Today we will be talking about one of the major catalysts in the creation of a formally divided Germany, The Berlin Airlift.
Berlin Airlift 1948-1949 – COLD WAR DOCUMENTARY
The Berlin Airlift. This is…The Cold War. Deep inside East Germany, you had Berlin. A city itself divided between west and east, with a thin pathway to get people and goods in and out of the western half. Moreover, between those two halves of Berlin was a big, concrete wall. The collapse of the Berlin wall was one of the symbols of the collapse of the communist world order. Spoiler alert.
But how did a tiny pocket of West Germany inside east Germany survive for so many decades? What strange confluence of geopolitical forces resulted in this unusual situation? It all traces back to a tense moment in the winter of 1948, and a feat of airborne logistics which saved a city. This is Germany in the 1940s, so you can guess the start of this story.
Like many stories on this channel, the roots stem from the Second World War. When the allies finally defeated Nazi Germany, they split Germany up into four occupation zones. The Americans, French, and British each had a section in the western half of Germany, while the Soviet Union occupied the sizeable eastern part. It gets a bit more complicated though when you realize Berlin, the capital was deep in the Soviet occupation zone, more than a hundred miles in.
Berlin itself has split four ways in much the same way as Germany. So if relations were to break down between the Soviets and other allies, these west Berliners were vulnerable. Now, the Soviets and western allies had different ideas of how to deal with Germany after the war, as we hinted at our episodes on the Potsdam Conference and the Marshall Plan. The Soviets, who suffered heavily in the fight against the Germans, wanted to strip Germany of its industrial capacity.
They wanted not only to nerf Germany’s OP industrial base but haul a bunch of it back to the Soviet Union to help rebuild their own shattered economy. Gotta give it to the Soviets, their plans are always at least direct. The west favored a much more gentle approach. At the Potsdam conference, they did agree with Stalin that Germany would need to pay for starting two world wars in 3 decades, but they wanted to remake a successful but denazified German state.
This was both to stabilize Europe, but as we also learned in the Marshall Plan video, there was an ulterior motive to stop the spread of communism in Europe. Something Stalin was clearly aware of. The Soviets thought the west had violated the Potsdam agreement when they decided to economically join the British and American occupied areas of Germany by reintroducing a common currency.
They called it the Deutsche Mark and it replaced the unstable Reichsmark. This attempt to secure West Germany’s economy was a direct response to the Soviets staging a coup in Czechoslovakia. These exchanges were among the first political rifts at the dawn of the Cold War. The British and Americans offered some of this currency to the Soviets in East Germany. But the Soviets preferred to print their own. By this point in the occupation, the Soviets had a reputation of printing whatever money they needed to do what they needed.
So, the western allies did not like the idea. Nonetheless, the Soviets banned the Deutsche Mark in Berlin. Despite that, Deutsche Marks were already there and accepted as the de facto currency. The Soviets saw this as a plot to sneak in capitalist Marshall Plan influence. Stalin decided to make a bold action to force the issue in their favor. So, the Soviets shut down all the trains going into West Berlin. With the winter of 1948 coming, it would result in the winter of mass starvation.
No food, no coal for home fires. It could get worse. For humanitarian reasons, the western allies might have had to give in to Soviet demands. So, the western allies tried something that was thought to be impossible. They would try something never done before, at a scale never tried. Without any other route to get supplies to Berlin, the allies decided to supply a city entirely through air convoys known as a Berlin airlift.
The Soviets couldn’t break an agreement by shooting down planes full of humanitarian aid. There was no way for them to make the excuse these planes were sneaking munitions into Berlin. In preparation for the lift, they calculated the amount of food needed to supply all 2,000,000 Berliners with the roughly 2,000 calories they needed each day. They also needed fuel to power and heat their homes. This totaled to a little more than 5,000 tons of cargo flown into Berlin. Daily. For some perspective, keep in mind that the cargo capacity of the C-47 Skytrain, one of the most widely used aircraft in the Berlin Airlift had an approximate cargo capacity of 6,000 pounds or about 3 tons.
The operation is widely accepted as the first large-scale humanitarian project to ensure the survival of a city’s population in history. Now, the US military was not the full World War Two Machine, but post-war, and had demobilized many troops. Furthermore, many of the pilots stationed in Germany had a flying experience. But they had little training in flying supplies into a beleaguered city.
They flew in planes from across the US, UK, and France to commit this effort. At its greatest extent, a plane landed in Berlin with supplies about every 30 seconds. The fields reeked of fuel as every plane the US, UK, and France could muster were either flying, fueling, or getting repairs. Mechanics worked around the clock to keep the aircraft airworthy. The various makes, and builds of planes as well as coordinating with airports and airspace required a timetable which was a feat in and of itself.
No one was sure it could even work. On the east side of Berlin, communist papers mocked the attempt. Nonetheless, the amount of tonnage delivered began to increase and stabilize. A remarkable machine of airplane logistics fed and fuelled a whole city. Wendover productions would be impressed. It was far from perfect. Getting this operation off the ground, pun fully intended, took quite a bit of time to work efficiently.
Food was still hard to come by in Berlin that winter. Many of the meals delivered were lacking in nutritional value. This necessitated the delivery of artificial sources of nutrients like vitamin C to prevent scurvy. This was also the 1940s and the state of airplane technology meant during periods of bad weather these flights could be treacherous. There were several crashes as a result, including two on one day nicknamed black Friday. But, they adapted, they developed methods of safety, and things got better.
They pulled off the impossible. Even Soviet commanders in East Berlin wrote complaining about the noise of this many planes coming and going. The Soviets decided to lift the blockade, but this wasn’t some ultimate breakthrough. The political standoff in Europe was not over, and the fate of Germany was still very much in the balance. The Soviet zone of Berlin was told to stock up on supplies.
This move made the west concerned the lifting of the blockade might be a ploy to stall for time until the East German economy was ready to resume it. The trains carrying supplies that were allowed into Berlin were still harassed and over-inspected. The trains themselves had to use Soviet-supplied engines and crews. The Soviets would change time tables without any forewarning. The Soviets banned 90% of manufactured goods coming out of Berlin.
The railway crews even went on strike over being paid in East German currency. With all those factors combined, only about 31% of trains went through in the months following the end of the blockade. Military trains, as you might expect, were the most held up. The lack of supplies meant the Berlin airlift had to continue in a diminished form for quite a while. The city was vulnerable. With hindsight, historians are a little confused the western allies trusted the Soviets so much. Keep in mind, this trust is what put them in such a vulnerable situation in the first place.
Through the tension, however, the western allies began to put the parts of Germany they had control over back together. They reintegrated their economies and gave the country more and more political autonomy. The Soviets did much the same, installing a communist government as a Soviet client state. The western Germans would not accept a unified Germany on Soviet terms, and vice versa.
The two sides would increase the militarization of the border between the zones of occupation. From there, the story becomes more familiar. Germany would be split into two different countries for another forty years. The division would receive an ominous icon in 1961 when East Germany built a concrete wall through the Berlin Partition. A wall that would stand as the spot where these two incompatible worlds clashed. The wall was a physical symbol of Churchill’s iron curtain over Europe. In some ways, the crisis which sparked the Berlin airlift wouldn’t end until 1989.
I’m sure you have any questions about how the wall got built, and how it went down and we here at the Cold War will discuss that and more in our future blogs, Thank you…