The Berlin Blockade

By Andreas Hübner

Berlin­ers watch a Dou­glas C‑54 Sky­mas­ter land at Tem­pel­hof Air­port, 1948

Sev­en­ty years ago, on May 12, 1949, the Berlin Block­ade came to an end. Nowa­days con­sid­ered a cor­ner­stone of the Cold War Era, the block­ade had been ini­ti­at­ed eleven months ear­li­er by the Sovi­et mil­i­tary admin­is­tra­tion in response to the intro­duc­tion of a new cur­ren­cy, the Deutsche Mark, in the Amer­i­can, British, and French occu­pa­tion zones of Ger­many and the allied sec­tors of Berlin. The Sovi­ets under­stood the D‑Mark as a pre­lude to the estab­lish­ment of a sin­gle eco­nom­ic unit and a new gov­ern­ment in West Ger­many. Thus, to pre­vent the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the cur­ren­cy and to force the West­ern coali­tion to aban­don the city, the Sovi­et mil­i­tary admin­is­tra­tion began block­ing West Berlin, halt­ing all rail, road and barge traf­fic as well as cut­ting off gas and elec­tric­i­ty supplies.

The end of the Berlin Block­ade rep­re­sent­ed a major vic­to­ry over the Sovi­et mil­i­tary admin­is­tra­tion and, in par­tic­u­lar, over Stal­in who had under­es­ti­mat­ed how far the West was will­ing to go to retain con­trol over the allied sec­tors of Berlin. Indeed, Berlin soon became a sym­bol of the allies’ deter­mi­na­tion to inte­grate the West­ern occu­pa­tion zones and the allied sec­tors of the city into the post-World War II land­scape of West­ern Europe and the North Atlantic region. Pres­i­dent Har­ry S. Tru­man concluded:

“On May 12 the block­ade of Berlin was lift­ed. The bat­tle of diplo­ma­cy was over­shad­owed by the dra­ma of the aer­i­al con­voys that day after day went their way into Berlin. The longer the block­ade con­tin­ued, the more the peo­ple of Ger­many looked toward the West to strength­en them in their deter­mi­na­tion to remain free. The city cel­e­brat­ed the event with an aware­ness of its sol­i­dar­i­ty with the demo­c­ra­t­ic nations. Berlin became a sym­bol which made the ally deter­mi­na­tion greater and greater to do the job.”

Only two days after the block­ade had been imposed, allied sup­ply trans­ports into Berlin via air­crafts began. The Berlin Air­lift was born. From the start, the air­lift con­sti­tut­ed a tru­ly con­cert­ed effort. Under the lead­er­ship of Gen­er­al Lucius D. Clay, a Com­bined Air­lift Task Force was orga­nized to counter the Sovi­et block­ade. In the months to fol­low, allied air­crews from the Unit­ed States Air­force, the Roy­al Air Force, and the French Air Force were joined by crews from Cana­da, Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Togeth­er these crews trans­port­ed a total of 2.3 mil­lion tons of food, fuel, and oth­er sup­plies to the more than two mil­lion peo­ple in Berlin.

Ret­ro­spec­tive­ly, the suc­cess of the Air­lift seems to obscure the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the sce­nario. In the sum­mer of 1948, the allies were some­what uncer­tain about their capac­i­ties to sup­ply Berlin. Time was scarce. Berlin was expect­ed to run out of food rations with­in 36 days, out of coal with­in 25 to 50 days, and out of diesel and gaso­line with­in two to five months. Whether Tem­pel­hof Air­port and the Roy­al Air Force Sta­tion Gatow pro­vid­ed the means to main­tain the air­lift could hard­ly be pre­dict­ed; and, although the CIA assumed that Moscow was not will­ing to risk mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion, the Sovi­ets would undoubt­ed­ly attempt to hin­der the West­ern pow­ers in their efforts to fly food sup­plies, com­modi­ties, and fuel into the city. Soon after the Air­lift start­ed, Sovi­et air­planes were seen enter­ing the cor­ri­dors. Still, the aban­don­ment of Berlin was nev­er under consideration:

“The aban­don­ment of Berlin would be inter­pret­ed through­out Ger­many and Europe as evi­dence of our lack of deter­mi­na­tion both to defend our rights and to sup­port demo­c­ra­t­ic peo­ples in their effort to resist total­i­tar­i­an threats and pres­sures.” (Depart­ment of State, Office of Pub­lic Affairs, Infor­ma­tion Mem­o­ran­dum No. 28, Jan­u­ary 7, 1949)

The Berlin Air­lift did not end with the lift­ing of the block­ade, but con­tin­ued until the fall of 1949. By then, the West­ern Allies had stocked the store­hous­es of the city with food, fuel, and oth­er sup­plies essen­tial for sur­vival in order to pre­vent a future sup­ply short­age. How­ev­er, the Berlin Air­lift did not only deliv­er car­go to a city cut off from the world, the air­lift shaped and trans­formed the rela­tion­ship between the West­ern Allies and the peo­ple of Berlin and West Ger­many. For years to come, the Berlin Air­lift became a lieu de mémoire, a site of mem­o­ry, that helped define the part­ner­ship between the peo­ple of the Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Ger­many and the West­ern Allies, a part­ner­ship built on demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues and friendship.

Berlin Air­lift (Edit­ed Footage) – “The Bridge,” pro­duced by Depart­ment of Defense, Depart­ment of the Army, Office of the Chief Sig­nal Offi­cer, April 19, 1949. Nation­al Archives at Col­lege Park, Nation­al Archives Iden­ti­fi­er: 21227, Local Iden­ti­fi­er: 111-ADC-7455.

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Andreas Hüb­n­er is cur­rent­ly a Lec­tur­er at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg. His research focus­es on Cul­tur­al and Glob­al His­to­ry as well as His­to­ry Didac­tics. In 2015, he received his Ph.D. from Jus­tus Liebig Uni­ver­si­ty Giessen. He served as Dianne Woest Fel­low at the His­toric New Orleans Col­lec­tion in August/September 2016 and as Horner Library Fel­low at the Ger­man Soci­ety of Philadel­phia in July 2018. Hübner’s mono­graph on Ger­man Amer­i­can fil­iopi­etist J. Han­no Deil­er was pub­lished in 2009, his mono­graph on the Ger­man Coast of colo­nial Louisiana in 2017.