Berlin Crisis U.S. Department of Seal
Department of State

At the end of World War II Berlin, former capital of the Third Reich, was a divided city in a divided country. The wartime Allies--the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union--originally intended Berlin's division as a symbol of Germany's defeat. Within 3 years, however, Berlin was transformed from the capital of tyranny to an island of freedom; a symbol, not of Germany's defeat, but of the emerging Cold War. The Berlin problem was an accident, the result of bad planning and Cold War tensions. On the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and a victim of the inability of the East and West to agree on German unification, Berlin was caught in a recurring cycle of crisis and resolution, pitting the legality of Western rights against the reality of Soviet power. In fact, the history of Berlin--the Berlin Blockade, the East Berlin uprising, the Berlin Quadripartite Agreement, and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall--reflects the history of the Cold War itself.

The cycle began in June 1948, when the Soviet Union instituted a blockade of Berlin to protest Western efforts to integrate their zones of occupation in western Germany. By restricting access to the city, the Soviets hoped to force the Western Allies to abandon a recently undertaken currency reform and possibly Berlin itself. The United States and its allies responded with a massive airlift that delivered supplies to the people of Berlin and generated overwhelming popular support in return. By the time the blockade was lifted in May 1949, the Allies had established not only the Federal Republic of Germany but also the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Soviets suffered a major defeat in the first Berlin crisis (1948-49), and the division of Berlin became a permanent picture of Cold War geography.

If the Berlin airlift showed that the West could resist Soviet aggression, the 1953 East Berlin popular uprising showed that the opportunities for such resistance were limited. On June 16, 1953, in a direct challenge to East German authority, workers in East Berlin rose to protest government demands to increase productivity. Although the Soviets quickly suppressed the revolt, the uprising was an unprecedented episode in the Cold War; it was the first time the people had openly opposed communism in eastern Europe. The United States and its allies offered only moral support, a pattern that would be repeated elsewhere, particularly in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

The next crisis in Berlin (1958-1962) demonstrated that neither the Western nor Eastern blocs could unilaterally change the city's status without the risk of direct confrontation. In November 1958 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev delivered an ultimatum: if the West did not agree to solve the Berlin problem within 6 months, he would reach a separate peace agreement with East Germany. The Soviet offensive, which soon included proposals for a comprehensive German peace treaty, threatened to expose the Allied position not only in Berlin but also in West Germany, where the politics of reunification frequently clashed with the policy of rearmament. The Allies quickly responded with an offer of formal negotiations. The two sides were talking in May 1959 when the first deadline passed without incident. Meanwhile, the exodus of skilled workers from East Germany to the West threatened to expose the Soviet position in eastern Europe.

At the Vienna Summit in June 1961, Khrushchev reiterated his threat to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany if the West did not come to terms over Berlin by the end of the year. Rather than submit to such pressure, President John F. Kennedy replied that it would be a "cold winter." When he returned to the United States, Kennedy faced instead a summer of decision. On July 25 he announced plans to meet the Soviet challenge in Berlin, including a dramatic buildup of American conventional forces and drawing the line on interference with Allied access to West Berlin. This warning, in fact, contained the basis for resolving the crisis. On August 13 the East German Government, supported by Khrushchev, finally closed the border between East and West Berlin by erecting what eventually became the most concrete symbol of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall. Although the citizens of Berlin reacted to the wall with outrage, many in the West--certainly within the Kennedy administration--reacted with relief. The wall interfered with the personal lives of the people but not with the political position of the Allies in Berlin. The result was a "satisfactory" stalemate--the Soviets did not challenge the legality of Allied rights, and the Allies did not challenge the reality of Soviet power.

Additional Reading:
Hope Millard Harrison. Driving the Soviets Up the Wall: Soviet East German Relations (Princeton University Press, 2003).
W.R. Smyser. From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999).