Post by Alex Milman
Supplying West Berlin by air was an unique operation but what did it had
to do with Stalingrad?
Leaving aside Stalingrad, here is a little-known fact: there was no *total*
Soviet ground blockade of West Berlin in 1948-9. See my post at
Paul Steege, associate professor of history at Villanova University, and
author of *Black Market, Cold War: Everyday Life in Berlin, 1946-1949* has
argued that conventional discussions of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift start
from a faulty premise--namely that the Soviets had entirelly shut off
supplies to West Berlin by land, and that only the Airlift stopped West
Berliners from starving. Actually, Steege argues, West Berliners (who to
survive even before 1948 had to use technically illegal methods of getting
food and other necessities) continued to get food and other resources from
the Soviet zone, and if they had not been able to do so--in other words, had
the blockade on the ground been complete--the Airlift would not have been
enough to supply West Berlin:
"While the airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies to
Berlin, this amount failed to meet West Berlin's food needs, and the planes
never even attempted to supply coal to heat private homes. The Western
victory in this first Cold War battle came in spite of the fact that the
airlift never achieved its ostensible purpose: to fully supply West Berlin.
"That the West 'won' depended first and foremost on Berliners' survival
practices in the face of ongoing scarcity - practices that the great powers
could not control and failed to understand...
"After World War II, the four victorious allies - Britain, France, the Soviet
Union and the United States - divided Germany into occupation zones. Berlin,
located more than 100 miles into the Soviet zone, was likewise divided into
four occupation sectors. By spring 1948 the four-power structures designed to
administer occupied Germany had collapsed.
"On June 24, 1948, the Soviets halted rail and road traffic from the three
Western zones to Berlin. Because each occupying power was obligated to
provide the food and fuel for the inhabitants of its sector, most historical
accounts assume that this step completely cut West Berliners' supply lines,
leaving them dependent on airlifted supplies.
"But West Berliners did not just tighten their belts and wait for a delivery
of dried potatoes or stand at the end of the runways at Berlin's Tempelhof
Airport in an effort to catch the chocolate bars imaginative airlift pilots
dropped by handkerchief parachute.
"They embarked on foraging trips into the surrounding Soviet zone, made
under-the-table arrangements with shopkeepers and bartered and traded on the
streets and squares of Berlin. Berliners had practiced these black market
strategies since war's end and were used to depending on them for their
"These ordinary if technically illicit practices continued in 1948-1949 and
made for a steady if occasionally hazardous flow of goods through the Soviet
blockade. More than a month into the blockade, one German Communist begged
Soviet officials to do something about the vegetables streaming into the
Western sectors, which were available in greater quantity and at lower prices
than in the Soviet half of Berlin.
"Even after the blockade had been tightened in October 1948, it remained
rather porous. In mid-November U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall
received an intelligence report entitled, 'Is Berlin blockaded?' The answer
provided by the report and supported by evidence from East German archives:
"Rejecting the standard account of a total blockade does not deny the
incredible technical accomplishments of the airlift or the sacrifice of the
American and British personnel killed while flying supplies to the former
German capital. Nor does it deny the ruthlessness of the Soviet and German
Communists who showed no qualms about defending their hold on power with
brutal violence. But it does challenge Cold War Berlin's status as the West's
Achilles' heel that only a miracle could save from the Soviets.
"In fact, Berlin was a site of Western (and especially American) strength.
Even at the height of the blockade, German communists in Berlin repeatedly
expressed how they felt besieged in the city.
"The international settlement that resolved the blockade crisis guaranteed
West Berlin's independence, but it also marked the West's acceptance of a
Stalinist state in half of Germany. It thus helped assuage the Communist
anxieties that motivated their expanded 'control measures' in the first
"In 2008 we risk conflating the symbolic and the material accomplishments of
the airlift. While the airlift did cement the alliance and even friendship
between Germans and Americans after World War II, the blockade never
threatened West Berlin with starvation..."
Steege's argument is supported by William Stivers, "The Incomplete Blockade:
Soviet Zone Supply of West Berlin, 1948-49," Diplomatic History (1997).
Unfortunately, only the first page is available online for non-subscribers
but it at least indicates the article's thesis: "For it is not only the
commonly held popular view but also the understanding of surprisingly many
professional historians of the period that the Berlin blockade entailed an
*isolation* of West Berlin--as if the Wall were already reality in 1948--and
that West Berlin survived the blockade months on supplies brought by the
airlift alone. What has hardly been questioned, or at best rather sparsely
been questioned, is the understanding--fundamental to the entire history of
the blockade--that West Berlin was isolated. In fact, the Soviet blockade
neither attempted nor achieved the isolation of West Berlin..."
See also Roger G. Miller, *To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-
"Additionally, it is now clear that the Berlin Airlift was aided by the fact
that the Soviet blockade was loosely applied, especially during the first few
months. According to historian William Stivers, 'the Soviet blockade neither
attempted nor achieved the isolation of West Berlin.' The Western sectors of
Berlin simply could not be walled off from the rest of the city: The
railroad system wound in and out of the Western and Eastern sectors and
occasional Soviet attempts to reroute trains proved fruitless. Canal traffic
from the Elbe and Oder Rivers also passed through the British sector of
Berlin. In addition, thousnads of Germans who lived in one sector and worked
in another traveled between the sectors daily. Such access offered endless
temptation and little hazard to German traders, who often had to do little
more than falsify their manifests to show a delivery destination in the
Soviet zone and then deliver their cargo to the Western sectors. American
military intelligence reported the arrival in August of large amounts of
foodstuffs--including fish products, vegetables, cereals, soups, and fruits--
fodder, firewood, coal, and building materials in this manner. Such
deliveries were documented well into October and apparently continued
throughout the blockade.
"The enterprise of individual Berliners with access to the Soviet occupation
zone contributed as well. Before the blockade, citizens had foraged for food
in the countryside in the Eastern zone to supplement bare shelves, and that
practice continued even after the borders closed. During the crisis, Germans
developed a 'widespread and efficient smuggling organization' that brought
truckloads of food into the Western sectors of the city. Berliners flocked
to the *Potsdamerplatz* in the center of Berlin, where black market items
were available in substnatial amounts to those who could afford them. Frank
Howley counted on the porouisness of the Soviet blockade: 'Tight lines were
drawn between the Soviet sector and the three Western sectors, but they
didn't prevent intermingling during the blockade...About eighty thousand
Germans, living in our sector and working in another, or doing business
outside their own sector, went back and forth daily...Theoretically, the
Germans were not permitted to bring anything into our sectors, but the
Russians, so keen on searching people on the slightest pretext, shrank at the
formidable task of searching eighty thousand every day.'
"Additionally, the Soviets kept the door to Berlin half open because they
needed the West as much as, if not more than, the West needed them.
Industries in Berlin were able to negotiate deals with suppliers in the
Eastern zone in exchange for finished goods that the Russians were
interested in obtaining...When Marshal Sokolovsky and Col. Sergei Tiulpanov
met with members of the East German Industrial Committee on June 28, they
appear to have been shocked when their hosts explained that industry in the
Soviet zone would soon cease to function without access to raw materials and
parts from the Western zone. Seemingly, Soviet leaders lacked any
understanding of the extent to which their region of Germany depended on
Western materials and industries. Ultimately, various sources estimate that
as much as five hundred thousand tons of supplies reached the Western sectors
of Berlin through either authorized or unauthorized means during the months
of the blockade.
"The interdependence of the sectors was demonstrated by an incident that
bordered on the farcial...At one point duirng the blockade, the irrepressible
[Frank] Howley [US commander in Berlin] learned that Marshal Sokolovsky's
home was serviced by a gas main that went through the Western sector. He
turned off the heat, forcing the Marshal to move. When Soviet soldiers
loaded Sokolovsky's furniture on a van and tried to cross the American
sector, Howley's alert men confiscated it all...."
As Miller notes (p. 54), the dependence of the Soviet occupation zone on the
western zones was the "Achilles heel" of the Soviet blockade. Ultimately,
the Allied counterblockade (officially begun in September) hurt the Soviet
zone's economy much worse than the Soviet blockade did the Western areas of
occupation where "rations of bread, suga, and potatoes suffered little as a
result of the stoppage of meager deliveies previously received from the
Interestingly, restraint by the US (at its Allies' urging) may have been
partly reponsible for the Soviets discreetly allowing some leakage:
"In another important instance, as the United States probed ways to wrest
time from the list of Soviet advantages, and before the Western counter-
blockade, or embargo, could pose serious inconvenineces for the East, General
Clay wanted to make the westmark *sole* currency in the western sectors of
Berlin by November 1. Britian and France again reacted cautiously, fearing
that forcing the Soviets to negotiate on currency from a position behind
where they were when they imposed the blockade was, at the onset of winter, a
needless provocation. In fact, the Western currency did not become exclusive
tender in West Berlin until March 20, 1949, months after Truman's reelection,
with the delay attributable mainly to Allied objections.
"William Stivers [in the article I mentioned]...concludes that Allied
obstructionism and US sensitivity to its junior partners helped the Western
cause in this case. Particularly, during those foggy months in late fall,
there are no records confirming how the airlift tonnage in those days could
have kept West Berliners fed and warm unless the Soviets were discreetly
permitting leakage. This means that during November-December 1948, the
Russians had maneuvering room to counter any American 'currency offensive' by
squeezing Berlin harder on the ground, threatening the slim margin remaining
to the airlift without the necessity of actually attacking the air
corridors..." Damon V. Coletta, *Trusted Guardian: Information Sharing and
the Future of the Atlantic Alliance,* p. 76.
I really do have to get around to reading the books by Steege and Miller as
well as the entire article by Stivers...