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The Blockade Breakers
The Berlin Airlift
By Helena P. Schrader
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Helena P. Schrader
All rights reserved.
Crisis in Berlin
24 June 1948
Just before midnight on the evening of 23 June 1948, the electricity network in the Western Sectors of Berlin collapsed without warning. Shortly afterwards, in the early hours of 24 June, the sole railroad artery into the city from the Western Zone, roughly 100 miles to the west, was closed to rail traffic. Likewise, the only autobahn by which the Western Powers moved personnel, goods and equipment to their garrisons in Berlin, was shut down. At roughly the same time, all barge traffic into the Western Sectors of the city was brought to a complete halt.
As the city awoke to a new day, the Soviet-controlled radio dryly announced to Berliners that: 'due to technical difficulties' the Transport Authority of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) had been forced to suspend both passenger and goods traffic on the railroad between Berlin and Helmstedt, the latter being the closest point in the British Zone of Occupation. But Berliners rapidly realised that much more was at stake. The triumphant Soviet Union, which had defeated the once invincible German Wehrmacht, captured Berlin and annexed large parts of Germany, was determined to eliminate an irritation. It wanted to get rid of a patch of territory, deep within its own Occupation Zone, that was not completely under its control: the Western Sectors of Berlin. For whatever reasons, the Soviets had chosen not to use their vastly superior military strength, but to employ an economic weapon instead. Just how powerful the chosen weapon was, however, was recognised at once by those with insight into the situation. The director of the utilities monopoly in the Western Sectors of Berlin, BEWAG, reported the same day that without electricity supplies from the power plants controlled by the Soviets, demand for electricity in the Western Sector could not be met. Furthermore, not only had the Soviets cut off the electricity produced in their own zones of occupation, they had halted the deliveries of coal needed to keep the few small and obsolete power plants located within the Western Sectors of Berlin operating. Therefore, even if electricity consumption was drastically reduced, the Western power plants would only be able to operate for roughly 10 days before their reserves of coal ran out. After that there would be no electricity in the Western Sectors of Berlin at all. No electricity would mean that the city's water pumps and sewage systems would cease to function. It would mean that the most important components of the public transport system, the trams and the underground railway, would come to a halt, the factories would have to close down and massive unemployment would ensue. In short, the entire economic activity of the city would cease.
This was not all. The Soviets also announced that all deliveries of goods, including food, medicine, coal and liquid fuels to the Western Sectors of Berlin from the Soviet Zone of Germany and Soviet Sector of Berlin were forbidden. Goods from the Soviet Zone, which completely surrounded Berlin, would henceforth only be delivered to and distributed in the Eastern (Soviet) Sector of the city. Control-points were established on the roads leading into the Western Sectors of Berlin from the surrounding Soviet Zone and all along the inner-city border between the Soviet Sector and the Western Sectors of Berlin. These measures, it must be noted, were not aimed solely at 'capitalist industry' but rather at every man, woman and child living in the Western Sectors of Berlin. To take just one simple example, the children of West Berlin were dependent upon the surrounding rural areas of the Soviet Zone for deliveries of 50,000l of milk daily. From one day to the next, that vital source of nutrition was cut off.
Throughout the city, stores, factories and private households had reserves of one sort or the other. Shop shelves and warehouses, household cupboards and pantries were not all empty, but the inhabitants recognised how precarious their situation was. Berlin had not been self-sufficient in food, much less energy, for decades. Traditionally, both came from the surrounding regions, near and far. With these abrupt measures, the Soviets had cut off the Western Sectors of Berlin, in which between 2.1 and 2.2 million civilians lived, from all sources of food and energy. Like a medieval city surrounded by a hostile army, the Western Sectors of Berlin were under siege.
The economic situation in the city was already dangerously fragile. At the end of the Second World War, industrial production in Berlin had been reduced by bombing and the final battle for Berlin, to just half of the 1936 levels. During the period of exclusive Soviet occupation, industrial capacity had been reduced even further by the systematic deconstruction of anything that appeared still functional, and the wholesale removal of their components from Germany to Russia in the name of 'reparations'. Although by 1948 factories were struggling to re-establish themselves, clearly the economy was still frail and vulnerable. Furthermore, that industry was completely dependent upon raw materials and component parts being imported into the city.
In consequence of the war, vast portions of the city's housing were uninhabitable, and the public transport system was severely lamed by the destruction of the city and the expropriation of rolling stock and rails by the Soviet Union. Telecommunication service had been cut to less than 1 per cent of pre-war levels in the immediate postwar era and was far from recovered. Unemployment was high, over 15 per cent, but wages were almost worthless because of the confused currency situation. As of 24 June 1948 there were two currencies in circulation in Berlin; one of them was illegal in half of the city, while the other was virtually worthless. It was therefore hardly surprising that the black market was flourishing, while honest workers fainted from inadequate nourishment. The daily ration was still only three-quarters of the daily minimum recommended by the Red Cross.
Coupled with this dire economic state was an explosive political situation. Although the vast majority of the elected members of the City Council were members of non-communist parties*, the Communist Party of Germany exercised an effective veto over all political decisions via the Soviet Union, which possessed a veto in the occupation administration of Berlin, the Kommandatura. The Soviets had, among other things, prevented the democratically elected mayor from taking office. To make matters worse, the council members found it increasingly difficult to meet and make decisions, because whenever they tried to attend council meetings they were subjected to harassment and physical abuse from crowds of pro-Soviet agitators. Indeed, the delegates representing the vast majority of the Berlin population found that they were repeatedly prevented from going to their offices and performing their duties because their offices lay in the Soviet Sector and violent protesters blocked their way. They were not accorded police protection from the Soviet-controlled police force.
It was not only the politicians who were subject to terror. Ordinary citizens – journalists, professors, and scientists – 'disappeared' with increasing frequency. They were dragged from their beds in the dark of night by men often wearing the uniform of the city police. They were arrested without warrant and sent without counsel or trial to Siberia or the concentration camps in the Soviet Zone that were still operating. Meanwhile, orders had also gone out to the Berlin Fire Department that engines located in the Eastern Sector of the city were not to respond to alarms from the other side of the Sector border.
In short, by the end of June 1948, most city-wide services had ceased to function, from the municipal authorities and police, right down to the fire department and utilities. The city was officially divided into four sectors, but in reality torn in two: East and West; and to make the situation more absurd, one half of the city, the West, was under siege while the other half, the East, was not.
Yet Berlin in June 1948 was still one city. There was no wall surrounding it or dividing it in two. No less than 170,000 workers, who resided in the unaffected Eastern Sector of the city, had jobs located in the besieged sectors, while an estimated 45,000 residents of the besieged sectors worked in the East. In addition, countless residents had family and friends who lived on the opposite side of the political divide. Although they would discover that they were subject to ever more rigorous searches to prevent the movement of foodstuffs and other goods across the zonal border, the movement of people – and so the movement of information, ideas, and opinions – within Berlin was not yet prohibited. The city was thus at one and at the same time both divided and whole.
A second anomaly was almost as curious. Although the Western Sectors were clearly surrounded by an enemy army, they were 'defended' by the enemy as well. The army which encircled and besieged them, the 'Red' Army of the Soviet Union, was still officially allied to the United States, Great Britain and France, whose armed forces occupied the besieged sectors of the city. The Western Allied Forces of Occupation in Berlin numbered roughly 8,500 men: 5,000 Americans, 2,000 British and 1,500 French. They faced 18,000 Red Army troops inside the Soviet Sector of Berlin and roughly 300,000 Soviet troops in the surrounding Soviet Zone.
It was these foreigners, the wartime allies of the Soviet Union, which were the actual target of the Soviet measures. The method chosen to dislodge them from the Soviet Zone was, however, indirect. The immediate victims of the Soviet siege were the civilians living inside the Western Zones, yet the transparent objective was to make life within the Western Zones so intolerable that the population would force the Western Allies to retreat, leaving the Soviet Union in control of the entire city.
It was up to the Western Allies to find a solution to their predicament. As Clausewitz had written more than a century earlier, it was up to the defenders of the status quo to decide whether they preferred to preserve peace by surrendering to the aggression of the enemy or risk war by resisting. The Western Allies were given a choice between withdrawing from Berlin and thereby sparing the civilian population the hardships imposed by the siege, or of remaining and demanding that the civilian population – their former enemies and defeated subjects – endure hardship and discomfort for the rights of their erstwhile enemies and present occupiers to stay in Berlin.CHAPTER 2
The Long, Difficult Road to a Dangerous Dead End
Before examining the Western response to this crisis, it is worth considering how the Western Allies got themselves into such an absurd situation in the first place. The position of the Western Allies in Berlin had its roots in the Second World War, which had been fought jointly by Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States in order to crush National Socialist (Nazi) Germany.
The four victorious powers were from the start strange bedfellows, who had been dragged into a war they did not want by the aggression of Nazi Germany. Britain had been the first of the Four Powers to attempt to call a halt to Nazi aggression by declaring war on Germany after its invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. France reluctantly followed the British lead, but the Soviet Union was at that time an ally of Nazi Germany and very happy to participate in the invasion and partition of Poland. In the following months, while the Soviet Union engaged in aggression of its own against Finland, it tolerated indulgently Hitler's invasion of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, and eventually Greece. Not until the German Wehrmacht rolled across the Soviet border on 22 June 1941 did the Soviet Union recognise and treat Nazi Germany as an enemy.
The United States was the last of the powers to join the conflict. Strict neutrality at the start of the war had turned into open support for the British after President Franklin Roosevelt's re-election in the autumn of 1940. Thereafter the United States adopted a policy of increasing support for the UK and, after 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union. This support was primarily financial and economic in the form of loans and supplies, but included military components such as weapons, munitions, and naval escorts for convoys to the mid-Atlantic. Nevertheless, the support stopped short of war. America had declared itself the 'arsenal of democracy' but hoped to avoid taking a direct part in the conflict. It was not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 that the US was dragged into the Second World War. Even so, it is doubtful whether the United States would have gone to war against Germany if Hitler had not taken the initiative to declare war on it on 11 December.
By the time the United States entered the war against Germany, France had been out of the conflict for roughly eighteen months. The French Army had surrendered on 22 June 1940 after just six weeks of fighting. A rump puppet-state existed in the South of France, while the northern districts were occupied by the Germans. Remnants of the French Army had escaped to England, and in the French colonies some elements continued to favour the struggle against Germany while others favoured accommodation with the 'New World Order' created by Nazi victories. Thus in the critical years, when the tide finally turned against Germany and the bloody victories were being won, France was not a significant partner; the three nations that defeated Germany were the British, the Russians and the Americans.
It is important to remember that while the British and Americans shared a common heritage, language, and system of government that made them friends as well as allies, the Russians shared none of these. Since its inception in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union viewed both Britain and the United States as arch enemies. They were representatives and advocates of the hated capitalist system of oppression – something that, according to communist theology, was doomed. The Soviet Union had engaged in ideological warfare against both Britain and the United States throughout its entire existence. The necessity of accepting British and American aid during the near-fatal struggle against Nazi Germany had not in the least changed the ideological position of the leadership in the Kremlin.
The ideological and political differences between the Anglo-American Allies and the Soviet Union were reflected in their war aims. Even before the US entry into the war, the British and Americans had agreed on their postwar vision: namely, no territorial aggrandisement by the victors and the right of liberated peoples to self-determination.
The Soviet Union never subscribed to these aims. On the contrary, Stalin made his goals explicit in a statement to the Yugoslav communist leader Tito in 1944 when he stated: 'whoever occupies a country also imposes his own system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army has power to do.' Thus while the Western Allies prepared to march into Germany, thinking that their job was to eliminate an aggressor and free the way for a restoration of the status quo ante, the Soviet Union saw the Second World War as a continuation of their fundamental struggle against the capitalist system. While the Soviet Union might have been forced into tactical retreat or alliances – whether with Hitler's Germany or the capitalist powers of Great Britain and the United States – at no time did the Soviet Union give up its long-term goal of world communism.
In the short term, however, the Soviet Union was dependent on American food, supplies and equipment to sustain its fighting capabilities, and was unable to drive the Germans off its territory without incurring unsustainable casualties. It needed Western help to defeat the Nazi threat. Under these circumstances it was forced to compromise with the West, and it was in this period of pre-victory cooperation with the West that a series of decisions were taken concerning the future administration of a soon-to-be-defeated Germany. These decisions were taken incrementally during a succession of wartime meetings between the respective heads of government and in committee at the working level. The result was a consensus based on the fact that Germany would be occupied jointly by the three victorious parties (Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States), and that that joint occupation would take the form of Zones of Occupation, each roughly equal in territory, population and economic potential. Due to the symbolic and psychological importance of Berlin as the capital of Germany, it was also decided that Berlin too had to be occupied jointly. This was interpreted to mean that each occupying power would control a sector of Berlin.
Excerpted from The Blockade Breakers by Helena P. Schrader. Copyright © 2011 Helena P. Schrader. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Maps,
1. Crisis in Berlin,
2. The Long, Difficult Road to a Dangerous Dead End,
3. So What Do We Do Now?,
4. Humble Expectations,
5. Berliners, East and West,
6. The Airlift Begins,
7. Dedication without Glory,
8. An Army of Worker Ants,
9. 'Is Anyone in Charge Here?',
10. Political Prisoners,
11. The Airlift Falters,
12. General Winter versus Father Christmas,
13. Winning the First Confrontation in the Cold War,
14. 'Hurrah! We're Still Alive',
Appendix I: Timeline,
Appendix II: Contributions to the Berlin Airlift,
Appendix III: Monthly Flights and Tonnages,
Appendix IV: Casualties,
Notes and Sources,