Throughout World War II, the “Big Three”–Winston Churchill , Franklin D. Roosevelt , and Joseph Stalin –maintained an uneasy alliance. Each leader had conflicting visions of a postwar world, but all also understood the need for a strong unified stance against the Axis . After Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, cooperation was no longer a necessity and the Allied countries were more easily divided by ideological differences.
As the war ended, both the Soviet Union and the Western Allies had overrun large portions of a devastated Europe that had endured years of warfare. These victors also shared responsibility for deciding the postwar futures of the occupied countries. The end of the global conflict heralded a new contest that pitted the Western Allies (favoring democratically elected governments and independent European states) against the USSR (striving for a Soviet-influenced bloc of Communist countries). By 1947, this power struggle for European influence became known as the Cold War ; it would last for more than forty years.
In April 1945, the Soviets became the first Allied force to enter Berlin. After Germany surrendered on May 8, the capital remained under Soviet control for two months until a council led by four Allied powers began governing in July. A plan for the joint occupation of Berlin had first been proposed by the British in January 1944 and the details had been slowly worked out at later meetings. At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, the three Allies confirmed that the zones would be occupied by Soviet Union (with eight districts), the United States (with six districts), Great Britain (with four districts), and France (with two districts).
Over the coming years, Berlin would become a lightning rod for international Cold War tensions. The city lay entirely within the agreed-upon Soviet sector of influence in Germany. In 1947, the United States proposed the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, which aimed to improve European economies in part through American aid. The three zones of Berlin controlled by the Western powers agreed to use the same currency, but the Soviet Union refused to accept the Marshall Plan, bemoaning “American economic imperialism.” In response to what he viewed as an attempt to undermine Communist control, Joseph Stalin authorized a land blockade of western Berlin, which began on June 24, 1948. Unable to travel through Soviet-occupied Germany to reach the city, the Western powers began supplying their sectors by air. This stalemate persisted for nearly a year, with neither side willing to back down. At last, on May 12, 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade after the Western powers had increased deliveries each month of that year. In the spring of 1949, Berlin’s western sectors merged to form a single “trizone,” which had a separate government from Soviet-administered East Berlin.
By 1961, around 2.5 million East Germans, attempting to escape poor economic conditions and repressive policies, had fled to West Berlin, despite preventative regulations. That year, the East Berlin government began building a wall topped with barbed wire, dividing the two city sectors. This construction severely curtailed the emigration, although many citizens still risked prison or death as they tried to reach the West. By the time the barrier was removed on November 9, 1989, nearly two hundred people had been killed while trying to make it past the Berlin Wall.
When Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop , traveled to Moscow in August 1939 to present an offer of a nonaggression pact, Joseph Stalin saw an opportunity for the USSR to extend its reach west into Europe. While allied with Germany, the Soviet Union worked to recover some of the territory that had once belonged to Czarist Russia. After the Germans broke the pact and attacked the Soviet Union, Stalin joined forces with Great Britain and the United States in 1941 in a fight against German domination of Europe.
While battling the Nazis , the Red Army advanced westward across the European continent, eventually occupying areas as far west as Germany. Stalin was determined that this zone should fall under Soviet influence. However, at Allied conferences, he bided his time, agreeing in the “Declaration on Liberated Europe,” a document signed by the three Allied leaders at the Yalta conference in February 1944, that after the war ended and stability had been achieved, European nations would have democratically elected governments.
In reality, Stalin began appointing Communist sympathizers to local governments in the countries his troops occupied. The Soviets worked to encourage and install Communist governments in eastern European countries and to strengthen the bonds between the USSR and these nations. At the final Allied wartime conference, held at Potsdam, Germany in 1945, it appeared to the Western Allies that Stalin had no intention of adhering to his earlier promises. In the years that followed, what Winston Churchill dubbed the “Iron Curtain ” fell across a divided Europe. By the time Stalin died on March 5, 1953, he had established a firm Soviet hold over much of Eastern Europe, in what would come to be known as the Eastern Bloc. For more than 35 years after his death, these countries would remain ruled by Communist governments largely influenced and controlled by the Soviet Union.