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Berlin Blockade and Airlift


In 1948 Stalin tried to starve the people of West Berlin into submission. He failed. The Western allies kept West Berlin supplied through a massive airlift.


What were the consequences of the Berlin Blockade?

Towards a divided Germany

By early 1948 Stalin had control of much of Eastern Europe. The Americans responded by helping to make Western Europe wealthy and pro-American. As part of this process the division of Germany became more and more permanent. The west of Germany had long been the industrial heartland of continental Europe. The US government decided to include western Germany in its plans for a new non-communist Western Europe.


News of a new currency for the west of Germany alarmed Stalin. He saw it as another step towards a divided Germany with the wealthier, larger part of the country closely allied to the USA. Stalin was worried by the idea of a successful, anti-communist government in the west of Germany. In his mind it raised the possibility of another German attack on Russia, as in 1914 and 1941.


In attempting to stop the formation of West Germany, Stalin thought he had one powerful weapon. West Berlin was controlled by the American, French and British forces - but it was a western 'island' deep inside the Soviet sector of Germany. Soviet forces controlled all the land routes into West Berlin. Over 2 million people lived in West Berlin and Stalin could cut off their supplies by simply closing the roads and the railways. As a protest against the currency reforms and the moves towards a divided Germany Stalin decided to put a blockade on West Berlin.


The emergence of West Germany

The Marshall Plan for the economic rebuilding of Europe was extended to the western part of Germany but not to the Soviet zone


In January 1947 the British and the American governments fused their two zones of Germany into a single administrative unit that was known at the time as Bizonia. In many ways this was the beginning of the establishment of West Germany.


In June 1948 the Western allies introduced a new currency into their area of control. The new money, known as the Deutschmark, was not used in the Soviet zone.


The Berlin Airlift

The Western allies were taken by surprise at the start of the blockade. The Americans were initially not sure how to respond. Some advisers thought that the Western powers would have to give way because the 2 million people in West Berlin would starve as long as the roads out of Berlin remained blocked. Another view was that tanks should be used to blast a way through the blockade.


The leading American military expert, General Clay, was keen to send his troops down the autobahn towards Berlin. This could easily have led to a full-scale war with the USSR. The government decided on a middle course: not to provoke war by sending troops towards Berlin but to keep the city supplied by aircraft. Never before had a huge besieged city been kept going by an airlift.


To people in the West, Stalin seemed to be acting with extreme aggression. The attack on Berlin looked like the first step towards a communist march westwards. The Western allies acted firmly in carrying out the airlift. To President Truman it was a test of the new policy of containment: the USSR could not be allowed to take over West Berlin.


Stalin ends the siege

Eventually Stalin had to admit that his attempt to starve out West Berlin had failed. In May 1949 the Soviet authorities called off the blockade. The airlift was a triumph for the American and British air forces. During the airlift British and US planes flew nearly 200,000 missions to Berlin. At the end of the blockade the airport in West Berlin was handling an enormous 1,000 arrivals and departures every day.


Over 1.5 million tons of food, fuel and equipment was sent in to Berlin. This achievement clearly proved how determined the USA was to resist Stalin. The Berlin airlift showed how far international politics had changed since 1945. Berlin had then been a symbol of defeated Nazism . By 1948 it was a symbol of Western freedom and the struggle with communism.