A university lecture on Modern World History

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Listen to part of a university lecture on Modern World History.

Professor: And one of the most dramatic political events of the twentieth century was the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, which stood between East and West Berlin, and between West Berlin and East Germany, for twenty-eight years- from 1961 to 1989.

At the end of the second World War, Germany was partitioned by its occupiers into four zones- the US, British, French, and Soviet Russian zones- at the Potsdam Conference, in the summer of 1945. And Germany's capital city, Berlin, was divided in the same way, even though the city lay completely inside the Russian zone of the country. At first, there was a cooperative intention to eventually reunite Germany, but instead, tensions increased between the Allies and the Soviets, as the Cold War- the war of Communist ideology versus Capitalist ideology- emerged. In 1948, the Soviets tried to starve the Allies out of Berlin by closing all the land routes to the city to Allied transport, but US President Harry Truman ordered a military airlift of supplies into the city. He defied the Soviets and signalled the resolution of the Allies to remain in their isolated sectors, come what may.

The idea of reuniting the country fell apart. In 1949, Germany was reorganized. The three Western powers combined their zones and formed the Federal Republic of Germany, or 'West Germany', and immediately after this, the Soviets formed the German Democratic Republic, or 'East Germany', from their zone. And the city of Berlin was similarly divided into West Berlin and East Berlin. West Berlin, in the middle of East Germany, became an island, but at that time the borders were open, and many Berliners crossed relatively freely from side to side, including some 60,000 East Berliners that commuted daily into West Berlin to work.

But West Germany prospered very well- in fact, it was labelled an "economic miracle"- but the economic and social conditions in East Germany failed terribly, so thousands of East Germans began emigrating from East to West, and the handiest portal- and the symbol of prosperity and freedom- was West Berlin. By 1961, about two and a half million East Germans- that's about fifteen hundred people a day!- had fled to the west. East Germany was losing its workforce- in fact, it was losing its population.

At the Vienna Summit in June of 1961, Soviet Premier Krushchev and US President Kennedy's discussions were so cold that both sides brought up the possibility of another war, and this danger of war explains the low-key reaction of the Allies on August 13th, 1961, when East German tanks and soldiers suddenly moved up to the boundary with West Berlin and began tearing up the streets, cutting communications, and constructing a hundred-and-twelve-kilometer wall around the Allied sector of the city. They finished their work in twenty-four hours, and West Berlin was completely cut off from East Germany.

This first wall was little more than a long barbed-wire fence, and escapes became so common that a succession of four walls- each more imposing and more impregnable than its predecessor- were eventually constructed. The fourth and final wall, built in 1975, was made of reinforced concrete nearly four meters high, and also included a lighted control strip, a vehicle ditch, three hundred watchtowers, twenty bunkers, a patrol road- and then a second fence!

During its existence, about five thousand people managed to escape over the wall, but also, more than a hundred people were shot and killed. As security got tighter, people devised other methods of escape. They jumped over the wall from adjacent buildings, or they tunneled under it. One of the most imaginative escapes was by two families who collected hundreds of remnants of nylon cloth, sewed them together to make a hot-air balloon, and then floated over the wall to freedom.

Under Erich Honeker's draconian leadership, life just got worse and worse in East Germany. But then, in the summer of 1989, Hungary's borders suddenly opened, immediately creating a broad new escape route. At about the same time, there were loud student demonstrations in Leipzig demanding that the wall come down. Meanwhile, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had announced that the Soviet Union would no longer suppress popular movements in its satellite states. This was the time when the Iron Curtain was starting to show its cracks everywhere.

And on November ninth, 1989, Gunter Schabowski, who was the leader of the East Berlin Communist Party, almost accidently mentioned at a live press conference that the country's travel restrictions were going to be lifted "immediately" for "private trips abroad". East Berliners rushed to the checkpoints by thousands, and the uncertain border guards, wanting to avoid violence, let them pass through to West Berlin.

In the next days and weeks, "wall woodpeckers" appeared- hundreds of citizens began to tear down the wall themselves with picks and hammers and chisels. The reunification of Germany was officially concluded on October third, 1990, and today only remnants of the Berlin Wall remain as a memorial and as a warning against the evils of totalitarianism.


What happened at the Potsdam Conference?


What part did US President Harry Truman play in this history?


Judging from the lecture, which factor probably contributed most to the destruction of the Wall?


Who announced the opening of the Berlin Wall?


What is the main thrust of this lecture?


Who were "wall woodpeckers"?


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