Berlin as Symbol

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Berlin, long a symbol of Germany, was also the symbolic center of the Cold War until the collapse of communism in 1989. Its citizenry weathered some chilling and dramatic clashes during the Cold War, which were representative of the larger global struggle.

Ideology took a backseat during World War II but came to the fore at the Potsdam Conference in July and August 1945, when President Harry S. Truman confronted Joseph Stalin over the issue of diverse representative governments in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. Soon the Soviet Union and the United States sought to gain influence at various points around the world. One of the most enduring and telling images of the Cold War is that of American airmen supplying West Berlin with food and other essentials via the Berlin airlift in response to the 1948 and 1949 blockade of Berlin, a city divided after World War II between the Soviet Union and the Western powers and at that time entirely surrounded by East Germany. The Soviets tried to drive the Americans, British, and French out of the city and weaken their global resolve, but the Berlin airlift signaled the Soviets and the world that the Western powers were intent on staying. The cause of Berlin resounded with people throughout the West.

In 1953, East Berliners rose up in defiance of Soviet economic controls and pillaging, and the Soviets made an example of Berlin by crushing the rebellion with tanks. Tensions remained high in the wake of this demonstration of force, and many East Germans fled to the freedom and plenty of West Berlin and West Germany as opportunities arose.

To halt their flight, East Germany, backed by the Soviet Union, began on August 13, 1961, to fence off West Berlin with a wall of concrete, barbed wire, and steel, which became one of the enduring physical symbols of the Cold War. The contrasting lifestyles of East and West Berlin, and of East and West Germany, came to stand for the differences between the democratic and communist nations of the world. The citizens of the Soviet sector, like the citizens of communist states around the globe, were virtual prisoners in their drab, uninspiring communities restricted from traveling abroad, limited in material goods, and restrained in political expression, while West Berliners lived comfortably and moved freely.

In 1963, Berlin again became the focus of world attention when President John F. Kennedy said that freedom's proudest boast was "Ich bin ein Berliner." (I am a

Berliner.) He went on to say that anyone in doubt about the differences between the free and communist worlds should come to Berlin and that securing freedom was the cause that kept American military forces in Germany and enabled millions of soldiers, family members, and civilian workers to spend time in and learn about that country. Many Americans who became acquainted with Germany in this way came to feel a connection to the country.

In 1987, standing before the Brandenburg Gate, President Ronald Reagan again made Berlin a symbol of the Cold War conflict when he declared, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The Berlin wall came down in 1989. The unification of Berlin that followed symbolized the end of the Cold War, which formally concluded in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved.


Bark, Dennis L., and Gress, David R. A History of West Germany, 2 vols. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Grathwol, Robert, and Moorhus, Donita M. Berlin and the American Military: A Cold War Chronicle. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Large, David Clay. Berlin. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Turner, Henry Ashby, Jr. Germany from Partition to Reunification. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Dewey A. Browder

See also:Cold War Novels and Movies; Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight; Foreign Aid, 1946–present; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; Kissinger, Henry; Marshall, George C.; Marshall Plan .