At the end of the Second World War, U.S., British, and Soviet military forces divided and occupied Germany. Also divided into occupation zones, Berlin was located far inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The United States, United Kingdom, and France controlled western portions of the city, while Soviet troops controlled the eastern sector. As the wartime alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union ended and friendly relations turned hostile, the question of whether the western occupation zones in Berlin would remain under Western Allied control or whether the city would be absorbed into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany led to the first Berlin crisis of the Cold War. The crisis started on June 24, 1948, when Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in western Germany. The crisis ended on May 12, 1949, when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin.
U.S. Navy and Air Force aircrafts unload at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift. (U.S. Air Force)
The crisis was a result of competing occupation policies and rising tensions between Western powers and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Second World War, the future of postwar Germany was plagued by the divisions within and between Allied powers. The only decision of significance that emerged from wartime planning was the agreement of zones of occupation. Even after the end of hostilities, the problem of what to do about Germany was not successfully addressed at the July 1945 Potsdam Conference. Not only was there a lack of consistency in the political leadership and policymaking among the British and the Americans, occupation policy on the ground also confronted unforeseen challenges. Two and a half million Berliners, spread between four zones of occupation, faced profound privations: Allied bombing had reduced the city to rubble, shelter and warmth were scarce, the black market dominated the city’s economic life, and starvation loomed. While mired in such conditions, Berlin emerged as a forward salient in the Western struggle against the Soviet Union.
The year 1947 saw major shifts in occupation policy in Germany. On January 1, the United States and United Kingdom unified their respective zones and formed Bizonia, which caused tensions between East and West to escalate. In March, the breakdown of the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers and the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine served to harden the lines of an increasingly bipolar international order. In June, Secretary of State George Marshall announced the European Recovery Program. The purpose of the Marshall Plan—as the program came to be called—was not only to support economic recovery in Western Europe, but also to create a bulwark against Communism by drawing participating states into the United States’ economic orbit.
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