The Berlin Crisis : the origins and management of a crisis

Coleman, David G. (1995). The Berlin Crisis : the origins and management of a crisis Honours Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Coleman, David G.
Thesis Title The Berlin Crisis : the origins and management of a crisis
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1995
Thesis type Honours Thesis
Open Access Status Other
Supervisor Dr. Joseph M. Siracusa
Total pages 81
Language eng
Subjects 2103 Historical Studies
Formatted abstract

In December 1961, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower reflected that "Berlin is not so much a beleaguered city or threatened city as it is a symbol - for the West, of principle, of good faith, of determination; for the Soviets, a thorn in their flesh, a wound to their pride, an impediment to their designs."1 He had played an integral part in the development of the German situation, firstly as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and later as President of the United States. During this period Berlin was one issue around which many others were gathered. From the time of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the 'German Question' was never far from the diplomatic negotiations. As the capital of Prussia it had assumed the symbolism of German aggression and militarism, and as such it was the prize of V-E Day. When relations between the occupation powers became strained Berlin became the 'front line' of the Cold War. While the city was of little material value to either side, both East and West were willing to go to the brink of war in pursuit of its diplomatic symbolism.         

The Berlin Crisis of 1961 remains an important example of Cold War crisis management. The following year the contest between East and West assumed a far more sinister character with the serious threat of nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The contest over Berlin was as important for hs diplomatic confrontation as the Cuban crisis was over its military threat. In 1961, both East and West were trying to secure a German nation sympathetic to their own causes. The Federal Republic of Germany, with its capital in Bonn, was an active member of NATO, while the German Democratic Republic claimed its capital as Berlin and was a signatory of the Warsaw Pact. Berlin enjoyed a 'special status.' All four Occupation Powers still maintained garrisons in the city and despite the formation of West Germany in 1949, West Berlin was not incorporated as part of this new German state, but rather was maintained and supervised by the joint occupation of the United States, Great Britain and France. The 2 ½ million people living in West Berlin were joined by approximately thirteen thousand troops: a mere token when the geographical position of Berlin is taken into account. Situated one hundred and ten miles within Soviet-controlled territory, the city was militarily indefensible. The West's position was assured only so long as NATO posed a credible threat of going to war over the issue.        

While the term 'Berlin Crisis' may be applied to the period from 1958 to 1963, 1961 brought the climax. Tensions grew from January to July as the new Kennedy Administration struggled to establish itself while faced with already established problems. In June Soviet Premier Nikita S. Krushchev repeated a demand first specifically made in November 1958 that a peace treaty finally be signed with Germany. In August the East German government erected barricades along sector boundaries. With the erection of the Berlin Wall the Cold War gained its most sinister symbol. Germany and Berlin were officially and visibly dismembered, though this took a form very different from the wartime notion of German partition.        

From the time that the Allies seemed to be gaining the upper hand in Europe, tentative plans were made for postwar Europe. These plans were often inconsistent and relegated to a secondary priority after the winning of the war. The 'German Question' became a central issue in international diplomacy from the Moscow Conference of 1943 with the establishment of the European Advisory Council. In 1944, Henry Morgenthau Jr.'s proposals were put on the international stage. Various flashpoints such as the airlift of 1948 and the sealing of Berlin in 1961 brought the issue to the forefront. Arms control, national sovereignty, spheres of influence, and German rearmament were all major issues in their own right, and all of these played important roles in the 'German Question' Accordingly, Berlin assumed a value far beyond its own merit by being the focus of many other diplomatic issues between East and West.        

The agreements reached during the latter stages of the Second World War were designed to be temporary measures to occupy Germany during denazification and demilitarization so that the Germans could never again start an aggressive war. Zonal occupation was introduced for Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and later France. By 1961 these wartime agreements could no longer support the conflict of the Cold War. The Potsdam Protocol was repeatedly quoted in justification of the Western presence, but both sides willingly violated the protocol if h was in their interests.        

The Berlin Crisis of 1961 was not an isolated crisis. Consequently, the origins of the 'Berlin problem' are as significant as the crisis itself The dispute of 1961 was a direct result of the postwar occupation of Germany and was presaged by the Soviet ultimatum of 1958. The first two chapters examine these origins of the Berlin question.         

Chapter One concerns the postwar partition of Germany. Initially done in the spirit of Allied cooperation, this partnership soon soured. Consideration of the 'German Question' includes the Allies' insistence upon unconditional surrender, propositions for the postwar treatment of Germany as given by Morgenthau and the Department of State, as well as the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam. Special attention is given to the documents that came out of these conferences, as well as the directive known as JCS 1067. This document, along with the Potsdam Protocol, was originally intended as a temporary directive for the Allied occupation of Germany. Both assumed greater importance with the prolonged presence of Allied troops. The imposition of unconditional surrender upon the Germans was a major factor in the foreign relations of the next several years. Having inherited the 'German Question' from Roosevelt, President Truman found Europe already divided. As the postwar world polarised, Cold War diplomacy dominated foreign policy, prompting the President to develop the Truman Doctrine of containment. In this environment the Berlin Blockade and Airlift of 1948-49 became a major conflict.        

Chapter Two focuses on the Eisenhower Administration's relationship with the issues of Berlin. Potential for gathering international opinion was not taken by the United States during the 1953 Berlin riots. After having been relatively quiet for several years, the Berlin issue was again raised by Krushchev in 1958 where he called for a final resolution. He gave six months for this resolution to be found before he would relinquish all control over access to Berlin to East German officials. The issue was allowed to fade in 1959 with the promise of a summit meeting.       

Chapters Three and Four examine the Berlin Crisis of 1961, from its development to its resolution. The U-2 incident and the failed summit signalled a hardening of differences between East and West. President John F. Kennedy assumed office in January 1961 and found that to such issues as Berlin and Cuba there was no easy solution. His buildup of conventional weapons and the shoring up of the NATO alliance in anticipation of a crisis in 1961 were attempts at preventing such a confrontation. Kennedy struggled to define the crisis in order that NATO could be faced with a simple decision of what would constitute a sufficient threat to their interests to justify war. Ostensibly, internal issues led to the East German government sealing off the city of Berlin on the 13 August. As such it was not a direct threat to the occupation powers and did not prompt a strong reaction from NATO.         

The Warsaw Pact and NATO faced each other in the streets of Berlin. The city was in the unenviable position of being the battle ground for Cold War diplomacy. With its emotional separation of families and loved ones for almost thirty years h was the focus of the international community's condemnation of the superpower diplomacy. The construction of the Berlin Wall was the most visible representation of Cold War divisions, representing for the free world the oppression of the communist system. As such, its collapse in 1989 signalled the imminent fall of the communist world and the end of the Cold War. 

1Dwight D. Eisenhower, "My Views on Berlin," Saturday Evening Post, 9 December 1961. p. 28

Keyword Berlin (Germany) -- Politics and government -- 1945-1990
World politics -- 1955-1965
United States -- Foreign relations -- Germany
United States -- Foreign relations -- 1945-1953.
Cold War

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (non-RHD) - Open Access
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