In the early 1960s, Soviet-controlled East Germany was hemorrhaging people to the West, as Germans fled the Communists and the Stasi (the East German secret police). Berlin was located in East Germany but was partitioned after World War II into four sectors: a Soviet sector, and three sectors controlled by the Americans, British, and French. The blue districts in the below figure (those controlled by the Americans, the British, and the French) became “West Berlin,” while the red districts were called “East Berlin”:
Beginning on 12 August 1961, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the western-controlled sectors of Berlin – the dotted line in the above figure consisting of barbed wire, concrete barriers, tank traps, and checkpoints. Checkpoints were crossing points between the Soviet and Allied sectors, the most famous being “Checkpoint Charlie,” which was featured in James Bond and other Cold War movies of the era:
Charlie was notable for its location on Friedrichstrasse, a historic street in the American-occupied city center. Even more important was that it was the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector. In response, the United States, France and Britain stationed military police at Checkpoint Charlie to ensure their officials had ready access to the border.
Checkpoint Charlie played a supporting role in one of the most famous prisoner exchanges of the Cold War. The main swap took place at the nearby Glienicke Bridge, where captured American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was traded for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet who had been arrested in New York and convicted of espionage.
The construction of the Berlin Wall was just the latest Soviet attempt to intimidate the Allies during the Cold War. One of the first major confrontations precipitated the Berlin airlift:
On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded all road, rail and water routes into Berlin’s Allied-controlled areas, stifling the vital flow of food, coal and other supplies. Soviet troop numbers dwarfed those of the Allies, which had drawn down after the
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