Just before midnight on 23 June 1948, electricity supply from the Soviet occupied sector in Berlin to the three western sectors was interrupted. The next day the Soviet Military Government in Germany notified their western counterparts that they experienced ‘technical difficulties’ which affected all road, rail and waterway traffic links within their zone of occupation towards the city of Berlin.
This meant that the western powers had no direct access to their occupation sectors in Berlin and their troops were cut off. Since April, there had been an increasing number of traffic interruptions, mainly in the form of inspections by Soviet forces in an attempt to harass western personnel. However, the full-scale blockade opened a new dimension and this was a direct Soviet attempt to make the western powers abandon their Berlin occupation sectors.
The traditional image of Soviet aggression in the Cold War is a result of that conflict itself, and there were significant American actions in the 18 months prior to the blockade, which had provoked the Soviets to finally take such drastic measures.
These included the economic merger of the US and UK zones of occupation, the announcement of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, the creation of the Wirtschaftsrat (Economic Council, a pre-parliamentary body) in their zone of occupation, and finally the London 6-Power Conference, which set out the basics for the creation of a separate West German state.
In order to facilitate a currency reform, which was essential for the western zones of occupation’s participation in the Marshall Plan, the Bank deutscher Länder, the Bundesbank predecessor, was created on 1 March 1948. Currency reform itself, discussed since at least 1946, happened in the three western occupation zones on 20 June 1948, in what must have been another snub to the Soviets.
It was only after the currency reform was expanded into the western sectors of Berlin on 23 June that the Soviets blocked access to the city. Soviet logic was clear: if the Americans wanted to create a West German state, they would have to abandon their enclave within the Soviet occupation zone. The decision turned out to be one of, if not the, greatest miscalculations of the (early) Cold War.
Abandoning the city was not an option for the Americans, the loss of face and prestige would have been too damaging. Sending in an armed convoy as the US Military Governor, General Lucius D. Clay, had initially intended was not an option either as it risked outright war with the Soviets and was immediately vetoed by President Truman. The only option left was to supply the city from the air. How disastrous such an endeavour could turn out was demonstrated during the battle of Stalingrad, when the Luftwaffe was unable to supply some 200,000 besieged men.
Initial American calculations estimated that they would need 50 tons daily to supply the 25,000 allied troops and their dependents in the city and that they could actually fly in 500 tons. However, it was not only their (and allied) troops which needed supplying but also the two million civilians in the three western sectors. To achieve this, a staggering 2000 tons of supplies per day were required to sustain the city.
It is not without reason that General Clay is regarded as a logistics genius. Due to the political nature of the blockade, he was able to draw on US transport planes from all over the world to sustain what is still the largest supply operation in history.
By Christmas 1948, a report to the US National Security Council stated that what had started out as a desperate measure had turned into the biggest propaganda victory possible. By spring 1949, the freight tonnage flown in to the city surpassed that which had been brought into the city by road, rail and water before the blockade, reaching a record of almost 13,000 tons on 15 April 1949 in the so-called ‘Easter Parade’. By then the Blockade had become an embarrassment for Stalin and was officially ended on 12 May 1949.
The Berlin Airlift is still seen as the biggest Cold War propaganda victory for the USA. It helped to underpin the belief in American invincibility until this was shattered 20 odd years later during the Vietnam War. At the time, the Airlift was seen as the manifested expression of US technical superiority and willingness to defend the ‘Free World’.
There is another, often overlooked but nevertheless significant impact of the Airlift in (western) Germany. It helped to change the opinion of many Germans (definitely those in West Berlin) about the Americans, who were now seen as protectors rather than occupiers, a sentiment that was still very widespread in 1948. This changed perspective would have a significant impact on West German policy during the 1950s and 60s, enabling a smoother integration of the Federal republic into the Western camp and becoming a bulwark against Soviet communism during the early Cold War.