Berlin Blockade and Airlift, 1948-49

The Berlin Blockade and Airlift


Ever since the Yalta Conference, it had been clear that Berlin was going to be a flash point in the Cold War, and this came to a head in 1948. The settlement agreed at the end of World War Two at Potsdam in 1945 was a temporary one. The Grand Alliance could not agree on a permanent united German state, and so the temporary zones of occupation had been created. Stalin was concerned that the Western powers would force the creation of a single capitalist Germany, by joining their zones together and overpowering the East.

  • Germany had been divided into four zones of occupation each controlled by one of the Allies.
  • Berlin had been the capital of the German Empire from 1871 to 1945, and it lay inside the Russian zone after World War Two. The Allies decided that it should also be divided into four zones of occupation.
  • Access to Berlin for the Allies was by way of road, rail and canal, and via three specific air corridors.
A map showing the allies' four zones of occupation in Germany after World War II

What caused the Berlin Blockade?

Portrait of Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin

Stalin was very aware that the western part of Germany was always going to be more prosperous and secure than the eastern zone. It was not a case of ‘two halves’ of Germany. There were considerable differences between the west and the east. Stalin was worried that the west would take advantage of their stronger position and unite all their zones and eventually take over the eastern part.

What were the Western Allies doing in Berlin that made Stalin so upset?

  1. Using money from the Marshall Aid programme, the Allies were helping the Germans to rebuild their economy. They introduced a new, stable currency that would be used throughout their zones and they created jobs for workers in the Western sectors.
  2. At a meeting in London in January 1948, Britain and the USA joined their zones together to create ‘Bizonia’ and make it easier to administer them. (France would later join and they’d change the name to West Germany).

On 24 June 1948, Stalin cut all land access to Berlin for the Allies. This became known as the Berlin Blockade. Stalin did not intend to risk war over Berlin, and he did not intend to ‘drive the Allies out’. More likely, his intention was to show that the Soviets also had power in Germany, that could match the demonstrations of economic power and unity that the West had just shown. He was using the Blockade as a lever to prevent any further Western moves in Germany, rather than attempting some kind of communist rollback.

"Cabinet discuss crisis in Berlin"

What did the Berlin Blockade mean for West Berlin?

West Berlin, shown on the map, could only be accessed by air. The people only had food for 36 days and as the blockade continued there were shortages of basicgoods like fuel and medicines
  1. Berlin could now only be accessed by air, resulting in a restriction on the freedom to travel outside Berlin for all Germans.
  2. A shortage of food - West Berlin only had enough food for 36 days.
  3. A lack of basic goods like fuel and medicines.

The reaction of the Western Allies

Photo showing cargo planes dropping relief supplies in the Berlin Airlift

The Berlin Blockade was the first serious clash between the members of the former Grand Alliance, and from here on in it was very clear that the Cold War had begun.

The Western Allies were not prepared to risk armed conflict with the Soviets to open the way to West Berlin. They decided that their sectors of Berlin would be supplied by air. This became known as the Berlin Airlift and it lasted for eleven months until the Blockade was lifted in May 1949.

At the height of the Berlin Airlift, a plane landed at Berlin’s Templehof Airport every minute. Keeping West Berlin supplied in this way cost the USA $350 million and Britain £17 million.

Similarly, Stalin was not prepared to use force to keep the Western Allies from supplying West Berlin by air, because he didn’t want to risk a war.

The aftermath of the Berlin Blockade

  1. The asymmetry of Germany and Berlin would remain a source of tension in Europe for the duration of the Cold War.
  2. In April 1949 the USA, Britain and France officially announced the formation of the German Federal Republic (West Germany).
  3. Elections in the Germany Federal Republic in August 1949 resulted in victory for the anti-communist politician, Konrad Adenauer, and the Christian Democratic Union.
  4. The formation of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) – an alliance of countries around the North Atlantic for their mutual defence.
  5. Stalin responded to the formation of NATO with the Warsaw Pact – similarly an alliance of the communist countries of Eastern Europe for their mutual defence.
  6. Finally, on 29 August 1949, the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb. The USA no longer had a monopoly on nuclear weapons.

Revision tip

Generally, all Western actions were matched by the USSR. Learn the pairs and their dates!

The difference in politics, economics and military policy between the USA, on the left, and USSR, on the right, after World War II

Politics: Truman Doctrine (1947) vs Cominform (1947)

Economics: Marshall Plan (1948) vs Comecon (1949)

Military: NATO (1949) vs Warsaw Pact (1955)

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