Berlin: Forty Years On

The Berlin Wall, 1986. Thierry Noir / Wikimedia Commons

In the romance of the cold war, Berlin has occupied a unique place. Debate continues on whether postwar Europe would have been different if American and British forces had raced to the capital of the German Reich ahead of the Soviets. The Berlin blockade in 1948-49 seemed to settle a key dispute between European and American supporters of the Marshall Plan about whether the Soviet Union had aggressive ambitions toward the West; and the blockade's end, agreed to by Moscow 30 days after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in April 1949, validated the need for this far-reaching commitment to mutual security. The drawn-out Berlin crisis of 1958-61 brought the world closer to cataclysm than any other event of the era save the Cuban missile crisis; it ended only with the construction of the Berlin Wall, which remains the most poignant symbol of East-West confrontation, of Europe's division and of human aspirations blunted by the communist system. By contrast, Berlin also became the focus of the first comprehensive East-West agreement produced by the Ostpolitik and détente that began in the 1960s-an agreement essential to the Federal Republic of Germany's later treaties with Eastern states, the Helsinki Final Act, and talks on mutual and balanced force reductions.


With this heady and consequential history in the cold war, it may seem remarkable that Berlin now commands so little attention in the West. That fact cannot derive simply from the details of the Quadripartite Agreement of 1971. On its face, this accord tidied up some provisions regarding life in, and access to, West Berlin that had not been adequately dealt with by the Western occupying powers during the 1940s. It gave mutual pledges that "disputes shall be settled solely by peaceful means," and it provided some reassurance about customs and Western rights, in the words that "the situation which has developed in the area . . . shall not be changed unilaterally." The unresolved issues of a divided Berlin, however, did not go away. They remain frozen more

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