A Closer Look at The Events That Led Up To The Berlin Blockade

This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my CLUSTER 60 course, which earned a grade of A.

Insofar as the Berlin Airlift was concerned, a near-standard narrative of events had dominated the study of the Cold War. Despite some dissents, a large portion of available literature focuses on touting the heroism of the American and their allies in aiding the people of Berlin, hailing the resounding success of feeding a beleaguered city. On the other hand, Stalin’s brutal imposition of the Berlin Blockade that starved millions did little to help him avoid the antagonistic role. Given that there is no lack of Amero-centric perspectives, this paper seeks to consider the Soviet perspective and examine the Western Allies’ role in the events leading up to the Berlin Blockade.

Soon after Germany surrendered, the US, UK and USSR gathered at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 to discuss the protocols for the Allied Occupation of Germany. Russia controlled Berlin directly after the war, but the Allies agreed to split up the capitol among themselves, even though Berlin was over 100 miles deep in Soviet’s enclave. Since Russia suffered the heaviest lost in WWII among the allies, Stalin demanded that each part of Berlin would be supplied by its respective allied occupant. This caused logistical issues for the Western Allies as they had to find a sustainable way to transport necessities into their zones in Soviet territory. It is also worth noting that Berlin was far from being self-sufficient after Nazi Germany’s defeat. Berlin’s infrastructure was virtually annihilated due to the incessant bombing and there were no reliable supply of electricity, gas or water. Despite these conditions, the Western Allies did not push through an explicit agreement that assured they would be given overland access to their territories. The fact that a formal treaty was missing gave power to the Soviets, who could now claim that access to Berlin was not explicitly a right that the Western Allies had, but was granted out of Soviet courtesy. It also meant Russia could withdraw that favor without violating the Potsdam Agreement. Given that Soviet Communism and Western Capitalism ideologies were of opposing natures, and that the US and USSR were adversaries long before they were allies in WWII, not forcing an explicit agreement was sheer naivety and perhaps, even arrogance on the Western Allies’ part. They assumed that their influence was so strong that no one would, or could, for that matter, obstruct their overland access. This was a major oversight that paved the way for the Berlin Blockade to take place “legitimately”.

On July 25 1945, mid-way through the Potsdam Conference, Truman casually mentioned to Stalin that the US had a new weapon of unusual destructive force, without explicitly mentioning the atomic bomb. According to British Prime Minister Churchill, Stalin didn’t express any interest and simply hoped the US would make “good use of it against the Japanese”. This also led to Churchill concluding that Stalin had failed to grasp the importance of the discovery at hand. On the same day, Truman noted in his diary that it was “certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb”. In retrospect, Stalin obviously knew about the Manhattan Project through the Soviet intelligence network long before Truman’s subtle hint. However, this secrecy was bound to have annoyed Stalin, especially after Russia had played a big role in helping the Western Allies defeat Nazi Germany, and had just pledged to commit his military forces to defeat Japan. Without consulting Stalin at all, Truman authorized the deployment of two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In Stalin’s perspective, the US’ attempts to keep him out of the loop was a sign of distrust, and the bomb, a warning against further communism expansion from the West.

If all the stealthiness regarding the atomic bomb wasn’t aggravating Stalin enough, the US’ introduction of the Marshall Plan, proposed in 1947 and implemented in 1948, sent a clear signal that the US was determined to reconstruct Germany regardless of Russia’s opinion. It is worth highlighting here that although the US made critical material contributions, it was the Soviets who sacrificed a staggering 20 million soldiers and civilians (~10% of its population) in the war against Nazi Germany. Hence, the Soviets, who were economically and demographically exhausted, had legitimate security concerns about a resurgent military Germany that could potentially assert its power to crush Russia. As such, Stalin was glad that the four Allies agreed at Yalta that Germany reconstruction policies would be dictated by the “five Ds”: demilitarization, denazification, democratization, decentralization, and deindustrialization. With the Marshall Plan pledging USD 12 billion to help reconstruct post-war Europe, the Soviet Government stated in a letter to the US that they believed there is “a real danger of the restoration of the war-economic potential in the western part of Germany,” which directly contradicts the policies of demilitarization and deindustrialization. Coupling this with the fact that the Marshall Plan was announced right after the famous Truman Doctrine on communism containment, it inevitably led to Stalin perceiving that this was a political move done in bad faith to increase Europe’s dependence on the US and challenge for dominance over Europe. Stalin also refused to participate in the Marshall Plan as he believed it was a strategy to expand the Western export markets and spread capitalist ideals. All in all, the Marshall Plan drove a wedge between the USSR and its Western allies as the US compromised Russian interests without considering their sensitivities or seeking their opinion, especially since Russia suffered far more at the hands of Germany than the Western Allies.

Ironically, while the Berlin Blockade was “legitimate”, it was the Western Allies who outrightly violated the Potsdam Agreement. In early January 1947, the US and UK occupied zones were merged together to form a joint occupation referred to as the Bizone or Bizonia. France initially refused to join this union for fear of antagonizing the USSR further, but agreed in April 1949 to form Trizonia. Under the guise of advancing the economic recovery of Germany, this union was essentially drawing a clear line between East and West Germany, deepening Stalin’s existing distrust towards his Allies. Given his view of the Marshall Plan, it was evident that the formation of Bizonia was perceived by Stalin as yet another move to push him out of East Berlin, even while Russia had not received the full reparations from Germany for the losses incurred during WWII. More importantly, the formation of Bizonia violated the fundamental ingredient of the Potsdam Agreement – stating that Germany must be treated as a single unit, despite quadripartite occupation. Thus, the justification that Bizonia was meant for the Western Allies to pursue their separate economic plans to revitalize Germany’s economy was directly contradicting the Potsdam Agreement. To fully appreciate the Soviet perspective, it is worth noting here that no prior consultation was sought of Stalin before the creation of Bizonia.

The postwar tensions between the USSR and the Western Allies came to a peak when the Western Allies announced the creation of their own currency. In February 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet backing, assumed undisputed control of the country. This alarmed the Western Allies who were fearful of the spread of communism in Germany and they believed that a democratic West Germany would be effective in containing communism. Hence, they held a London Conference to discuss “principal political and economic questions concerning Germany” without inviting the Soviet Union. Moreover, Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) were invited to this meeting, while countries that suffered most from German aggression such as Poland and Czechoslovakia were not. The participation from other parties, together with the exclusion of the USSR, were “in violation of the Potsdam Agreement, according to which questions concerning Germany are to be decided upon by the four Powers and the Foreign Ministers’ Council”. This inflamed Stalin’s ire towards the Western Allies who were seemingly pushing Russia out of Berlin.

Right after the London Conference, the Western Allies began “planning a separate currency reform” called the Deutschmark – a detail they withheld from the official communique on the conference. In essence, this currency reform allows the Western Allies to isolate the Soviets and ensure that it has no part in the economic reorganization of West German zones or the political systems being formed within it. The creation of a separate currency was the last straw for Stalin as it was by far the most direct violation of the Potsdam Agreement’s decision of treating Germany as a single economic unit. The Soviets had a strong point when they contend that the Deutschemark was clearly not done in the interest of benefiting the German economy. At best, it brought new difficulties in the way of revitalizing the German economy and erected an economic barrier between West and East Germany. At worst, it was an economic and political dismemberment of the country itself. Since the old Reichsmark would become worthless in West Germany if not traded for the new Deutschemark, there would be a huge currency exchange which would cause a landslide depreciation of the Reichsmark. Thus, the Soviet were forced to introduce its own currency, the Ostmark, in just four days’ time. In order to stop the old Reichsmark from flooding into their territories, the Soviets halted all traffic from West Germany into Berlin, and thus began the Berlin Blockade.

Once Stalin implemented the Berlin Blockade, the Western Allies made a prudent decision to send resources to Berlin via airlift. This was an effective plan as the air corridors were warranted in the Potsdam Agreement. The US called Stalin’s bluff as they knew that he had no options to stop the airlift, shy of shooting planes down and thereby starting a war that Russia, exhausted of resources, couldn’t afford. It is no doubt that Stalin’s actions, such as interfering in Poland’s election and backing communism in Czechoslovakia, did not render him blame-free. However, with better foresight in the Potsdam Agreement and more consideration on the Soviet perspective, the US could definitely have reduced the escalation of postwar tensions that ultimately led to the Berlin Blockade.