The Curtain: Iron Curtain History



1939 – 1945: World War II

1945: Berlin lay in ruins. The population was reduced from 4 million to 2.8 million. The city was divided into four zones of occupation, administered by French, British, U.S. and Soviet forces

1948 – 49: The Soviet government tried to force the Western Allies to withdraw from Berlin by blockading the city. This was foiled by an 11-month gigantic airlift of food, medicines, clothing and supplies to the Allies now occupying Berlin.

1949: Germany is divided into the Federal Republic (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR – East Germany). This left the Allies stranded in the communist GDR. Winston Churchill called the fences and border crossings between East and West, 'The Iron Curtain'.


1953: Construction workers in East Berlin protested about low wages. This provoked a full-scale uprising which was put down by Soviet tanks.


1955-1960: East Berliners were escaping to the West in droves. By 1960 thousands of people a week were leaving the GDR. The government tried to put travel restrictions on its citizens but it wasn't working, as people were crossing the border between East and West Berlin and were escaping to the west from there.

1961: To stop the flood of East Berliners to the West, the East German government built the Berlin Wall.

1989: After the May elections there was widespread protest at alleged ballot-rigging which added to the dissatisfaction of East Germany. Through the summer the West German embassies filled up with East Germans wanting exile to the west. This forced the government to allow safe passage of these people to the west, but the embassies continued to fill. Hungary opened its boards with Austria in the West and East Germans began to travel to Hungary and escape through Austria. Demonstrations grew larger in all cities of East Germany, particularly in East Berlin. The center of demonstrations in East Berlin was the Church of Gethsemane, which held candle-lit vigils every Monday night.

On November 4th, half a million people turned out on the streets of East Berlin. Large demonstrations continued in all major cities of the GDR. On November 6th came the biggest march yet in Liepzig, estimated at half a million, calling for free elections and an end to the Communist monopoly of power. On this day the Council of Ministers resigned en mass, and on November 7th so did the prime minister with all forty-four members of his cabinet. On November 9th, the announcement was made that East Germans were free to travel. That night, East and West Germans gathered at the Berlin Wall and, for the first time in history, climbed over it. The Berlin Wall was opened.