CBC Digital Archives

The struggle for Berlin

In the ideological struggle that was the Cold War, East Germans voted the only way they could: with their feet. By the thousands each month, they escaped communist rule by slipping into the West through Berlin. In 1961, the East German government built a wall to keep them in. The Berlin Wall became both a barrier and a symbol of the differences between West and East, between democracy and communism. On Nov. 9, 1989, after floods of East Germans had left via third countries, the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way to German reunification.

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In 1959, a steady flow of refugees from East Germany through Berlin continues, creating an embarrassment and a labour crisis for the German Democratic Republic. It has driven Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to demand that the Western powers leave the city. If they don't, the Soviets will sign a treaty formally ending the war with Germany, meaning the Western powers cannot justify staying in Berlin. The city will then be open for a takeover by the GDR.
  In contrast to the drab streets and empty stores of the eastern city, West Berlin is awash in bright lights and busy shoppers - busy because they're stocking up on essentials lest the Soviets bring in another blockade. This CBC-TV clip gives a snapshot of life in West Berlin, a city whose steadfast mayor, Willy Brandt, won't back down. "No power should change the status of Berlin," says Brandt. 

• Willy Brandt was mayor of West Berlin from 1957 to 1966, then became foreign minister and vice-chancellor of West Germany. He was elected chancellor in 1969 and held the post until 1974, resigning when it was revealed that a trusted aide was an East German spy.
  • In 1959 East and West Berliners were still permitted free movement between the two halves of the city. At least 50,000 who lived on the east side worked on the west side, and an underground subway and an elevated train passed freely across the border.

• Though they were allowed to shop for groceries and other goods in West Berlin stores, few East Berliners could afford to: things cost five times as much in the free-market West Berlin as the state-subsidized East.

• East Berliners were not permitted to import newspapers, magazines or books from the West. Parents sometimes enlisted their children to smuggle in this coveted material, confident the volkspolizei (East German border guards) would not search children.

Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: May 10, 1959
Host: Norman DePoe
Reporter: Michael Maclear
Duration: 12:25

Last updated: January 31, 2012

Page consulted on May 9, 2014

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