City in Ruins: Berlin was the most bombed city in the Third Reich. Incendiary bombs had often left walls standing, but interiors gutted. The Red Army assault in April 1945 had added to the destruction. Whole city blocks had to be torn down in the aftermath. People were missing too. Evacuations, war dead and soldiers in captivity had turned Berlin into a ghost city with only two-thirds of its pre-war population.
Black Market Berlin: in the late 40s, the Reichsmark lost its value in a barter economy which relied on goods. Allied occupation soldiers were often the source of the merchandise. Petty criminality was on the rise too, and the sector boundary was often the best means of escape. Potsdamer Platz gave onto three different sectors, and police could not follow in hot pursuit.
East Meets West: the wartime allies, who included the Soviet Union, had agreed the sectors for occupied Berlin in 1944. In 1945 a fourth French sector was added. Berlin was a four-power city, and each occupier had the right to tour the others' sectors, but unlike occupied Vienna, no neutral sector acted as a buffer in the middle. Berlin lay deep within the overall Soviet zone. In a gentleman's agreement, the Western Allies were connected to their zones by road and rail, but only the air corridors were guaranteed in writing. Until 1948 Berlin was run by the four military commandants through the Kommandatura, the military city government, until the Russians' Kotikov walked out in 1948.
The Americans, British and French kept a token force of 12,000 troops in West Berlin. They were vastly outnumbered by the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, but both Cold War camps knew that a conventional conflict could easily escalate into a nuclear one. Things remained tense but stable. Fraternisation was not initially encouraged, but the lure of the 'Fräulein' proved too great.
Twin Currencies: in June 1948 a new currency, the deutschmark, was introduced to West Germany. Its introduction in West Berlin then triggered the Berlin Blockade by the Soviets, but throughout the 1950s two currencies co-existed. The official rate was 1:1, but the unofficial rate was 5 deutschmark to 1 east mark. West Berliners could thus change their money and shop for food and haircuts in East Berlin at rock-bottom prices. Around 50,000 East Germans, so-called Grenzgänger, commuted to jobs in West Berlin where they earned hard currency, while still paying their rents in soft currency: the best of both worlds! East Germany even renewed its currency in 1957 to foil the 'speculators', but to little avail.
Blockade and Airlift: in retaliation for moves towards a separate West German state, Moscow cut the ground road and rail links between West Berlin and West Germany on 24 June 1948, for 'technical' reasons. West Berlin had imported not only food, but coal for heating and electricity. US military governor Lucius Clay consulted West Berlin's mayor, Ernst Reuter, who pledged West Berliners' support for the austerity ahead. American transport aircraft worldwide were reassigned to Germany; Britain's stretched RAF even chartered civilian planes. The USAF's Willy 'the Whip' Tunner, architect of the air supply of Burma during WW2, was brought in. Despite a dip in flights in bad weather in autumn 1948, the Anglo-Americans succeeded in supplying a city of 2 million. West Berliners were comforted by the drone of aero-engines day and night. Electricity was rationed to a few hours daily. Dried milk, egg and potato were the staple diet. After secret negotiations, the Soviets gave up on the Blockade in May 1949.
Crossing the Line: in the 1950s the border was often just a white line painted in the road. Sometimes it was invisible, marked only by a set of tramlines or a house front. Berliners might face spot checks, but otherwise were free to come and go. West Berlin controlled the U-Bahn subway; East Berlin ran the overground S-Bahn. East Berliners would regularly shop and watch movies in West Berlin. Or just go for a walk.
Shopwindow Berlin: both Berlins used reconstruction and promised prosperity to convince citizens to opt for them. The Kurfürstendamm was West Berlin's main drag, showing off the 'economic miracle'. In the East Stalinallee provided flats for the new proletarian elite, but also shops and cafes. Ironically, it was building workers here, dissatisfied with rising prices and shrinking wages, who led an insurrection in June 1953.
Visual Propaganda: both sides used the sector boundary as a site for propaganda hoardings and posters to appeal to passers-by on the other side. West Berlin then erected a number of news tickers so that East Berliners could read western news bulletins. At one point the Stasi investigated the possibility of a sonic attack to shatter the lightbulbs, but it proved beyond their technological capabilities.
War of the Ether: located in the centre of the surrounding German Democratic Republic, Berlin was an ideal broadcasting platform for both sides. Until 1956 the Soviets hung on to Goebbels' former studios, despite being in the British sector. The Americans launched their own station, Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), which catered to an East as well as a West Berlin audience. Satire was a particularly potent weapon.
Walter Ulbricht: the East German communist leader in many ways more hardline than Khrushchev. With his strong Saxon accent and lack of charisma, 'Goatee' (Spitzbart) was an easy target for mockery. But he was a survivor. In 1953 he was almost ousted after the death of his sponsor, Stalin, but clung on. Most of the pressure to close the border with the West came from Ulbricht.
Berlin as Escape Hatch: around 3 million or 1 in 6 East Germans left the GDR for good. Berlin became increasingly important as the easiest escape route. Arrivees came with just suitcases, often having to stay in overcrowded reception camps until flown out to West Germany from Tempelhof airport. Most were probably coming for economic reasons, although political pressures rose in 1953 and 1958. The official Western line was to hold out in the 'Zone', a view challenged by Willy Brandt. By 1961 more refugees were arriving than the West could cope with. Rumours swirled around East Germany that 'something' would happen to stop the exodus, inducing a stampede for the exit or 'Torschlusspanik'.
Saturday Night to Sunday Morning: early on 13 August 1961 a top-secret Operation Rose sealed off the border to West Berlin. Border police and factory militias formed a human cordon at the sector boundary while barbed wire was strung out. The East German populace was evidently taken by surprise: the mood was dazed, but with a sense of premonition that closure was inevitable. Young East Germans began to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the bright lights of West Berlin. The communist regime meted out physical violence in the first weeks, beating up opponents, but realised that it too would have to come to terms with its captive audience. Troublemakers could not just be shunted over the border.
'The West Is Doing Nothing!': the famous tabloid headline from Bildzeitung. Since the East was scrupulous not to affect West Berlin's interests (the Wall was built about 5 meters inside East Berlin) or to threaten its access routes, the West merely protested verbally. Mayor Willy Brandt wrote a critical letter to President Kennedy, asking for more action, but the most he would do was send his Vice-President and a token force of reinforcements to West Berlin. The British wired off the Soviet war memorial by the Reichstag 'for its own protection'. Most of the violent protest came from young West Berliners engaging the East Berlin police in running battles, exchanging stones and teargas canisters.
Photographing the Wall: its photogenic qualities attracted batteries of western press photographers. They were often keen to show the human costs of the Wall, photographing families attempting to wave to each other across no-man's land. Because 13 August took place at a weekend, in the summer holidays, many family members were visiting relatives in the other half of the city. Some children were allowed to be reunited with parents in the West, but East Germany was ruthless towards adults. Many of the photos in this virtual exhibition were designed at the time to have an emotive effect on western audiences, often beyond Berlin. As well as the epic side of the Wall, they capture the everyday.
Flashpoint Berlin?: the proximity of the border certainly brought problems into sharp focus. Officially western troops did not recognise East German police. Tensions mounted when the US political adviser refused to show them his ID at Checkpoint Charlie. US tanks were sent in to reinforce his point, at which the Soviets deployed their own armour. After back-channel diplomacy, both sides inched back.
Escapes: in the early days and weeks there were still many loopholes to the West. East Berliners abseiled out of windows, crawled through graveyards, or even jumped out of moving trains at the sector boundary. The first escapee to be shot dead was trying to swim across the river Spree by the Reichstag. The most famous victim of the Wall was 17-year old Peter Fechter, shot in the back as he tried to scale the Wall near Checkpoint Charlie on 17 August 1962. He lay moaning at the foot of the Wall for nearly an hour, by which time he had bled to death. Outraged West Berliners turned on impotent police and US occupation troops. All told 136 persons have been documented as killed at the Wall.
'Ich bin ein Berliner': on 26 June 1963 Kennedy visited Berlin for the first time. After looking at the Wall he delivered one of the most famous speeches in history at the city hall. Doubters about communism were challenged: 'Let them come to Berlin!' Then, using a phonetic transcription of the German, JFK made himself an honourary citizen of Berlin. None of the 100,000 West Berliners gathered seemed to mind.
1989: protests began not in Berlin but Leipzig. The provinces always resented the capital's relatively privileged status. The Wall began to unravel when the Hungarians dismantled their section of the Iron Curtain in May 1989. Gorbachev's promises of reform helped. Tens of thousands of East Germans fled this way over the summer, or sought asylum in West German embassies across the eastern bloc. On 4 November 1989 a mass protest took to the streets of Berlin. The regime's days were numbered. 5 days later the Politburo opened the Wall in a last desperate bid to convince people to stay.
Curator — Patrick Major, Professor of Modern History at Reading University, UK
— Centre for East German Studies, Reading University, UK