The Berlin blockade was a diplomatic crisis and military operation during the cold war precipitated by the Soviet Union’s blockade of the city of Berlin from June 18, 1948, to May 12, 1949, and the subsequent relief effort launched by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to provide provisions for the western half of the city.
The Berlin blockade was one of the first major diplomatic crises of the cold war. The Western Allies’ ability to provide for the city proved to be a major diplomatic victory and ensured the creation of a pro-Western West German state. However, it also ensured the division of Germany and Berlin for the next four decades.
The diplomatic struggle over Berlin in 1948–49 had its origins in the final months of World War II and the agreements made among the Allied powers over the division of postwar Germany. Germany’s capital, Berlin, although deep within the proposed Soviet zone, would also be divided into four sectors of occupation.
Although each power would be given sole control of its respective zone, an Allied Control Council based in Berlin would be assembled to coordinate and plan policy for all of Germany. These plans were made under the assumption that the occupation of Germany would be temporary and that Germany would be reunified relatively soon after the war’s end. Critically, the agreements were also made under the assumption of continued inter-Allied cooperation.
Within days of Nazi Germany’s defeat, the Soviets undertook efforts to ensure the dominance of sympathetic German communists in their zone, especially in Berlin, which the Soviets claimed was an integral part of their zone. Their overall aim was the reunification of a pro-communist German state, a goal that placed it at odds with the Western Allies.
In 1946 the Soviet Union sponsored the forced merger of the German Communist Party and the Social Democrats (SPD) of its zone into the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Censorship of the press was instituted and members of noncommunist parties were frequently arrested in the Soviet zone.
In Berlin agitators working for the SED frequently disrupted the meetings of the democratically elected city council. In 1946 the election of the Social Democrat Ernst Reuter to the office of lord mayor of Berlin was vetoed by the Soviets. However, the Soviets were unable to gain control of Berlin outside their zone or the rest of Germany.
Over the course of the next three years, hopes of inter-Allied cooperation quickly faded as it became increasingly apparent that neither the Soviets nor the Western Allies would come to an agreement on either a postwar settlement or reunifying Germany. In 1947 the British and the United States united their two zones to create the Bizone, or Bizonia.
Although it was created as an economic union, the Bizone would eventually form the nucleus of what was to become West Germany. In the spring of 1948—the three Western Allies—along with Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—assembled at the London Conference to plan for the future of the three west German zones.
In 1948 with reunification unlikely, the British and the Americans made moves to sponsor the creation of a Western-oriented German state in their zones. Together with the French they created the deutsche mark to replace the inflated reichsmark.
This currency reform took effect in the three western zones and the three western sectors of Berlin. The Soviets argued that this violated postwar agreements made at the Potsdam Conference and their rights to all of Berlin. They subsequently ordered a blockade of all rail, road, and barge traffic into and out of the three western sectors of Berlin.
The Soviets’ aim was to halt the creation of a West German state and force the Western Allies out of Berlin. It became apparent to the Allied powers that any compromise or appearance of backing down before Soviet intimidation would be diplomatically disastrous.
Although several U.S. generals argued that Berlin was not strategically important enough to risk a confrontation and pressed for withdrawal, President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall felt that Berlin was critical to maintaining a strong front against the spread of communism. The Western Allies affirmed their support for their respective sectors in Berlin.
However, there were few actions that they could take. With only 15,000 Allied troops in West Berlin, a fight was not possible. General Clay advocated using an armed convoy to break the blockade. But both the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon saw this as both too risky and unworkable.
The option of an airlift became increasingly attractive, as it would demonstrate Allied determination to remain in Berlin and provide it with much-needed provisions and supplies. Also, whereas the rights for land access to Berlin were left undefined, the Western Allies and the Soviets had concluded an agreement guaranteeing access by air. Thus the likelihood of war resulting from an airlift was much smaller than if the Allies were to force the blockade.
Between June 1948 and May 1949 almost all the provisions for the western zones of Berlin were shipped in by air, using aircraft such as the C-47 Dakota and C-54 Skymaster. The operation was given the code name “Vittles” and was commanded by General William H. Tunner.
Tunner, who had experience transporting goods over the Himalayas during World War II, organized an extremely complex operation. During the summer months the airlift was able to provide only between 3,000 and 4,000 tons of goods a day. By the onset of winter, Vittles was providing between 5,000 and 6,000 tons a day.
The Allies were also blessed by a winter marked by frequently clear skies. During the spring of 1949 an aircraft landed at one of the three airports in the western zone once every two minutes. The citizens of Berlin greatly appreciated the Allied efforts and many West Berliners aided in distributing supplies throughout the city.
Children called the planes Rosinenbombers (“Raisin Bombers”), and the name became a popular appellation for the aircraft throughout the city. Ernst Reuter, unofficially mayor of the western sectors and spokesman for the western half of the city, made great efforts to improve morale and win world sympathy for the city. What supplies the airlift could not provide were often found on the black market in the east and through legal East-West trade.
By the spring of 1949 it had become apparent that the western sectors could be sustained with the necessary provisions, so long as the Soviet military did not interfere. However, it had come at a cost: 31 Americans, 40 Britons, and 5 Germans lost their lives to airrelated accidents during the course of the airlift.
On May 12, the Soviets, aware they would neither force the Western Allies to back down on the issue of currency reform nor end their support for a West German state, ended the blockade. Fearful that the Soviets might try to renew the blockade, the Allies continued airlifting provisions into September of 1949.
The blockade was a disastrous diplomatic defeat for the Soviet Union. In the short-term it had failed to accomplish its two primary goals: to prevent the creation of a pro-Western German state and to expel the Allies from Berlin. The French, who had initially opposed the creation of a western Germany, joined their zone to the Bizone in 1949. That same year, both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were proclaimed.
The chief long-term effect was the prolonged division of Germany. The Western Allies had confronted the Soviets and had maintained their commitments without having to resort to armed action. The blockade also proved damaging to world opinion of the Soviet Union. Berlin, long perceived as a bastion of German-Prussian militarism, had been transformed into a symbol of freedom.
The allied presence in Berlin would be the source of almost constant difficulty for the East German state, as it provided an enclave of Western liberalism and economic prosperity that was a constant source of enticement for the citizens of the communist state. West Berlin would be a popular destination for East German emigrants over the course of the next decade, their massive flight from the east stopped only by the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.