Catherine Hokin, author of The Pilot’s Girl, looks at the Berlin Blockade of 1948–9 – the first Cold War stand-off – and how the western Allies responded.
“History is written by the victors” is one of those phrases that is repeated so often it has turned into a cliché. To a writer interested in the Second World War and its aftermath from a German perspective, however, it can feel very apposite.
Too often our default is to view the Germany of this period through the filter of the horrors the Nazis inflicted. Instead, imagine for a moment what it must have been like to live in Berlin in 1948. The war had ended but its scars very vividly remained.
Post-war Germany was occupied by American, British, French and Russian forces – its one-time enemies now had full administrative control. In Berlin much of the housing remained uninhabitable. Two currencies were circulating – one in the western and another in the Soviet-run sectors – leaving wages often worthless and the black market flourishing.
Rations were still only three-quarters of what the Red Cross recommended as a daily minimum. A Daily Telegraph journalist who visited a number of German homes in 1947 reported that: “Breakfast consisted of one slice of black bread… At midday, each adult usually got two thin slices of bread and a potato… Supper was one bowl of watery soup made from carrots or barley.”1
People were still living on a war-time footing and they were exhausted. Collie Small of Collier’s magazine, reported in February, 1948 that: “Chronic hunger has taken the worst toll… Berliners have skidded mentally through a lack of food until their sense of discrimination is fuzzy, their objectivity largely gone, their reactions dangerously slow.”2
And to add to the privations and the psychological uncertainty, their city was directly on the front line of the next conflict threatening to unbalance what was a very precarious peace.
The end of the Cold War is probably best symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its start can also be found in the same place, behind a wall which might not have been made of bricks and mortar but had a very similar isolating effect.
At midnight on 23 June, 1948, the electricity failed across Berlin’s western sectors. By the morning, the city’s rail and road arteries – the supply chains which kept it running – were cut.
And why? Because, as Helena P Schrader puts it in her brilliantly readable The Blockade Breakers, “the Soviet Union…was determined to eliminate an irritation… a patch of territory, deep within its own Occupation Zone, that was not completely under its control.”
And very effective that elimination was. By the end of June, all city-wide services, including the police and fire service, had ceased. All deliveries of goods from the Soviet Zone (which completely surrounded Berlin and was the city’s main supplier of most of its food and fuel) were forbidden. Berlin was essentially an isolated island; but how had this happened, and what could be done?
The how is simpler. The four powers pushed into an alliance by the Third Reich’s aggression were not a comfortable fit. In 1939, the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany, France and Britain were desperate to avoid another bloody conflict and America was determinedly neutral. By 1945, all four were on the winning side but the political and ideological divisions which existed between the western Allies and the Soviet Union were as deep-seated as ever. And caught in the middle of it all was Berlin.
The Soviet blockade was both a squaring up to the West and a propaganda exercise – a battle for hearts and minds. As it continued through 1948 and into 1949, the Soviets promised Berliners who relocated to their sector the best housing and jobs.
They transmitted radio broadcasts whose main theme was that the Americans and the British would collapse under the airlift’s cost and pull out. Except they didn’t – which is where lies the answer to the what.
There were two possible Western responses to the blockade: leave, to spare the population the misery of a siege, or resist. The first, which meant handing the city to Stalin, was impossible; the city had become a symbol of freedom. The second was also fraught with pitfalls – no one was looking for another armed conflict, particularly with the threat of atomic weapons now involved – so the allies got creative, and the airlift began.
The story of that is interestingly told by the books already cited and Black Market, Cold War by Paul Steege offers a good balance to the ‘hero’ perspective. However it is judged, the airlift of supplies into the city was an incredible undertaking.
At the start, the runways at Tempelhof, the main American base, were so fragile they had to be re-laid between landings. At its height, on 16 April, 1949, 13,000 tons were flown in in one day and flights were turning round every four minutes.
By the final drop some 2.3m tons of food and fuel – and sweets for the children, hence the nickname Rosinenbomber or ‘raisin bombers’ – had been successfully delivered.
Did the airlift end the blockade? The jury is out on that, citing the flourishing black markets as playing a far bigger role than history has assigned to them. In the end – although Soviet history from this period is a much re-written thing and clear answers are difficult – it’s likely that Stalin retreated because of the impact on his own country from the counter-blockade the west waged and because of his need for access to international markets.
West Berlin was free to be part of the world again. The pretence of unity, however, was done.
By October 1949, Germany was formally divided and the German Democratic Republic was born. Twelve years after that Berlin was on the frontline of the Cold War again and its people were turned back into chess pieces. Whoever claims ownership of the history, it’s hard to find the victors in that.
The first in the series, The Commandant’s Daughter, came out on 26 January, 2022.
Catherine has written a number of Historia features about the background to her Second World War novels with a Berlin setting, including:
The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina
Concentration camps and the politics of memory
German reunification: still dividing opinion 30 years on
The Minister for Illusion: Goebbels and the German film industry
An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII
1 Anthony Mann, as quoted in Daring Young Men, Richard Reeves, Simon & Schuster, 2010
2 As quoted in Daring Young Men
- West Berliners stand amid rubble and watch transport planes land at Templehof Airport during the Berlin Airlift: Airman Magazine via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
- Demonstration in Karlsplatz, Krefeld, during the Hungerwinter, 31 March, 1947: Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0527-0001-753 (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
- Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948, by Henry Ries/USAF: United States Air Force Historical Research Agency via Cees Steijger, A History of USAFE (1991), Wikimedia (public domain)
- US Navy Douglas R4D and U.S. Air Force C-47 aircraft unload at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo 2000.043.012; National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photo 050426-F-1234P-008 via Wikimedia (public domain)
- C-54 air transport plane loaded with sacks of flour ready to take off from Rhine Main Airfield for Tempelhof: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr (public domain)