Berlin: City, Congress, Airlift & Wall

Berlin was the capital of Germany from 1871, though it was also the capital of Prussia. When the capital moved from Bonn after the Second War, Berlin became again the capital and hub of Germany, but after the War the city found itself 110 kilometres inside the Russian Zone of a Germany divided (at various hideous conferences) into four: Russian, American, British and French sectors. The city itself was divided into West Berlin (480 and East Berlin (403 West Berlin was administered and governed by the United States, Great Britain and France, each having their Sector and military HQ. East Berlin was governed by the Communist GDR, under the military eye of around 200 divisions of Russian troops. West Berlin could probably muster a division and a half, and had its own (American) military commander. There was a complete military imbalance in all the post-war period.

The Americans and British sectors were mainly residential, including parks and leisure areas, and the French mostly slum streets and factories in ruins. The British Sector contained most of the main shopping street, the Kurfürstendamm with its ruined church; the British Berlin Yacht Club on the Havelsee, Groenwald and Charlottenburg. West Berlin was rebuilt from the appalling wreckage caused by bombing during the War in a remarkably short time. Most of East Berlin remained more or less unreformed until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Reichstag, government’s centre, had had to be rebuilt two or three times since its original opening.


The Berlin Congress in 1878 was a meeting of European Powers, presided over by von Bismarck, mainly to revise the Treaty of San Stefano which had brought the Russo-Turkish War to an end. Austria had been disturbed at San Stefano, as Russian promises made at the Budapest Convention (1877) had been ignored;  Slav state Bulgaria had been invented, and Austria had not been given Bosnia and Hercegovina.  Naturally Britain sided with Austria, not wishing to see Russian influence extend to the Aegean.

At San Stefano Macedonia was given back to Turkey (hard luck for the Macedonians, and this was to lead to the Balkan War of 1912). Serbia, Montenegro and Roumania happily retained their independence (San Stefano), while Russia kept hold of her gains in Bessarabia and the Caucasus. Although Russia had therefore not done badly, the Tsar was most displeased, as most of the fighting had been done by Russia against Turkey, whereas some states that had not raised a finger made great gains: Britain, for example, acquired Cyprus (most import strategically in the Eastern Mediterranean). The Congress however gave the right to Austria to occupy poor Bosnia and Hercegovina thus separating Serbia and Montenegro. This was unpopular with the people, as it was the last territory to be acquired by the Hapsburgs. There was naturally a revolt and Austria needed three months and 200,000 troops to suppress it.

Tsar Alexander II said that the Berlin Congress was ‘a European coalition against Russia under the leadership of Bismarck’. This did not go down well with Bismarck or the Germans and led directly to the ‘Dual Alliance’ with Austria (1879).


In 1948 the Soviets, not content with having the city of Berlin within the East German Zone, shut off its entrances and exits by water, road and rail. This was blatant aggression and West Berliners faced starvation and worse. The American and British governments reacted to the blockade non-militarily, which was wise because they could never have won and a Third World War would have been inevitable. Instead they supplied their western sectors of the city by using cargo aircraft (unarmed), which flew the Corridor constantly from most of June 1948 to May 1949, landing, unloading and taking off at civil and military aerodromes in the American, British and French sectors. It was a brave move, and pilots of the western aircraft were frequently buzzed, but not fired upon, by Russian and East German MIGs. At the end of May the Soviets re-opened the surface routes in and out of Berlin, but continued to make it unhealthy to have a breakdown on the autobahn from Helmsted, because drivers were likely to be imprisoned or worse by the East German police. Passenger trains were intentionally held up for hors or even days. Politically, the blockade confirmed the division of Berlin, and ultimately of all Germany, into two administrative units, the German ‘Democratic’ Republic (decidedly undemocratic), and Federal West Germany with a capital at Bonn.


The Berlin Wall was a physical barrier built by the East Germans and manned by East German and Soviet soldiers. The intention

was to prevent East Berliners from leaving East Berlin. Before the Wall a certain number of visits to relatives had been permitted, and serving soldiers from America, France, Britain and Russia visited each other in clubs and messes. Many lasting friendships were made, and this may be what inspired East German leader Ulbricht to suggest building a high wall with trenches, electrified fences and guard dogs to support its efficiency.

It was August, 1961, and something had to be done, thought Ulbricht, to stem the continuous flood of refugees from East to West. The promised Soviet Paradise had been but a dream, or perhaps mere propaganda. Whatever, over three million had ‘emigrated’ between 1945 and 1961.

After the Wall had been erected, and the free world shocked, people, especially young people from East Berlin and East German

y, continued trying to escape, and hundreds were killed or badly wounded trying to cross. International opinion and pressure grew stronger against the slaughter, and in 1989 the infamous Wall was demolished, under the full gaze of silent and perhaps sympathetic East German guards and police. Not very long afterwards Germany as a whole was united, and the nightmare of machine guns, barbed wire, Vopos, dogs trained to kill was over. Peace and friendship returned when Germany’s government was once again set up in Berlin.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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