops offered. It was, of course, too late. And the punishment was both swift and fatal. When a harassed press spokesman, Günter Schabowksi, garbled the details and said that the revised travel regulations would take effect “immediately, right away”, the news went viral on the evening of Thursday 9 November. East Germans converged on the Wall’s checkpoints to find out for themselves. The outnumbered border guards, faced with thousands of people demanding they “open the gate”, eventually decided to let the crowds through without checks or papers.

Over that weekend two or three million East Germans went into West Berlin. They used the “welcome money” the FRG gave to all East German citizens who entered the West to buy scarcities like bananas or sample the delights of McDonald’s. Most returned home, but it was clear that the end of the GDR was now a matter of time. The state had survived in a cage, and now the door was open. Opened, too, on one of the most emotive days in modern Germany’s historical calendar. On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the country exploded into revolution. On that same day in 1923, Adolf Hitler first came to prominence with his abortive Munich putsch. Worst of all, in 1938 the pogrom of Reichskristallnacht presaged the Holocaust. So 1989 helped give 9 November a different and happier meaning – but not sufficiently so to make it acceptable as the day for German unification a year later. This took place on 3 October 1990.


One of the protestors’ slogans in 1989 was “The Wall must go!” (Die Mauer muss weg!) and that’s what happened – fast. Small chunks were hacked away as souvenirs; whole sections were shipped off to museums or memorials around the world. And most Berliners wanted to bulldoze the past and rebuild their city: in some places a double line of cobblestones was soon all that remained to mark where the Wall had stood. It wasn’t until November 2004, the 15th anniversary, that some private citizens started to press for memorials to the Wall’s victims. Many tourists were asking “Where is the Wall?” and opinion polls indicated that an alarming number of Berliners under the age of 30 did not know what had happened on 9 November 1989.

The city slowly agreed an overall plan (Gesamtkonzept) for memorialisation, centred on a new documentation centre and a specially preserved section of the Wall along Bernauerstrasse. The aims were both negative and positive: to remember the victims (and the perpetrators) but also to celebrate the role of East German citizens in toppling the Wall peacefully. This offered a new narrative for a united and democratic Germany.

Yet, as the historian Hope Harrison remarks, “For at least as long as there are still survivors of the Cold War division of Germany, no one narrative about the Berlin Wall will be supported by all Germans.” The experiences of living in the FRG and the GDR were profoundly different and each left an enduring legacy. The Wall has gone. But not Der Mauer im Kopf. That “wall in the head” remains. 

David Reynolds’s latest book is “Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit” (William Collins)