Study Guide

Ich bin ein Berliner Speech Historical Context

By John F. Kennedy

Historical Context

The End of WWII

After Adolph and Ava offed themselves in their bunker, Berlin was free of Nazis and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.

Yeah; no.

Leading up to Germany's surrender, Allied Forces had repeatedly bombed Berlin, leaving large sections of the city in ruins. Like many European cities and towns, Berlin would need extensive rebuilding—not an easy task. And then there was the problem of how Germany was to be governed. They were responsible for not one, but two world wars, so picking a new form of government and leaders who wouldn't cause the deaths of millions was a top priority.

Unfortunately it wasn't a topic that the Allies could agree on.

The Rebuilding Assignment

Have you ever been assigned to do a project and your teacher put you in a group with people you really dislike? So instead of actually working together you just assign each person in the group a part of the work and figure you'll slap it all together on the day it's due?

We've definitely been there.

So in 1945 the U.S., France, Great Britain, and the USSR were given the assignment of fixing Germany. It had to be done and those were the nations that won the war, so who better?

The problem is that the U.S., France, and Great Britain were in a really tight clique together. They were besties whose hobbies included free elections and capitalist enterprises. The USSR was the weird kid who had a one-party system and a communist economy.

So, instead of actually working together on the assignment, they divided Germany into four sections, and the capital city of Berlin into four sections, giving one chunk of the country and one chunk of the capital to each nation to manage.

And that might have worked in theory, but definitely not in practice. The U.S., France, and Great Britain got together at the diplomatic equivalent of a sleepover and did their portions of the assignment together without inviting the USSR. They merged their chunks of Germany, created a democratic system where Germans elected representatives, and encouraged companies that would make profits.

The USSR, working alone, only allowed communist party leaders to govern and created a system where all businesses were controlled by the state. The two methods were completely at odds with each other and made the whole assignment look like cat vomit when they tried to turn it in.

Grading the Assignment

It turned out that the German people really preferred the work done by the U.S., France, and Great Britain. Germans started moving from East Germany (the section controlled by the USSR) to West Germany (the section fixed up by the U.S., France, and Great Britain). This was especially apparent in Berlin, where moving from the oppressive, communist east to the freedom-loving west could be as simple as crossing the street.

And a lot of people crossed the street, which was the equivalent of giving the USSR an F and the U.S., France, and Great Britain a C+ with points deducted for not working together as a team.

The four nations had created two separate countries, East and West Germany, complicated by the fact that West Berlin sat right smack in the middle of East Germany. While the U.S., France, and Great Britain were pleased with how their work turned out, the USSR was deeply embarrassed at all the people fleeing from their side. They had clearly lost and the classy thing to do would be to admit defeat.

Of course that isn't what they did.

The USSR responded by throwing a temper tantrum that lasted about four decades. First they cut off access to West Berlin so that no supplies could get in, mainly by blocking all roads in and out. That failed to work because nations simply airlifted supplies into West Berlin. It also failed to keep people from sneaking across into the west…which led to the wall.

In 1961 the USSR-controlled East German government built a concrete wall surrounding West Berlin complete with guard towers, armed guards, and the super fun-sounding "death strip" where people on the east side would be shot for just approaching the wall. They claimed that they were trying to protect people from the corruption of the west, but in reality they were imprisoning their own people out fear that they'd all run away.

When Kennedy spoke in West Berlin in 1963, the conflict had been raging for eighteen years, but the wall itself was only a few years old. There was still some hope that someone would come to their senses and stop ripping the city in two.

Neither side was willing to go to war over Berlin—because these particular arguing classmates had nuclear arsenals—but they also weren't willing to back down. So the wall remained.

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