East German construction workers, supervised by border guards, building the Berlin Wall. During the Cold War, the physical barrier of the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the ideological divisions between Communist Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies and the western democracies of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
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'From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.’ Churchill’s words in a 1946 speech recognised that the relationship between the Allies and the USSR had irrevocably changed. The ambition of the Soviet Union to retain former German territory was regarded as provocative. The first major flashpoint was the Berlin Blockade in 1948, where the Allied Airlift prevented the Soviet takeover of the city.
The democratic United States and the Communist Soviet Union were ideologically opposed 'superpowers', and each had their own alliances. The most important of these were the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact. Both sides had nuclear weapons and there was a real fear that they would be used.
Though fighting did not occur in Europe, the superpowers sought to exert their influence around the world. Soviet and US client states fought each other, supplied, advised and sometimes directly helped by the superpowers. The most important of these conflicts were the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought the Cold War to an end, leaving a legacy of instability all over the world.