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Berlin Blockade / Berlin Airlift

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Summary:

Blockade of the US, UK and French zones of Berlin by the Soviet Union, intended to force negotiations over the division and future of Germany. It failed because the blockaded powers were able to airlift in huge amounts of supplies.

Background:

In the final months of World War Two Germany, the main aggressor, was invaded by Allied armies: the UK, US and their allies from the west, the USSR from the East. As the war ended and peace emerged, the country was divided into four zones, occupied and administered by one of the US, UK, France and USSR. Berlin, the German capital, was deep within the Soviet zone, but was also split into four between the same nations.

The German Question:

All the occupiers were worried about a reborn and rearmed unified Germany which would again threaten peace in Europe, but the communist Soviet Union was also worried about a unified and capitalist West Germany working closely with the US, which would first pull the Soviet zone away from Soviet control and then destabilize the communist east. The other allies wanted a unified West Germany fully integrated into pan-European economic and defense organizations to both make it self supporting and keep it under control.

The Allies Start to Form West Germany:

Once failures in talks with the USSR had convinced the UK and US that a West German state was needed, a Six Power Conference was called between Britain, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and US. It sat during the first half of 1948 and concluded successfully: on June 7th 1948 the West Germans were told to draft a constitution for a new West German state. On June 20 a new currency was introduced into the three allied zones, the Deutschmark. East Germany countered with its own new currency, the Ostmark.

Stalin Reacts: The Berlin Blockade:

The USSR, led by Stalin, refused to accept the developments during the Six Power Conference, believing that they could apply enough pressure on the Western governments to force a renegotiation, even a neutral unified Germany. This pressure was to be applied to Berlin, in which the western zones were dependant upon supplies crossing through the larger Soviet zone in Germany. On the night of June 23-24 all rail and road links were cut off, as was the electricity supply, the excuse given being a need to stop devalued older currency flooding in from the West.

The West Reacts:

An isolated West Berlin could not support itself for very long without supplies from outside: 2.5 million people had only five weeks food. Stalin hoped the allies would give in on West Germany to save Berlin. The initial allied reaction was surprise and confusion. Bevin, the British foreign minister, took on a forceful role, insisting that a West German state should still be created. The US and UK rejected the suggestion of General Clay, the US High Commissioner in Germany, to force an armoured convoy through Soviet Germany, in case that provoked full scale war, instead favouring Bevin’s suggestion of an airlift.

The Berlin Airlift:

In the aftermath of World War Two three air corridors over the Soviet zone in Germany had been allocated to the allies and these, they gambled, were still open: Stalin wouldn’t risk war by shooting a plane down. There thus began a massive airlift of food, coal and other supplies between the Western German zones and Berlin. The airlift was at first highly improvised and by the end of July that year US and UK planes were bringing in 2000 tons a day.

Negotiations:

2000 tons a day was good, but the Allies felt that over 5000 would be needed if West Berlin was to survive the coming winter. Worried that the airlift might fail, Allied ambassadors met with Stalin to discuss the situation. He demanded that the ostmark replace the Deutschmark in Berlin and that the future of Germany be discussed. The Allies were prepared to compromise over the currency issue, with some reservations, but not over the West German State. Feeling that the blockade would force the allies back to negotiate, the Soviets didn’t budge. The UN also tried mediating.

The Berlin Airlift Succeeds:

In the end the Allies didn’t need to negotiate any further because the Berlin Airlift developed into a hugely successful operation, by January moving an average daily tonnage of 5620 and 8000 tons by April. A mild winter also helped, as did the introduction of larger US C54 planes and the presence of an important, possibly vital, black market with the East Germans. A thousand aircraft could be in the three air corridors at once. The airlift was totally unprecedented. The Allies also shut all exports from Germany into the Soviet zone, placing economic pressure back on the USSR.
Stalin, facing defeat, changed position, saying he’d lift the blockade if a Council of Foreign Ministers, which had met before to discuss the post war world, was held. The Allies agreed and the Blockade was lifted on May 12 1949. The Council of Foreign Ministers met eleven days later; there was to be no agreement on the fate of Germany.

Although diplomatic relations between the US led western powers and the USSR had been decaying since the end of, indeed during, the Second World War, and although the Cold War was already a firm feature of the political landscape, the Berlin Blockade was the first time these former allies had been in open conflict. It also bought the threat of US nuclear power to Europe: tthe UK had asked the US to station some of its B-29 bombers on British soil, and during the Blockade sixty were sent over. The B-29 was the only plane capable of carrying and dropping an atomic bomb and, although those sent over had not been converted to carry nuclear weapons, the threat to Stalin was implicit. The Berlin Blockade has been described as "an astonishing display of the West’s industrial weight and political determination." (Walker, The Cold War, Vintage, 1994, p.57).

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