The Berlin Crisis (1958-63)

  • Created by: TessBlyth
  • Created on: 27-04-19 11:31

Refugee Problem in Berlin

In 1949, Germany had been divided in two: the democratic West and the East which was firmly under the control of the Soviet Union. The west received Marshall Aid and became a prosperous country where people enjoyed a high standard of living. East Germany received far less aid from the Soviet Union and the East Germans suffered a low standard of living as well as shortages of basic goods. There were many restrictions on what citizens could say and do and people were constantly monitored by the secret police. 

Under these circumstances, many East Germans cose to leave home and move to West Germany. They knew that the quality of life was much higher and it was easy to cross the border. By 1958, 3 million East Germans had crossed to the West. Many of them were exactly the kind of people East Germany urgently needed to urge the economy. Skilled workers such as engineers, technicians and teachers left, knowing that they could earn much higher salaries in the West.

Khrushchev could not allow this situation to continue. Not only was East Germany losing valuable people, but communism was facing a huge propaganda disaster. In Berlin, people had a choice between the communist East and capitalist West. It was clear that the West was the preferred choice. 

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Khrushchev's Berlin Ultimatum

Khrushchev decided the answer was for the whole of Berlin to become part of the surrounding territory of East Germany. He knew that Britain, France and the USA would not leave Berlin, so would have to be forced.

In November 1958, Khrushchev demanded that Western countries should officially recognise East Germany as an independent country. On 27 November, he issued his Berlin Ultimatum, demanding that:

  • Berlin should be demilitarised and Western troops withdrawn
  • Berlin should become a free city

The West had six months to make these changes or Khrushchev would hand over control of all routes into Berlin to the government of East Germany. 

The Berlin Ultimatum had major impact on international relations. The West was outraged by Khrushchev's demands and saw this as a further attempt to spread communism. By 1958, both sides had large numbers of nuclear weapons and they were not prepared to go to war over Berlin. So, a series of talks were held to try and solve the Berlin problem.

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The Summit Meetings of 1959-61

GENEVA, MAY 1959 - The first summit meeting between the foreign ministers of the various countries was held in Geneva, in neutral Switzerland. Both sides put forward proposals for how Berlin should be governed, but no agreement was reached. 

CAMP DAVID, SEPTEMBER 1959 - Eisenhower and Khrushchev met face to face for the first time at the Presidential ranch. There was still no agreement but the Soviets agreed to withdraw the Berlin Ultimatum. The meeting appeared to establish better relations between the two leaders.

PARIS, MAY 1960 - On 1 May, the Soviets had shot down an American U-2 spy plane as it flew over the USSR. The Americans tried to claim it was a weather plane that had been blown off-course, but the Soviets interrogated the pilot who admtited to being on a spying mission. Khrushchev walked out of the meeting with no decisions made. 

VIENNA, JUNE 1961 - In January 1961, JFK became president of the USA. Khrushchev believed that he was inexperienced in foreign affairs, and wanted to use his naivety to his advantage. Khrushchev took a tough stance and renewed the Berlin Ultimatum of 1958. Once again, the meeting ended with no final decision and the relationship between Khrushchev and Kennedy became strained. 

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The Berlin Wall

On 12 August 1961, East German troops built a barbed wire fence around Berlin and between East and West Berlin. Soon, work on a concrete wall which would stretch 165km, began. The Berlin wall cut through streets and even buildings. By the end of the summer, it was finished. Alone the 27-mile section that cut throuh the centre of Berlin, were two walls, one facing East and the other West. They were separated by a zone known as 'no-man's land' packed with booby traps, barbed wire, minefields and car-barriers, all guarded with hundreds of lookout towers with machine gun nests and powerful searchlights. Families, friends and neighbours were parted.

In desperation, some people tried to cross the wall. East German border guards were instructed to shoot anyone making the attempt and it is estimated that over 130 people were killed. 

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Impact on international relations

The positive results for Kennedy's reputation were demonstrated when he visited West Berlin in 1963. Thousands of West Berliners turned out to see him and he was treated like a superhero; people showered him with flowers, rice and shredded paper. West Berliners were celebrating their freedom in contrast to the restrictions of life in the East. During his visit, Kennedy praised the freedoms of the West and contrasted them with communism in a famous speech in which he said: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Positive Outcomes:

  • Now that Berlin was divided, there was less likelihood that the US and USSR would go to war over Berlin. A wall was better than a war.
  • The building in some ways reduced tension between the USA and Soviet Union.

Negative Outcomes:

  • Numerous meetings had failed to resolve the issue in Berlin, now things were so bad that a concrete wall divided Germany. This reminded people of Churchill's iron curtain speech. 
  • The Berlin wall became a powerful symbol of the differences between East and West for years.
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