Berlin Blockade

Dafato Team | Jun 2, 2022

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The Berlin Blockade was one of the major episodes of the Cold War in Europe during which the Soviets blocked the land access to Berlin of the three Western powers, who in return organized a large airlift to supply their garrisons and the civilian population of Berlin.

On June 24, 1948, after a long deterioration in relations between the four occupying powers of Germany, the Soviet Union (USSR) blocked all the road and waterways through which the Americans, British and French communicated between their occupation zones in Germany and Berlin. The blockade lasted until the Soviets lifted it without compensation on May 12, 1949, thus acknowledging their failure to get their hands on Berlin.

The Berlin blockade was one of the very first crises of the Cold War. It was also the most serious, until a second crisis in Berlin (1958-1961) - concluded by the construction of the wall - and then the Cuban missile crisis (1962) plunged the world once again into the fear of war and nuclear holocaust.

In 1948, the future of Germany was at the heart of the opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Stalin had succeeded in taking control of all the countries of Central Europe without provoking any concrete reaction from the West, and the Communist movements were very active in Western Europe, which was struggling to recover from the war and which the Americans wanted to prevent at all costs from coming under the yoke of Moscow. The two major initiatives taken by Washington with this objective in mind, the Marshall Plan for the economic rescue of Europe and the creation of a West Germany solidly attached to the Atlantic sphere, were contrary to the interests of Stalin, who wished to extend his influence to all of Germany. Isolated in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone in Germany, Berlin was militarily indefensible to the West. Stalin saw an opportunity to make them back down on their initiatives or, failing that, to drive them out of the city, which would be a great political and symbolic victory.

History has remembered the determination of the Western Allies to keep their place in Berlin and the success of the airlift implemented by the Americans and the British in the first days. This vision conceals the fears and uncertainties in which the Western leaders were plunged, divided on the real intentions of the Soviets and on the capacity of the Berlin airlift to ensure the long-term supply of the Berlin population of more than 2 million people, of whom it was moreover difficult to foresee whether they would turn to Moscow to avoid new deprivations or whether they would believe in a future within the Western world. Finally, the question of whether or not to use nuclear weapons became a political and military issue in the United States for the first time since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The failure of the Berlin blockade allowed the West to carry out its plans for the creation of West Germany, including West Berlin, and the introduction of the Deutsche Mark. The Soviets responded with the establishment of East Germany. The blockade also precipitated the conclusion in April 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty, a Western transatlantic military alliance, of which West Germany would become a member in 1954, provoking the creation in 1955 of the Warsaw Pact by the Soviets.

The iron curtain between the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc did not move again until the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked the end of the Cold War, of which Berlin had been the symbolic heart for forty years.

Neither at Yalta nor at Potsdam did the Allies manage to agree on the future of Germany. The regime of total occupation that they put in place after their victory over Nazi Germany abolished German sovereignty, gave each occupying power great freedom of action in its zone, but relied on a joint administration for questions concerning Germany as a whole and postponed decisions on what would become of it in the medium term.

The root cause of the Berlin blockade lay in the weaknesses inherent in this four-party occupation regime, which functioned more and more poorly until it came to a standstill as soon as the interests of the former allies became opposed. The intense negotiations conducted in 1946 and 1947 by the four occupying powers did not lead to any agreement on whether or not to dismember Germany, and if so, whether or not to re-establish a central state and the nature of its political regime.

The immediate causes of the blockade were the initiatives taken at the beginning of 1948 by the West without the Soviets to establish a German state on the territory of their occupation zones, including with a special status their sectors in Berlin, and to introduce a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, to revive the German economy.

The fate of Germany and Berlin after the war

As German defeat became certain, the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union met in London and began discussing the fate of defeated Germany. They signed the London Protocol on September 12, 1944, which stipulated that "Germany, within its borders as they existed on December 31, 1937, shall be divided for the purposes of occupation into three zones, one of which shall be assigned to each of the three Powers, and a special zone for Berlin which shall be occupied jointly by the three Powers. Then, on November 14, they defined the governance of their joint occupation by establishing an "Allied Control Council" (ACC) made up of the Commanders-in-Chief of each of the three zones of occupation for matters concerning Germany as a whole, in which decisions would be taken unanimously. For Berlin, which was located in the middle of the Soviet zone, the agreement provided for the establishment of an inter-allied authority, known as the "Kommandatura", headed by three senior officers appointed by their respective commanders-in-chief.

At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin amended these agreements by allocating to France a zone of occupation in Germany and a sector in Berlin, constituted from the initial British and American zones, and by inviting France to become a member of the Allied Control Council and the Kommandatura.

From July 17 to August 2, 1945, the Potsdam Conference sketched out the post-war period, while the first tensions were already being felt. It brought together Harry Truman, the new president of the United States, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, who was replaced during the conference by the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, Clement Attlee. The three powers defined a set of political and economic principles that would govern the treatment of Germany during the initial period of occupation and agreed on the demilitarization, denazification, decartelization and democratization of the country. They renounced the immediate dismemberment of Germany and established a "Council of Foreign Ministers" to prepare the final peace settlement.

On August 30, 1945, the first official meeting of the Allied Control Council (ACC) brought together Montgomery for Great Britain, Koenig, who had succeeded de Lattre as head of the army of occupation, for France, Zhukov for the Soviet Union and Eisenhower for the United States. Access to Berlin by the Western powers had not been regulated by the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, so it was up to the CCA to take charge of it: between September and November 1945, agreements organized road, river and rail traffic as well as free overflight of the Soviet zone in air corridors to link the French, British and American zones in Germany to their respective sectors of occupation in Berlin.

The first U.S. Army unit arrived in Berlin on July 1, 1945 and settled in the American sector. The Allied Kommandatura, which was responsible for administering Berlin, began operating on 11 July 1945 on the basis of a unanimous decision taken in conjunction with the German civil administration of the city. The movement between the sectors was free.

The disagreement between the four occupying powers

The evolution of the situation in Berlin between 1945 and 1948 was part of the broader context of the Cold War, in which the question of Germany's future was the main concern of the leaders of the four occupying powers and mobilized all their diplomatic efforts. The control of Berlin was both a direct issue, as the Western presence constituted an obstacle to the Sovietization of the entire eastern part of Germany, and a strong symbol, as the departure of the Westerners would deal a severe blow to the credibility of American support for the Western democracies and their presence in the western part of Germany.

The consolidation of their respective zones of influence and the uncertainties about each other's real intentions created a climate of mistrust between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union throughout 1946, which put a de facto end to the wartime alliance.

On the Soviet side, Stalin wanted to impose communism and ensure the definitive control of a zone of influence in Eastern Europe that would protect him from a possible American aggression, which he feared, since the USSR had emerged from the war bloodless. Its ambassador in Washington, Nikolai Novikov, makes a worried analysis of American policy: "One must pay close attention to the fact that the United States is preparing for a future war and that it will be waged against the USSR, which in the eyes of the American imperialists is the main obstacle to their domination of the world.

In 1947, the break was complete. In a speech to the U.S. Congress on March 12, 1947, Truman laid out the foundations of the policy of containing communism by committing the United States to "a policy of aiding free peoples who are currently resisting the maneuvers of certain armed minorities or external pressure. In June 1947, the Americans launched the Marshall Plan to provide economic and financial aid for the reconstruction of Western and Eastern Europe. The Soviets refused to take part and forced their Eastern European satellite countries to do the same. Then they founded the Cominform in September 1947, whose purpose was to ensure the ideological coordination of European communist parties and more specifically to control the ICP and the CPF. It was on this occasion that Andrei Zhdanov set out the Soviet vision of the confrontation between East and West: he denounced American imperialism and affirmed that "the Communists must be the leading force that draws in all freedom-loving anti-fascist elements.

On February 25, 1948, the Prague coup further increased tension: the president of the Czechoslovak republic, Edvard Beneš, had to cede all power to the Stalinists and their leaders, Klement Gottwald and Rudolf Slánský, after two weeks of intense Soviet pressure. Carried out without the direct intervention of the Red Army, this coup d'état was very worrying because it appeared to be reproducible in France and Italy, where the Communist Party was strong. The communist threat became very close, which prompted the British and French governments to look for ways to ensure their collective defense by involving the United States.

The four powers pursued their own policies in their zones of occupation, with very different priorities, and were unable to agree on a joint economic policy, on reparations, or on the establishment of an embryonic German central government.

The Soviets proceeded in their occupation zone in the same way as in the Eastern European countries liberated by the Red Army. They supported the formation of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), created by the merger of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in their zone; they authorized the other parties but kept them under close surveillance and placed Communists in key administrative positions in their zone. However, Stalin did not seek the partition of the country. He hoped to benefit from war reparations for the whole of Germany and from the mining and industrial wealth of the Ruhr; in the longer term, he hoped that Germany would come under Communist control or at least become a demilitarized neutral state, thus pushing the Western presence further west.

The Americans and the British were more concerned about the revival of the German economy and blocked the Soviet demands for reparations, which they considered excessive. On January 1, 1947, they decided to create the bizone, an economic merger of their two zones.

Convened specifically to deal with the future of Germany and Austria, the fourth "Conference of Foreign Ministers" of the four powers held in Moscow from March 10, 1947, failed to reach any agreement despite six weeks of negotiations and direct meetings between Marshall and Stalin. From this moment on, the Americans and the British became convinced that no agreement would be possible with the Soviets and that they would have to find their own solutions applicable to their zones of occupation and to France, which was beginning to rally to this political line. The Soviets, for their part, were aware that the Germans in their zone of occupation had little support and therefore made it increasingly impervious to Western influence in order to avoid any risk of losing control. The partition of Germany became inevitable.

Initiatives of the three Western powers

At the beginning of 1948, London and Washington considered that the quadripartite governance of Germany had virtually ceased to exist, and that it was vital to devise a new political and economic order in their and France's zones of occupation.

This was the purpose of the London Conference opened in February 1948, which brought together the three Western powers and the three Benelux countries. The communiqué published on 6 March, at the end of a first series of consultations, defined very clear guidelines in principle: inclusion of the three Western zones among the beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan, coordination of economic policies between the three zones, and convergence on the idea of moving towards a West Germany with federal institutions. A second phase of consultations led on May 31, 1948 to a series of concrete proposals, formally endorsed by the governments concerned at the beginning of June: authorization given to the presidents of the Länder to convene a constituent assembly of the future West Germany, a commitment by the three Western powers to maintain occupation forces, and the establishment of an international monitoring authority for the Ruhr.

Westerners also agreed on the urgency of implementing a monetary reform to remove the monetary surplus from circulation, eliminate the black market and promote increased production. Such a reform was discussed as early as 1946 within the CCA, without a consensus being reached on its modalities. The cessation of the CCA's operations on 20 March 1948 led the West to decide to carry out this reform in their three zones, with the Soviets also preparing to do the same in theirs. The Western reform was prepared in the greatest secrecy from April onwards and announced on 18 June 1948. Its most spectacular dimension was the introduction, on June 20, 1948, of a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, to replace the Reichsmark. With this monetary reform, the West economically detached its trizone from the Soviet zone. The West wanted to extend this reform to Berlin. When the Soviets refused, they decided to apply this measure only to the sectors of the former capital of the Reich that they controlled. From then on, two different currencies circulated in Berlin.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress approved the Marshall Plan, which allowed Truman to sign the Foreign Assistance Act on April 3, 1948 and release the first aid payments to the Europeans.

Soviet Ripostes

The Soviets decided at the end of 1947 to use Berlin to force the Western allies to give up their plans for Germany or, failing that, to leave Berlin, which would consolidate their hold on the eastern part of Germany. Stalin hoped that this pressure tactic would bring the Westerners back to the negotiating table in order to preserve the unity of Germany and thus keep the hope of eventually taking control of it. However, from January 1948, Stalin believed more in the possibility of getting the Western powers to leave Berlin. The measures taken were to gradually increase the pressure on the Western presence in Berlin in three stages.

Beginning in December 1947, editorials in the Soviet-controlled Berlin press questioned Western rights to Berlin, arguing that the creation of the U.S.-British bizone constituted an abandonment of four-party management that nullified the 1945 agreements. In January and February 1948, the Soviets introduced controls that complicated and slowed road, rail and air links between the Western and Soviet zones.

A second step was taken in March 1948: on 9 March 1948, three days after the first results of the London conference were communicated, Stalin summoned Sokolovski, the Soviet military governor in Germany. The decision was taken to implement more drastic measures. The Soviet Union withdrew from the Allied Control Council on 20 March 1948, thus ending the quadripartism. Then the Soviets disrupted the links between Berlin and the Western zones from April 1, 1948: American personnel transiting through the Soviet zone had to show their papers, no more cargo could leave Berlin by rail without a Soviet visa, and passenger train traffic to Berlin was interrupted. At the beginning of June, the Soviet Union increased the pressure on communications between Berlin and the western sector of Germany: German travelers entering the Soviet zone had to obtain special permission.

The third step was taken in June 1948, when the second phase of the London Conference confirmed the intentions of the three Western powers and the implementation of their currency reform in their zones began. Reacting to the intention of the three powers to introduce the deutsche mark in their Berlin sectors as well, the Soviets banned the circulation of the deutsche mark in their occupation zone as well as in the whole of Berlin, and then announced their own monetary reform on June 22, applicable to the whole of Berlin, with the introduction of old Reichsmarks on which they stuck a stamp. The Western powers declared this initiative null and void and confirmed the circulation of the Deutsche Mark, but printed a "B" on it, which would allow them to be withdrawn from circulation without affecting the reform in their three zones, should a compromise be reached in Berlin with the Soviets. In reaction, the Soviets stopped all road and rail traffic entering Berlin, as well as that of barges. They stopped supplying electricity to the western part of the city, claiming a shortage of coal. The pretext for such a measure was the presence of technical defects on the railroads and, for road traffic, the need to prevent the arrival in Berlin of the new Western currency, which would be harmful to the economy of the Soviet sector. On June 24, 1948, the blockade became total in violation of the quadripartite agreement, which provided for the supply of Berlin to be ensured by pooling supplies. Only aerial supplies remained possible.

Western reactions to Soviet pressure

The West hesitated between firmness and fear of an escalation that could lead to war. The prevailing feeling was that the Soviets could, if they so chose, force them to leave Berlin by asphyxiation without resorting to armed force. No one thought that an airlift could supply the German population of Berlin, which numbered more than 2 million souls, and which the Western governments were gradually realizing would be a major factor in the outcome of the crisis.

General Lucius D. Clay, the American military governor for Germany, reacted to the movement restrictions introduced in April by defending the need to stand up to the Soviets and by proposing to test Soviet intentions by sending a military convoy to Berlin. This proposal was firmly rejected by the authorities in Washington and London, who, on the other hand, were convinced that they were not prepared to leave Berlin. From April to June, Clay increased the food and coal stocks in Berlin and provided the American garrison with supplies and transportation by air, while the British did the same.

Since June 24, 1948, access to the western sectors of Berlin was only possible through the air corridors that linked them to their occupation zones. The Americans, the British and the French were faced with the task of reconciling prudence in order not to provoke a war and firmness in order not to discredit their posture of containing the communist advances in Europe, knowing that defending freedom of access to Berlin through military action was not an option: the western garrisons in Berlin numbered 6,500 men, while the Soviets had 18,000 men in Berlin and 300,000 men in their zone of occupation, which surrounded Berlin.

Decision to stay in Berlin

General Clay immediately affirmed, in the continuity of the positions he had defended since the beginning of the crisis, that the Westerners must remain in Berlin, emphasizing the loss of prestige that a forced departure would entail. In the week following the establishment of the blockade, the British, under the impetus of their foreign minister Ernest Bevin, were the first to adopt a firm position, ruling out giving in to pressure and affirming the need to remain in Berlin. The French, despite their feeling of being directly exposed in case of war, considered that it was necessary to remain in Berlin at all costs to avoid a disastrous loss of prestige.

But the position taken by the Americans was ultimately decisive. Clay again suggested sending an armed column to West Berlin. This plan was rejected in Washington, as well as in London, for fear that the slightest armed incident would degenerate into an uncontrollable spiral leading to war. Faced with very different opinions from his closest collaborators, Truman decided to stay in Berlin at least for the time being, knowing that he had one to two months before he would be at the wall, when the reserves in Berlin would be exhausted. The stocks built up in the spring represented about one month's consumption, but given the scale of the needs, no one really thought that the airlift would get through the winter. It would at least give time to better evaluate Soviet intentions and to organize an orderly withdrawal from Berlin, if necessary. Truman forbade any use of armed force, even if the Soviets interfered with the use of the air corridors

The airlift also had the advantage of being a spectacular action that showed the general public the determination of the Western allies and whose humanitarian character was felt in a very positive way by the Berlin population. The operation received the full support of the elected SPD mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, with whom Clay and his British counterpart, General Brian Robertson, consulted.

In the absence of a military option, the West responded to the blockade by setting up a counter-blockade: all traffic from the Western zones to the Soviet zone or to East Berlin was prohibited, which greatly penalized this zone, which was cruelly short of coal.

Establishment of the airlift

Despite their doubts about its effectiveness, Clay and Robertson organized the ramping up of the airlift, which had already been operating on a small scale since the first restrictions in April. As soon as the monetary reform was announced on June 18, the Americans and British anticipated the possibility of Soviet reactions and increased the number of air rotations. The airlift that began on 24 June was therefore less a strategic decision in response to the blockade than an increase in the strength of an existing system, giving time to make definitive choices. Clay obtained from General Curtis LeMay, head of the USAFE, that he assemble all available transport aircraft to supply Berlin by air. The American operation was called "Operation Vittles" and the British operation Knicker. It was renamed "Operation Carter Paterson" on June 30, 1948, then "Operation Plainfare" on July 19, 1948.

The transport aircraft present in Europe, two groups of twin-engine Douglas C-47 Skytrain comprising about one hundred aircraft, were not enough to ensure the supply of the city, so the Americans brought in four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymasters from bases in Alaska, Panama and Hawaii.

At the beginning of July, the Americans and the British thought they could transport about 1,400 tons per day, of which only 50 tons were needed for the western garrisons. There was a certain amount of optimism until more precise estimates of the daily needs of Berliners, particularly in terms of coal, showed that capacities were very inadequate: at least 4,500 tons would have to be transported daily.

The planes carry food, equipment and raw materials, mainly wheat, coal, gasoline and medicine.

Operation Little Vittles

The dropping of sweets for Berlin's children, which began as an individual initiative, gradually became systematic. It contributed to the popularization of the airlift and to the fact that relations with the population were no longer those of occupier to conqueror, but of ally to ally. The idea of dropping treats came from a US Air Force pilot, Gail S. Halvorsen. On July 17, 1948, after one of his missions, he met children who had come to watch the planes and promised to come back and drop candy, which he did without telling his superiors for the next few days to the benefit of a growing crowd of children. The drops were eventually discovered and, to Halvorsen's surprise, the operation was institutionalized and throughout the airlift candy drops were made. The planes that ensured the airlift were nicknamed by the Berliners "Rosinenbomber", i.e. "raisin bombers", and by the Americans "Candy Bombers".

Success of the airlift

One month after the beginning of the airlift, Washington re-evaluated the situation and the possible options during the second half of July. The general political line remained unchanged: to remain in Berlin but to refuse any action that might lead to war. Three concrete decisions were taken: to send 60 B-29 strategic bombers from the Strategic Air Command to bases in the United Kingdom, to significantly increase the resources allocated to the airlift and to offer to open negotiations with the Soviets at the highest level.

In order to survive, Berlin must receive at least 4,500 tons daily. In July, only about 2,000 tons could be delivered daily. In order to survive at least until winter, the United States had no choice but to greatly increase its contribution to the airlift, knowing that the British did not have the resources to go beyond 1,200 to 1,500 tons and that the French had no resources available.

The Americans quickly implemented the political decision to reinforce the airlift: the number of C-54 Skymasters was doubled, from about 50 to 100. General William H. Tunner, who had a great deal of experience in this field, took command of the airlift at the end of July, with the aim of quickly reaching the target of 4,500 tons, and if possible more. He completely reorganized air operations in August 1948, which, combined with an increase in the number of aircraft, made it possible to reach an average daily tonnage that met requirements for the first time in September. An efficient system made it possible to transport larger quantities: the three air corridors were used in one direction only, with flights to Berlin taking place in the northern and southern corridors, while the central corridor was used for return flights. Each pilot is allowed only one landing attempt. If he fails, he must return with his entire load. With this system, it is possible to land an aircraft every three minutes on average. Ground parking in West Berlin was reduced to half an hour. On the return flight, the planes carried Berlin children who could rest and be treated in West Germany. On April 16, 1949, Allied aircraft were able to land at a rate of one per minute, and a record 12,941 tons were transported that day.

The French, most of whose transport aircraft were engaged in Indochina at the time, hardly participated (424 flights). However, they were able to supply their garrisons using German-made Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft. The major French contribution to the Allied effort was the construction of the Berlin-Tegel airport in only three months.

When the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, the West wanted to ensure that West Berlin could withstand a possible new blockade, so they maintained the airlift until September 30. The airlift cost the lives of 74 participants as a result of accidents and a mid-air collision between a Red Army fighter and a British aircraft during the multiple attempts to obstruct the Soviet forces (9 accidents causing 40 casualties for the Commonwealth).

Airports and aircraft used

The airlift will use three airports in Berlin: Tempelhof in the American sector, Gatow (de) in the British sector, and Berlin-Tegel in the French sector. The latter did not exist when the airlift began. It soon became clear that the capacity of the existing airports and runways was insufficient to handle the increasing number of flights. Construction of a second runway at Tempelhof began on July 8 and a third on August 20. The former training camp at Tegel was identified in the French sector as a suitable location for a new airport, and construction began on 5 August 1948. The gigantic construction site was completed in three months thanks to the combined efforts of French and American engineering units and the Berlin population.

At the start of the airlift, the bases from which the flights to Berlin and back were to depart were mainly Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main (near Frankfurt) in the American zone and Wunstorf in the British zone. Five other bases had to be mobilized to cope with the increase in airlift, including the airfields in the British zone at Celle and Fassberg, which were used as the main logistics centers for coal. These airfields were also significantly expanded and connected to the rail network.

When the airlift began, the US Air Force in Europe (USAFE) had a hundred Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft with a carrying capacity limited to 2.5 tonnes of cargo. In July, the Americans brought some 50 C-54 Skymasters capable of carrying 9 tons of cargo on line. In order to optimize operations, all the C-47s were withdrawn from the circuit and the number of C-54s was increased in successive stages to 225 aircraft at the beginning of January 1949; to this number must be added around 100 aircraft undergoing maintenance. Five C-82 Packet aircraft were also deployed for very large loads, such as the equipment needed to build new runways or the components of a coal-fired power plant. A Douglas C-74 Globemaster and a C-97A Stratofreighter are also used on an experimental basis for a short period.

Throughout the airlift, the British Royal Air Force had some 50 Dakotas, the British version of the C-47, and some 40 larger Avro Yorks. From November 1948 onwards, it also fielded up to 26 Hastings, with pilots coming from South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as reinforcements. Short S.25 Sunderland seaplanes of the Coastal Command were also deployed to transport coal and especially salt, until the Havel river and Großer Wannsee lake froze in mid-December 1948. The RAF called on private companies to make up for its lack of own resources. These companies lined up several types of aircraft to transport fuel: nine Avro Lancastrians, thirteen H.P.70 Haltons, five Avro Tudors and two Liberators. Other aircraft are used for conventional freight: Bristol Type 170 Freighter & Wayfarer, Hythes (civilian version of the Sunderland) and Vickers VC.1 Viking. The role of the latter aircraft is more limited.

The French have four Amiot AAC.1 Toucan (Junkers Ju 52

The technical success of the airlift would have been useless if the vast majority of Berliners had not refused to turn to the Soviets. The deep anti-Russian feeling that animated them was due in large part to the exactions and deprivations that they had suffered during the battle of Berlin in April 1945 and that largely persisted during the following two years, which were also marked by a particularly cold winter of 1947 throughout Europe. At the beginning of 1948, Berlin had a population of about 3.2 million, of which 2.2 million were in the western sectors. The city was still in ruins, only a quarter of the dwellings were habitable, reconstruction was slow, gas and electricity supplies were only partially functioning and food rations were low.

Difficult living conditions

The blockade forced the military government to take over the entire supply of West Berlin. This caused a shortage of food, forcing the Berlin population to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Ration cards reappeared to allow the new supply system to meet the needs of the population. Berliners were supplied through three different channels: local production, the airlift and the black market. When winter arrived, the city's trees were cut down to provide firewood for the inhabitants. Some people rummage through garbage cans in search of a little food.

The blockade did not lead to a worsening of the health conditions of the population. After the terrible years of 1946 and 1947, the health of Berliners even improved slightly, with the mortality rate in the western sectors falling from 23.1 per 1,000 in 1946 to 14 per 1,000 in 1948 and 17 per 1,000 in the first four months of 1949. No epidemics occurred during the blockade. The evacuation of 50,000 sick people by the British contributed to this relative improvement. After some hesitation, humanitarian arguments prevailed, hospitals in the western sectors also received patients from the eastern part of Berlin and medicines partially escaped the western counter-blockade.

The end of the blockade did not immediately mean a return to a much better situation. Economic conditions in West Berlin worsened after the blockade. The number of unemployed people increased sharply, largely due to the influx of East German refugees fleeing the difficult living conditions in the Soviet zone. In addition, companies were laying off workers employed during the blockade to compensate for the energy shortage. Adenauer, the first chancellor of the young Federal Republic of Germany, made the reconstruction of the West Berlin economy a priority. A special solidarity tax, the so-called "Notopfer (de)", in the form of an additional mandatory stamp to be placed on all mail, was levied until March 31, 1956.

Rally of Berliners to the West

With the blockade, West Berlin became a symbol of freedom for the West. The Berliners were soon no longer perceived as Nazis, but as victims of the Soviet threat.

Nine months of unsuccessful negotiations

The Western military governors went to see their Soviet counterpart on 3 July to ask him to end the blockade. The latter replied that the restrictions on movement would not be lifted until discussions were held on the results of the London Conference. Doubts were thus removed about Stalin's real motives in establishing the blockade. On the same day, Marshall ruled out any postponement of the implementation of the London decisions and the holding of a new Conference of Foreign Ministers of the four powers. In an official protest note sent to Moscow on 6 July, the West demanded the immediate lifting of the blockade without preconditions and said it was ready to discuss questions relating to Berlin at the level of the occupying military authorities. On 14 July 1948, the Soviet reply blamed the West for the situation in Berlin created by their monetary reform and their intention to establish a German government in their zones; the note concluded by rejecting any preconditions for the opening of negotiations, which the Soviet Union was prepared to open, provided that they were not limited to the administration of Berlin but included four-party control of Germany. There was total disagreement between the parties.

At the end of July, consultations between the Americans and their British and French allies led to the decision to ask the Soviets to open discussions at the highest level. Western diplomats met with Stalin and his foreign minister, Molotov, in Moscow on August 2, 1948. Stalin argued that the Western presence in Berlin was no longer legally justified and offered to lift the blockade in exchange for the withdrawal of Western marks from Berlin and negotiations on the Western decision to found West Germany. The West was prepared to accept on condition that an agreement on quadripartite control of the circulation and use of Soviet currency in Berlin was signed. Despite numerous meetings and a second meeting on 23 August in the presence of Stalin, the discussions for the drafting of a definitive text did not succeed, as Molotov refused to accept any other text than the one he had drafted. However, an agreement was reached on August 30 in which the governments of the four powers asked the military governors to seek an agreement on the introduction of the Soviet mark in Berlin in exchange for the lifting of the blockade. The crisis seemed close to being resolved.

The meetings of the four military governors followed one another from 31 August to 7 September without result. In the eyes of the West, Sokolovsky went back on Stalin's promises, some of which were oral, and did not seem to be genuinely seeking an agreement. The Americans wished to adopt a firm position, but they had to deal with their European allies who feared above all a military outcome to the crisis. Two new meetings took place with Molotov on 14 and 18 September, at the end of which the general feeling in the West was that the Russians were not really seeking to negotiate. The fact that in the meantime the formation of West Germany was progressing rapidly, with the start of the work of the Parliamentary Council to draft the Basic Law under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer on 1 September 1948, reduced their interest in finding a compromise in Berlin.

The firmness of the West was reinforced by the fact that the airlift was working better and better in September and that, for the first time, time was beginning to work in their favor. The decision was taken by the West to take their dispute with the Soviet Union over Berlin and the German question in general to the United Nations. Marshall went to Paris on 19 September, from where American diplomacy would be conducted for the next two months, to attend the United Nations General Assembly, where they hoped to reach world opinion by highlighting the threats to peace posed by the Soviet attitude in Berlin. In Paris, Bevin, Marshall and Schuman agreed on the text of a note that was sent to the Soviets on 26 September in which they announced their intention to bring the Berlin affair before the Security Council. On 29 September 1948, the Westerners referred the matter to the UN Security Council, which took up the issue despite Soviet opposition. Under the aegis of several member states of the Council, a compromise resolution was drawn up on 22 October which proposed lifting the blockade, introducing the German mark from the Soviet zone throughout Berlin and convening a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the four powers to seek a more comprehensive settlement of the German question. This did not succeed because of the Soviet veto at the Security Council meeting on October 25, 1948.

Nevertheless, diplomatic efforts were to be pursued intensively within the framework of the United Nations for several months under the aegis of neutral countries, which would endeavour to reach an agreement acceptable to all parties. Much of the discussion centered on the question of the currency in Berlin and the possibility of restoring a four-party administration in Berlin at least. Developments in Berlin itself influenced these negotiations: the massive refusal of Berliners in the western sectors to accept control by the SED, the German Communist Party, and their Soviet mentors weakened Moscow's position, and the establishment, after the local elections in Berlin on 5 December 1948, of two separate Berlin administrations, one in the Soviet sector and one for the western sectors, was not conducive to a return to four-party rule. The Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, were also pushed to be firm by the fact that the airlift resisted the winter. UN mediation efforts were halted by the decision of the three Western powers on March 20, 1949, to introduce the deutsche mark in their sectors of Berlin.

Exit from the crisis

On January 30, 1949, in an answer to questions posed by an American journalist, Stalin said that "the Berlin blockade would be lifted if the West postponed the creation of West Germany after a Conference of Foreign Ministers" and made no mention of the question of the currency in Berlin. Western chancelleries wondered at length about the meaning of this statement and this omission. Truman himself was inclined to think that it was just another propaganda maneuver, but he instructed the U.S. representative to the UN, Philip Jessup, to discreetly contact his Soviet counterpart, Yakov Malik, to find out how to interpret these words, which he did on February 15, 1949. The response was slow, and meanwhile the ongoing negotiations at the UN continued to go nowhere. But on March 15, Malik informed Jessup that an agreement on the currency issue was indeed no longer a prerequisite for lifting the blockade. Six days later, he confirmed that the blockade would be lifted as soon as a date for the Conference meeting was set. On this basis, the four occupying powers reached an agreement on May 4, 1949, to lift the blockade and the counter-blockade of Berlin on May 12, 1949, and to hold a new "Conference of the Four Foreign Ministers" starting on May 23.

Early stages of nuclear deterrence

During the blockade, the Americans still had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but not for long: the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb on 29 August 1949, three months after the end of the blockade. However, in June 1948, the Americans did not have a defined doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons, and since the end of the Second World War they had not developed their arsenal, which they had placed under the civilian control of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The Trojan plan, the first nuclear strike plan, was established in December 1948.

From 16 July 1948, sixty Boeing B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers of the Strategic Air Command were gradually deployed on bases in Great Britain, with the full support of the British government. They were not equipped with atomic bombs, but doubts in this regard were deliberately maintained. Their presence on European soil sent a clear message to the Soviets and constituted the very first example of nuclear deterrence.

On September 13, 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal obtained assurances from Truman that in the event of war he would be prepared to use the atomic bomb. The first plans for atomic bombing were drawn up by the American staff in 1948 and 1949, but Truman left nuclear weapons under civilian control of the AEC, asked that plans for non-nuclear bombing also be drawn up, and reserved the exclusive right to decide on the use of atomic bombs, without specifying what circumstances would lead him to do so.

Lifting of the blockade by the Soviets

The Soviet Union lifts the blockade on May 12, 1949 at midnight. Traffic between the trizone and the Soviet zone was re-established. Journalists from around the world covered the event. Le Monde reported in its May 13 edition:

"The Hanover-Berlin autostrade was transformed into a racetrack that night. Behind the British barrier in Helmstedt an uninterrupted line of cars waited, clogging the four lanes that had not been used for ten months. At one minute past midnight the barrier was lifted. At 1:46 a.m. the first Allied cars from Helmstedt appeared on the autostrada. Six hundred people had come to cheer them on."

By lifting the blockade, Stalin acknowledged his defeat; he could not prevent the West from completing the process of founding West Germany and forming a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty, between the Western European states and the United States, whose military presence on European soil was thus perpetuated. This victory of the Western camp is largely due to the technical success of the airlift, which Stalin could only block by the use of military force, a risk he did not want to take. For the Western camp, the demonstration was made that a prolonged resistance to Soviet intimidation could force the USSR to accept a compromise. The other crucial dimension of the success of the Western powers is that they are no longer considered by the Germans as occupiers, but have become their protectors against the Soviet Union and communism.

An airlift memorial has been erected at Tempelhof, displaying the names of the 40 British and 31 American pilots who lost their lives in the operation. Similar memorials can be seen at the Wietzenbruch military airport near Celle and at the Rhine-Main Air Base near Frankfurt am Main.

Birth of West and East Germany

The Berlin blockade accelerated the partition of Germany. Following the conclusions of the London Conference, a parliamentary council elected to draw up a draft constitution for a federal West Germany met for the first time in Bonn on 1 September 1948. Konrad Adenauer was elected to chair the council. The Parliamentary Council drafted the Basic Law, the constitution of a new state that would include the Länder of the trizone, which was unveiled to the German people on May 23, 1949. It was then adopted by referendum, giving birth to the Federal Republic of Germany.

For their part, the Soviets created the German Democratic Republic in their zone in October 1949. Berlin, the meeting point of the two models, became the showcase of the Western and Soviet models.

Organization of the collective defense of the West

Since the end of 1947, the French and British have been very concerned about the Soviet military threat, which is gradually taking precedence over the fears of a German military revival that dominated the immediate post-war period. Western countries did not wait for the Berlin blockade to organize themselves against the Soviet Union. In March 1948, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the Brussels Treaty, which created a defensive alliance of European member states, the Western European Union.

But the Europeans did not believe they could ensure their security without the commitment of the United States at their side. The impossibility of resolving the Berlin crisis through diplomacy prompted the West to form an alliance that would guarantee the United States' long-term commitment to the defence of Western Europe: official negotiations on the text of the future North Atlantic Treaty opened in Washington on 10 December 1948 between the signatories of the Brussels Treaty, Canada and the United States. The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949 further weakened the Soviet position. One of the articles of the treaty states that "the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them occurring in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all the Parties".


  1. Berlin Blockade
  2. Blocus de Berlin

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