“For most of Germany, this act [the March 1948 Soviet walk-out from the Allied Control Council] merely formalized what had been an obvious fact for some time, namely that the four-power control machinery had become unworkable. For the city of Berlin, however, this was an indication for a major crisis”.
President Harry S. Truman
The First Berlin Crisis
Alphen, Netherlands. 28 June. Seventy years ago this week the Soviet Union began the Berlin blockade by closing the road and rail corridor that linked the American, British and French occupation zones within the city with their respective occupation zones in the west of Germany. The same week the blockade began a massive Western airlift started that between 24 June 1948 and 12 May 1949 saw 441 American and 248 British aircraft fly 277,804 sorties delivering 394,509 tons of essential supplies to the people of Berlin.
As my KLM flight from Berlin to Amsterdam taxied onto Tegel Airport’s long runway last Thursday I suspect I was the only one on the flight who realised the historical significance of that stretch of tarmac at that moment. What is now (and still so given the sorry tale of Berlin’s new non-airport) the city’s main airport was opened on 5 November 1948 having been constructed in some 69 days. Tegel was constructed when it was realised that Berlin Tempelhof could not handle the enormous number of Allied flights needed to keep Berliners alive in the face of Stalin’s brutal and clumsy attempt to starve the Western Allies out of the City.
A Crisis and a Republic
The cause of the First Berlin Crisis was ostensibly the introduction of the new Deutsche Mark in the city by the Western Allies. For Stalin, the introduction of the currency was a step on the road to the eventual re-emergence of a strong Germany that could again eclipse three of the four occupying powers – Britain, France and the Soviet Union. To some extent he was right. However, for Stalin, the emergence of a democratic Germany was as great a threat if not more so than the re-emergence of a functioning and in time independent German state.
Throughout 1946 the Americans and the British completed work on the so-called Bizone which unified the economies of their respective occupation zones. On 1 June 1948, the French occupation zone also joined forming the Trizone and thus establishing the sovereign space for the Federal Republic of West Germany to emerge on 23 May 1949 (a month or so after the Washington Treaty and the founding of NATO). To ensure the Federal Republic would be viable on 7 March 1948 Stalin’s ire was further provoked when it was agreed that the Marshall Plan or European Recovery Program would be offered to the whole of Germany, something Moscow rapidly rejected for its area of occupation.
In the first half of 1948, the Soviets increased the pressure on Berlin. On 5 April 1948 a Soviet Yak-3 fighter collided with a British European Airways Vickers Viking as it attempted to land in Berlin at then RAF Gatlow. In what had been a blatant act of harassment by the Soviets all 14 people on the civilian airliner were killed together with the pilot of the Soviet fighter.
What was particularly impressive about the Berlin airlift was that many of the American, British and crews from other countries taking part had also been engaged in the great Allied bomber offensives that had sought to destroy Berlin only some three years prior. In total 39 Britons, 31 Americans and 13 Germans were killed during an airlift so intensive that normal rules of air safety had to be relaxed. Given that much of the effort took place throughout a cold and foggy Berlin winter it is frankly surprising there were not more fatalities.
By May 1949 it was clear to Stalin the blockade was not working. On 16 April 1949, the air-bridge delivered more supplies than the combined road and rail link prior to the blockade with one Allied aircraft landing every minute. And, given he was unwilling to provoke an open conflict with the Americans who at the time were still the only atomic power (the Soviets did not test their first atomic bomb until 29 August 1949) Stalin lifted the blockade on 12 May 1949.
Would Germany do the Same?
There is a twist to this story. I have been at the forefront of those defending Germany and its actions in contemporary Europe. Yes, Germany can be ruthless when it comes to protecting German interests – one has only to look at the car emissions scandal to see that. And yet I have always believed Germany’s assertiveness to be more angst than any concerted plan to dominate Europe. And yet as I sat on the plane considering history I was still niggled by the contempt just shown to Britain and me by my German colleagues over Brexit. It led me to wonder if Britons faced a similar crisis would Germans act with the same largesse and urgency. Indeed, I would like to think so but I really do wonder. As for me, if Berlin faced the same or any other life-threatening challenge there would be no question of my offering British support. Ho hum!
In memory of those who gave their lives so that the people of Berlin could survive the blockade which in time helped enable that great city to re-emerge and thrive at the heart of a great country.