Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 21st August 2017 | Manchester, UK

End of a Cold War Era – Collapse of the Berlin Wall

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” When Winston Churchill made this speech on 5 May 1946, he was speaking of the metaphorical division between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc, and the tensions that would escalate into the Cold War. By 1961, this metaphorical division had become physical, a wall built by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), separating West Berlin from surrounding Eastern Germany. Berlin became the epicentre of the entire Cold War conflict, and the Berlin Wall became symbolic of the division.

The Cold War, which lasted from 1947 to 1991, was ideologically fought between the USA and the USSR, and was called so because of the lack of direct fighting between the two sides, despite several proxy wars in Asia. Although there was no global-scale fighting, the Cold War had a massive impact on world politics. The resultant arms race brought the planet closer to nuclear war than ever before. People’s lives became dominated by the threat of nuclear apocalypse, with the USA broadcasting adverts advising its citizens to “Duck and Cover” in the event of an attack. Culture was also influenced by the Cold War. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, whose members included Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, was formed to track down apparent communists in Hollywood, blacklisting the so-called “Hollywood Ten” from working in the industry.

The Belin Wall itself became the centre of the tension. The wall was erected virtually overnight in 1961. East Berliners found that they could no longer reach their jobs in the West, and vice versa. Families and loved ones were separated without warning. The wall was built supposedly to ‘protect’ East Berliners from the capitalism and fascism of the West. In reality, the wall was built to prevent those from the Eastern Bloc from immigrating to West Germany in the hope of a better life. Western companies such as Coca Cola erected huge advertisements on top of buildings that could be seen from East Berlin in order to promote capitalist commercialism and freedom. Kaufhaus de Westerns (Department Store of the West) became symbolic of the economic power of the West versus that of the East. The wall, and all that surrounded it, became symbolic of the wider ideological battle between East and West that was the focus of the world.

It is estimated that around 5000 East Berliners tried to cross the wall, and 239 were killed in their attempts; the youngest a one-year old baby, the eldest an 80-year old woman. Peter Fetcher, an 18-year old bricklayer, was shot as he and his friend attempted to cross the wall. His friend made it successfully to West Berlin, but Fetcher fell back into the East, and was left, bleeding, to die. He lay for 45 minutes before he died, as citizens watched, unable to go to his aid for fear of their own life.

By the mid-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the USSR had begun making changes to the Soviet state. He employed economic reform known as perestroika, or restructuring, and foreign reform known as glasnost, or openness. Gorbachev restricted the power of the Communist Party, and Cold War relations began to thaw. Eastern Europe started to break away from the Soviet bloc and the USSR began to crumble. High-profile western artists such as David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen staged concerts close to the Berlin Wall, as anti-Wall sentiment grew. On 9 November 1989, demolition of the wall began, with mass television coverage of German citizens knocking down the wall. Two years later, following much more unrest in Eastern Europe, the USSR was officially dissolved.

Today, a trail of bricks mark the route that the Berlin Wall once took through the city. Parts of the wall remain standing today – for tourists to visit and bear witness to the true scale of the division. Memorials stand with images and flowers of those who were killed in their escape attempts. Although the USSR was not dissolved until two years after the fall of the wall, the wall remains the most renowned symbol of the whole Cold War conflict – the physical division of a country that became the epicentre of an ideological battle between two countries that engulfed the world.

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