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Summary Article: BERLIN AIRLIFT from Encyclopedia of United States National Security

American and British effort, 1948–49, to supply West Berlin with food and other necessities by air after the Soviet Union blockaded all surface routes.

When the Allied forces occupied Germany at the conclusion of World War II, they divided Berlin, the nation’s capital, into four sections. The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each controlled a section of the city. However, the Soviet Union had also gained control of Germany’s entire eastern portion. As a result, they occupied the area surrounding Berlin and controlled all land and water routes into the city.

By 1946, it was evident that the Soviet Union intended to permanently partition Germany and establish East Germany as a communist satellite state. However, in Berlin’s municipal elections that year, the Social Democratic Party easily defeated the communist candidates. In response, communist mobs attacked the new city assembly when it gathered and forced the mayor to appoint communist officials to key positions. The defiant assembly removed the mayor but purposely left the position vacant to frustrate the Soviets. In rousing speeches, leaders of the assembly vowed to prevent Berlin’s fall to communism.

The United States and Great Britain also sought to frustrate the Soviet ambitions. To balance the Soviet Union’s increasing control over eastern Germany, they united their own regions of western Germany into a single entity. Soviet officials then withdrew from the Allied Control Commission, the body established to coordinate the Allied occupation. Then on June 18, 1948, Great Britain and the United States introduced a new currency, the deutsche mark, into their sections of Berlin. The currency had two purposes. It crippled the black market and the accompanying crime that had plagued Berlin since the end of the war, but it also signified that Berlin was not under Soviet control. The Berlin assembly brazenly adopted the currency.

The Soviet response was instantaneous. The next day the Soviets blocked all land and water routes into the city and halted the electric supply to the western portion of the city. The Soviets believed this action would force the other Allies to surrender all of Berlin to Soviet control. Because West Berlin barely possessed enough supplies to last a month, it appeared the Allies would have to comply with Soviet demands.

Great Britain and the United States frantically searched for a way to supply West Berlin. In 1945, the Soviets had signed an agreement that created three 20-mile wide air corridors into Berlin to be used only by British and American commercial aircraft. Seizing the opportunity, British and American forces improved the two Berlin airports, Tempelhof and Gatow, which they controlled. Within three months, American forces also built a new airstrip at Tegel. Finally, the British used their Sunderland flying boats to land on Lake Havel.

The British and Americans immediately started sending supplies via air to West Berlin. During the 462 days of the blockade, 277,264 flights were made and more than 2 million tons of supplies were delivered. At the height of the effort, planes landed in West Berlin every 90 seconds and left to retrieve new supplies within six minutes. The citizens of West Berlin carefully rationed their supplies and limited themselves to four hours of electricity per day.

The Soviet Union ended the blockade on May 12, 1949, after establishing a separate government for East Berlin. In this sense, the city was politically divided. This division was physically reinforced with the construction of the Berlin Wall. But the airlift had succeeded and West Berlin remained a defiant symbol of anticommunism during the Cold War.

    See also
  • Berlin Crises; Berlin Wall; Cold War

Further Reading
  • Parrish, Thomas. Berlin in the Balance, 1945-1949. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
  • Read, Anthony; David Fisher. Berlin: The Biography of a City. London: Hutchinson, 1984.
  • Copyright © 2006 by Sage Publications, Inc.

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