By May of 1945, most of Europe was in shambles, utterly destroyed by nearly 6 years of war waged in countries such as Czechoslovakia, France, England, Italy, The Soviet Union, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Poland and Germany. Considering the unyielding daylight bombing by Allied aircraft over German targets and the “Nerobefehl” or Nero Decree (scorched earth) policies of the retreating Wehrmacht, it is amazing that the survivors even had homes to return to after the cessation of hostilities.
When the weapons and machines of the war fell silent, some 40-million* non-combatant people (civilians) had been obliterated – wiped from existence. In the Allied European nations, estimates of the civilian dead are upwards of 25 million. For the European Axis nations, nearly 8,000,000 civilians were gone.
Utter devastation was present seemingly in every location. Those who survived the conflict were left facing uncertainty and immense challenges to reconstruct and rebuild their cities and towns from the mountains of rubble and bomb-craters. The effort would require a coalition of nations to coordinate the monumental effort while overseeing the dismantling of the German war machine.
In the waning weeks of conflict in Europe, the Allied nations had established and agreed upon boundaries that would limit the extent each nation’s push as German resistance ebbed. By the first week of May, 1945, it was all over. Hitler, fully aware of the fate that awaited him should he be captured by Soviets who were closing in on his bunker, chose to take his own life on April 30. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz now in charge (Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was removed from this position due to his attempt to take power prior to Hitler’s death), agreed to surrender unconditionally to the Allies. The instrument of surrender was signed on May 7, to take effect the next day, by Germany’s representative, General Alfred Jodl, who would be hanged in 1946 having been found guilty of war crimes.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Germany had initiated two world wars, and initiating and inflicting considerable devastation upon other nations. Rather than leave this repeat aggressor to its own devices and risk a third global war, the Allies decided to be proactive in overseeing not only the German reconstruction effort but to instill a system (under the Potsdam Agreement) of governance for control and management. Not only did the Allies agree to create zones of occupation but they had to work to establish and define national borders due to Germany’s continuous disputes and territorial claims spanning the previous decades resulting in the redrawing of much of the Western European map.
Germany was divided, in accordance to Allied agreements, into five zones: British, French, Polish, American and Soviet, providing for monitoring and governing by military leaders from the respective nations. The capital city of Berlin was similarly divided between France, Britain and the U.S. controlling one half of the city and the Soviet Union taking over the other). With re-construction well underway and the war criminal trials concluded in 1946,
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” - Sir Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946
With increased tensions between the former allies over which nation would be the sole supplier of West Berlin (the USSR sought control of West Berlin by making the city solely dependent upon Russian provisions) , the Soviets began an 11-month long blockade (June 1948 – May 1949) in an effort to choke off the supply routes (roads, rails and waterways) between West Germany and West Berlin prompting the United States and Britain to commence a massive-scale relief effort, flying all supplies into the isolated city.
The original intent of the allied agreements was to eventually merge the zones back into a single German nation. Between 1947 and 1949, the three western zones (American, British and French) merged to form the West German Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Due to continued breakdowns in negotiations with the Soviets, the Eastern zones would remain in Soviet control and a subsequent establishment of communist East Germany – also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Within two years of the creation of the German Soviet-state (the GDR), fear began to run rampant among the East German citizens who were witnessing the increased control being foisted upon them by the Stalin regime. In West Germany, reconstruction was in full swing and her citizens were beginning to taste the freedom and prosperity of a democratic society. Seeking to escape the death-grip of communism, East Germans began to flee the GDR for the FRG (West Berlin, specifically) beginning in 1950. By 1953, upwards of 1 million East Germans had escaped in nearly four years’ time – over a quarter million in the first few months of ‘53 alone.
Seeking to stem the outflow of their citizens, East German officials began restricting travel to western areas, following the direction of other Eastern Bloc nations. This control would be tightened over the next several years. Losing more than 3.5 million to successful escapes to the West, the first elements of the infamous wall would begin to be set in place in August of 1961 by order of GDR government officials. It is unknown, however if the decision was directed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Iron curtain was solidifying, being set in concrete.
For decades the wall would be in place, surrounding the city. Unlike the ancient times when cities were walled to protect those within from invaders, this wall was constructed to keep its citizens from escaping to freedom. The Wall stood as both a symbolic and literal representation of communism. For those behind it, getting beyond the Wall meant having a chance at a better life and that getting there alive would be a monumental challenge. Countless few did make it across while Some 136 people would die in direct connection to the Berlin Wall. 98% of those deaths were the result of attempted escapes – 97 of them were shot dead by GDR border guards.
By the mid-1980s and the height of President Ronald Reagan’s time in office, Soviet control over Europe was beginning to wane. Fed up with the boot of communism, the citizens of the Eastern Bloc nations began to revolt as they pursued democratic freedom. Seizing upon the momentum of the spreading freedom and liberty, President Reagan visited the Wall and gave the famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, calling for the removal of the wall.
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – President Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987
The grip of communist control continued to disintegrate. In 1989, beginning with Poland, the revolution was in full swing as one by one, Eastern-bloc nations emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. On November 4th, more than 500,000 East Germans gathered at the Alexanderplatz in protest, the culmination of the Peaceful Revolution that had started previously in September. By the 9th of November, the Wall began to fall – the actual demolition taking the better part of the following year.
German reunification was now free to commence.
Since WWII, the U.S. military has maintained presence in Germany in an evolving capacity beginning with dismantling of the Nazi war machine to providing security and stability in holding the spread of Soviet communism in check. Today, U.S. Army and Air Force bases are maintained in Germany, strategically located, providing vital services and resources for forward deployed forces.
Collecting items directly related or connected to the allied occupation and the Berlin Wall, to me is an interesting proposition. For militaria collectors, locating a grouping from veteran who served in the Berlin Airlift (something of a rarity) or of guard at Checkpoint Charlie would make for a uniquely historic display.
Along with the occupation medal that was warded to my uncle for his post-VE Day service in Germany, I have some signage with stern messaging in both German and English.
In a Pawn Stars episode, a customer brings a road sign into the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. The sign appears to be one that would have been found along a road leading to one of the East-West German border crossings. Affixed to the back of the sign is provenance from the U.S. Army officer who is purported to have received the piece in 1990.
If collectors simply wanted a piece of the Berlin Wall, there are plenty of online sources selling pieces of varying sizes, though it would be a dubious pursuit as an investment as there were nearly 70 miles of the double-wall.
*This number includes the victims of the Holocaust.
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