1961 Berlin is Divided

Shortly after midnight on this day in 1961, East German soldiers begin laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city.

After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city. After a massive Allied airlift in June 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold. Over the next 12 years, cut off from its western counterpart and basically reduced to a Soviet satellite, East Germany saw between 2.5 million and 3 million of its citizens head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1,000 East Germans–including many skilled laborers, professionals and intellectuals–were leaving every day.

In August, Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader of East Germany, got the go-ahead from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin the sealing off of all access between East and West Berlin. Soldiers began the work over the night of August 12-13, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border. The wire was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine gun posts, and searchlights. East German officers known as Volkspolizei (“Volpos”) patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.

Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. Led by their mayor, Willi Brandt, West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, as Brandt criticized Western democracies, particularly the United States, for failing to take a stand against it. President John F. Kennedy had earlier said publicly that the United States could only really help West Berliners and West Germans, and that any kind of action on behalf of East Germans would only result in failure.

The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in front of the Wall, celebrating the city as a symbol of freedom and democracy in its resistance to tyranny and oppression. The height of the Wall was raised to 10 feet in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts, which at that time came almost daily. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5,000 East Germans escaped; many more tried and failed. High profile shootings of some would-be defectors only intensified the Western world’s hatred of the Wall.

Finally, in the late 1980s, East Germany, fueled by the decline of the Soviet Union, began to implement a number of liberal reforms. On November 9, 1989, masses of East and West Germans alike gathered at the Berlin Wall and began to climb over and dismantle it. As this symbol of Cold War repression was destroyed, East and West Germany became one nation again, signing a formal treaty of unification on October 3, 1990.

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1940 The Battle of Britain Escalates

On this day in 1940, German aircraft begin the bombing of southern England, and the Battle of Britain, which will last until October 31, escalates.

The Germans called it “the Day of the Eagle,” the first day of the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy the RAF, the British Royal Air Force, and knock out British radar stations, in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the amphibious invasion of Britain. Almost 1,500 German aircraft took off the first day of the air raid, and 45 were shot down. Britain lost 13 fighters in the air and another 47 on the ground. But most important for the future, the Luftwaffe managed to take out only one radar station, on the Isle of Wight and damaged five others. This was considered more trouble than it was worth by Herman Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, who decided to forgo further targeting of British radar stations because “not one of those attacked so far has been put out of operation.”

Historians agree that this was a monumental mistake on the part of the Germans. Had Goering and the Luftwaffe persisted in attacking British radar, the RAF would not have been able to get the information necessary to successfully intercept incoming German bombers. “Here, early in the battle, we get a glimpse of fuddled thinking at the highest level in the German camp,” comments historian Peter Fleming. Even the Blitz, the intensive and successive bombing of London that would begin in the last days of the Battle of Britain, could not compensate for such thinking. There would be no Operation Sea Lion. There would be no invasion of Britain. The RAF would not be defeated.

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1918 German Crown Council at Spa

On this day in 1918, five days after an Allied attack at Amiens, France, leads German commander Erich Ludendorff to declare “the black day of the German army,” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany summons his principal political and military leaders to a crown council at Spa, a resort town in Belgium, to assess the status of the German war effort during World War I.

On August 11, after the Allied victory at Amiens kicked off a new Allied offensive on the Western Front, Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg, chief of the German army’s general staff, told the new naval chief, Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, that Germany’s only hope to win the war was through submarine warfare. “There is no more hope for the offensive,” the downtrodden Ludendorff told a staff member on August 12. “The generals have lost their foothold.”

At the crown council assembled on August 13-14 by the Kaiser at Spa, where the German High Command had its headquarters, Ludendorff recommended that Germany initiate immediate peace negotiations. Ludendorff failed, however, to present the true extent of the military’s disadvantage on the battlefield; instead, he blamed revolt and anti-war sentiment on the home front for the military’s inability to continue the war effort indefinitely. Meanwhile, the chief military adviser to Austrian Emperor Karl I informed Wilhelm that Austria-Hungary could only continue its participation in the war until that December. Though the Kaiser thought it advisable to seek an intermediary to begin peace negotiations, his newly appointed foreign minister, Paul von Hintze, refused to take such an approach until another German victory on the battlefield had been achieved. Hintze, working on suppressing discontent and rebellion within the German government, told party leaders the following week that “there was no reason to doubt ultimate victory. We shall be vanquished only when we doubt that we shall win.”

Meanwhile, on the battlefront in Flanders, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, one of the German army’s most senior commanders, wrote of his own doubt to Prince Max of Baden (the Kaiser’s second cousin, who would become chancellor of Germany the following October): “Our military situation has deteriorated so rapidly that I no longer believe we can hold out over the winter; it is even possible that a catastrophe will come earlier….The Americans are multiplying in a way we never dreamed of….At the present time, there are already thirty-one American divisions in France.” The Allied commanders, for their part, pushed their troops forward on the Western Front and made aggressive preparations for future offensives in 1919, unaware that victory would come before the year was out.

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