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Special Conference on the Wall of Berlin (1986)

Rüya Aysu Erdoğan, Piotr Sitnik

What is the Berlin Wall?

In order to understand what Berlin Wall is and why it was built, firstly a look at the Cold War must be taken. After the second World War, the tension which existed between the western countries led by the United States of America, and the Soviet Union led to a rivalry between the two sides. The Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961, became an important symbol of the Cold War, as it divided the city into two and created two different worlds.


After the World War II ended with the defeat of Germany, there were two different German states established by the countries that won the World War II; as the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”, occupied by the United States of America, United Kingdom and France) and the Democratic Republic of Germany (“East Germany”, occupied by the Soviet Union). The capitol of “West Germany” is Bonn, while the capitol of “East Germany” is Berlin.

Berlin is not located on the border between “West Germany” and “East Germany”. However, caused by its strategic importance, the Western countries -being the United States of America, France and United Kingdom- wanted to have an authority in Berlin and did not want it to stay only as a part of “East Germany”. So, Berlin was first divided into four sections as the sections of United States of America, France, United Kingdom and Soviet Union with the Potsdam Agreement in 1945.

West and East Germany, tagged as BRD (eng.: FRG, Federal Republic of Germany) and DDR (eng.: GRD, German Democratic Republic)

Berlin after WWII
Later on, the Western countries merged into one state in Germany and Berlin, and the sections in “West Germany” united. However, the Soviet Union objected this action. The Soviet Union had the wish of making West Berlin isolated and occupying Berlin only themselves; so that they would have all of East Germany as their territory, and their territory would not be interrupted by the territory of the Western countries in Berlin. In 1948, Joseph Stalin instituted the “Berlin Blockade”, and did not allow any supplies (such as food and other materials) to arrive in West Berlin. The solution found by the Western countries was the “Berlin Airlift”.

The Berlin Airlift:

The Berlin Airlift was organized by the United States of America, France, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries; and its goal was to provide food and other supplies to West Berlin by an airlift. It was an international action taken against the Berlin Blockade. The air forces which joined the Berlin Airlift made over 200.000 flights to West Berlin, and provided almost 9.000 tons of necessities to the people of West Berlin. The Soviet Union did not take actions against the airlift in order to avoid a big conflict. In 1949, the airlift succeeded and Stalin took the decision of lifting the blockade.

Germany after WWII, the aeroplanes representing the “Berlin Airlift"

The border between West and East became stricter in 1952 as the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav Molotov stated: "The demarcation line between East and West Germany should be considered a border—and not just any border, but a dangerous one (...) The Germans will guard the line of defence with their lives." The border between West and East Germany was closed in the same year. The reason why it was not closed earlier was that the railway traffic inside Germany would be cut off.

After failing to keep the Berlin Blockade, the Soviet Union was also aware of the fact that the people in both East Berlin and East Germany were “running away” to West Berlin, caused by the communist-socialist and authoritarian regime of the Eastern parts. On the other hand, the Western parts had a democratic, capitalist and liberal regime which was “charming” in the eyes of the people who lived in the Eastern parts. This was the biggest reason why people ran away, and the Soviet Union decided to take actions in order to keep the people in their territory and weaken the Western territories. In 1956, visits to West Berlin were restricted.

The next action taken was the Wall of Berlin.

“The Anti-Fascist Bulwark”

In the August of 1961, the police and army of the East Germany barbed wire and fences around the West Berlin and between East and West Berlin. Then, a wall began to be built where the wire was barbed. It was named as “Anti-Fascist Bulwark” by the Soviet Union, as they saw the West Germany as fascists. However, the Western countries named it “the Wall of Shame”.

“Ich Bin Ein Berliner” –John F. Kennedy

There are only three points where it is possible to pass to the other side of Berlin, these are “Checkpoint Charlie”, “Checkpoint Alpha” and “Checkpoint Bravo”. In 1963, Berlin Wall was criticized greatly by the president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, who visited Berlin. His words were: "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass'sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. (…) Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner!"... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!""

Kennedy in Berlin, 1963

The wall created two different worlds inside one city, and it can be seen very easily by looking at the two sides of the wall. The Western side of the wall is covered with writings and graffitis, and full of people standing very close to it The Eastern side is white-grey, there is no one to be seen who is close to the wall instead of soldiers, and there are hundredths of watchtowers. The Western side represents the liberal and capitalist Western countries, while the Eastern side represents the authoritarian and communist Soviet Union.

Ever since the wall was built, the people of East Berlin continued to find a way to escape and pass to the Western side. Many risked their lives in order to cross the wall, and a lot of different methods were created to escape. According to researches, 125 people passed away while trying to cross the wall. Some parts of the wall were side by side with buildings, so the windows of the buildings were covered with bricks.

Bernauer Strasse, a building with wallled-up Windows

A family crossing the wall in a hot air balloon

Bloc positions and political context

The Berlin Wall debate had its footing in the general Cold War narrative. The United States espoused the so-called Reagan Doctrine whereby it provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist guerrillas and resistance movements in an effort to cripple Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Simultaneously, under a new era of Soviet policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring), ushered in under the supervision of newly elected Soviet Union leader M. Gorbachev, democratic opposition movements in the communist bloc have risen in status and prominence. Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, among others, have built up both their domestic and international influence, especially after 1983, when Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

People hidden inside a car
Although the division between the two major blocs, the Western bloc and the communist bloc with its Western borders in West Germany and Hungary, reached far beyond the Berlin Wall and the German conundrum, the situation surrounding the Wall itself had a colossal bearing on the relations between the East and the West. United States strongly opposed the Wall, treating it as a symbol of the isolationist policies promoted by USSR. The Soviet Union, in turn, viewed the Wall as a pillar of its power and proof that the communist bloc is self-sufficient socially, politically and economically.

In November 1985 Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland, where they agreed to two (later three) more summits.

In October 1986 a breakthrough in nuclear arms control was achieved at the Reykjavik Summit. The Soviet side proposed banning all ballistic missiles, however the United States wished to continue research on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which involved the militarization of outer space. Despite the collapse of the talks in the last minute, the progress achieved hitherto was very promising an both camps have agreed to continue talks with a view to completing a comprehensive agreement.

One of very important facets of the Cold War in 1986 was of economic nature. The clash of capitalist ideas in the West and a centrally planned economy of the Soviet Union and their satellites was unfolding slowly but surely in the direction of the former. Huge increases in military spending in USA (during the Reagan administration, Pentagon spending would reach $34 million an hour), not offset by tax increases, led to a crash of 1982; however, the economy bounced back in 1985, which boosted confidence of middle-class and wealthy Americans in the president’s economic agenda.

In the Soviet Union, the central planning bodies were overwhelmed and constrained by the complex demands of the modern economy and inflexible administration. Corruption and data fiddling became common practice among the bureaucracy by reporting fulfilled targets and quotas, thus entrenching the crisis. In 1986 USSR maintained itself as the second largest economy in both nominal and purchasing power parity values, however forecasts predicted that they were to be overtaken by Japan until 1990.

Gorbachev promised to introduce laws to permit, to a certain extent, private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sector. In the political sphere, he called for democratization: the infusion of democratic elements such as multi-candidate elections into the Soviet political process.

The advance of the Cold War also brought changes in military strategy and the significance of the Berlin Wall for the conflict between Western and Eastern powers. The war was fought not directly but through proxies. Instead of mainly being confined to Europe or the Pacific, the entire world was the battlefield, with countries rather than armies acting as main players. The only constant rule was that troops of the Soviet Union and the United States could not overtly fight with each other. Military strategy involved bipolar powers with global actors who could strike an opponent with nationally debilitating destruction in a matter of minutes from land, air, and sea. With the advent of weapons of mass destruction, strategies shifted away from a focus on the application of conventional weaponry to a greater focus on espionage and gathering and evaluation of intelligence.

A number of public intellectuals and officials at the time predicted the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, with some of them reflecting upon the unsustainable character of the situation in Germany. Herbert E. Meyer, a special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence in the Reagan administration and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, is widely credited as having been the first senior official to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. Others included: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Raymond Aron, Bernard Levin and Robert Gates.

Bibliography and further reading:

  • Andrew Kohut, '' (Berlin Wall’s fall marked the end of the Cold War for the American public, ) accessed 15 November 2015

  • Deutsche Welle (, '' (Researchers Confirm 125 Berlin Wall Deaths, ) accessed 15 November 2015

  • Fred Kaplan, '' (Why Berlin Mattered, 2009) accessed 15 November 2015

  •, '' (Berlin Wall) accessed 15 November 2015

  •, '' (Cold War) accessed 15 November 2015

  • Jerry Bowyer, '' (The Next Big Thing From The Official Who Predicted Communism's Demise, ) accessed 14 November 2015

  •, '' (The Cold War, ) accessed 15 November 2015

  •, '' (History of the Berlin Wall and its fall visualized with videos and images - rbb, ) accessed 15 November 2015

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