The Berlin Airlift
Created | Updated May 5, 2010
On 8 May, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allies. The Allies took control of the country 15 days later.
At the time, war against Japan was still raging in the Pacific, hence the occupation of Germany quickly hardened along the lines of provisional arrangements made by the European Advisory Commission at the beginning of 1944. Their task had been to plan the temporary occupation of a Germany reduced to its 1937 pre-expansion borders. Using the borders of former German administrative districts, the Commission divided the country into American, British and Soviet-occupied sectors. The creation of a French-occupied sector was approved later, in February 1945.
The three sectors occupied by the Western Allies (USA, UK and France) eventually became West Germany; the sector occupied by the USSR became East Germany. West and East Germany were re-united into one country in 1990.
According to the European Advisory Commission's plans, Germany's former capital city Berlin was to be occupied jointly, with each country being granted a section of the city. The creation of a French-occupied sector in Berlin was approved at the same time as the creation of a French-occupied sector in Western Germany.
As with the country of Germany, the city of Berlin eventually became divided in two: those sectors of Berlin occupied by the Western Allies became West Berlin; the sector occupied by the Soviets became East Berlin. The two sides of the city were re-unified in 1990; and also in 1990 Berlin became re-unified Germany's official capital. The move of parliament, federal government and legislation from Bonn to Berlin was completed in 2001.
The Berlin Airlift
The Berlin Airlift took place from 24 June, 1948, to 12 May, 1949. It was a response by the Western Allies to the blockade on West Berlin by the USSR. The Soviets sealed off all rail, road and canal routes, upon which the city depended for food and fuel deliveries from the sectors occupied by the Western Allies. The Soviets also cut off power deliveries from the generating plants in the sector they occupied, which West Berlin relied on for most of its electricity.
However, the Soviets overlooked the possibility that West Berlin could be supplied by air, since written agreements had already been reached granting the Western Allies access rights to their respective sectors through three air corridors over the Soviet-occupied sector that surrounded the city. The Western Allies decided therefore that the best course of action would be to attempt to supply West Berlin by air. This seemed an impossible task, as the Western Allies would have to provide all the necessities of life (except water) to meet the needs of over two million people. It appeared especially daunting because West Berlin would have to be supplied during the winter, which would mean delivering coal for heating and electricity.
Nevertheless the Berlin Airlift - Operation Vittles - was launched. Hundreds of reconditioned World War II bombers (nick-named Rosinenbomber, or 'raisin bombers') dropped their cargo onto fields that had been specially cleared for the purpose and, without even landing, returned to their bases for reloading. Millions of pounds of all sorts of supplies reached the city by air each day. 277,000 flights were made in total; at its height one plane reached West Berlin every 30 seconds. A high human cost was paid, too: 31 Americans, 40 Britons and 5 Germans lost their lives during the operation.
To the amazement of the world, Operation Vittles succeeded, managing to meet West Berlin's needs even throughout the severe winter of 1948-49. West Berliners co-operated by making do with a rudimentary diet, minimal heat and sharply curtailed hours of electricity. In a show of solidarity with the Western Allies, most also refused the tempting offers of food made by the Soviets.
By the spring of 1949, it was obvious that the Berlin Blockade had failed. On 12 May that year the USSR lifted it, re-opening access to West Berlin.
Why Did the USSR Impose the Berlin Blockade?
Firstly, the Berlin Blockade was a reaction to the recent introduction of a new currency (the Deutschmark) into the Western Allied-occupied sectors of Germany. According to the Potsdam Agreement attended by both the Western Allies and the Soviets from 17 July to 2 August 1945, Germany had to be treated as one economic entity. However, by 1948 the Western Allies decided that they had to take action, as the sectors they occupied were continuing to deteriorate. The German economy needed to be revived in order to stabilise the country's social conditions and the introduction of a new monetary system was an inescapable prerequisite for this. The Soviets were unwilling to surrender control over currency in their sector. When the Western Allies introduced the Deutschmark in their sectors anyway, the USSR used this as the pretext for imposing the Berlin Blockade.
This was not the only motive behind the Soviets' blockade on Berlin. They also wanted to halt steps towards the political consolidation of the Western Allied-occupied sectors and the formation of a West German Government. If they could not achieve this, the USSR seemed determined to drive the Western Allies out of Berlin and incorporate the whole city into the Soviet-occupied sector.
What Were the Consequences of the Berlin Airlift?
In spite of the USSR's attempts to prevent the political consolidation of Western Allied-occupied Germany, the Berlin Blockade and the ensuing Berlin Airlift actually accelerated this development. The Western Allies decided that swift and decisive action had to be taken to strengthen the part of Germany outside the Soviet orbit. Hence, the foreign ministers from each of the Western Allies' three countries completed plans to combine their sectors into a Federal Republic.
The Berlin Airlift also meant that in the eyes of the Western Allies, the USSR had come to replace Germany as the chief threat to peace in Europe. Overnight, Berlin went from being perceived as the bastion of Prussian militarism and Nazism to the first outpost of freedom and democracy, to be protected at all costs. The Berlin Airlift also produced a spirit of co-operation between the Western Allies and the German citizens who lived in their sectors. By the end of the Berlin Airlift, these former enemies had become partners.
Ashby Turner Jr, Henry, Germany from Partition to Reunification (1992, Yale University Press)
Fulbrook, Mary, The Fontana History of Germany 1918-1990: The Divided Nation (1991, Fontana Press)
Kemp, Anthony, Escape from Berlin (1987, Boxtree Ltd)