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The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, fell in 1989. The Wall was actually two walls as depicted. Between them was a no-man’s land of mines, dogs, and machine guns.

Article and photos by Joe Gschwendtner

As discussed in part I of this series last month, Berlin is a favorite place; I go annually. The role it played in the Cold War and its significance in history cannot be overstated. To travel here is to understand the alignment of power in the world today and the challenges of the future, immigrants included.

The Third Reich’s defeat was bloody. By military agreement, the Russian Army reached Berlin first. Under siege by tanks and artillery, defending soldiers (mostly boys and older men) were captured or annihilated. So vicious was the carnage, German soldiers fled westward, seeking reliable mercy from Western Allies. With Adolf Hitler’s fate sealed, he committed suicide in his underground bunker.

Crosses on the Spree River commemorating 3 of 239 deaths of East Berlin Escapees.

European victory came in April 1945. At the Cecilienhof Palace during the Potsdam Conference in Germany, Stalin, Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman met, striking a tenuous post-war military settlement creating the Allied Control Council housed in the Kammergericht. There, Prussian land was distributed to Poland, Lithuania, and Russia and thus permanently eliminated from all maps forever. The German remainder was split into four occupational zones as was Berlin – a predicament for the German people. Notwithstanding freedom of movement allowed for family and commerce, geopolitical tensions rose. Winston Churchill raised it a notch with his 1947 Iron Curtain speech and the Cold War began…

Since Berlin was entirely within the Soviet sphere, all roads and air corridors were controlled by the Russian military. Their intent was always to overwhelm the whole of Germany politically and militarily. Not so the Allies; their plan was to unify their three sectors making Germany an independent state again. A boiling point was reached when the Soviets withdrew from the Allied Control Council in March 1948.

(Luftbrucke) Monument to the Berlin Airlift and 70 men who died in it. At Templehof Airport, Berlin.

On June 24, 1948, land and sea routes into Berlin were shut down by the Soviets, blockading Berlin. In response, “Operation Vittles” commenced and the Berlin Airlift began. Americans believed an aerial lifeline could save the besieged city because the Soviets would not commit armed aggression by shooting a plane down. Though proven right, the task was Herculean. Eleven months later, after 278,228 flights and 92 million miles flown, the Soviets backed off. The cost: more than $5 billion (today’s dollars) and 104 fatalities. A monument at Berlin’s Templehof Airport honors those who perished.

As the Marshall Plan pumped money into Germany, capitalism worked wonders. West Berlin also became increasingly prosperous; like the mythical Phoenix bird, she rose from the ashes. East Berlin, however, remained largely unrehabilitated and drab.

While borders remained open, 2.7 million Germans had fled westward by 1961, an embarrassment to the Soviet Union, visible proof of Communism’s failure. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was thrown up to halt the exodus. It began with barbed wire, morphing into a massive concrete barrier with guard towers, machine guns, land mines and dogs. Not until 1989 would it fall …

The Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany, site of Post-war meeting with Churchill, Truman, and Stalin.

Most Cold War debris has been buried or hauled off; pieces of the Wall remain. Lines on the street mark where it once lanced the city. Crosses sit eerily on the Spree River commemorating those gunned down trying to escape. Berlin provokes everyone. There is no place on earth like it.



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