"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an IRON CURTAIN has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in some form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."
- Winston Churchill, in his "Sinews of Peace" address, given in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946
The wartime alliance against Nazi Germany
This might seem a strange way to begin a post about the Berlin Blockade, but politics makes for strange bedfellows. There are few bedfellows more strange, as it turns out, than the United States and Soviet Russia. During World War II, they had been allied (somewhat ironically) in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Now they distrusted each other greatly (although the distrust wasn't all that new, in the grand scheme of things), almost as much as they had distrusted their common enemy, the Nazis. After the war was over, you see, they were supposedly working together to undo Nazism; but the people of this time had reason to wonder if this was actually happening. The Soviets had made several promises in the postwar peace treaties that they were now breaking, and they weren't exactly tiny promises. They'd promised freedom to the several countries in Eastern Europe (which the Soviet troops were now occupying), and the Soviets pledged that they would "remove their troops soon." But there was a problem with this, since the troops were still there; and freedom wasn't exactly high on the Soviets' priority list.
Red Army raises Soviet flag in Berlin after taking the city, 1945
Allied troops were closing in on Germany from both sides
When Nazi Germany surrendered, there were Allied troops closing in on Germany from both sides. In the West, there were the Americans, British, and French; who were all free countries by this time. In the East, there was just the Soviet Union, which was somewhat less than free, and was a communist state. In fighting Germany, the Soviets had advanced through the ground formerly occupied by the Nazis, and they had left their troops behind to "bring order" to the Eastern Europeans. (Although the "order" was more like "oppression," as it turned out.) Now that the Soviets were entering Germany, they were about to do the same thing to the Germans; and after years of Hitler's crimes against the Russian people, the Russians were in a particularly nasty mood at that time. I will not now relate all of their crimes against the European countries that they then occupied, but suffice it to say that the Soviets weren't all that much better than the Germans they had replaced, and these people had nearly as much reason to fear the Soviets as they had hated and feared their predecessors, the Nazis.
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin meet in the Potsdam Conference, 1945
Which one of these powers would get to control Germany?
The Allies were all united in their desire for a German occupation, as it turned out, even when they did not agree about how long it should last. (And the Soviets were the main dissenters here; because they, of course, wanted the occupation to last indefinitely, if not forever.) Since the war on the ground had been going on in Germany until quite recently, the Allies (fortunately) had the troops already on hand there for occupation duty; and so they raced each other to occupy the country as quickly as possible. The race with one another was not just a desire to upstage each other and grab good headlines, but a serious contest for control of the region. This had real consequences for the postwar world, as it turned out. Those lucky enough to be occupied by the Western Allies of America, Britain, and France were likely to become "free at last"; while those occupied by the Soviet Union would likely continue to live under tyranny for years to come. (Forty years, as it turned out; with the nightmare not ending for the East Germans until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 - a wall that did not yet exist in the late forties.) The Allied troops thus exerted some serious effort to occupy as much territory for their own nations' occupation zones as possible, which would later have serious consequences for the map of postwar Europe.
Division of Germany into four sectors, 1947
Division of Germany into West and East
The three main Western Allies of America, Britain, and France thus encountered the Soviets along this new border that the postwar race created, even before that border had been fully finalized in the postwar peace treaties. The troops of both sides thus smiled for the cameras and pretended to like each other, although they suspected each other mutually even then. One might have imagined that they could live together in peace and friendship at that time, but it soon became apparent that they could not; and that they had different plans for the future of Germany that were incompatible with one another. When it became clear that they could not agree about these major issues surrounding what to do with postwar Germany, they reluctantly agreed to a fateful compromise; and divided Germany into two separate parts. The American, British, and French zones united together into a new nation called the "Federal Republic of Germany," which was later known as "West Germany" (and eventually, simply "Germany"). The Soviet zone, by contrast, was transformed into a communist satellite country (or "puppet state") called the "German Democratic Republic," which would later become known as "East Germany." Thus its fate was sealed for over forty years.
Border between West and East Germany - Iron Curtain, 1949
The special status of West Berlin
The former British leader Winston Churchill eventually gave the new border its popular nickname, which was the "Iron Curtain"; and this name for the new Cold War border stuck. (Although technically, I should acknowledge that this border also included other areas than the border between West and East Germany; and went through other parts of Europe as well. Thus, the German sector was only one portion of it, and it extended much further beyond that.) Everything behind that "Iron Curtain" was communist except for West Berlin, the site of the postwar world's first major crisis. Berlin was a special case, you see, because it had been the capital city of the former (and recently defeated) Nazi Germany. When the Allies were thus pretending to run Germany together, they had made this city their joint headquarters, even though it was far away from the border between the two future states of West and East Germany. (Specifically, it was 100 miles away, or about 161 kilometers.) A mutual agreement between them thus allowed the Allies to control West Berlin, the part of that city closest to the rest of West Germany. The Soviets, by contrast, still continued to control East Berlin as they had when the war ended. This was significant for the future of the Cold War, as it turned out, because West Berlin was an island of prosperity in a vast sea of communist poverty and oppression. It would thus be a thorn in the side of the communist governments, who were jealously waiting and watching for West Berlin to become a part of that conquest like the rest of Eastern Germany.
German Reichstag in West Berlin, in the French occupation zone, 1946
Borders were open at this time
West Berlin was a big and gaping hole in the map of Soviet conquests there, and this tiny little city was doggedly refusing to submit to the communism that surrounded it. These borders with the surrounding communist territory (including East Berlin) were open borders at this time, since this was before the Berlin Wall had been built. Thus they were a temptation for the East Germans in the area to escape, and leave their communist masters. This was something that had a dangerous tendency, in the communist view, to undermine the communists' control of their own territory. It showed them what the free world was really like, and how much better things really were there. It was much better for the communist world (in their opinion) that their people not know that, lest they get the desire to escape and free themselves. Thus, the Soviets decided it was time to change the situation, and they began a blockade of West Berlin in June 1948.
Joseph Stalin, dictator of Soviet Russia (and mastermind of the Berlin Blockade)
Soviet blockade of West Berlin
The little portion of a city called "West Berlin" was too small to be self-sufficient, as it turned out, so it had only so many supplies to keep it through the coming winter of the blockade. You might wonder why the Soviets decided merely to blockade West Berlin, rather than completely invade it with their troops. The reason is that there were other Allied military forces within the city that they could not risk attacking, because it could mean an all-out war with the United States and its allies. Thus, they decided to lay siege to West Berlin instead, and thus cut it off from all trade with the outside world (particularly the free outside world). With nothing but communist territory around the city, the railway to the rest of West Germany was its lifeline to the outside world, connecting it with distant nations like the United States. The railway actually went through communist territory, as it turned out, and so the supplies had to go through Soviet territory to get to Western Germany and the other free nations. Before the Soviet blockade of their city, the Soviets had allowed the West Germans to transport supplies across their communist territory via this railway, as long as they went by the most direct route that was possible for them to go on. Now that this was no longer possible, they would thus have to find another way to get the needed food and coal from the outside, if the outside could find a way to do it. (Not a small thing when winter was coming, and they would need supplies of coal to keep from freezing.)
American transport plane landing at Tempelhof Airport - West Berlin, 1948
The Berlin Airlift: Keeping West Berlin supplied by air
Fortunately, the Western Allies were able to come up with a solution here, although it was not without some risk. The solution was to supply West Berlin from the air, and bring the needed food and coal via transport planes that would regularly fly over Soviet airspace to Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. (Not a small thing to transport coal aboard a plane, I should note here; because it fills the plans with coal dust that they would have to air out before it interfered with the machinery and caused safety hazards during flight. It was also, of course, very heavy; and difficult to carry for that reason.) In addition to landing supplies at Tempelhof Airport, they also sometimes dropped supplies via parachute as well, I should note here. As one West Berliner wryly put it, "if the Americans could drop all these bombs on Berlin, they could certainly drop potatoes" (and really, I paraphrase her only slightly). If the Soviets fired on these planes, it could mean World War Three; but if the Western Allies tried to supply West Berlin from the ground instead, this war with the Soviets would be almost certain, since it meant a confrontation with the Soviet ground troops on the border. The airlift was thus deemed the less risky of the two options, and so the famous Berlin Airlift supplied the city for nearly a year during this time; keeping the city alive in the process. This was a massive logistical achievement that has (deservedly) gotten much attention from the popular historians. But there is one other aspect of the Berlin Blockade that is sometimes overlooked, I think, which is the Allied counter-blockade. The Allies retaliated against the Soviets, you see, by preventing any supplies from getting to the East Germans, via a stoppage of all trade at the Iron Curtain itself (and the East German coastline, which was blockaded via Allied naval vessels). This daring plan was a successful one, as it turned out, because the Soviet economy sustained massive damage from this embargo. Thus, the Soviets lifted the blockade and opened the direct-route railway again to the Allies. Thus the West Berliners returned to getting their needed supplies via the normal route that it had used before.
American planes being unloaded at Tempelhof Airport - West Berlin, circa 1948
West Berlin stayed free at this time (and has ever since then)
The Berlin Airlift was thus a great humanitarian operation in every sense of the word, and it has rightly deserved the praise it has gotten from historians. Nonetheless, it could have turned into World War Three at this time, and so the Allies deserve some credit for their courage in this regard in confronting the Soviets. It was necessary to save a city from being overrun and conquered by the communists, and it was thus worth doing in spite of the grave risks involved. Some might argue that it was a lot of "fuss" over one small city, but this city was rightly believed to be a domino, which would bring other dominoes with it if it fell. Thus, there was more at stake here than this "one little city," and it is fortunate for West Germany (and the world at large) that the Allies held their ground in West Berlin at this time.
Footnote to this blog post:
The situation in the postwar East Germany would eventually lead the Soviets to build the Berlin Wall in 1961. The wall was built long after the blockade was over (more than a decade afterward), and did not come down until nearly thirty years after that in 1989. More about why it was created here, and some general information about how it came down here.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The Marshall Plan: The plan to rebuild postwar Europe (and stop the communists)
Does communism cause poverty? (An experiment from dividing Germany)
Fall of the Wall: The wave of revolutions that kicked communism out of Europe