How Germany Was Divided After World War II
When the Allies celebrated Victory in Europe (VE) Day on May 8, 1945, British military commander Bernard Law Montgomery warned his troops: “We have won the German war. Let us now win the peace.
A few months before Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II, the “three great” Allied powers – the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union – met at the Yalta conference to discuss the future of Germany. They all wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened after World War I, when a postwar economic collapse in Germany fueled nationalist resentment and the rise of the far-right Nazi Party.
The situation in Germany after World War II was dire. Millions of Germans were left homeless by Allied bombing campaigns that leveled entire towns. And millions of other Germans living in Poland and East Prussia became refugees when the Soviet Union expelled them. With the German economy and government in shambles, the Allies concluded that Germany needed to be occupied after the war to ensure a peaceful transition to a post-Nazi state.
What the Allies never intended, however, was that their temporary solution of organizing Germany into four occupation zones, each administered by a different Allied army, would ultimately lead to a divided Germany.
“It was only over time, as the Cold War eroded trust between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, that these occupation zones merged into two different German nations,” says historian Thomas Boghardt. principal at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
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Four allies, four occupation zones
In July 1945, the “Big Three” met again at the Potsdam Conference. At Yalta, the Allies had agreed on a general framework that included the demilitarization, democratization and denazification of Germany. With the war officially over, it was time to launch a “details” plan of action for an Allied occupation of Germany.
Instead of administering and monitoring Germany side by side, as the Allies did in post-war Austria, the decision was made in Potsdam to divide Germany into four occupation zones distinct, one for each allied nation (including France). The British were assigned the northwest quadrant, the French the southwest, and the Americans the southeast. Since the Soviet Army already occupied much of eastern Germany, the Soviet Union was put in charge of the northeastern quadrant, which included the capital Berlin.
Berlin itself was also subdivided into four quadrants, with the British, French, Soviets and Americans each guarding a different area of the capital, which was entirely surrounded by Soviet-occupied territory.
“At the Potsdam conference, the idea was that a central authority called the Allied Control Council would issue common directives which would then be carried out at a lower level by each ally in its zone of occupation,” explains Boghardt, author of Secret Legions: US Army Intelligence in Germany, 1944-1949. “The devil was in the details, however, and the longer the occupation went on, it became clear that this was not feasible.”
Rifts between Soviet areas and other occupied areas
From the start, the Soviets managed their zone of occupation very differently from the British, French and Americans.
“The Soviet army and Russian civilians suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis during the war,” says Boghardt. “So when it came to implementing the joint denazification directive, for example, they not only arrested Nazi officials, but they considered all major German landowners to be Nazis. So they confiscated their land.
The same applies to the common directive to establish free and democratic elections in each zone of occupation. On the surface, the Soviets allowed the formation of independent political parties in their area, but soon forced all parties to merge into a communist “coalition” controlled by Moscow. This decision was strongly criticized by the Western Allies.
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But the greatest rift between the Soviet Union and the rest of the occupying nations formed around the issue of war reparations. One of the reasons Germany’s economy collapsed after World War I was because it had to pay billions of dollars in reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles. The British, French and Americans wanted to avoid this mistake, but the Soviet Union, whose own economy had been badly damaged by the Germans in World War II, wanted Germany to pay.
A deal was reached in which the Soviet Union agreed to exchange food grown in its occupation zone for cash reparations and finished goods from German factories in the western occupation zones. But when the Soviets failed to keep pace with their agricultural expeditions, the Western Allies halted reparation payments.
In 1946, tensions escalated further when Soviet military forces helped establish communist regimes in Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania. In a famous speech, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, described the threat of Soviet Communism as an “iron curtain” descending on the European continent, signaling the start of the Cold War. Any chance of cooperation between the occupying Western and Soviet forces was quickly fading.
Tensions lead to Berlin blockade
In 1947, Great Britain and the United States decided to merge their two zones of occupation in order to promote greater economic cooperation between the regions. The new large territory was called “Bizonia” in reference to the two areas that constituted its borders.
Then the Western Allies took things a step further by stepping up economic aid to Bizonia and French-occupied territory with Marshall Plan money. They also replaced the heavily inflated German currency, the Reichsmark, with a new, more stable Deutsche Mark. All of these actions were taken without Soviet approval.
Tensions came to a head when the Western Allies attempted to circulate the new Deutsche Mark in Berlin. The Soviets boycotted the Allied Control Council, and when the West failed to comply with their demands, Joseph Stalin ordered a total blockade of Berlin, located 100 miles inside Soviet-occupied territory.
“Berlin is an island in the Soviet zone,” says Boghardt. “Stalin decided to press the Western Allies where they were most vulnerable. He cut off all access to West Berlin by road, train and boat, but not by air.
Berlin airlift breaks blockade
The Americans, British and French responded with the Berlin Airlift, a months-long air campaign to drop food and fuel into West Berlin that finally broke the Soviet blockade in 1949.
Later that same year, France officially merged its occupied territory with Bizonia, creating the Federal Republic of Germany, or what became known as West Germany. In October 1949, the Soviet Union responded by creating the German Democratic Republic, a communist state known as East Germany.
In 1952 East Germany began to monitor its western border to stop the flight of engineers, scientists and doctors to West Germany. Interestingly, the border inside Berlin was not so tightly controlled.
“For eight years there was this loophole,” says Boghardt, “when it was very easy for anyone who wanted to flee East Germany to do so. All you had to do was hop on a subway in East Berlin and exit in West Berlin.
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers in Berlin laid down miles of barbed wire that would become the Berlin Wall, sealing the border with West Germany for the next 28 years.