The Cold War

Berlin at the heart of the Cold War

Divided into four zones of occupation in 1945, the city became a major issue for the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War.

Berlin has become a symbol of the Cold War, an emblem of East-West antagonism. This 400 square metre exhibition space, designed around sections of the graffiti-strewn wall, displays objects and films that recount life before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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From occupied Germany to divided Germany

The division of Berlin into two zones of influence, from the end of the Second World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, is without doubt one of the most remarkable symbols of the Cold War.

The chronological frieze on the right-hand wall illustrates how, with the Second World War scarcely over, Germany entered a period of East-West antagonism. The simultaneous defeat of Germany by Soviet and Anglo-American troops, who linked up at Torgau in April 1945, caused the division of Germany during the Cold War.

Berlin paid a very high price for war – due to a lack of male workers, the women were called on to clear the city’s ruins. Cold and hunger were a constant torment to the city’s people. The United States’ Marshall Plan brought an end to these difficulties but heightened the division brought about by the occupied sectors – the unity of Berlin was no longer but a memory. In Europe, the occupied zones gradually chose their side and two ideological blocs were formed.

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From the blockade to the Berlin wall

To prevent mass immigration by East Germans to the west side of the city, the GDR authorities erected a barbed wire curtain between East Berlin and West Berlin in the night of 12 to 13 August 1961...

The blockade of the western sector of the city by the Soviets in 1948 was the first major crisis of the Cold War. It would require all the ingenuity of the Berlin airlift by the West to bring the blockade to an end. The creation of two Germanys in 1949 transformed the sectors of Berlin into two fronts – according to ideology, that of the “Free World” on one side, and that of the “Anti-Fascist World” on the other. But the western side seemed more welcoming and many East Berliners took refuge there.

To counter this draining from the East, the East German authorities built what they called “the anti-fascist protection wall” during the night of 12 to 13 August 1961, in order - so they said - to “protect” their citizens. The Berlin Wall, named the “Wall of Shame” by the West, which was initially just breeze-blocks topped with barbed wire, grew over the years to become a genuine defence system, a double wall between which stood a death zone.

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Surveillance, escaping and crossing

Over 230 people were shot dead by the Vopos (East German soldiers in charge of security) between 1961 and 1989, as they tried to flee “to the other side of the wall”.

The “wall system” was closely guarded by GDR soldiers, either from their observation towers or during patrols in military vehicles. Before taking position, these young men underwent extremely strict, indeed brutal, training. They were ordered to shout a warning then shoot at any fugitive. But surveillance was not limited to the wall. The entire East German society was spied on. The regime’s political police, the STASI (abbreviation of “State Security” in German) established an extensive system of intelligence and repression.

Despite the huge risk involved, tens of thousands of East Germans tried to escape to “the other side of the wall”. Over 230 people were killed by VoPos (East German soldiers in charge of security) between 1961 and 1989. Escape attempts came in every form imaginable – from digging tunnels, fleeing on a boat (in places the wall was a river border), making hiding-places in car boots… to even crossing in a hot air balloon.

However, most escapes were made during the early years. The wall was more permeable then, in places just rolls of barbed wire. Some border guards were also tempted to escape, or at least help their compatriots escape. On 15 August 1961, a photo of the spectacular jump made by VoPo Conrad Schumann could be seen throughout the world.

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Berlin during the Cold War

Berlin plays a central role in the conflict of the Cold War.

In 1949, Berlin became the capital of a regime that would prove to be the "best student" in the Soviet Bloc. The East German leaders struggled to return the city to its pre-war lustre. Reconstruction was very slow. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, the emblematic constructions of socialism, articulated around Alexanderplatz, "Red Square," flourished in East Germany.

During the Cold War, West Berlin shed itself of its inhabitants, in spite of efforts to support and promote the enclave. Despite everything, until the end the city remained extremely attractive, an advance post presenting the best of western culture and consumerism. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the KaDéWé (a major store in the west, a temple to consumption) were symbolic of this.

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Berlin: city of spies and the war of waves

West Berlin become a center of espionage, and radio is used for both sides to spread the values ​​of the two blocks.

After the war Berlin was transformed into a hub of East and West espionage. The delicate position of West Berlin, a small, isolated territory in the middle of a Communist country and occupied by the military of three countries (France, United Kingdom, United States), favoured the development of western intelligence and eavesdropping activities. Soviet bloc spies also took advantage of this proximity, and conducted numerous missions.

The Western imagination gripped this tense, very particular climate tightly, inspiring the author John Le Carré (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold). The "Bridge of Spies" (Glienicker Brücke), a checkpoint during the Cold War that was a place for the two powers to exchange agents, appears in many spy films.

West Berlin, as a window on Western economics and culture, broadcast Western values over the radio, with, for example, the RIAS (Radio In American Sector) much listened to in the East, as much for its information as the liberty of the musical programme. East German Authorities had few illusions as to the impact their programmes had in the West. They none the less taunted the western camp, from the highest monument in both Berlins, the television tower (Berliner Fernsehturm) which was also a radio antenna. Its construction had begun in 1965 at the heart of the city.

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The Berlin Wall falls

The year 1989 sees the dismantling of the Soviet bloc. After the opening of the Iron Curtain in Hungary, the fall of the Berlin Wall opens the way for German reunification.

During the night of 9 to 10 November 1989, the Berlin Wall, after ripping the city in two and separating families for 38 years, fell at last under popular pressure. The two sections of the Wall presented in this room give you an idea of the proportions: at the top (3.60 m) there is a pipe in cement to prevent all escape attempts using grappling hooks. Painted from the East shortly after the fall of the Wall, by the artist Manfred Butzman, these concrete sections were saved during the dismantling. As the whitewash applied by the East German police has not withstood the weather, the fresco has fortunately reappeared. The artist depicted rabbits, very present in the no man's land of the Wall system, to symbolize the fate of the fugitives ("get shot at like rabbits") and more generally as a symbol of freedom and peace. The expression "Hase bleibt Hase", "Once a Rabbit always a Rabbit" advocates a peaceful revolution.

After the fall of the Wall and the decriminalization of passage to the West by RDA authorities, unending lines of Trabants hurried towards the border. The car which was meant to symbolize the success of the socialist system was, in the end, used as a vector for freedom.

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