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The Berlin Blockade

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The Berlin Blockade

In 1948, the Soviets blocked off the Allies’ two land routes into West Berlin, leaving West Berliners with a supply of food that would last them less than 36 days and less than 45 days’ worth of fuel. This tense situation and the Western Allies’ reaction to it made the Berlin Blockade the first major crisis of the Cold War and determined for many that the Soviet Union was the aggressor. What led to the Berlin Blockade, how did the West deal with it, and why was it so significant?

Berlin Blockade Date

The Berlin Blockade lasted from 24 June 1948 until 12 May 1949. How did the West Berliners survive this long with a food supply of fewer than 36 days?

Background to the Berlin Blockade

After the Second World War, Germany was split into four occupation zones, each controlled by one of the Allied powers: France, the UK, the US, and the Soviet Union (USSR). Berlin was also split between the four powers but was 100 miles deep within the Soviet zone. It was set to become a key arena for Cold War tensions due to its location and disputes about its division. Prior to World War II, Berlin had served as the capital of Germany and been an important centre for trade with advanced transportation and a renowned university. After the division, East Berlin became the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) whilst the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) chose Bonn as their administrative centre.

Occupation zone

An area that is occupied and controlled by another country’s military.

Why and how was Germany divided?

After World War II, the allied powers, who had suffered significant losses to Germany, had to decide what to do with the defeated country and how to prevent it from rising to its former power. The fate of post-war Germany was decided in two key wartime conferences by the Big Three - the leaders of the US, the UK, and the USSR.

Yalta Conference

In February 1945, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin met in Yalta to decide how to end the Second World War and reorganise Europe. The post-war fate of Germany was their highest priority.

It was agreed that Germany would pay reparations and be divided into Soviet, American, British, and French zones of occupation. France, which had been liberated from Nazi Germany, was given a zone due to pressure from the French leader General de Gaulle and because Britain wanted a European ally to help them pay for post-War reconstruction in Germany.

Potsdam Conference

The Potsdam Conference followed on from Yalta in July 1945, intending to finalise and apply the actions agreed upon now that the Second World War had finished. The three allies returned but with the new US President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee now joining Stalin. Although arguments dominated this conference, eventually Germany’s division between France, the UK, the US, and the USSR was negotiated.

The Sectors

Following the decisions made at Yalta and Potsdam, Germany was split into four zones in 1945. The Soviets controlled the East of Germany, America the South, Britain the Northwest, and France the Southwest (as shown in the diagram below). Each country’s forces exercised sovereign authority over their post-War zones, overseen by the Allied Control Council (ACC) that dealt with Germany as a whole.

Sovereign authority

Having complete control and power over a state.

Allied Control Council (ACC)

The governing body of the Allied Occupation Zones in Germany.

The Berlin Blockade Division of Germany into the four zones of occupation StudySmarterDivision of Germany into the four zones of occupation created with Canva - StudySmarter Originals.

Causes of the Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade had roots well before it began in 1948. The US and its allies (the West) and the USSR and its allies (the East) emerged from the Second World War as two opposing factions charged with the task of working together. These two global superpowers had opposing ideologies and global interests, which became increasingly apparent at the peace conferences of Yalta and Potsdam in 1945.

The capitalist US was interested in preserving the security of Western Europe whilst the communist Soviet Union was extending its influence in Eastern Europe. Although Germany was split four ways, there was a clear two-way division between the similar ideologies of France, Britain, and the US, and the ‘outsider’: the USSR. Let's have a look at their disagreements.

Disagreements over Germany

The Potsdam Conference was characterised by disagreements between the Allied powers over Germany. The USSR had specific intentions for the future of Germany that were very different from the intentions of France, the UK, and the US.

France, the UK, and the USThe USSR

Recovery

  • These countries saw Germany as a valuable trading partner.

  • They wanted to help Germany recover, working towards rebuilding their economy and infrastructure.

  • Stalin’s focus was on rebuilding the Soviet Union and not Germany.

  • The USSR extracted capital and resources from their zone in Germany to do this.

Trade

  • As recovery was paramount to the opposition, the Western zones allowed free trade.

  • This trade strengthened the three zones’ relationships.

  • The USSR refused to trade with other zones.

Power

  • All four occupations did not want Germany to regain the power it had held before.

United Germany

  • France was particularly concerned about Germany reunifying, so resisted any of the ACC’s attempts to establish common institutions.

  • The US and the UK felt working cooperatively would make running Germany easier.

  • The Soviet Union felt Germany should be united under their control.

As well as these fundamental conflicts, further disagreements over Germany emerged.

Soviet expulsion of Germans

Many ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe and transferred back to Germany as part of the Potsdam Agreement. The Soviets did not engage in humanitarian efforts to support the influx of ethnic Germans entering the country, hence the British and American zones absorbed them into their populations.

France refused to resettle any of the expelled Germans from the east as they felt no obligation to comply with the Potsdam Agreement that they were not invited to participate in. The American and British zones desperately needed extra agricultural produce, fuel, and other products to support the increase in their population.

Ethnic Germans

People who had German nationality but were living in other German-occupied zones.

Trade deals

As most of Germany’s heavy industry was based in the US and British zones, a deal was struck to dismantle parts of it and send this to the Soviet zone to help regeneration efforts. In return, the Soviet zone agreed to send agricultural produce, fuel, and other products to the US and British zones. This could help them support the influx of German expulsions.

However, whilst the US and UK delivered their goods in early 1946, the Soviets failed to keep up their side of the bargain but continued expelling Germans. In May 1946, the US (under military administrator Lucius D. Clay) stopped sending industrial goods to the Soviet zone, prompting them to start a public relations campaign against American policy.

French obstructionism

France, perturbed by not being invited to join the Potsdam Conference, refused any attempts by the ACC to run common initiatives across Germany. This meant that any attempts to coordinate running Germany across states were thwarted.

British and American cooperation

Britain and the US were finding it increasingly complicated to run their sectors independently. At a conference within the American and British zones in September 1946, US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes gave a speech on the ‘Restatement of Policy on Germany.’ Western powers feared that poverty and hunger arising from the plans to de-industrialise Germany might turn Germans to communism, and they needed to radically improve the economy in West Germany. The decision was made in December 1946 to unify the British and American zones to advance the economy.

De-industrialising Germany: the Morgenthau Plan and the JCS Directive 1067

The Morgenthau Plan was a proposed method of dealing with Germany after World War II, which was put forward by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. The premise of the plan was to remove all of Germany's industrial capabilities to prevent the country from rearming itself. However, the removal of its industrial plants, mines and production facilities would also prevent the country from producing enough food and other consumer goods to feed and provide for the population. The Morgenthau Plan was replaced by the alternative JCS Directive 1067 in April 1945, which simply stated that Germany would only be allowed to produce enough to satisfy the very basic needs of the German population.

Bizonia and Trizonia

The US and the UK merged their zones in 1947, creating Bizonia. This was an economic decision: both the USA and Britain hoped that it would streamline their economy and lighten their administrative load. Trizonia was created in 1949 when the French zone merged into Bizonia, essentially dividing Germany into two zones of occupation: the Western Trizonia and the Soviet zone.

Stalin was not invited to meetings about the mergers and denied access to minutes from them. He felt that the Western Allies were consolidating their power and that he was being ostracised; he became increasingly concerned about the prospect of the Western Allies combining forces and taking over the Eastern zone.

The Berlin Blockade Map showing Bizonia StudySmarterMap showing Bizonia, Wikimedia Commons.

Marshall Aid

For the Western Allies who saw Germany as a potential trading partner, rebuilding Germany and helping its economy became an important part of their governance.

The USSR, on the other hand, was focused on rebuilding the Soviet Union and keeping Germany weak so it could act as a buffer zone between it and the West.

Buffer zone

An area that separates hostile forces or nations.

The Marshall Plan, an American economic recovery programme for Europe enacted in 1948 and used by the Allies to rebuild Germany, further stoked Stalin’s paranoia about the West. He worried this influx of money might make West Germany far stronger than the East and threaten the Soviet occupation zone.

Currency reform

To facilitate the Marshall Plan, the Western zones introduced a currency reform and replaced the Reichsmark with the Deutschmark on 20 June 1948. This currency reform further indicated that the Western zones wanted to work independently from the East and was arguably the last straw for Stalin’s paranoia.

In retaliation, the East brought in the Ostmark and started the Berlin Blockade on 24 June 1948. The currency reform is often seen as the catalyst for the Berlin Blockade.

The Deutschmark and the Ostmark

The new currencies were introduced in West and East Germany respectively after the currency reform in 1948.

Catalyst

Something that provokes or speeds up significant change or action.

Berlin Blockade and Airlift

After Stalin blocked the two main corridors to West Berlin, the Western Allies had a choice to make. They had a responsibility to help the people within West Berlin, who were at risk of poverty and starvation, as well as to protect Germany from the threat of increased Soviet control.

How did the Western Allies decide on the Berlin Airlift?

The Western allies had four main options to respond to the blockade, all with potentially critical consequences. Below is a brief summary of the possible options and consequences.

What options did the Western Allies have?

Potential consequences

Option 1: Surrender West Berlin to the Soviets.

  • The Allied Forces would look weak against the USSR.

  • The USSR would gain power over Berlin and potentially the whole of Germany.

Option 2: Send in troops to try and get supplies in through the blocked routes.

  • This could be dangerous and potentially be seen as an act of war, where the Western side was the aggressor.

Option 3: Do nothing, keeping occupying allies stationed but not attempting to send in supplies.

  • West Berliners would potentially end up starving without food or fuel.

  • This might turn West Berliners to communism and result in Soviet control of Berlin.

Option 4: Airlift in supplies to West Berlin.

  • This could be dangerous for those airlifting in the supplies, as the Soviets had the power to shoot them down.

  • However, in this instance, the Soviets would be seen as the aggressors.

The Truman Doctrine of 1947, which stated that the US would provide aid to any state standing up against communism, meant that the US was committed to a policy of containment and stopping Soviet expansionism. This meant that surrendering or doing nothing was not an option. Airlifting supplies was the only way to intervene without potentially starting a war and the US being seen as the aggressor.

Policy of containment

A policy that was aimed at containing communism and not allowing it to spread.

The Berlin Airlift

The Western Allies began what was known as the Berlin Airlift, using thousands of planes to deliver supplies to West Berlin.

Whilst there were initial problems, the airlift was successful and West Berliners managed to subsist on the supplies dropped by thousands of planes each day for 11 months. At the airlift’s height, one plane was landing at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport every minute. Soviets refused to intervene as they did not want to risk starting a war.

Trade embargo

The Western powers also launched a trade embargo against East Germany and other Soviet bloc countries as a countermeasure against the Blockade. This embargo eventually put enough pressure on the USSR to end the Blockade as Soviet bloc countries were struggling without Western trade.

On 12 May 1949, wanting to restore trade and prevent a full-blown war, Stalin ended the blockade of Berlin.

Trade embargo

The restriction of commerce or goods to a specified country, designed to create economic difficulty.

Consequences of the Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade helped to finalise the split between East and West Germany. After the Blockade in September 1949, American, British, and French zones formally consolidated their power and created the German Federal Republic (West Germany).

In October, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) but was not recognised as a state by the West. These two states differed enormously in their political systems and Germany remained divided for the rest of the Cold War with Berlin being a key point for tension throughout.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

The Berlin Blockade divided Europe and encouraged the formation of two opposing armed camps. It had threatened a conflict between the Allied Powers and arguably marked the start of the Cold War.

In April 1949, the US formed an alliance of countries around the North Atlantic called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). They considered any attack on any of its members an attack on them all and agreed to go to war if that were to happen. In 1955, the USSR created the Warsaw Pact, mainly as a response to NATO, to protect the Eastern Bloc countries from attack.

Significance of the Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade was a low point for international relations. Germany and Berlin remained a source of contention throughout the Cold War, and the Berlin Blockade certainly emphasised this. It also held significance in the Cold War for several other reasons.

The Western Allies’ peaceful and humanitarian reaction to the Berlin Blockade generated a positive PR image for the West at the start of the Cold War. This essentially defined the West as a ‘force for good’, which was the opposite of what the Soviets had intended.

One of the aeroplane pilots dropped candy for the children waiting at the airport and became renowned as the Candy Bomber. The Allied Powers encouraged other pilots to do the same, recognising the huge positive publicity potential of these drops.

Ultimately, the Berlin Blockade consolidated in many people’s minds that the USSR was repressive and contributed towards the large numbers of refugees fleeing East Germany for West Germany. West Germany was capitalist, had more freedom, and had an economy that was thriving with more job opportunities and better wages.

Future Cold War Conflict in Berlin

The differences between West and East Germany continued and Berlin offered East Germans a ‘window’ into the life of West Germans, where wages and employment were better and the standard of living higher.

Between 1949–61 around 2.7 million East Germans (many of whom were well educated or highly skilled) fled East Germany for West Germany using West Berlin as a gateway. This eventually led to the building of the Berlin Wall (separating East and West Berlin) to stop the flow of refugees. The wall remained until 1989, becoming one of the most influential symbols of the Cold War.

The Berlin Blockade - Key takeaways

  • The Berlin Blockade began on 24 June 1948 when the Soviets blocked off the Western Allies’ two land corridors to West Berlin, stopping their ability to bring in supplies.
  • Berlin was left with less than 36 days’ worth of food and 45 days’ worth of fuel.
  • Stalin implemented the Berlin Blockade to demonstrate the Soviet Union’s power. He was paranoid about being overpowered by the Western Allies who had merged and introduced a new currency.
  • The Western Allies responded by airlifting in supplies to West Berliners, providing them with the food, medicine, and fuel that they needed for 11 months without risking starting a war with the Soviet zone.
  • The Western Allies also imposed a trade embargo on East Berlin and the Eastern bloc, pressuring Stalin into ending the Berlin Blockade on 12 May 1949.
  • The Western Allies’ response to the Blockade gave them a positive reputation and made the USSR look repressive and cruel.
  • The Berlin Blockade finalised East and West Germany’s split, is seen as the beginning of the Cold War, and contributed towards the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade was a period of 11 months between 1948–49 when the Soviets blocked off the only two roads to West Berlin, stopping supplies of food and fuel. To provide West Berliners with enough food and fuel, the US and UK had to airlift in supplies.

On 24 June 1948, the Berlin Blockade began by Stalin cutting off the Western Allies’ two routes into Berlin. This blockade lasted for around 11 months until 12 May 1949 with West Berliners surviving off the supplies that the Western allies airlifted in.

The Berlin Blockade lasted for 11 months until the Soviets decided to reopen the land routes into West Berlin, having accepted that they would not be able to gain control of Berlin.

Stalin decided to blockade Berlin in retaliation against the Western Allies merging their zones and introducing a currency reform. Stalin felt that the Western Allies were becoming more powerful and that the USSR needed to demonstrate its power by blockading Berlin. The Soviets also felt that if the West conceded Berlin, they may be able to take power over the whole of Germany.

The Berlin Blockade was caused by several rising tensions between the Soviet and Western Zones of Berlin. The merging of the Western zones, currency reform, and Marshall plan all fostered a paranoia in Stalin that encouraged him to implement the Berlin Blockade. The Berlin Blockade’s effects were increased tensions between East and West, the formal division of Germany into the German Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, and the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Final The Berlin Blockade Quiz

Question

What vital supplies were cut off to West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

Candy

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Question

How was the USSR able to blockade West Berlin?

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Answer

Berlin was split between the four allies but was situated 100 miles into the Soviet zone of Germany. The West relied on two main trade corridors, which were easy for the Soviet military to block off.

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Question

Which of these factors incited paranoia in Stalin in 1948? (Choose three answers)


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Answer

The currency reforms

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Question

What was Stalin paranoid about?


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Answer

Stalin was paranoid that the Western Allies’ consolidation of force might result in them overpowering the USSR and taking control of Germany. Stalin wanted Germany as a buffer zone between it and the West, losing it might make the USSR vulnerable to attacks from the West.

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Question

What was the currency reform of 1948?


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Answer

The Western zones introduced a currency reform in 1948 to facilitate the Marshall Plan, replacing the Reichsmark with the Deutschmark. East Germany retaliated by introducing the Ostmark and starting the Berlin Blockade.

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Question

Which of these was an effect of the Marshall Plan? (Choose three answers)


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Answer

The currency reforms

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Question

What were the potential consequences of the Allied Powers surrendering West Berlin to the Soviets?


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Answer

The Allied Forces would look weak against the USSR
The USSR would gain power over Berlin and potentially the whole of Germany

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Question

What was the potential consequence of the Allied Powers sending in troops to try and get supplies in through the blocked routes?


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Answer

It could be dangerous and potentially be seen as an act of war, where the Western side was the aggressor.

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Question

Which of these were not potential consequences of airlifting in supplies? (Choose two answers)


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Answer

The Soviets could shoot down the planes

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Question

Why did the Truman Doctrine of 1947 prevent the Allied Powers from doing nothing?

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Answer

The Truman Doctrine stated that the US would provide aid to any state standing up against communism, committing themselves to a policy of containment. They had to intervene and prevent the potential Soviet expansionism that might take over Berlin and Germany.

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Question

How long did the Berlin Blockade last?


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Answer

The Berlin Blockade lasted for 11 months until Stalin lifted it on 12 May 1949.

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Question

Which of these factors caused Stalin to lift the Berlin Blockade? (Choose two)

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Answer

America declared war on the USSR

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Question

What significance does the term Candy Bomber have for PR?


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Answer

The Candy Bomber referred to a pilot that dropped candy for the children of West Berlin. This story was a huge PR success and contributed towards the positive image of the West during the Cold War.

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Question

How did Germany change after the Berlin Blockade?


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Answer

Germany was divided into two official states, the German Federal Republic, and the German Democratic Republic. The West refused, however, to recognise the German Democratic Republic.

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Question

Which of these were formed shortly after, and as a result of, the Berlin Blockade? (Choose two answers)


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Answer

The Allied Control Council (ACC)

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