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The Berlin Airlift: The Biggest Cold War Crisis

Berlin Airlift Monument (Luftbrückendenkmal) in Berlin-Tempelhof. 

‘Whoever controls Berlin controls Germany, and whoever controls Germany controls the Continent.’

This quote by Lenin highlights just how important Berlin has been to Europe throughout history, and no more so than in the years after the fall of the Third Reich at the start of what would become the Cold War.

This importance has unfortunately come at the expense of hardship and difficulty for Berliners, generation after generation.  You only have to take a walk down Unter Den Linden, to see how Berliners have dealt with everything from Napoleonic invasion to communist might, with book burning and bullets in-between.

Yet in 1948, the people of Berlin faced a different type of pressure: a food shortage due to a Soviet Blockade of Berlin. Following the Potsdam agreement, Germanys capital city was divided into sectors by the four largest victorious Allied Powers: The Unites States of America, Great Britain, France and The Soviet Union. Unlike the rest of Europe, it was also agreed that the four ruling powers would rule Berlin together, as the Allied Control Council for Berlin was too important for one country (or indeed one ideology) to control.

However, it doesn’t take a political scientist or an economist to understand where issues may arise when the capitalist democracies of the USA, UK and France, and the communist government of the Soviet Union try to rule one city together. These ideological differences meant that it was almost impossible for the Allied Control Council to deal with many issues that Berlin was facing, one of which was a seriously failing economy, and even before the blockade, food shortages. The British sector at this time could only produce 40% of the food requirements for its sector. However, for the Soviet Government, the failing economy only acted to highlight what they believed were the weaknesses of the capitalist system, and in turn highlighted the potential of a communist-led economy.

As a result of the economic difficulties, it was agreed that the American, British and French sectors would combine, in order to protect themselves from the spread of communism. This culminated in the ‘London Agreement,’ a plan to secure West Germany’s economy, partly by the introduction of a new currency, the Deutschmark.

If international politics is a game of chess, The USSR’s counter move to the London Agreement was predictable. They targeted West Berlin, as it was stranded in East Germany, only accessible from the West by set roads, rails and waterways. The USSR cut off some of the road access to this city (the mini-blockade), in the hopes that the Western Allies would abandon the city.  However, this was not the checkmate that the USSR had hoped for. In fact, it had the opposite effect, and almost cemented the Allies determination to stay.

‘When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened… Communism will run rampant.’
General Clay US Commanding Officer.

On the 24th June, the Soviet Government closed off all access to West Berlin by road, rail and water. The USSR laid down the gauntlet, the West could either risk war by breaking through the blockade, or by leaving Berlin in the hands of the Soviet Union.  As was seen during the mini-blockade, the Western Allies did not want to give up their sectors in Berlin. However, none of the Allied government’s saw war as an option either. War weariness remained from the Second World War, and there wasn’t public support in either Britain or France to help the German people, who had just a few years previous, been seen as the enemy.  Leader of the opposition in the British government, Winston Churchill, suggested that the Western Allies use the threat of nuclear weapons, in order to force the Soviet government to back down. Only three years after the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weaponry still remained only in the hands of America and its Western Allies. This may be the only stand-off of the cold war in which the threat of nuclear war was entirely one sided. However, even with this nuclear advantage, none of the Western Allies wanted to face war, and so the British armed forces came up with a third option.

The British government agreed to airlift in food and supplies to its garrisons in Berlin on the 25th of June 1948. They also began discussions with their American counterparts, as to the plausibility of airlifting in supplies for the civilian population as well. These discussions didn’t last long, and the first transporter plane carrying civilian supplies landed in Berlin on the morning of the 26th June.

The blockade lasted for 318 days, and then the airlift for several months after.  Over 400,000 tonnes of food, coal and supplies were carried by 689 military and civil aircrafts throughout this period.  Over 84000 tonnes of cargo and 68,000 people were flown out of Berlin into Western Germany. These included people who may not have been able to survive on rationing, such as pregnant women, young children and the elderly. The logistical management of the airlift, reached its peak in April 1949, when an allied aircraft, carrying supplies landed at one of the Allied airfields every sixty seconds.  However, the mission wasn’t without its casualties. There were a total of 101 deaths as a result of the airlift. 71 servicemen, mainly as a result of flying in dangerous conditions, or faulty machinery. The 31 civilian deaths were caused mainly by plane crashes, as people rushed to help, or their homes were destroyed. The Soviet Union ended its blockade of Berlin on the 11th May 1949. The rails, roads and waterways between West Berlin and West Germany reopened.

However, peace wasn’t restored within the city. America, Great Britain and France would remain opposed to the government of the Soviet Union and to the ideology of communism. It would create a divide that would grow within the city, culminating in the Berlin Wall and the complete separation between East and West Berlin.

Although this crisis often gets over looked in the course of the Cold War, its potential for conflict should not be overlooked. In the days of war weariness, an international mistrust of the German people, and American dominance of nuclear technology, there was more than one option in which the blockade could have re-entered Europe and the world into war. However, the careful planning of the blockade, the dauntlessness of the pilots that flew around the clock as well as the support of the people of the Berlin, proved an early victory for the Western Allies, against the Soviet Union.

By Charlotte Deacy

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