Modern history



BY MID-1947, MUTUAL distrust marked relations between the Western powers and their former Russian ally. The so-called Truman Doctrine aimed at the ‘containment’ of Soviet power. In June 1947, after a harsh winter brought Europe to its knees, President Truman’s new Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall, announced a comprehensive system of recovery aid for Europe. Its official title was the European Recovery Plan (ERP). History would call it the ‘Marshall Plan’.

What Marshall proposed was a delay in the withdrawal of American forces from Europe and a programme of financial aid for receptive European countries. It was actually little more than pump-priming, but came at a time when a psychological boost was badly needed. Britain was struggling to cope with the economic and human aftermath of the terrible winter, as well as running its own zone in Germany, not to mention backing the monarchist Greek government against Communist rebels.

Britain found itself, in truth, at a low ebb. It could no longer provide the balancing factor in Europe that America had originally thought to rely on. Communists in France and Italy, buoyed by their role as heroes of the anti-Nazi struggle, seemed on the brink of power. There was still widespread hunger and unemployment, among the ‘victorious’ nations as well in defeated Germany. An opportunity for Stalin and his supporters. After the traumas of the Great Depression and the catastrophe of Hitlerism, capitalism and democracy were not automatically accepted as panaceas for the ills of civilisation. Communism—especially the shiny, sanitised anti-Fascist version put about by Stalin’s propagandists—still held a wide appeal to many in the West, both workers and intellectuals.

Many non-Communist Germans also blamed Hitler’s rise on the capitalist system, the Nazi regime as an unholy marriage of big business and reaction. To avoid a new Thousand Year Reich, society must go beyond capitalism. Ulbricht and the Soviets played successfully on this antipathy to the past. They expropriated the big landowners within months of the war’s end (‘Junkers’ lands into farmers’ hands’ went the slogan), and nationalised almost half the big-business concerns in the Soviet Zone as retribution for their complicity in the crimes of Nazism.

The land reform was popular with small farmers, as such redistributions generally are. The substantial majority that voted for it had not read their history. In 1917, Lenin drummed up support in the Russian countryside with the appeal ‘All Land to the Peasants!’. In the 1930S, those peasants found their newly granted lands absorbed into state-run collectives. If they resisted, they and their families were condemned to starve. In Ulbricht’s kingdom things would be little different, as the farmers would soon discover.

Nazi officials also seemed to be more swiftly expelled from their positions in the Soviet Zone. An aggressive anti-Fascist spirit was promoted. Some, especially intellectuals and left-wing idealists, looked disapprovingly at the Western zones, where the Anglo-Americans were willing to rely on ex-Nazi experts and officials to keep things going. Many Germans decided that, for all their faults, Ulbricht and Co. were the only true anti-Nazis. A pro-Soviet Germany seemed a sure guarantee that the far Right would never again plunge the world into war.

The struggle for German hearts and minds continued. Marshall’s aid plan was strongly angled at the Western zones, though it was offered to the Soviet Zone as well, and to the fragile post-war democracy in Czechoslovakia and other Central and Eastern European states. No one in Washington expected Stalin to let the East Germans or any other of his new dependencies benefit, and he did not. The Soviets vetoed the Czechoslovaks’ acceptance and initiated intrigues that would lead to the March 1948 Communist coup in Prague.

In the Soviet Zone, the SED responded with a barrage of political insults that showed the Cold War was already a reality:

The industrial West [of Germany] is being incorporated into a peace-threatening western bloc. The power of the German company bosses will be maintained. In place of a German economy tailored for peace, a new power-centre of reactionary and warlike elements is arising. In place of co-determination for the work force and economic growth, there will come wage slavery for the benefit of foreign and German monopoly capitalists.1

The temerity of Jakob Kaiser, chairman of the CDU in the Soviet Zone, who spoke in favour of the Marshall Plan’s adoption there, led directly to his loss of office, and in short order to his forced flight to West Berlin. The supposedly independent ‘block parties’ were nothing of the sort.

In March 1947, Communist leader Wilhelm Pieck took ex-Social Democrat Otto Grotewohl, his co-chair in the SED, to visit Stalin. They asked permission to take their embryonic German state further towards fully fledged Communism.

The old fox in the Kremlin held back, perhaps hoping he could still achieve a unified Germany that was pro-Soviet, even Soviet-controlled. All the same, when the SED leaders bemoaned the continued presence of the Western Allies in Berlin, Stalin told them: ‘Well, let’s try with all our might, and maybe we’ll drive them out’.2

There had been some economic progress in the Western zones in 1947/8. Mines had started to produce, factories to manufacture. Life remained hard, but few Germans were starving. The political situation (especially between the Anglo-Saxons and the French) was slowly improving. But industrial production had reached only 50 per cent of its pre-war level. Purchasing power remained dangerously low.

Besides, most of what should have been available was being withheld from the market. The old Reichsmark, still official currency throughout occupied Germany, was all but worthless. This was partly due to the fact that the Soviets had acquired the old Reich Bank’s printing presses and had set to producing paper money as if it were going out of fashion. Which, due to rampant inflation, it soon was. There has been, so far as the world knows, no sophisticated industrial economy that ever depended on the cigarette as its basic monetary unit. Short of creating a gunpoint command economy, how did one persuade the producers of goods to sell and the consumers of goods to buy? The answer was, by creating a currency that was worth something.

In March/April 1948, following the collapse of inter-Allied talks, the Russians withdrew from the Allied Control Commission. This ensured paralysis in the administration of Germany and an end to hopes of a peace treaty. However, the Western allies could now in all (or almost all) honesty cease having to take into account the economic and political needs of the Soviet Zone when judging the requirements of their own. This they were pleased to do.

In April 1948, Secretary Marshall met American military governor General Lucius Clay in Berlin. Something had to happen if the occupation zones were to cease being a burden on the administering powers, become less vulnerable to Communist pressure, and develop their own (capitalist and parliamentary-democratic) social systems. Clay was instructed accordingly.

The British and Americans had already created ‘Bizonia’, a free-trade area in their two zones. France and the USSR had opposed this. The Russians supposedly supported unified German organs of government but in practice did not; while the French supposedly opposed such centralised organs, but in practice were gradually drawn by economic and political necessity into the Anglo-American orbit. On 1 June 1948, the French abandoned claims to the Ruhr and the Rhineland. ‘Bizonia’ eventually became ‘Trizonia’.

On 18 June came a decisive step, not just in German economic history but in the development of the Cold War.

The British, the Americans, and the French withdrew the Reichsmark from circulation and issued everyone in their zones with 40 new Deutsche Marks (D-Marks), with another 20 due shortly, in exchange for 60 old marks. This was a week’s pay for a working man. All payments thereafter would take place at a rate of 1:1. The new D-Marks were put into circulation elsewhere at the rate of between 10:1 and 15:1 to the Reichsmark depending on the type of currency or debt held. Notional savings were lost, but purchasing power was created overnight.

From an economic point of view, the gamble paid off. Goods appeared in the shops, as if by a miracle, almost from the first day. Industrial production would increase by 24 per cent in 1949 and 12 per cent in the first half of 1950. The average annual growth rate rose to 15 per cent per year.

The Russians were furious at this breach of the Potsdam Agreement, but they could do nothing. Then, on 23 June, the West announced plans to introduce the new D-Mark (overprinted with a ‘B’ for Berlin) into Berlin. To the Soviets, this was a step too far. It gave them the justification for drastic measures.

The Soviets had already been making things more difficult for Allied personnel and for Berliners who wished to travel. Russian aircraft had been buzzing Allied planes. Trains had been deliberately re-routed to pass by West Berlin. Civilian road traffic had been all but banned. Travellers were held up for long periods at the interzonal border. The Soviet-licensed press claimed a dramatic increase in banditry, theft and black-market activity. ‘Starving thousands’ from the West were allegedly endangering food supplies in the Soviet Zone, egged on by ‘criminal elements including Fascist activists expelled from the Soviet Zone’.3

On the day after the currency reform, the Russians announced that rail links between the Western zones and the Western sectors of the city were closed until further notice because of ‘technical difficulties’. The Elbe bridge over which the autobahn to Berlin passed was declared out of use due to repairs. Within a short time, all routes became unavailable. Claiming fuel shortages, Eastern power stations near enough simultaneously ceased to supply electricity to the Western sectors of Berlin.

Just after midnight on 24 June 1948, the Berlin Blockade had begun.

The Soviet/East German attempt to force the issue on Berlin started out as a potential catastrophe and ended as a political and moral triumph for the West.

The question was, could the two-and-a-half million West Berliners survive? The city had coal supplies sufficient for around forty-five days. There were reasonable stocks of diesel fuel and oil, less so for petrol. All raw materials for Berlin’s factories had to be imported. Having been forced to feed their own sectors of the city since they arrived in 1945, the Western Allies were well aware of what it took to save their civilians from starvation: 641 tons a day of flour, 105 of cereals, 106 of meat and fish, 900 of potatoes, 51 of sugar, 10 of coffee, 20 of milk, 32 of fats, 3 of yeast.4

Before 24 June, most of Berlin’s power had come from the Russian sector. Even after energy rationing, there was no prospect that the shortfall in the city’s electricity supply could be made up from generating capacity in the Western sectors. The Berlin West power station, in the British sector, had once supplied a quarter of the city’s electricity. It had been stripped by the Soviets in June 1945. Only in April 1948, after three years of fruitless four-power negotiations over reconstruction plans, did the British decide to go it alone. Work on the plant had not yet started. With all access by land and water cut off, how could steel, concrete and other raw materials and machinery be brought to Berlin?

At the time the Soviets enforced the blockade, the US army’s Chief of Plans and Operations, General Albert Wedemeyer, was on a tour of inspection in Europe. Wedemeyer had commanded the China Theatre in 1944-5. He was familiar with one of the most famous supply operations in history: the Allied airlift from India across the Himalayas (the ‘Hump’) to Chinese troops fighting in southern China and Burma. Wedemeyer thought an airlift for Berlin could work, and suggested a suitable organiser—another veteran of the ‘Hump’, Lieutenant-General William H. Tunner.

The track record of airlifts was patchy at best. Notoriously, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring had boasted of his ability to supply the beleaguered Germany army in Stalingrad by air during the savage Russian winter of 1942/3. He had failed miserably, leading to one of the Third Reich’s most humiliating defeats.

None the less, the Western Allies in 1948 had advantages over their wartime predecessors: two decently equipped airports to fly into (at Gatow in the British sector and Tempelhof in the American); a supportive population; and last but not least, the fact that, as things stood, no one shot at the aircraft as they went about their business.

The Russians, by contrast, seemed confident that the West could not supply Berlin by air, and their optimism was not irrational. Tempelhof in particular was not an ideal cargo port. It was hemmed in by suburbs, with seven-storey buildings looming either side of the landing-path. Gatow was way out on the periphery, with a long arm of the river Havel between it and the main part of the British sector.

There were basically only two alternatives to an airlift. Either an Allied military strike along the autobahn to open up the route through to Berlin—which would lead to war if the Soviets chose to oppose it. Or, on the other hand, surrender. The former was considered too risky and the latter would mean a humiliating defeat that might have repercussions throughout the world. This was why the airlift started quickly. Once war not an option, and surrender considered out of the question, there was no alternative to supplying Berlin by air.

The nearest equivalent operation was the RAF’s effort to supply the starving German-held areas of Holland during the last days of the war. In 1945, 650 sorties by Lancaster bombers had been required to drop 1,560 tons of food in two days. This, however, occurred under wartime conditions of full mobilisation, with massive numbers of aircraft in service that could be diverted to such a mission at short notice. The operation also enjoyed unequivocal public support. By 1948, airforces had been run down to something like peacetime levels, military aircraft scrapped or converted to civilian use. A Berlin airlift would require a similar mobilisation on the part of countries that were struggling to feed their own people, let alone the inhabitants of a city that had recently symbolised all the evil in the world: Nazi Berlin.

Astonishingly, the Anglo-Americans pulled it off. The French were not actively involved, although they helped achieve the rapid construction of a new airfield in their sector, at Tegel. This was one of the few places in West Berlin where sufficient open space existed. However, an obstruction had to be removed: the radio tower used by the Soviets for ‘Radio Berlin’, their local broadcasting mouthpiece.

At first the French attempted to negotiate, but when the Soviets proved stubborn, the French commandant, General Jean Ganéval, had his men attach explosives to the tower’s base and blow it up. General Kotikov stormed up to Ganéval and demanded to know how he could do such a thing. ‘With the help of dynamite and French sappers, my friend!’ Ganéval coolly replied.5 Seventeen thousand civilian volunteers from the Western sectors of Berlin helped construct 5,500 feet of runway, built with over ten million bricks salvaged from wartime rubble. The first transport plane landed at Tegel Airfield on 5 November 1948.

The American supply operation was codenamed ‘Operation Vittles’, and the British ‘Knicker’ and then ‘Carter Patterson’ (a reference to a well-known British freight company). In July 1948, the airlift moved 69,000 tons per month.

Things were initially chaotic. On 13 August, in foggy conditions, a C-54 Skymaster overshot the runway at Tempelhof and caught fire. Others also suffered from misjudged landings and burst tyres, leading to incoming aircraft stacking up over the airfield. General Tunner later described such a scene in his memoirs:

As their planes bucked around like grey monsters in the murk the pilots filled the air with chatter, calling in constantly in near panic to find out what was going on. On the ground a traffic jam was building as planes came off the unloading line to climb on the homeward-bound three minute conveyor belt, but were refused permission to take off for fear of collision with the planes milling around overhead.6

Tunner, the systems expert, gradually imposed order. By October, the monthly tonnage had risen to 147,581. In April 1949, 7,845 tons was achieved in a single day, almost a quarter of a million tons on a monthly basis. By Easter, a fully laden plane was landing in West Berlin every sixty-two seconds.

It was a feat of organisation, far beyond anything thought possible. It would never have happened without the thousands of Berliners who threw themselves into the tasks of unloading and distribution, and who tolerated the shortages and privations of the blockade with amazing good grace.

Western aircrew were mobbed by cheering, flower-presenting Berliners. British and American pilots became celebrities. Lieutenant Gail S. Halversen, who started out casually dropping candy wrapped in handkerchiefs to kids he saw watching his plane from the ground, became a popular hero, and started a trend for Allied pilots to drop sweets and chocolate bars on their landing approaches. In honour of the little luxuries they brought along with the basic necessities, and in a play on the fact that just a few years earlier the same aircraft had delivered a much deadlier wartime cargo, the aircraft were known as Rosinenbomber (‘raisin-bombers’).

The Soviets never actually attacked the Western aircraft. Stalin was not prepared to risk outright war. But their Yak fighters did everything short of inviting combat. They played ‘chicken’ with the incoming planes, buzzing them aggressively and performing dangerous acrobatics around the air corridors. The Soviets blinded Allied pilots with searchlights, jammed radio frequencies, and carried out ‘exercises’ with their antiaircraft artillery that involved shooting perilously close to the corridors.

In those months, blockaded Berlin changed its character. The population felt for the first time that the West really cared about them. A wave of affection for the USA swept through Berlin. American slang, films and music became wildly popular.

To complement the morale-boosting drone of supply aircraft overhead, there were the newly powerful media that the West had established, especially RIAS (Radio in the American Sector). Founded in September 1946, after the Soviets refused to relinquish unilateral control of ‘Radio-Berlin’, RIAS was controlled by the United States Information Agency. However, the station featured an extraordinary cavalcade of German journalistic and artistic talent. Its 20,000-watt transmitter enabled it to broadcast twenty-four hours a day from new studios in the Kufsteiner Strasse in Schöneberg, with a good reach into the Soviet Zone. This was further aided by a booster transmitter at Hof, in northern Bavaria, which could reach into the key Soviet-controlled industrial areas of Thuringia and Saxony.

Apart from intrepid news journalists such as Peter Schulze, Richard Löwenthal, Jürgen Graf and Egon Bahr, RIAS also became popular for the quality of its entertainment shows. Most famous was the cabaret-style satirical show Die Insulaner (The Islanders), where the cast made fun of Berlin’s position in the middle of the Soviet Zone and mocked the hardships this entailed. By 1948, 80 per cent of Berliners listened to RIAS. Despite Eastern jamming and interference from Radio Belgrade, it had a good audience in the Soviet Zone.

RIAS played a crucial role, since the drama within the city itself was almost as important to its survival as the external one symbolised by the airlift.

Since 1946, Berlin’s city assembly or Magistrat met at the ‘Red Town Hall’. This landmark, with its 230-feet high tower, stood near the Alexanderplatz in the Soviet sector. Its name had nothing to do with politics. It was due to the fact it had been built in 1870 of garish red brick.

When the D-Mark was introduced in June 1948, the SED organised protest demonstrations. There were altercations in the city assembly. The crisis came, however, a month later, when a majority of representatives demanded an end to the blockade. In response, the Soviets’ tame press accused them of ‘crimes against humanity’. The city treasury, also based in the East, froze the Magistrat’s bank accounts. City employees could not be paid. On 4 August, Police President Markgraf’s deputy, Johannes Stumm, announced he was setting up a police authority in West Berlin. Stumm invited all Berlin policemen to join him. Three-quarters of them—1,500 out of 2,000—soon did so.

Markgraf and the Communists remained very much in control of the Eastern sector. When the Magistrat met on 26 August, a huge and intimidating crowd of SED supporters showed up, waving red flags and shouting slogans such as ‘Down with the bankruptMagistrat!’, ‘No Marshall Plan’, and ‘No more airfields’. The SED called for the Magistrat to resign. It would be replaced by a special commission, whose job would be to enact emergency measures and co-operate with the ‘great Soviet Union’.7

That evening, 30,000 anti-Communist Berliners gathered on the parkland in front of the Reichstag to hear a speech from Ernst Reuter:

We Berliners have said No to Communism and we will fight it with all our might as long as there is a breath in us…the Magistrat and the City Assembly together with the freedom-loving Berlin population will build a dam against which the red tide will break in vain.

The next day, another threatening crowd of SED supporters gathered outside the Red Town Hall. Markgraf’s police were clearly on their side.

The acting Mayor, Dr Friedensburg, tried vainly to persuade the Soviets to guarantee the safety of the city assembly. The non-Communist councillors were divided. The Right wanted a safe place to meet in the West, while SPD members felt they should continue to work in the East until this became impossible. The SPD won. A new council meeting was announced for 6 September, ten days later.

By eleven a.m. on 6 September, 3,000 Communist demonstrators had gathered. They let the assembly members enter. Then they violently invaded the building. Western journalists were attacked, microphones ripped out. Some assembly members managed to break through the cordon around the building and escape. Others holed up in their offices. Markgraf’s police did nothing.

The Communists roamed the town hall, discovering forty-six plainclothes West sector (‘Stumm’) police that assembly members had brought for their protection. Other Westerners fled, or found refuge in the offices of the Allied liaison officers attached to theMagistrat. Things went quiet. Then, at around eleven p.m., Markgraf police demanded that Dr. Friedensburg unlock his office. He refused. They marauded through the building, trying doors until they managed to break into the American liaison officer’s room. They found a number of German civilians in there and carted them off in handcuffs.

From now on, all Magistrat members and employees, as well as the Western liaison officers, were hostages. A break-out attempt in the early evening foundered on the tightness of the ring around the town hall, now reinforced by Soviet troops. The British liaison officer had his answer: he sent out urgently for tea, milk and sugar. His French colleague, Captain Ziegelmeyer, also reacted admirably in accordance with his national stereotype. On returning at around nine p.m. from a visit to the theatre, he found his way blocked. Ziegelmeyer, not to be foiled by a handful of Germans, pushed past and sprang through the shattered glass doors, crying out, ‘This is the French way in!’ Other French colleagues, bearing champagne, followed him.

Finally, the Soviet commandant responded to Ganéval’s plea to allow the remaining inmates of the Red Town Hall to leave in safety. At five a.m., Western-sector police officers who had spent the night in hiding inside were loaded into one French truck, and exhausted German and American journalists into another.

The hostages set off for the sector border, just ten minutes’ drive away. They had scarcely gone a kilometre when a Russian jeep, full of armed soldiers, blocked their way. Some of the Stumm police were kept in custody and ended up spending months in the former Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.

When the American representative on the Kommandatura entered Kotikov’s office to deliver a protest, he was told that ‘peaceful workers’ petitioning the city assembly had been assaulted by Western soldiers and ‘black guards’ from West Berlin (equating the Stumm police with the Nazi SS). It was he, Kotikov, who should be protesting, was it not?

It became clear that anything like a democratic government in the Eastern part of the city was impossible. The SMA moved into city halls in the Eastern districts and began to dismiss employees who were not SED members. Western city councillors, meeting at the Free University, agreed to hold new elections in November.

On 9 September, 250,000 Berliners thronged the Platz der Republik (Republic Square) in front of the Reichstag to hear their leaders urge them to hold out against the blockade and oppose attempts to topple their elected representatives.

Ensuing demonstrations began in the British sector, but spilled over into the Soviet sector just by the Brandenburg Gate. The reaction of the Eastern police was prompt. A dozen demonstrators ended up in hospital, ten with bullet wounds. A sixteen-year-old boy was shot in the stomach and bled to death. Five demonstrators were arrested by the East sector police and condemned to twenty-five years’ hard labour by a Soviet military court. After international protests, the Soviets were forced to cut the sentences. In explanation for this unaccustomed clemency, they said that the impressionable young men had been fired up by ‘Fascistic, provocative’ speeches.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin still had eight months to run. However, from now until 1990, Berlin was divided, both politically and administratively. For three years the Allied Control Commission, based there, was supposed to have been the ruling body for the whole country, pending a peace treaty with a reunited Germany. The ACC was now a dead letter. And within a year there would be two German states.

Even now, with that decisive development still to come and relative freedom of movement remaining between Eastern and Western sectors, there was no longer any point in pretending that Berlin was still the capital of Germany. It wasn’t even one city any more, though it wasn’t yet clearly two.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!