Berlin Blockade

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In 1945 the victorious World War II alliesthe United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four occupation zones, an arrangement that was reflected in the division of Berlin, as the national capital, into four sectors. Despite these divisions, the country was supposed to be treated as a single economic unit by the Allied Control Council, and an Allied Kommandatura (governing council) was likewise supposed to manage affairs in Berlin.

For a variety of political and economic reasons, these aims never came close to realization. In January 1948 the Soviets bitterly criticized Anglo-American moves to combat the economic paralysis of the country by integrating the Western zones of Germany into the Western Bloc, and in March the Soviet delegation walked out of the control council, which was never to meet again. This meant that any chance of a four-power agreement on a desperately needed currency reform had vanished. On March 31 the Soviet military government announced that for so-called administrative reasons Soviet officials would henceforth inspect passengers and baggage on trains from the West bound for Berlin, which was wholly surrounded by what would become East Germanywhich was at this point occupied by the Soviet Unionand the Russians went on to clamp restrictions on freight service and river traffic.

On June 18, matters took a new turn when, abandoning attempts to reach agreement with the Russians on steps to combat the soaring German inflation, the Western powers introduced their new deutsche mark into their zones. Fearing the impact of the D-mark on their Eastern-zone currency, the Soviets introduced their own new mark, and on the same day (June 23) they cut off electricity to the Western zones and stopped all deliveries of coal, food, milk, and other supplies. The next day all traffic, land and water, between West Berlin and the West came to a stopthe blockade was now completeand the Soviets declared that the Western powers no longer had any rights in the administration of Berlin.

Rejecting a proposal by General Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. commander in Germany, to send an armed highway convoy to Berlin, his superiors in Washington decided to react to the Soviet pressure not by force or by abandoning Berlin but by mounting an attempt to supply the city by air. Nobody saw this as more than a temporary effort to be tried while Allied representatives negotiated with the Russians to solve the overall problem. By July 20, however, the airlift was bringing in about six times as much cargo daily as had been the case three weeks earlier, and the people of the city, supporting the effort, were drawing their belts tight.

When Josef Stalin told the Western ambassadors in Moscow in a meeting in August that he had no intention of forcing the Allies out of Berlin, he was simply indulging in an exercise in disinformation. On March 26 he had told the Soviet Zone Communist leader, Wilhelm Pieck, that the Soviets and their German dependents should try to ensure victory in the coming municipal election by expelling the Allies from the city. This discussion made it plain that the currency issue was only one of the motives behind the establishment of the blockade.

By November the airlift, under the expert management of Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, had become an established success, bringing in 4,000 tons a day regardless of the weather, and early in 1949 the Soviets began to backpedal. On April 26 the Soviet press agency TASS announced that the government would lift the blockade if the Western powers would simultaneously abandon their countermeasures (one important economic factor among these countermeasures had been the toll taken by the embargo placed on a range of exports from the East) and would agree to convene a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers to discuss all issues relating to Germany. At 12:01 a.m. on May 12 the blockade came to its end.

The status quo ante did not return to Berlin. With the Communist coup in Prague in February, the passage of the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) in March, and the Soviet blockade of Berlin, the year 1948 proved to be the turning point in the development of the Cold War. The year 1949 would see the creation of two Germanys, East and West; until the end of the Cold War four decades later, Berlin would exist as two cities, with two governments.

See also: cold war; germany, relations with; world war ii


Parrish, Thomas. (1998). Berlin in the Balance: The Blockade, the Airlift, the First Major Battle of the Cold War. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Thomas Parrish