May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The Airlift Begins
On June 24 the Soviet Union imposed a unilateral blockade of the city of Berlin, cutting off all land access from outside the Soviet zone of occupation. The pretext was a currency reform that had just been imposed by the other three occupying powers—Britain, France, and the United States. But the real reason was a struggle over whether postwar Germany would be communist or capitalist. Berlin, though jointly occupied by the four powers, was deep inside Soviet-occupied territory. By cutting it off from the outside world, the Soviets hoped to starve into submission the parts of the city it didn’t already control.
The United States had to take the lead in responding, since Britain had been hit hard during World War II and France had been conquered. As a French official put it, “Many things are possible in French politics, but one thing that is not possible is to arouse Frenchmen to defend Berlin.” Yet the situation was not entirely bleak. While the Soviets could blockade surface transportation, they could not interfere with airplanes taking off and landing outside their territory without starting a war. Recognizing this, the Americans immediately launched a massive airlift to bring food and supplies to West Berlin.
Relations between the former allies had been deteriorating rapidly since the end of the war, as each side took its own approach to rebuilding the vanquished enemy. As a 1960s Soviet history text explains: “In Eastern Germany, the zone of Soviet occupation, all democratic parties and organisations were given an opportunity to function normally, and this soon produced unity within the working class. A united Marxist party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany emerged.”
Having relieved East Germans of the burden of deciding whom to vote for, the Russians hoped to extend the same benefit to the West: “The Soviet Government worked assiduously on the international scene for a fair peace treaty with Germany and for a united, peace-abiding democratic German state.” Unfortunately, however, “Washington, London, and Paris followed a deliberate policy designed to split the country.” As a result, “in 1948, the quadrilateral control of Germany established under the Potsdam terms, died a natural death due to Western attitudes and actions, which soon brought about a dangerous ‘Berlin crisis’.”
After barring outsiders from entering the city “to block off currency speculators,” the Soviets generously “offered to supply food to West Berlin and thus prevent added hardships to the population.” Alas, “the Western occupation authorities rejected the offer.” Instead “the United States organised an ‘air bridge’ to supply West Berlin by planes. This undertaking had far-reaching propaganda aims and was meant to intensify the cold war.”
The American ploy worked. International tensions grew, presumably causing great joy in Washington, and the Soviets took a publicity beating as the crisis stretched into the fall and winter. “It was the restraint and skill of the Soviet diplomats that averted a breach of peace in those alarming months,” the Soviet history explains. In May 1949 the U.S.S.R. finally lifted its blockade. Soon afterward separate states were established in eastern and western Germany, with Berlin continuing under joint military administration. The stopgap arrangement ended up lasting four decades.