• Contemporary Conflict
  • Age 13 to 14 (KS3)
  • Age 14-16 (KS4)

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949 and designed to provide greater collective defence and European military co-operation in the aftermath of the Second World War. The 12 countries that signed it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO, to discuss political and military decisions with the aim to make collective decisions by consensus. As of 2024, NATO has 32 members and more than 40 partnerships with other countries. While the organisation maintains its original purpose of European relations and co-operation, its purpose has shifted since its first inception and now focuses on a variety of global issues from terrorism to climate change. 

Contents

  1. The Cold War Years 1950-1991
  2. The Berlin Wall
  3. Source Activity: First hand accounts and perspectives
  4. Glossary of Key Terms
  5. Timeline of Key Events (1950-1990)

The Cold War Years 1950-1991

Korean children help to wash down American Jeep.
IWM (MH 33233)
Korean children help to wash down American Jeep.

In June 1950, a year after the formation of NATO, North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. This offensive by North Korea, led by communist leader Kim Il Sung, created fear among NATO members of a Communist takeover. Although NATO forces were not involved in this conflict, it forced NATO to consider bolstering their commitment to Western Europe. In 1952 Greece and Turkey became NATO members. 

On 5th March 1953, Joseph Stalin died at the age of 74. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who continued to lead the Communist regime as it was under Stalin. By the mid-1950s, NATO continued to expand geographically and increase its sphere of influence to increase security against Communist expansion and create unity within Wester Europe. 

A key event within the Cold War and a further catalyst to the struggle for influence and power of Europe from both the NATO members and the Communist Eastern Bloc came in 1955, when West Germany joined NATO. This was seen as a direct threat to the USSR and their position in East Germany. As a result of this in May 1955, the USSR formed the Warsaw Pact which included, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, and Albania. The aim of the pact was similar to that of the NATO allies. By the end of 1955, both the West and the East had strong political and military alliances, establishing a call for support if either should ‘make a move’. 

Berlin Wall in 1989 before it is torn down, you can see the chips that have been taken away by the public.
IWM (CT 1491)
Berlin Wall in 1989 before it is torn down, you can see the chips that have been taken away by the public.

A year after the formation of the Warsaw Pact, member country Hungary faced an uprising as newly elected leader Imre Nagy campaigned for liberalisation of law surrounding freedom of speech, private ownership of land, withdrawal of the Soviet army from Hungary, and the desire for Hungary to leave the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev refused Hungary’s permission to leave the Warsaw Pact as the country provided a clear geographical divide between the West and East. 

In August 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. This was not just a symbol of geographical and military divide this became an ideological divide and a physical representation of the differences between the East and the West.

By the beginning of the 1960s there were clear geographical and ideological divides across Europe and the wider world. While NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries were not engaged in physical conflict with one another, it became evident that these two opposing ideologies could potentially escalate into a much larger conflict as evidenced by the tumultuous events of the 1950s. 

The events NATO faced between the 1960s to the late 1980s shaped modern politics and the format military alliances took. NATO members and the way in which NATO functioned was tested and divisions within the alliance began to appear as differing countries wants and needs for their individual nations went against the specifics of the Treaty.

Student Discussion Points

  1. Why did the USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries form the Warsaw Pact?
  2. What do you think NATO member countries thought of the Warsaw Pact?
  3. Explore the political and civil unrest discussed above, do you think the divisions caused by the create of alliances such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact could have been a catalyst for this, or do you think the organisations were a necessity for both sides? 
  4. Find a map of Europe, colour in different colours the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, discuss the divide and what this representation highlights about the political and physical divides. 
Sketch of a woman waving over the Berlin Wall by artist Ronald Searle, created in 1961.
IWM (ART 15192)
A sketch of the Berlin Wall from West Berlin in 1961, the year the wall was constructed. © 1961 Reproduced/exhibited (as appropriate) by the kind permission of the Ronald Searle Cultural Trust and the Sayle Literary Agency

In October 1961 a US spy plane spotted the construction of a Soviet missile base in Cuba. At the shortest distance, Cuba is 103 miles away from the USA. As a result of this President Kennedy chose to blockade Cuba and begin to plot other military moves in case of a need for active conflict. Due to Kennedy’s desire to act quickly, the US did not advise the UK until 7 days after the spy plane first sighted the missile base and proceeded not to tell the other NATO allies until a day after conversations with the UK. Although there was agreement between the NATO allies that a blockade was a necessary move, there was discontentment amongst the alliance. Some members felt the last-minute notification and lack of consultation showed divisions in the military alliances and agreements made by the nations surrounding political consultation before action. War was averted when Russia removed the weapons on the 28th October, and the US did not invade Cuba, but NATO’s fighter planes were ready and on standby to act. US defence secretary Robert McNamara stated “we lucked out” in response to the near use of NATO nuclear weapons. 

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis NATO decided to replace its tactic of ‘Massive Retaliation’, which meant in the face of aggression the members could move away from peace to total nuclear war, to the more favourable ‘Flexible Response’. This came to be known as ‘Détente’. Détente, meaning the easing of hostilities and strained relationships, would allow for a more open dialogue between the countries of East and West Europe. The Soviet led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 sought to end political liberalisation in the country known as the Prague Spring. Although this was another attempt of the USSR to gain further political control of the Warsaw Pact countries, the NATO allies were focused on promoting détente between the alliances as the role of NATO shifted from not just preserving peace in Europe, but to promoting and helping positive change for a peaceful future. 

However, in 1979, the Soviets invasion of Afghanistan and the use of ballistic missiles led to a suspension of the Détente policy, with an offensive planned to deploy nuclear capabilities and ground missiles if negotiations could not reach a swift and peaceful end. This deployment was not intended to begin until 1983. In the meantime, there was hope of an arms control agreement to be made, which included the agreement of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact members. By 1983 there was no agreement between NATO and the USSR, which caused internal NATO division when deployment of the missile offensive began. However, with the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Premier in 1985, the United States and the USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, meaning all nuclear and ground missiles with intermediate ranges were eliminated from conflict. 

This was seen as a sign that the Cold War was coming to an end, as support amongst the Warsaw Pact members was waning, while the NATO alliance was gaining in strength and membership, with its first accession of a new member since 1955, the newly democratic Spain in 1982. Gorbachev’s intention of reforming the Communist regime was leading to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and in 1989. This came to a tipping point with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet rule of East Germany. 

What was the Berlin Wall?

© IWM

"I’m here in Potsdamer Platz, a public square in the centre of Berlin where east and west once met. In the years following the Second World War, Germany was divided between the allied nations. Britain, America and France occupied West Germany or the Federal Republic of Germany, the FRG.

East Germany became a satellite state of the Soviet Union known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR. Germany’s capital, Berlin, was situated deep within East Germany but was similarly divided with American, British and French sectors in West Berlin and the Soviet sector in East Berlin.

Beneath my feet is a line which demarcates where an impenetrable border once stood, it was called the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years. It was constructed on the 13th of August 1961 to prevent the movement of people from communist East Berlin and East Germany into democratic West Berlin. A Border already existed, but this new physical barrier meant that the city was completely separated.

The speed at which this happened came as a shock to residents from both sides. Its construction parted families, destroyed buildings and changed the entire cityscape.

Here are some of the original Berlin Wall sections on display in Potsdamer Platz. When the Berlin Wall was first constructed it was formed of bricks, barbed wire and concrete blocks.

But by the 1980s large sections of it were much more sophisticated. L-shaped, reinforced concrete slabs like this one were lined up alongside each other to create a solid structure over 3 meters high.

However, the Berlin Wall was not just one wall, it was two. With an area of land in the middle known as the’ death strip’. This contained watch towers, alarmed wire mesh fencing and anti-vehicle obstacles, all patrolled by armed guards and their dogs and illuminated by floodlights.

Despite these complex fortifications, over 5000 successful escapes took place through the border system between 1961 and 1989.

The total length of the Berlin Wall, through the city and around the outskirts, was over 155km in length. That’s 96 miles long. Surprisingly these sections here are some of the few still standing in Berlin.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, individual sections were dismantled and sold and can now be found in over 100 locations all over the world.

This section of wall was acquired in 1991 by Imperial War Museums and can now be found outside Imperial War Museum London."

Was there a need for NATO at all?

Still image of some art on the Berlin wall that says "build doors not walls".
IWM (NAT 3544)
Still image of some art on the Berlin wall.

The series of events that took place between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the official end of the Soviet Union in 1991, changed modern politics and international relations across the globe. The fall of the Berlin Wall acted as a catalyst for a wave of democratic revolutions across Europe, and the Eastern Bloc of the Warsaw Pact countries came to an end. 

While the demolition of the wall brought a new era of democracy, peace, and a sense of togetherness, there was a sense of uncertainty amongst the NATO allies. Would Germany remain neutral? What would happen with the current nuclear weapons and Soviet forces within East Berlin and Germany? Would there be a resurgence in Nationalism? 

The biggest question remained: Was there a need for NATO at all? 

For NATO, the fall of the Berlin Wall was symbolic of the ideological divisions between the East and the West. For the people, The Berlin Wall and its presence in their lives was a symbol of oppression and personal divide, with families being split up overnight and separated until the wall came down. The wall itself was decorated by artists and the people as a form of expression and highlights feelings towards the wall and the world around them. 

Art and the Berlin Wall

I’m here at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall at 1.3Km in length, that’s just under a mile long. This open-air gallery runs along the river Spree and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. It opened in 1990 just after the fall of the wall, and features over 100 paintings by more than 100 artists from 21 different countries. 

The murals reflect on this pivotal moment in world history. ‘My god, help me to survive this deadly love’ is one the most famous. Copied from a photograph it captures socialist leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev in a loving embrace. Another mural shows a Trabant, a car synonymous with East Germany, breaking through the wall. 

This mural was created by East German artist Jürgen Grosse, known as Indiano. In 2009 it was repainted as part of a project to conserve East Side Gallery artworks that had been vandalised or were in a state of disrepair. ‘Save our earth’ has particular poignancy today in relation to climate change. But in 1990 it was one of hundreds of motivational messages which Indiano emblazoned on the wall after it fell in 1989. These messages were designed for a global audience and acted as a call to action, a way forward for the dawn of a new era in Berlin. 

I’m on Leuschnerdamm a street in Kreuzberg district of Berlin. During the 1980s, this was one of the poorest areas of West Berlin, a hub for immigrants, students, and artists. The Berlin Wall ran along this stretch of road here and became a canvas for artists living nearby. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, artist Indiano painted 223 individual wall sections here in just 7 months. One of those sections, inscribed with the message ‘Change your life’, was from this very spot and can now be seen outside IWM London.

Source Activity: First hand accounts and perspectives

Student Discussion Points

  1. Read through the Voices of the Wall testimonies and discuss the differences between experiences. 
  2. Each of the people who have told their stories had a different ‘role’ within society during this time. Choose one testimony and focus on their experiences and what life could have been like for them. 
  3. Looking at the story from ‘The Child’ Brian Wehner, how could the Berlin Wall and the conflicts between the NATO members and the Soviet Union have affected his life?
  4. Think about the role of the journalist during this time and discuss David Loyn’s comments on the political environment in more detail. 
  5. Explore the role of the soldier during the construction of the Berlin Wall and the years following. 
  6. ‘The Soldier’ Frank Brannigan was a NATO ally soldier. Do you think his experience would have been different to that of an East Berlin soldier during this time? 
  7. Research other testimonies, can you find any stories or accounts from East Berlin? 
Voices of the Wall
Read this collection of five memories which give an insight into what it was like during the construction and demolition of the Berlin Wall.

Source Activity: Life in Divided Berlin

Watch this film to find out more about what life was like in a divided Berlin.

I'm here at the Tränenpalast, meaning Palace of Tears, in Berlin. The name is in reference to tearful goodbyes between people at this former checkpoint between West and East Berlin at the Friedrichstraße railway station. Today is it home to a museum dedicated to people who experienced and lived in divided Berlin. 

When the Berlin wall was constructed on the 13th of August 1961, it was painful for citizens. Relatives, friends and neighbours were separated overnight. Travel restrictions made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to reunite. Loved ones would wave at each other over the wall or communicate through letters. As telephone lines between West and East Berlin had been cut in 1952, not to be reconnected until 1971. Some people wanted to flee the German Democratic Republic and many succeeded, meaning that the border fortifications were improved and expanded over time to deter people from escaping further. Despite this, and the border guards being armed with the order to shoot, many risked their lives to cross from East to West. From digging tunnels under the wall, to flying a hot air balloon over it.

I am stood on Bernauer Straße, a street in Berlin where countless escape attempts took place. Behind me is the Berlin Wall memorial, a stretch of the Berlin Wall fortifications which have been preserved since 1990 complete with watchtower and death strip. What was once part of the border between East and West Berlin is now a memorial, dedicated to over 140 people who lost their lives at the wall between 1961 and 1989. Here at the Window of Remembrance visitors can pay their respects to the victims to the victims of the Berlin Wall. 

The last person to be killed by shooting while trying to escape was 20 year old Chris Gueffroy, pictured here, in February 1989. Just 9 months after Chris Gueffroy's death the Berlin Wall fell, allowing the free movement of people in Berlin. Checkpoints, which had been so heavily guarded, were opened and new ones created. People from both sides of the border reunited and rejoiced in their thousands. 30 years on and walls and physical barriers between people continue to multiply as the world faces 21st century tensions.

Explore further

Symbol of NATO which is comprised of a 4-pointed star representing a compass.
IWM GOV 6771
Classroom Resource

NATO: The Origins of a Political and Military Alliance

This resource is designed to provide students with an overview of the establishment of NATO and NATO’s role in key past and current global events such as the Cold War with various discussion points and prompts. The discussion points will allow for critical thinking and analysis, exploring the years following the Second World War and the future of an alliance that was formed in the aftermath of a conflict that affected millions of lives. 

A section of the twisted and rusted steelwork from the World Trade Centre, New York
IWM (EPH_10364)
Classroom Resource

NATO and the Modern World

This resource explores a timeline of key events, decisions, and the role of NATO after the Cold War and in the 21st century. Exploring current NATO membership and non-member partnerships, changes in strategy and focus through modern global issues. Discussion points will allow for critical thinking and analysis, exploring how NATO functions in today's society.

Two soldiers from the King's Own Scottish Borderers, pass British crosses in the UN Cemetery in Pusan, where a memorial service was held for fallen comrades.
© IWM (MH 31493)
Cold War

Voices of the Korean War

The Korean War lasted from 1950 - 1953. Korea was split into two zones after the end of the Second World War. The country had been occupied by Japan since 1910, and the victorious Allied powers agreed at The Potsdam Conference that Korea should be divided along a circle of latitude - the 38th Parallel.

IWM holds a collection of oral history recordings of those who fought –  hear veterans of the Korean War tell their stories of the conflict. 

Glossary of Key Terms

The formation of NATO and the wide history of the Cold War can be a difficult subject to untangle. The definitions provided here are not all encompassing but give an indication as to some of the key terminologies and phrases.

Alliances and Terms

Key TermMeaning
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organisation, formed in 1949. Initial states comprised of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and United States. Concerned with the security of the member nations across both sides of the Atlantic. 
Warsaw PactIn opposition to the rearmament and induction of West Germany into NATO, the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance of communist countries, created by the Soviet Union and signed along with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria.
United NationsAn intergovernmental organisation that was established in 1945 to promote peace and security and to cooperate on various global issues.
Member Nation/StateHas signed the treaty in question and agrees to the principles of the treaty. 
NATO PartnersNATO pursues dialogue and cooperation with partners on a wide range of political and security-related issues. 
Political ConsultationUnder Article 4 of NATO agreement, all NATO decisions that incur military or political action are made by consensus after discussion and consultation among member countries. 
Massive RetaliationAlso known as massive response or massive deterrence this is a military doctrine and nuclear strategy in which a state commits itself to retaliate in much greater force in the event of an attack. 
Flexible ResponseA military reaction that can be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances. 
DétenteAn easing of hostility or strained relations, especially between countries. 

Events, Conferences, and Political Actions

Key TermsMeaning
Potsdam ConferenceFormally divided Germany and Austria into 4 Zones of Occupation between Great Britian, France, United States and the Soviet Union. It was also agreed that the German capital Berlin would be divided into 4 similar zones.
Marshall PlanPresident Truman created the European Recovery Program aimed to provide foreign aid to Western Europe, promising to help any country facing Communist takeover.
CominformThe Soviet Union created the Communist Information Bureau which is responsible for the creation of the Eastern Bloc.
Berlin BlockadeThe first hostile act of the Cold War, the Soviet Union cut all road, rail and water transport links to West Berlin in 1948. The people living in this area had no access to food and faced starvation.
Berlin AirliftIn response to the Berlin Blockade, food and fuel was brought to the people of West Berlin by UK and USA aircraft, this exercise was known as the Berlin Airlift.
Cold WarAn ongoing political rivalry between the US and USSR and their respective allies that developed after the Second World War. 

Political Groups and Ideologies

Key TermMeaning
IdeologiesA system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory or policy. 
RegimeAn authoritarian approach to governing a state. 
IsolationismA policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.  
DemocracyA system of government by the whole population or all eligible members of a state are typically through elected representatives. 
LiberalismThe holding of political views that are socially progressive and promote social welfare.
NationalismIdentification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.  
CommunismA theory or system of social organisation in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. 
AlliesA state formally cooperating with another for military or other purpose. 
Soviet/Soviet UnionThe elected governmental council concerning Communism, born in Russia.
USSRThe Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisted of Russia and 14 surrounding countries from 1922- 1991. 
Eastern BlocAlso known as the Communist Bloc was the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe as well as satellite nations in support of the Soviet Union such as Asia, Africa, and South America during the Cold War, 1947-1991. 
Al-QaedaA militant Islamic fundamentalist group.
TalibanA militant organisation with an ideology comprising of Islamic fundamentalism. 

Timeline of key events

Please be advised that this timeline is not intended to detail every event in the history of the formation of NATO and the Cold War. It provides context by highlighting some of the key events which led to its formation and subsequent events.

DateEvent
25 June 1950Start of the Korean War: North Korea invades south Korea. North Korea is back by the Soviet Union while South Korea is supported by the USA.
1952Greece and Turkey join NATO.
5 march 1953Death of Stalin: Joseph Stalin dies at the age of 74 and is succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev.
27 July 1953The Korean War ends with North Korea remaining affiliated with Russia and South Korea affiliated with USA.
1955West Germany joins NATO
14 May 1955Warsaw Pact is formed in opposition to the rearmament and induction of West Germany into NATO
30 October 1956Suez Crisis: Joint British and French forces invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal.
End of 1956Political Consultation: The Suez Crisis divided the leading nations of NATO, Britain, France, and United States, leading to a new form of practice, a focus on the unity and solidarity of the alliance through consultation around the political decisions of all member states.
13 August 1961The Berlin Wall: A wall is built to physically partition East and West Germany, sealing the division between the nations further. 
14 October 1962The Cuban Missile Crisis begins when a spy plane reported the construction of a Soviet nuclear missile base in Cuba. 
1966France withdraws from NATO’s integrated military structure to maintain its own defence policy. 
20 August 1968Invasion of Czechoslovakia: 5 Warsaw Pact nations enter Czechoslovakia in a bid to stop reforms known as the ‘Prague Spring’ that aimed to liberalise the countries politics. 
30 April 1970The beginning of the Vietnam War: President Nixon ordered US troops into Cambodia. This offensive occurred without prior consultation with the NATO members.
1973War Powers Resolution: Under Article 5 of the NATO alliance, focused on defence obligations, it is confirmed that a president must seek congressional authorisation before using offensive force.
1975The Helsinki Final Act was signed by NATO allies, the Soviet Union, and Warsaw Pact nations, promising to respect fundamental freedoms of their citizens. 
1979Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, creating a resurgence of a fear of conflict amongst NATO members with the need for military action. 
1982Newly democratic Spain join NATO.
1985The US and Soviet Union sign the Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces treaty, bringing an end to the conflict and use of this type of weaponry. 
9 November 1989The Berlin Wall falls, and the Soviet Union loses its grip on East Germany and Berlin. 
1989-1991A wave of revolutions in many of the Warsaw Pact countries such as Romania and Czechoslovakia cause the Soviet Union to being to crumble. 
3 October 1990Germany reunifies as one country.