The Berlin Blockade: A brief history of what was almost World War III

The Berlin Blockade: A brief history of what was almost World War III

As a current resident of Berlin, it’s difficult to imagine that this peaceful, quirky German city was not so long ago the most turbulent geopolitical hotspot in the world. For a few tense months in 1948 and 1949 it actually seemed as if Berlin would be the new Sarajevo, lighting a spark that would once again plunge the entire world into war for the third time in three decades. How did Berlin come to be at the centre of the first major crisis of the Cold War?

Causes of the Berlin Blockade

While the potential ramifications of the Berlin Blockade were vast, the causes (or at least excuses) of it were surprisingly mundane. It began with Western insistence on instituting a new Deutsche Mark to replace the badly inflated Reichsmark, and the Soviet Union’s opposition to this plan.

Essentially, the dispute hinged on how fast West Germany should be allowed to rebuild and gain economic strength: Great Britain and the United States wanted a strong West Germany as a buffer against the Eastern Bloc, and the Soviet Union wanted an economically and militarily weakened West Germany, not having forgotten the previous World Wars.

The blockade begins

The new West German currency was announced on June 17, 1948, and one day later the Soviet Union shut down all long-distance trains and autobahn traffic into West Berlin. The result was a remarkable act of political brinksmanship that would come to characterise the next 50 years.

When they began to airlift supplies into West Berlin on June 26, the British and Americans were essentially beginning a massive game of chicken with Soviet Union, leaving them only one possible way to enforce the blockade: shooting down unarmed planes containing humanitarian aid, and risk igniting World War III.

The importance of Tempelhof Airport

Of course that didn’t happen. Both sides stood tensely watching each other for almost 12 months until the Soviet Union officially rescinded the blockade on West Germany on May 12, 1949. During this time thousands of flights brought millions of tons of supplies into West Berlin.

The majority of this aid was funnelled through the main airport in West Berlin, Tempelhof. Today Tempelhof itself serves as the primary reminder and monument to the Berlin Airlift.

The two-kilometre runways and intervening grassy areas provide a unique kind of treeless, formless park for Berliners to enjoy, but it is nearly impossible to enter that massive open space without imagining it at the peak of the Berlin Airlift, crammed full of freighter aircraft and supplies.

Platz der Luftbrücke

Next door to Tempelhof, Platz der Luftbrücke marks the site of the Berlin Airlift Monument. Built in 1951, the monument features what looks like a three-arched bridge receding into the sky, which actually represents the three main air corridors that brought supplies into West Berlin.

Although the Berlin Airlift did not feature an actual military encounter, there were still civilian and military casualties, all of them accidental and most of them not directly involving the aircraft. The names of 78 of these casualties are inscribed on the base of the memorial. 

Some impressive numbers

The Berlin Airlift provides plenty of fodder for those who love impressive statistics, some of which are almost unfathomable. My personal favourite: British and American aircraft during the airlift travelled approximately 150 million kilometres, a distance which is equal to one astronomical unit (au), or the average distance between the earth and the sun.

Another equally impressive fact is that, at the height of the airlift, a plane was landing in Berlin every 30 seconds. The total number of flights? Almost 280.000.

Matt Adomeit


Matt Adomeit

Matt is a jazz bassist, classical enthusiast, composer, and writer from Hartford, Connecticut. After several years bouncing around between Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin he finally settled in the German capital...

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