How was Germany split in half?

After World War II ended in 1945, Germany was divided into four occupation zones controlled by the Allied powers – the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Disagreements between the Allied powers on how to run the country led to the division of Germany into two separate states in 1949 – West Germany and East Germany. The capital city of Berlin, located in East Germany, was also split into two parts. This division of Germany would last for over 40 years until reunification in 1990.

Post-War Occupation Zones

As part of the post-war plan for occupied Germany, the country was divided into four zones of occupation – one for each of the major Allied powers involved in defeating Nazi Germany. The zones were as follows:

  • The British zone in the northwest
  • The French zone in the southwest
  • The American zone in the south
  • The Soviet zone in the east

Berlin, despite being located well within the Soviet zone, was also divided into four sectors under the control of Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union due to its importance as the capital city. This division was agreed upon in the Potsdam Agreement in 1945.

The intention was that the four zones would be jointly administered by the Allied Control Council as a unified country. However, tensions rapidly mounted between western Allies and the Soviet Union.

Differences Between East and West

Fundamental differences in ideology and visions for post-war Germany emerged between the eastern and western Allies. These differences eventually led to the formal division of Germany.

In the western zones, the Allies aimed to build a democratic, capitalist society. This involved introducing democratic reforms, removing former Nazis from positions of power, dissolving Nazi institutions, and rebuilding the economy based on free market principles.

However, in the Soviet zone, the Soviets were much more heavy-handed in their de-Nazification efforts and moved towards establishing a communist system along Soviet lines. This included seizing economic resources, suppressing political descent, and suppressing religion.

The Soviets also demanded high reparations from eastern Germany to help rebuild the Soviet economy that had been devastated in the war.

Currency Reform in West Germany

A major early clash emerged between the eastern and western Allies over currency reform in the western zones. In June 1948, the UK, US and France introduced the Deutsche Mark in West Germany to replace the devalued Reichsmark. This new currency was intended to stimulate the economy and limit inflation in the western zones.

However, the Soviets saw this as a hostile act that would limit their access to resources from western Germany. In response, they introduced their own currency in East Germany one day later – the East German Mark.

This effectively created two separate currencies and economies, further dividing Germany.

Berlin Blockade and Airlift

Another major crisis emerged in Berlin, which despite being located in Soviet-controlled eastern Germany was divided into four occupied sectors. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets cut off all road, rail and canal access to West Berlin in an attempt to force the western Allies to abandon the city.

In response, the US and UK launched the Berlin Airlift to fly in all the supplies needed by the population of West Berlin. This airlift lasted nearly a year until the blockade was lifted in May 1949. The Berlin Blockade was seen as an early flashpoint in emerging Cold War tensions between east and west.

Creation of East and West Germany

With relationships deteriorating between the eastern and western Allies, the division of Germany into two separate states was formalized in 1949.

Founding of West Germany

The French, British and American zones in western Germany were unified to form the Federal Republic of Germany, generally known as West Germany. This new democratic and capitalist country held its first national elections in August 1949. Konrad Adenauer became the first Chancellor of West Germany.

West Germany was aligned with Western Europe and functioned as a bulwark against communism during the Cold War. It joined NATO in 1955 and benefited from the Marshall Plan economic aid from the United States.

Founding of East Germany

In October 1949, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic, generally known as East Germany. It had a communist government along Soviet lines. Wilhelm Pieck became the first President of East Germany.

East Germany was closely aligned with the Soviet Union and was part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. It joined the Warsaw Pact military alliance in 1955 and received economic assistance from Moscow.

The capital of Berlin remained divided between East and West Germany, with West Berlin becoming an exclave within East German territory.

Partition of Berlin

While Berlin sat well within the borders of East Germany, the city itself was partitioned into West Berlin and East Berlin as a result of the postwar occupation zones. Barbed wire and walls were erected to physically divide West Berlin from surrounding East Germany.

West Berlin

West Berlin was the section of the city occupied by Britain, France and the United States. It was considered a democratic enclave in communist East Germany. Its population of around 2 million residents lived under allied protection.

As West Berlin was surrounded entirely by East Germany, it could only be reached by allied air and road routes. Special travel passes were required for Germans living in West Germany to visit West Berlin.

West Berlin aligned itself politically and economically with West Germany and the rest of Western Europe although it was not officially part of West Germany. However, in many ways it functioned similar to an exclave or island of West Germany deep inside East German territory.

East Berlin

East Berlin was occupied by and aligned with the Soviet Union. It served as the capital of East Germany and had a population of around 1.5 million. While East Berlin was controlled by the East German government, it still remained under ultimate Soviet administration and military control.

The East German secret police, known as the Stasi, maintained an extensive presence in East Berlin to suppress political dissent and potential uprisings against the communist regime.

The division of Berlin was a physical representation of the ideological split between East and West. The Berlin Wall would later be built in 1961 to prevent the flow of East Germans defecting to the West via West Berlin.

Refugee Crisis and the Berlin Wall

The division of Germany resulted in a major refugee crisis in the 1950s as millions of East Germans fled to the west to escape communist repression and poor economic conditions in the east. This brain drain threatened the viability of East Germany.

Mass Emigration from East to West Germany

Between 1945 and 1961, around 3.5 million East Germans emigrated to the west to seek better living conditions and political freedom. This included large numbers of younger and more educated citizens, leading to skills shortages in the east.

Reasons for emigrating included:

  • Economic motivations – West Germany recovered much quicker after the war due to the Marshall Plan and free market reforms. Standards of living were much higher.
  • Political oppression – East Germany was a totalitarian state with limited personal freedoms.
  • Religious repression – Many Christians fled persecution in atheist East Germany.

The exodus of East Germans put the viability and legitimacy of the East German state at risk. Defections reached up to 2,000 people fleeing per day in the 1950s.

Construction of the Berlin Wall

To staunch the flow of refugees, the East German government constructed the Berlin Wall in August 1961 with approval from Moscow. This physically closed off access between East and West Berlin.

The 96-mile wall surrounded all of West Berlin and included guard towers, minefields, attack dogs and over 300 watchtowers. It became a powerful symbol of the Iron Curtain dividing Europe.

The Berlin Wall effectively halted emigration from East to West Berlin and Germany. Defectors now had to cross heavily fortified borders elsewhere.

Year East German Emigration
1949 165,000
1950 202,000
1951 182,000
1952 182,000
1953 331,000
1954 261,000
1955 252,000
1956 278,000
1957 204,000
1958 261,000
1959 143,000
1960 199,000

Life in East and West Germany

The division of Germany led to divergence between living conditions, standards of living, economic models and political systems between the two new states.


West Germany developed a capitalist “social market economy” with a strong industrial base, high productivity and rising prosperity. It joined the European Common Market in 1958.

East Germany adopted a communist command economy modeled on the Soviet Union with central planning and state ownership of industry. This resulted in shortages and lower living standards.


West Germany was a parliamentary democracy with free elections and personal liberties like freedom of speech and religion. After the Nazi era, it pursued a policy of acknowledging the past and reconciliation.

East Germany was a one-party communist dictatorship modeled on the Soviet Union. The state exercised extensive control over society and crushed political dissent through the secret police.


West Germany aligned with NATO and focused on defensive capabilities. It possessed only light armaments initially before building a small standing army in the 1950s.

East Germany was heavily militarized as part of the Warsaw Pact. It possessed extensive naval, air and land forces trained and equipped by the Soviets. Conscription was mandatory for all men.

Travel Restrictions

West Germans could travel quite freely both within West Germany and to western Europe and worldwide. Visits to East Germany and Eastern Bloc states were restricted.

East German travel was strictly controlled by the state. Emigration to the West was banned. Travel to other Warsaw Pact countries was possible but regulated. Very few citizens were granted visits to the non-communist world.


The divided Germany competed as two teams at the Olympics and other international sporting events like soccer’s World Cup. Tensions were high whenever East and West German athletes faced off.

Calls for Reunification

Despite the division solidifying over the decades, the idea of eventual German reunification always remained present on both sides. However, the path to unity was unclear due to Cold War realities and differences between the two states.

West German Perspective

West Germany considered East Germany to be part of one German nation temporarily divided by the postwar occupation and tensions. It saw eventual reunification as a long-term goal after the German people regained self-determination.

However, West Germany was committed to only achieving unity through peaceful means and consent. It aimed to softly undermine communist rule over time by engaging with the East German population.

East German Perspective

East Germany claimed it had no mandate for reunification due to being recognized internationally as the sole legitimate German state. It viewed West Germany as an illegally occupied state.

Despite this stance, East Germany still professed support for unity in rhetoric. However, it argued that this could only occur if West Germany peacefully adopted communism and neutrality by withdrawing from NATO and the EEC.

The East German regime also brutally suppressed any dissent in its own population calling for reunification with the West. The 1953 protests in East Berlin were crushed by Soviet tanks.

Breakdown of the Iron Curtain

In the late 1980s, the Soviet policy of glasnost and perestroika by Mikhail Gorbachev together with the dire economic situation caused the collapse of communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

The opening of the Iron Curtain and East German exodus through Hungary in September 1989 convinced the East German government to begin allowing direct travel to West Germany.

Mass demonstrations combined with internal government divisions led to the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Germany was swiftly reunified within less than a year as the East German state voted itself out of existence in October 1990.


The division of Germany after World War II was a pivotal event of the emerging Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. Despite efforts at joint governance, fundamentally different ideologies and geopolitical interests caused the partitioning of Germany into capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany.

This split solidified in 1949 as West Germany aligned with the US and NATO while East Germany joined the Soviet camp. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 entrenched the division physically and ideologically.

Germany existed in this divided state through the Cold War until deteriorating Soviet power enabled a movement towards swift reunification in 1990, ending over 40 years of separation. The reunified Germany became a leading power in the new order of post-Cold War Europe.

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