To what extent is it true to say that the Berlin blockade was unprovoked and a surprise?
A. Plan of the Investigation
On June 24th 1948 the Soviet Union cut off all road, rail, and canal access to West Berlin. The city was located one hundred miles inside the East Berlin, the Soviet sector of Germany. The Soviet’s intent with this action was to undermine French, British and US control over West Berlin. However, there is disagreement over why Stalin wanted to do such a thing. My plan is to investigate if, contrary to popular opinion, the Western Powers provoked the Berlin Blockade of 1948. I will be looking at events from the Yalta conference in 1945 till the beginning of the Berlin Blockade on the 24th of June 1948. In particular I will focus on Kennan’s long telegram, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the currency reforms of 1948. I will also look the final report by the British Air Ministry on the Berlin Blockade, which was published in 1950, as a primary source. As secondary sources I will use both revisionist historians, such as Carolyn Eisenberg, as well as considering the orthodox view.
Word Count: 174
B. Summary of Evidence
At the Potsdam conference (July 16th to August 2nd, 1945) it was decided that Germany would be split into four occupation zones, commanded by the United States, United Kingdom, France and the largest the Soviet Union. This essentially split Europe into two blocks, East and West. There was much disagreement over how to treat Germany after World War Two. The US and the UK wanted to rebuild the German economy, whereas the Soviet Union and France wished to keep Germany poor as to prevent it posing a future threat (Higgins 1974). Furthermore, there was conflict over the Eastern European states that had become communist, and Russia taking more of Polish land than was agreed at Potsdam and establishing a puppet government. Up until the Yalta conference Russia was still seen to be an ally; however due to failure to conform to the agreements, by the time Potsdam convened tensions were running high.
In 1947 President Truman made a speech, later collected into the Truman Doctrine (The Avalon Project). It was a policy to support the “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” (Truman 1947). It informally became the basis of American Cold War policy. It arose from George F. Kennan’s “long telegram” calling for the need for the Soviet Union to be contained (Young 1993). It further soured relations between the US and the Soviet Union. In support of the Doctrine, in that same year, the Marshall Plan was initiated. It was a large scale-funding program of European countries. It was offered to the Soviet Union and its satellite states but Stalin rejected it due to the requirements of political reforms and outside influence (Hogan 1989). Its aim was to help rebuild the economies of Europe. The Plan’s four largest benefactors were the United Kingdom, France, Italy and West Germany (appendix 4). This created conflict of interest between primarily the US and the Soviet Union as they had different plans for the future economy of Germany.
In May 1947 Bizonia was formed, the US sector and the UK sectors merged together. In March 1948 France joined and formed Trizonia. On May 24th it became the Federal Republic of Germany. This was followed a month later with currency reforms in the Federal Republic of Germany, including West Berlin (Roberts 1999). The old currency had become worthless; the Deutsch Mark replaced it. The currency would help rebuild the economy of West Germany. These actions potentially undermined Stalin’s control of East Germany. In June 24th 1948, Stalin initiated the Berlin Blockade as an attempt to force the Western Allies out of Berlin (Roberts 1999).
Word Count: 421
C. Evaluation of Sources
Source A (appendix 4) is a cartoon called the “The Bird Watcher”. It is an image of Stalin holding a gun and looking at storks carrying food fly into Berlin. Its origin is EH Shepard on the 19th of July 1948 for the British satirical magazine Punch. Its purpose was to represent the current situation and mood concerning the first flight into Berlin since the beginning of the Berlin Blockade. It has a very simple message, as storks normally are depicted to carry babies it shows how the American troops are bringing life, in the form of ‘coal’ and ‘food’, into Berlin. Its simplicity is valuable as it is intended for the general public. Stalin is holding a gun but there is ambiguity of his intent. Shepard most likely intended this ambiguity as it displayed the fear of the time over what reaction of Stalin will have to the airlift. This source is very valuable in understanding the mood and beliefs of the time. Therefore it is useful in understanding why the orthodox view developed. However it is limited as a primary source as it can only project what might happen. It does not give a complete picture of what happened during the Berlin blockade. Although ultimately it did prove to be accurate as Stalin did not shoot the planes. A further limitation of source A is that it doesn’t show the perceptions from within Berlin or the perceptions from the Soviet Union.
The origin of Source B (Appendix 1) is an article written by Carolyn Eisenberg on fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Blockade. Eisenberg is an authoritative figure, with a PhD in history from Colombia and has taught in Hofstra University. She is the author of the book Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949. The purpose of the article is to commemorate the Berlin Blockade; but also, it is an attempt to challenge the widely accepted orthodox view by presenting an authoritative figure’s interpretation of a revisionist argument. This is a valuable source for understanding the revisionist view of the causes of the Berlin Blockade. Eisenberg writes with ferocity in arguing her point, thus this article is very informative yet persuasive. It is limited as, though she considers the psyche of the time, she is dismissive of how big a role the mentality of fear at the time played in decision making. For example “Americans were instructed that Stalin was trying to starve the inhabitants of West Berlin into submission, and with the city's freedom in the balance, the airlift of supplies was a dangerous but vital mission.” (para. 2) The USSR was seen as an aggressor trying to take over the world and spread the evil communism. Many actions were carried out with this understanding of the USSR. This source is also limited in its lack of address to actions of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe that lead to these perceptions. She fails to discuss the establishment of communist puppet governments in Eastern Europe, or Russia’s acquisition of more land in Poland than was agreed. Stalin disobeyed many agreements that were made in the Yalta and Potsdam conferences.
Word Count: 519
The Berlin Crisis of 1948 is widely perceived in the West to be an unprovoked aggressive move by the Soviets to try and force the ‘noble’ western powers out of West Berlin (British Air Ministry Report). This is the orthodox view, which argues Stalin’s aggressiveness as the basis of the Cold War and the division of Europe. Accordingly, Stalin was continuously aggressive in his approach to international relations. Disobeying agreements made at Yalta (February 1945) to allow free elections in the states of Eastern Europe, communist governments were quickly set up in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, contrary to agreements at Yalta he established a communist Government in Poland (Lowe 2005). Due to these aggressions the fear of communism and the USSR arose. Kennan (in McCauley, 2003) argues in his “long telegram” of February 22nd 1946 that, insecurity, mixed with Marxist ideology resulted in the Soviets’ infinite need to expand. To prevent this from happening the Soviet Unions needed to be contained. This ideology and the recommendations made by Kennan became the basis of US foreign policy during the Cold War (McCauley 2003). The Truman doctrine was to follow in response to Kennan’s call for containment. The Marshall Aid plan and the currency reforms were actions to the Doctrine. Their primary goal was to contain communism. Therefore, according to orthodox views, the Berlin Blockade of 1948 was an unexpected and unprovoked aggressive move.
This outlook on the cause of the Berlin Blockade can only be understood when the mentality of everybody in the west is taken into consideration. People were terrified of communism and saw all of Russia’s policies as an attempt to spread this evil way of government (Roberts 1999). However, removed from this context and with a less biased understanding of the times, we can see that this argument is limited. It rejects the Soviet Union’s need for security and the propositions the United States as protector of the free world.
Eisenberg disagrees with the orthodox argument. She argues that the “confrontation in Berlin was not about the future of the city but about the reunification of Germany”(para. 4). America’s desire for economic expansion saw its participation in the partition of Europe and the formation of West Germany into the ‘Federal Republic’. The ‘Open Door’ policy, of providing access to West Berlin, was America’s way of initiating economic expansion into Europe. The Soviet leadership introduced the Berlin Blockade, as it was genuinely concerned about a prosperous, democratic West Berlin that undermined Soviet control of the Eastern zone(LaFeber 1991). Russia was also concerned about a renewed strong Germany and the threat it could potentially pose to Russia. Truman wanted the industrially rich Germany to be prosperous, so that they could benefit from trading links with Germany (Lowe 2005). Furthermore, he had seen that the destruction of Germany after WW1 only led to WW2. Truman had learned from the harsh lesions of Versailles and wished to prevent the repetition of history (Swell 2002).
To create this industrially rich state and to contain communism, the Truman Administration created the Marshall Aid Plan, and later instigated a currency reform. The idea behind the plan was that rebuilding Europe economically would give the nations a stronger stance against communism. This was because communism is considered to grow from weak economies where class struggle is widespread (Swell 2002). Diplomatically the Marshall Plan was also offered to the Soviet Union, but it was written in such a way that the Truman Administration was sure that Russia would reject it. The Soviet Union needed to make political reforms and accept certain outside controls. If the Soviet Union had chosen to accept the European Recovery Program, the bill would not have passed in the US Congress (Stern). Knowing this, the United States was actively excluding the Soviet Union from events in Europe. According to Eisenberg the US policy makers were “determined to integrate West Germany into the Marshall Plan” (para. 4) without the influence of the Soviet Union which could have jeopardized the recovery of Western Europe.
For a revisionist like Eisenberg it is no surprise then that the Soviet Union responded by tightening control over Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan was an antagonizing move made by the United States, which increased tensions between the Western Allies and Stalin. The agreement between the Western Allies at the London Conference (June 1948) excluded Stalin. The Western Allies agreed to introduce a new currency, which would be the basis of economic recovery in Germany. This however, undermined Stalin’s control in East Germany as the prosperity of the West Berliners was on display (Young). The Berlin Blockade was Stalin’s last “desperate gambit to force the western powers to go back on their currency reform” (McCauley 2003). However this was self defeating, as pointed out by Eisenberg. The bad propaganda that the Blockade created demonized the Soviet Union in the minds of many and allowed the US to implement their agenda of rebuilding Germany.
Word Count: 785
In conclusion, it is not true to say that the Berlin Blockade was unprovoked by, or a surprise to the United States. The United States’ policy of containment, and re-establishing a strong German state can be said to be antagonizing of the USSR. The currency reform of 1948 were the last straw; it completely undermined Stalin’s control in East Berlin and Germany, as the East German currency was effectively worthless in comparison. To a large extent the United States’ aggressive moves, in the name of the Open Door policy, provoked Stalin into initiating the Berlin Blockade.
Word Count: 96
Total Word Count: 1996
“The myth of the Berlin blockade” by Carolyn Eisenberg
As hungry Berliners look to the skies, huge American planes come swooping to their rescue. On the 50th anniversary of the Berlin blockade, this heroic image still dominates the public perception. Yet the theatrics of the airlift have obscured an underlying reality - the American role in the division of Europe.
According to the Truman administration, the Soviet blockade - which began on June 24, 1948 - was a case of unprovoked aggression. Americans were instructed that Stalin was trying to starve the inhabitants of West Berlin into submission, and with the city's freedom in the balance, the airlift of supplies was a dangerous but vital mission.
The opening of American and British records makes it clear that this simple, inspiring story was deceptive. There never was a "blockade" as that term is ordinarily understood. The Soviets were interfering with the access routes from the western zones of Germany, occupied by the United States, Britain and France - into the western Sectors of the city. They did not prevent the supply of these sectors with food, coal and equipment from East Berlin or the eastern Soviet occupied zone of Germany.
More important, the confrontation in Berlin was not about the future of the city but about the reunification of Germany. On June 2, the United States and five West European nations had agreed to convene a West German parliamentary assembly to write a federal constitution. This American-led decision was a direct violation of the agreements reached at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945. The Soviets protested bitterly, claiming that the Western presence in Berlin was based on a commitment to the eventual reunification of Germany. The Soviets' chief demand - purposely down played by American officials - was to halt the creation of a separate German state in the zones occupied by the Western powers. This was the real point of contention.
But U.S. policy-makers were bent on the partition of Germany. They were determined to integrate the industrially rich western zones into the Marshall Plan. A unified Germany, in which the Soviets retained influence, would jeopardize their program for West European recovery.
The successful airlift allowed the Americans to implement their agenda. Nervous West Germans and the obstructionist French were brought into line. Talks with the Soviets on German reunification were postponed. So long as the planes flew, the crisis in Berlin served American purposes.
The American public was not privy to such thinking. Ordinary citizens worried about the hungry Berliners and cheered for the pilots. They were not informed of the Truman administration's preference for the partition of Germany. And while it was no secret that the West Germans were setting up a government, this seemed to be the consequence rather than the cause of the Soviet blockade. Also muffled were dissenting voices, inside the U.S. government. The most impassioned was that of George Kennan the architect of the containment policy toward the Soviet Union - who warned that the division of Germany would lead to the long-term isolation of Eastern Europe and the militarization of the continent. These were prescient predictions that merited public debate. Fifty years later, that discussion has not yet occurred.
With the ending of the Cold War, the myth of the Berlin, blockade continues to justify a reliance on military power. In this era of NATO expansion, it might be more useful to remember how military might have displaced diplomacy with tragic consequences in Europe.
Extracts from the final report of the British Air Ministry on the Berlin Blockade, published in 1950
1 The blockade of Berlin was the result of a situation which developed mainly as a consequence of decisions made during the war. It was the climax of one phase of a planned and deliberate attempt by the Russians to force the Western allies out of Berlin.
4 The Potsdam Agreement consisted of a comparatively short statement of principle and was not a statute book for the government of Germany. Consequently, co-operation and good faith on the part of the allies was required in co-ordinated and effective government of Berlin was to be obtained. Unfortunately, the Russian attitude prevented this.
5 Owing to this lack of collaboration, the four power control of Berlin was bound to fail and gradually the administration of the Eastern and Western sectors of the city grew farther apart until the sectors became virtually two separate cities with separate city governments and separate police forces. The split between the two sectors was made complete by the Allied currency reform which was introduced in June 1948. This was caused by the Soviets refusal to co-operate and resulted in each sector having a different currency.
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