The Berlin Crisis 1958-63

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Key learning aims:

  • To be able to explain:
    • Why there was a crisis in Berlin, 1958-63;
    • How Khrushchev tried to deal with the refuge problem and how Kennedy reacted;
    • The effects of the Berlin Wall on relations between East and West and on Germany;

Key events

Key personalities and issues:

    • The refugee crisis
    • Khrushchev, Soviet leader who made two visits to the USA – one official (when he addressed the nation on TV) and another unofficial (when he addressed the UN)
    • Richard Nixon, the US Vice President who visited Moscow and conducted the Kitchen Debate with Khrushchev
    • Gary Powers, the pilot shot down and captured over Russia on May 1st 1960
    • Dwight Eisenhower, the president who refused to apologize for the U2 incident at the Paris summit of May 1960′
    • John F. Kennedy, the President who met with Khrushchev at Vienna conference in June 1961, refused to make any concessions and then called his bluff by spending an extra $2 billion on defence; in 1963 he would visit Berlin and make the ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.
    • Walther Ulbricht, Chairman of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic, 1960-73 who asked Khrushchev to solve the refugee problem and decided to close the border, acting on instructions from Khrushchev
    • Willy Brandt, the Governing Mayor of West Berlin (1957-1966) who invited Kennedy
    1. The Refugee Problem and Ultimatum

      • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72, pp. 54-56


      1. Explain why so many East Germans were crossing to Germany in the period 1949-61?
      2. Explain why it mattered to Khrushchev?
      3. B Question: Explain two effects of Khrushchev’s ultimatum (8 marks>
      4. Explain why the USA cared about what happened in Berlin
    2. The Summit Meetings and the U2 Incident, May 1960


      1. B Question: Explain two effects of the U2 incident on superpower relations (8 marks)
      2. Bonus: Why were Gary Powers and Rudolf Abel treated so differently in their respective countries?
      3. Write a paragraph summarising the results of each summit held between 1959 and 1961
      4. For each summit, highlight what went well and what went wrong. In a small group, discuss what made some summits more successful than others and what would have made the talks more successful.
      5. ‘In reality, the summits were a complete waste of time’. How far do you agree with this statement? Write a short paragraph to explain your answer.
    3. The Building of the Berlin Wall

      • N. Kelly, Edexcel International GCSE (9-1) History A World Divided: Superpower Relations, 1943-72, pp. 54-62.
      • See John D. Clare’s page on the Berlin Wall

      See also the following excellent video put up by Ian Murdoch-Smith which provides a really neat summary of the causes and the consequences of the Berlin Wall Crisis.


      1. In small groups prepare a 30-second speech to convince the rest of the class a) Why Khrushchev was wrong to build the wall (in the style of JFK!) and b) Why Khrushchev was right to build the war (in the style of Khrushchev!)
      2. Summarise the key consequences of the Berlin Wall crisis
      3. Paired task: each pair produces two different headlines for the day after the building of the Berlin Wall
        • One for East Berlin
        • One for West Berlin

Drawing Conclusions from the 1950s

      • Group task: Each group given a grid which has the main crises of 1945-61 including the Berlin Crisis 1948-49, the Korean War, Hungarian Uprising, the U2 Crisis and the Berlin Wall Crisis.
        • Carry out further research on each crisis
        • Decide which was the most serious giving each a rating of 1-5 with 5 being the highest
        • Give a presentation to the rest of the class explaining their decisions.


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