Berlin has a special place in history, as the city that had a concrete wall around it for 28 years. It was the center of the Cold War. Located in former East Germany, it was divided into two sections – East Berlin and West Berlin. The wall was around the west, which was controlled by the Allies: USA, France, and Great Britain. The rest of East Germany was under Communist control. Checkpoint Charlie near the Brandenburg Gate, the largest opening between the east and west, is a must-see.
Since the wall came down in 1989, Germans have been working hard to restore Berlin as one of the premier cities in Europe. Much work has been done to get East Berlin up to the living standards of West Berlin and today you can’t even tell that there used to be such a drastic difference. Many new high rise office buildings, complete with malls and tourist attractions at the bottom, have been built near transportation hubs in East Berlin. The Berlin government is trying to lure big companies into relocating to this epicenter of business and history.
Ku’damm, short for Kurfürstendamm, is the most famous street in Berlin. It is not unlike the Champs-Elysées in Paris. The street goes into the cultural center of West Berlin, ending at two famous cathedrals. There is an old cathedral that was severely damaged during the Second World War, but they build a new, more modern one right next to it. Kurfürstendamm Strasse is lined with trees and shops and malls. Also in the area is one of the biggest zoos in Europe. That is definitely worth a trip as well.
During the World Cup in 2006, Berlin hosted several matches including the final. This is easily the most-watched event in the world and the street outside the Brandenburg Gate was shut down for weeks. Tournament organizers turned the street into Fan Mile, where about a million people gathered each day to cheer on their countries and watch the games on one of several giant screens. It was quite a spectacular event.
If you come in to Berlin by air, you may find it a bit annoying to get into the city. Currently, only three bus lines run from Tegel Airport (TXL). For a city with such an elaborate rail system, it is a surprise that neither the S-Bahn nor U-Bahn goes to the airport. However, the government is in the process of shifting the main air traffic load to a newly expanded Schonefeld Airport, which does have S-Bahn service. If you come in to Berlin by train, you will arrive at the heart of the city, either at the Zoologischer Garten Station, just off Ku’Damm or at Hauptbahnhof at one of the biggest new developments in the former East Berlin.
The Cold War in the 1960s: The Berlin Crisis
When Kennedy met with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961 he was left in no doubt by a highly strung Khrushchev that a divided Berlin remained a fissure in US-Soviet relations. Khrushchev described Berlin as “this thorn, this ulcer”. He was under serious pressure from the East German government to stem the flow of refugees, many of them young, skilled workers, seeking the improved quality of life in non-communist West Germany. For other East Germans it was simply the desire to be reunited with their families in the western sector of Berlin. Since 1949 East Germany’s population had fallen by 2 million, and by 1961 the exodus from east to west Berlin was averaging 2,000 per day.
The Berlin Crisis
At the Vienna talks Khrushchev abruptly issued Kennedy with an ultimatum that unless the Berlin issue was resolved within six months he would turn over West Berlin to the East German government. The Soviet leader had issued the same ultimatum in November 1958 but on that occasion Eisenhower called his bluff. Since the US was still pledged to stand by the West Berlin – ‘this oasis of freedom in a communist desert’ – Khrushchev’s second throw of the dice was plainly designed to test the resolve of the young American president.
As the US and its NATO allies lacked both the intention and capacity to wage a conventional war on the ground, Kennedy’s options were either to back down or wage nuclear war – or as he bluntly put it , face “holocaust or humiliation.” As he left Vienna Kennedy remarked to Khrushchev, “It is going to be a cold winter.”
Badly damaged by the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was determined to withstand this latest challenge to America’s honour and prestige. In the continuing war of nerves he pledged his commitment to stand by the beleaguered West Berliners by calling up 250,000 reservists and placing his armed forces on heightened nuclear alert. His televised address to the American people in July 1961 described Berlin as “the great testing place of Western courage and will, a focal point where our solemn commitments … and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation.”
On 13 August 1961 the crisis took an extraordinary turn when the East German authorities built a wall separating east Berlin from west, stretching about 100 miles long, and protected by guards ordered to shoot on sight East Germans attempting to cross over to the western sector. Although pressed by some hawkish voices in America, Kennedy decided against armed intervention to halt the construction of the wall.
Whether he was right or wrong was a subject of fierce debate for many years. The inconclusive end to the Berlin crisis angered Kennedy’s right-wing critics who claimed that the Berlin Wall was the latest in a series of Soviet-inspired provocations allowed to pass without firm response from the West. Furthermore the West’s acceptance of a divided Berlin not only legitimised communist East Germany but postponed indefinitely the prospect of a unified Germany. The bulk of opinion, however, recognised that despite the gravity of the crisis a divided Berlin was not sufficient cause to risk nuclear war. “A wall’s a hell of a lot better than war”, Kennedy remarked.
His European allies in NATO, meanwhile, did not hide their fears that European stability was being endangered by a dispute apparently out of all proportion to the issue at stake.
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