Beginning at midnight on the 13th August 1961, East German police and army began to close the border with West Berlin. The barbed wire and mesh barrier that was constructed overnight was gradually replaced with a virtually impregnable ring of reinforced concrete that ran 155km around West Berlin.
The border between East and West Germany – sometimes referred to as the inner-German border – had been closed since 1952, although the crossing between East and West Berlin remained open. This easy access proved highly problematic for the Communist government of East Germany, since people comparing the two parts of the city found West Berlin to be much more appealing.
Berlin became a focal point for East Germans who wanted to move to the West, and by 1961 an estimated 20% of the entire population had emigrated. The majority were young, educated, and skilled professionals. This so-called “brain drain” seriously depleted the workforce, and was hugely damaging to the political credibility of East Germany.
The erection of the Berlin Wall was intended to put a stop both of these problems, although it was presented to the East German people as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”. The East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, had even denied any intention of building a wall just two months earlier despite pressuring USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev to support him doing just that.
The construction of the Wall turned Berlin overnight from the easiest way to cross between East and West into the most difficult. It cut people off from their jobs, and divided families. The crossing was not opened again for 28 years.
On the 26th June 1963 American President John F. Kennedy declared US support for West Berlin with the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” – I am a Berliner – 22 months after the Soviet-supported DDR, more commonly known as East Germany, built the Berlin Wall.
Berlin had been a focal point for Cold War tensions ever since the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 divided the city – and the rest of Germany – between the four victorious powers at the end of the Second World War. When the USSR imposed the Berlin Blockade from 1948-49, the Western allies made it clear that they were not willing to back down in their support for West Berlin by airlifting supplies into the city.
Although the airlift secured West Berlin’s survival, it further increased tensions between the USSR and its former allies as East Germans crossed the border in order to defect to the West. This placed an enormous economic strain on the East, which began suffering labour shortages. In response, the government of East Germany erected a barbed wire fence around West Berlin that eventually developed into the imposing Berlin Wall, although the government claimed that it was to keep out spies and agitators rather than stop people from leaving.
It was against this background of heightened tension that Kennedy delivered his rousing speech on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, the seat of the state senate of West Berlin. While the speech effectively recognised East Berlin as part of the Soviet Bloc, it also reaffirmed America’s commitment to defend West Berlin against Communist expansion.
West Germany’s Federal Archives revealed that forensic tests proved the Hitler Diaries were forgeries.
In the final days of the Second World War, an aeroplane carrying some of Hitler’s closest staff members crashed near the German border with Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s personal valet, Sergeant Wilhelm Arndt, was killed and the personal effects he was carrying on behalf of the Fuhrer were lost. On hearing of the crash, Hitler allegedly exclaimed that, ‘In that plane were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!’ Journalist Robert Harris later described this possibility of lost documents belong to Hitler as providing ‘the perfect scenario for forgery’.
A series of diaries purporting to be the lost journals of Adolf Hitler were later forged by Konrad Kujau. Posing as a Stuttgart antiques dealer, he successfully struck a deal with journalist Gerd Heidemann who had convinced his bosses at the newspaper Stern to buy the diaries. They eventually handed over 9.9 million Deutsche marks for 62 volumes, and sold the serial rights to other publications.
Authenticity of the diaries was originally confirmed by historians including Hugh Trevor-Roper and Gerhard Weinberg, but they grew more sceptical as the April 1983 publication date approached. The newspaper subsequently submitted three volumes to the Bundesarchiv for forensic examination. Initial tests highlighted both textual inconsistencies and the presence of materials that didn’t exist until a decade after their alleged creation.
More volumes were submitted for further tests and, on 6 May, the government formally announced that they were forgeries. Kujau was later arrested and imprisoned while the journalist, Heidemann, was found to have skimmed money from Stern’s payments for which he too was sent to jail.
The Battle of Berlin ended after German General Helmuth Weidling surrendered to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov.
Determined to capture Berlin before the Western Allies, Stalin’s generals began their assault on the defensive line of the Oder and Neisse rivers on the morning of 16 April. 2 million German civilians and no more than 200,000 German soldiers were in and around Berlin when the USSR broke through the defences having suffered casualties in the tens of thousands.
Travelling at up to 30-40km a day, the first Red Army troops reached Berlin in time for Hitler’s 56th birthday on 20 April. Artillery began bombarding the city and didn’t cease until the surrender almost two weeks later. Meanwhile other Soviet units encircled the city leading to Hitler, who was based in the Führerbunker, angrily declaring that the war was lost. Nevertheless he appointed General Weidling to command the Berlin Defence Area with a force of 45,000 soldiers supported by police officers, members of the Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm militia.
By 30 April Soviet troops had reached the Reichstag and, late that evening, successfully placed a flag on top that was removed the following morning by German defenders. The building was finally taken over on 2 May and a new flag was raised, of which an iconic photograph was taken. General Weidling and his staff surrendered the same morning having failed to negotiate a conditional surrender.
Following the surrender the Soviets sought to restore essential services and provide food to the German survivors. However, some troops who reached the city lacked the discipline of the first echelon and committed shocking crimes against Berliners including rape, pillage and murder.
On the 20th January 1942, a number of senior Nazis met at the Wannsee Conference where they discussed what was referred to as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich called the meeting, in which he outlined the deportation of European Jews to extermination camps in Poland where they would be systematically murdered.
Six months earlier, on the 31st July 1941, Hermann Goering had ordered Heydrich as his second-in-command to submit plans “for the implementation of the projected final solution of the Jewish question”. Heydrich was a trusted member of the Nazi elite, and had been referred to by Hitler as “the man with the iron heart”. He had already helped to organise Kristallnacht, established Jewish ghettos in Nazi-controlled territories, and command the Einsatzgruppen that were responsible for millions of Jewish deaths prior to his planning of the Final Solution.
Heydrich originally planned for the Wannsee Conference to take place on 9th December 1941, but it was postponed due to the USSR’s counter-offensive in the Battle of Moscow and the entry of the USA into the war. Fifteen representatives from a variety of government ministries attended the delayed meeting on the 20th January instead.
By this time hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been killed in the east, and the planning and construction of extermination camps had already begun. The meeting was, therefore, more to ensure coordination between the various government agencies in implementing the deportations.
Minutes from the meeting survive as what is known as the Wannsee Protocol, although the language was edited so that mass extermination was never explicitly recorded.
In the evening of the 9th November 1989, the East German government opened the Berlin Wall after central committee spokesman Guenter Schabowski mistakenly announced that GDR citizens could cross into West Berlin with immediate effect. Surprised border guards, who had been given no information about the new rules, were overwhelmed by the appearance of thousands of East Germans who wanted to cross. Although the border remained closed for around three hours, by 11pm the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse had been opened. Others followed soon after.
Communist Hungary had opened its Austrian border in September, which had encouraged East Germans to push for reform in their own country. Eventually, the weekly ‘Monday protests’ that attracted hundreds of thousands of people forced the government to prepare the new travel policy.
Although the new policy had been agreed by the Politburo on the afternoon of the 9th November, their intention was to implement the policy the next day so that border guards could be briefed and crossings managed in a controlled manner. However, Schabowski had not been at the Politburo meeting and so was only able to base his announcement on notes from a piece of paper handed to him shortly before the press conference. This explains his mistake over the timing of its introduction.
The announcement led huge crowds to begin gathering at the checkpoints, with thousands pouring through the border after the guards finally relented. Ironically, West Berliners still had to have a visa in order to cross to the East. Therefore, for a few weeks after the Wall was opened, East Berliners actually had greater freedom of movement than Westerners.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of the 6th September 1972, nine Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group in the Munich massacre. The terrorists were seeking the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails along with the two leading members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang held in Germany. However, the hostages and five of the eight terrorists were killed in a shootout at an airfield a short distance outside Munich during a failed rescue attempt by German police.
Security at the 1972 Munich Olympics was kept purposefully low-key in an attempt to shed the military image of Germany portrayed in Nazi propaganda from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, the lack of heavy security allowed the eight Black September members to gain access to the Olympic Village by climbing over a fence in the early hours of the 5th September and enter apartments where members of the Israeli team were sleeping.
A total of nine Israeli hostages were held in the apartment block at 31 Connollystraße for over twelve hours before the German authorities agreed to the captors’ demands to arrange transport to Cairo where negotiations would continue. However, a gun-battle broke out after the helicopters that shuttled the hostages and their captors from the Olympic Village landed. The status quo held, but it became clear to the terrorists that their mission was probably going to fail when German armoured personnel carriers arrived at the airport around midnight. At that point the captors turned on the hostages and killed them with machine guns and a grenade.
US President Ronald Reagan made a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in which he called on the USSR’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to ‘Tear down this wall!’
Reagan was in Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary, and was scheduled to make a speech in front of 20,000 people to mark the occasion. His presence in the city was not universally popular, however, and there are reports of up to 50,000 people taking to the streets the previous day in anti-Reagan protests.
Tensions were also running high in the American President’s administration. There was considerable disagreement over whether the phrase ‘tear down this wall’ should even be included in the speech. The National Security Council and the State Department were particularly concerned that such a direct challenge to the Soviet Union would increase tensions between the two countries, and could damage the positive relationship that Reagan had begun to forge with Gorbachev. The President’s deputy chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, later reported that Reagan said he would include the phrase because ‘it’s the right thing to do.’
The President began his speech at 2pm, protected by two panes of bulletproof glass that were erected to shield him from potential East German snipers. TASS, the Soviet press agency, remarked that the speech was ‘openly provocative…war-mongering.’
Despite the highly emotive atmosphere in front of the Brandenburg Gate on the day, Time magazine later claimed that the speech received ‘relatively little coverage from the media.’ Even John Kornblum, a senior US diplomat who was based in Berlin at the time, stated on the twentieth anniversary of the speech that it ‘wasn’t really elevated to its current status until 1989, after the wall came down.’
On May 12th 1949, the Soviet Union ended its blockade of West Berlin. Instigated on the 24th June the previous year, the blockade prevented all rail, road, and water transport between Berlin and the West of the Germany.
Germany had been divided into four parts at the end of World War 2 with Britain, France, the USA and the USSR each administering one area. Buried deep in the Soviet zone, the Berlin was also divided into four sectors. It was to the area controlled by the Western powers that the USSR blocked access.
Faced with the possibility of all-out war if they forced their way through the blockade, the Americans opted to make use of the three air corridors that provided unrestricted aerial access to Berlin. The USSR knew it risked war if it shot down any aircraft, and was therefore powerless to stop them. Launched four days after the blockade, the Berlin Airlift went on to see over 200,000 individual flights transport up to 8,500 tons of supplies each day.
The pilots and ground crews soon settled into an efficient rhythm. An unusually short winter also helped to keep the airlift running. By the spring of 1949 it was clear that the Western powers had achieved the impossible by supplying West Berlin by air alone. On the 15th April the USSR expressed a willingness to end the blockade and, after a period of negotiation, it was lifted at one minute past midnight on 12 May 1949. The blockade was over, but the Cold War had just begun.