In the aftermath of World War Two, amongst the shattered ruins of Berlin a new conflict was born, the Cold War. With the common purpose of defeating Nazi Germany gone, the allied powers were soon no longer allies.
Berlin had been divided before the end of the war at the Yalta Conference between the British, French, United States and Soviets. However, Berlin was deep in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and Stalin wished to wrest control of it from the other allied powers.
The situation became so tense that it almost sparked another world war, yet the allies remained steadfast in their determination to hold onto their sectors of the city. This culminated in the Berlin Airlift where many thousands of tons of supplies were flown into the city daily to defy the Soviet blockade and keep its residents from starvation.
The Berlin Blockade set the stage for a new era of international relations and presented a microcosm for the turmoil that was going to follow World War Two: The Cold War era.
Why was the blockade instigated?
After the Second World War, there were conflicting goals and aspirations for the future of Germany and Berlin. The USA, Britain and France wanted a strong, democratic Germany to act as a buffer against the communist states of Eastern Europe. Conversely, Stalin wanted to weaken Germany, utilise German technology to rebuild the USSR and expand the influence of communism in Europe.
On 24 June 1948, Stalin cut all land access to Berlin for the Allies in the Berlin Blockade. This could have been intended as a demonstration of Soviet power in the area and to use Berlin as a lever to prevent any further western influence on the city and the soviet section of the country.
Stalin believed that through the Berlin Blockade, the West Berliners would be starved into submission. The situation in Berlin was dire and the quality of life was extremely low, the people of West Berlin would not survive without supplies from the West.
The Western nations had very limited options in order to keep the 2.4 million people of West Berlin alive. Attempting to access Berlin on the ground with armed force could have ignited an all-out conflict and a third world war.
The solution that was finally agreed upon was that supplies would be airlifted into West Berlin. This was believed by many, including Stalin, to be an impossible task. The allies calculated that in order to pull this off, and provide West Berlin with the absolute minimum amount of supplies, the allies would need to have a plane landing in West Berlin every 90 seconds.
In the first week, an average of around 90 tons of supplies was provided each day. As the allies continued to source planes from around the world, these figures rose to 1,000 tons per day in the second week. The record single-day tonnage was achieved in Easter 1949, with the crews transporting just under 13,000 tons of supplies in a 24 hour period.
What was the impact?
In the pro-Soviet press, the airlift was mocked as a futile exercise that would fail within a few days. For the United States and its Western allies, the Berlin Airlift became an important propaganda tool. The allied success proved embarrassing for the Soviet Union and in April 1949, Moscow proposed negotiations to end the blockade of Berlin and the Soviets agreed to reopen land access to the city.
Germany and Berlin remained a source of tension in Europe for the duration of the Cold War. During the duration of the blockade, Europe had been distinctly divided into two opposing sides and in April 1949, the USA, Britain and France officially announced the formation of the German Federal Republic (West Germany). NATO was formed in 1949, and in response to this, The Warsaw Pact alliance of communist countries came together in 1955.
The Berlin Airlift, as a response to the Berlin Blockade, is still seen as the biggest Cold War propaganda victory for the USA. Through being framed as a demonstration of the USA’s commitment to defending ‘the free world’, the Berlin Airlift helped to change German opinions of the Americans. The United States were from this point seen more as protectors rather than occupiers.