One of the most heart-warming stories of the time immediately after the end of World War II is the story of the Raisin (or Candy) bombers. These American and British pilots dropped sweets and candy for the waiting children when they landed on the airfields of West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade.
But while that story about the kindheartedness of these men is heartwarming the reason why West Berlin had to be supplied by airlift for almost an entire year is much more serious. The reason that made the airlift necessary was the Berlin Blockade during which all land-based transportation to West Berlin, as well as the supply of coal and power, was stopped by the Soviets.
But why did the Soviets cut off West Berlin? What were the reasons for the Berlin Blockade?
The Berlin Blockade that cut West Berlin off from all land-based transportation routes and left only 3 air corridors for an airlift with which 2 Mio inhabitants of West Berlin had to be supplied from 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949 was the direct soviet reaction to the US, Great Britain, and France introducing a new currency not only in their previously combined occupation zones in Germany but also in West Berlin.
Before that, the relations between the Soviet Union and the Western allies had already suffered due to several problems regarding German political parties in the different occupation zones.
Let`s find out more!
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The Situation after the end of World War II
Immediately after the end of World War II defeated Germany was divided into 4 occupation zones. Additionally large parts of the eastern German territories, for example, East Prussia, were given to Poland. Here you can find my article with more information on that and an explanation to what the soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 had to to with Poland now getting German territories.
The 4 occupation zones in Germany (and the German states they included) were…
- The American occupation zone: Bavaria, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, and the city-state of Bremen as well as Bremerhaven (as a supply port).
- The British occupation zone: Schleswig-Holstein, North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony
- The French occupation zone: Rheinland Pfalz, Baden, Württemberg-Hohenzollern
- The Soviet zone: Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Mecklenburg, Brandenburg
But not only Germany was divided into 4 different occupation zones. Due to its significance, the old German capital of Berlin was also divided into 4 sectors even though Berlin was wholly located within the Soviet occupation zone.
By the way, the special location of (West-) Berlin as an exclave of West Germany that was surrounded by East Germany would later be extremely important and would result in the construction of the Berlin Wall. You can find out more about the 3 reasons why the Berlin Wall was built in my article here. There you can also find out more about the uncomfortable travel that citizens of West Germany had to take in order to get to Wes berlin by passing through East Germany.
But the fact that Berlin was wholly surrounded by the Soviet occupation zone would not only be of significance in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built but also in 1948 when the Soviets established the Berlin Blockade.
But what were the reasons for the Berlin Blockade?
The reasons for the Berlin Blockade of 1948/1949
The reasons for the Berlin Blockade can be found in the years prior to 1948. So let`s take a look at the different developments that eventually caused the Berlin Blockade.
First, it is important to state that Berlin was a special case even though the rest of Germany was split into 4 different occupation zones of which each was shaped by the political and economical ideas of the occupying power (for example, the Soviets influenced the politics and economy in their occupation zone into a socialist direction, the western allies their occupation zones into a free capitalistic direction).
The idea of all 4 occupation powers after the end of World War II was to maintain the political and economical unity of Berlin under a German administration.
But especially the political unity would cause problems as soon as 1946. And that political problem is the first reason that would eventually lead to the Berlin Blockade.
Tensions between the German Political parties in the different occupation zones
While the NSDAP, the party of Adolf Hitler, did no longer exist after the end of WW II (for obvious reasons) the other German parties that had been outlawed during the Nazi rule over Germany returned as soon as the war had ended. Quite a lot of the high-ranking politicians had survived the war, although many – especially the politicians of SPD and KPD – had either been in Exile or incarcerated in Concentration camps.
Especially the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany that had been established in 1863 making it the oldest German political party, and the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany, founded in 1918 and prohibited in West Germany in 1956 because of its anti-constitutional policies, will be important.
It is also important to state that while both SPD and KPD are generally parties of the political left they were on the extreme opposing sites within the Left. Speaking of SPD, the persecution of Social Democrats had a long history. Otto von Bismarck, the man who had held the famous Blood and Iron speech had already fought the SPD. More on why he did that and if he was successful in my article here.
So now we have to look at the SPD and the KPD in the different occupation zones of Germany. More precisely we only have to compare the situation in the occupation zones of the Western allies, the US, Great Britain, and France (that would later become West Germany) with the Soviet occupation zone (that would later become East Germany).
In 1946 the SPD and the KPD in the Soviet Occupation Zone (later East Germany) were forcefully merged into the SED (= Socialist Unity Party of Germany) by the Soviets. The branches of the SPD in West Germany on the other hand refused to merge with the KPD.
So now the SPD only existed in the western occupation zones while the SED existed in the Soviet occupation zone. And normally these two parties would never rival each other since the occupation zones were separated. But there was one exception.
And that one exception was Berlin…
Since Berlin was still maintained as a political unit even though it was split into 4 occupation zones, political parties from the western occupation zones (like the SPD) and the political party from the Soviet occupation zone (the SED) would run against each other.
In October 1946 the magistrate elections in Berlin caused the SPD (Social Democrats) and the SED (Socialists) to compete against each other. The SPD won a landslide victory so that the SPD member Ernst Reuter was voted as new Lord Mayor of Berlin by a western-orientated coalition. Well, he would have been voted but the Soviets prevented him from being put into office by the allied headquarters.
Butthe victory in the Berlin magistrate elections of 1946 for the SPD, a party that only existed in the western occupation zones since its eastern branch had been merged with the KPD in the Soviet zone, was not only a clear sign of rejection for the SED but also for the Socialist policies that the SED (and the Soviets) stood for!
So it should not come as a surprise that the Soviets did not really like the result of that vote and that tensions would soon intensify.
The SED creates facts by making East Berlin the capital of East Germany
While the western allies (the US, Great Britain, and France) did not want to look at an isolated solution for Berlin without taking Germany in general into account the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany that had been created in 1946 in the Soviet occupation zone by forcefully merging the SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the KPD (the Communist Party of Germany), created facts.
First drafts made by the SED saw Berlin as the capital of the new East Germany (GDR). And with the help of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, several important administrative bodies of the Soviet occupation zone in Germany (like the German Economic Commission) were brought to East Berlin.
Needless to say that that kind of behavior that was not coordinated with the western allies did not help to relax the situation. And it became even worse when the US, Great Britain, and France decided to combine their occupation zones in questions of economics.
Combining the US, British, and French occupation zones into one trizone
In 1948 the US occupation zone, the British occupation zone, and the French occupation zone in Germany were combined into one trizone (that would soon form West Germany (=FRG / or in German BRD).
The Soviets saw that trizone as a breach of the Berlin Declaration from June 5th, 1945 in which the 4 occupation zones in Germany had been agreed upon.
As a reaction, the Soviet marshal Vasily Sokolovsky declared in January of 1948 that all of Berlin was a part of the Soviet occupation zone in Germany!
And that had aftereffects…
- The transportation of goods from the western occupation zones (later West Germany) to West Berlin became subject to approval
- The free access of the Western Allies to Berlin was impeded by traffic controls
- 20 March 1948: The Soviets end their participation in the Allied Control Council
- Since June 1948 the Soviet representatives would also no longer show up for meetings at the allied headquarters
After that, the situation would definitively escalate in June of 1948 when the Allies were unable to agree on a uniform currency reform in all of the occupation zones.
The currency reform of June 1948 – the trigger for the Berlin Blockade
The original plan was that West Berlin, the part of the city that was under the influence of the US, Great Britain, and France, would be excluded from the currency reform that took place within the western occupation zone (later West Germany) on 20th June 1948.
But the original plan that would have excluded West Berlin from being a part of the currency reform in West Germany changed when the Soviets introduced their own new currency (the Ost-Mark) on 23 June 1948 in the Soviet occupation zone including East Berlin.
As a reaction to that, the currency reform in West Germany was extended to West Berlin so that West Berlin did now not only have the „Ost-Mark“ (the currency introduced by the Soviet occupation zone) but also the „DM-West“ (the currency introduced in West Germany).
And that in return caused the Soviets to impose the Berlin Blockade!
So there we have the immediate reason for the Berlin Blockade. But I hope it became clear that the currency reform was just the trigger for an underlying problem that had long festered between the Allies.
What followed was almost one entire year of Blockade.
Let`s find out more!
The Berlin Blockade – cutting of 2 million inhabitants of West Berlin
On 24 June 1948, one day after the currency reform in East Germany and East Berlin, the Soviet Union cut off all land-based transportation ways leading from West Germany to West Berlin as well as all river transportation and the transportation of power and coal from East Germany to West Berlin.
Only 3 air corridors remained. Now you might ask why the Soviets closed all land-based transportation routes but left these 3 air corridors open.
During the Berlin Blockade of 1948/49, the Soviet Union could not close the 3 remaining air corridors leading from West Germany to West Berlin since their usage had been guaranteed to the western allies by a written contract from 1945. Contrary to that the usage of the streets leading to Berlin had been agreed upon in an oral agreement without any written proof.
And while East Germany offered the cut-off inhabitants of West Berlin to register in East Berlin so that they could get food, supplies, and coal, most inhabitants of West Berlin refused that offer. They rather survived the winter of 1948/49 with only 25 pounds of coal per person then subdue to the soviet pressure.
To supply these more than 2 million encircled and completely cut off inhabitants of West Berlin the Berlin airlift was introduced on the initiative of US-General Lucius D. Clay.
The Berlin airlift – supplying 2 million inhabitants of West Berlin
After the Soviets had closed all ways to West Berlin except for the 3 air corridors and had also cut off the supply of West Berlin with power and coal (that until then was brought in from East Germany) a solution had to be found.
From 26 June 1948 to September 1949 (the Berlin airlift was maintained for some time even after the Soviets had lifted the Berlin Blockade on 12 May 1949) over 270.000 flights brought more than 2,1 million tons of coal, food, and other necessary goods to West Berlin to supply the 2 million inhabitants of West Berlin. That meant that every 70-90 seconds a plane landed in West Berlin!
And although the resources that every inhabitant got were limited, each inhabitant only got 25 pounds of coal for the entire winter of 1948/1949, the will of the inhabitants of West Berlin could not be broken.
Quite the opposite.
Especially the US had become the protective power of West Berlin and the Berlin Blockade, in general, caused West Germany to move much closer to the United States of America. A prosperous and amicable closeness that exists until this day!
In May of 1949 that was also recognized by the Soviets who lifted the Berlin Blockade on the 12th of May 1949. But although the Blockade was lifted the Berlin airlift continued until September of 1949 since the Western allies didn`t really trust the new situation.
That distrust was not completely unjustified since East Germany would start fortifying its Border with West Germany in 1952 which would eventually lead to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. More on the reasons why the Berlin Wall was built in my article here.
It is actually quite noteworthy that the concept of an airlift had worked that well. Not even 10 years before the idea of supplying the encircled German troops in Stalingrad by airlift had completely failed. More on how the hopes of supplying the encircled German troops in Stalingrad by airlift had influenced Hitler to refuse any retreat from Stalingrad (and what other rational and not so rational reasons he had fort hat decision) in my article here.
But for now, I would like to close the article by returning to the heartwarming concept of the Raisin (or Candy) bombers that I mentioned in the introduction to the article.
The Raisin (or Candy) bombers – an example of individual kindheartedness
Whenever the pilots landed their machines at one of the airfields of West Berlin they could see that groups of children would gather at the fence when the machines approached.
One of the pilots, Gail Halvorsen, came to the fence and started talking to some of the children and gifted them some chewing gum. Moved by how little these children had and since he did not have enough chewing gum for all of the children he promised them that he would drop some candy for them on his next flight. Asked how they could recognize him he said that he would wiggle his wings,
When Gail Halvorsen and his crew returned to their airfields they started gathering sweets for the children of West Berlin but soon realized that throwing candy out of the flying plane could potentially hurt one of the children. So they built little tinkered parachutes on which the sweets could hover down without the risk of hurting the children.
That act of kindheartedness that Gail Halverson and his crew made on their own initiative soon became a model for other pilots. Gail Halverson would later also drop candy for children captured in war zones like Bosnia- Herzegovina or Iraq.
If you want to find out more about this truly exceptional man you might want to check out the book that he wrote in which he shares some of his untold stories not only about his experiences during the Berlin airlift but also during other stations of his private life and his professional career. You can find the book here* on Amazon.
And for more information on how the following years after the Berlin Blockade would eventually lead to the construction of the Berlin Wall you might want to check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K.H Zuber, H. Holzbauer (Hrsg.): bsv Geschichte 4. Vom Zeitalter des Imperialismus bis zur Gegenwart (München 1988).