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The Berlin airlift

On 26 June 1948, Western allies started a massive airlift to counter the Berlin blockade imposed by the Soviet regime. The film, “Background to Berlin”, produced in 1962, explains how this happened.

More broadly, it tells the story of the city of Berlin from the end of World War II to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. It traces the origin of the Allied rights in Berlin, shows how the city came to be divided, and relates the problem of Berlin in the larger context of German reunification. It also explains why the fifteen NATO members supported the defence of West Berlin's freedom in front of Soviet pressure.

The film is part of a the "Atlantic Review series" developed between 1959 and 1968 by the NATO Information Service. Originally conceived as filmed magazines, the films in this series were composed of short reports on specific topics dealing with NATO members which were developed for troop information. Four to six issues were envisaged every year, using as much library footage as possible from NATO and from national governments and, ideally, requesting not more than 30% of original NATO shooting. After a few issues however, each edition focused on one topic with a more detailed treatment, and the films in this series, although still aimed at military audiences, were more widely distributed. This was particularly the case with "Background to Berlin", which deals with political issues more than purely military topics, and was widely used in civilian and military circles.


The building of walls.  The erection of barbed wire and barriers.  These can never, for long, divide peoples.  Never create a permanent prison for the human spirit.  For the strength of a wall is measured only by the fear of those who built it.  [Pause.]

This was a city 30 years ago: a city, then one of the greatest in the world, in size and stature ranking with London, Paris, Rome, New York.  Alive and a unity, this was Berlin in the 1930s.  No barriers at the Brandenburger Tor; no guards at the Potsdamer Platz.  But this was Berlin before Hitler came to power.

1945, and this was Berlin: a city in name only; a geographical location.  [Pause.] Amid the rubble of destruction, the flags of the victors, men who’d taken up arms in self-defence, with a common aim to destroy that which menaced them all.  Around them, a defeated nation, for their armies had met in the very middle of Germany. 

Until such time as Germany could reshape her own destiny, she would be divided into separate zones of occupation, each controlled by an Allied power: American, British, French, Russian.  Economically, she would be treated as a whole.  This the victors had agreed when they had met to decide the future of Germany.  Even then, some had reservations about mutual trust.  But, a world war just over, they had to trust one another, or else begin another war.  For Berlin, it was to be each power with its sector, but a city open to all the powers until Berlin could again assume her role as the capital of a new German state. 

Berlin lay 100 miles deep in the Soviet occupation zone, but was not part of it.  Access to the city for the other powers was agreed over certain roads, railways and three air corridors.  Makeshift, perhaps, but then it was never meant to be permanent. 

In Berlin, they set up the headquarters of an Allied Kommandatura, where, day by day, officers of the four occupying powers would administer Berlin by cooperation, by joint agreement as to what was to be done, and how.  And, frankly, what was to be done meant starting again from scratch.  [Pause.] 

Yet, amid the ruin and the deprivation, slowly a start was made.  A start not only upon the physical reconstruction, but also the political rebirth of the city.  It would appear that the Soviets had agreed to joint occupation only because they believed that in the first free elections Berlin would vote Communist.  So it was with confidence that they watched the democratic processes of free ballot.  But, although Communist support in Berlin was far from negligible, for them the results came as a shock.  Instead of a landslide for the extreme left, there came instead a victory for the Social Democrats and other non-Communists.  But when, in June 1947, the town assembly elected Ernst Reuter for mayor, this proved to be a victory without fruit.  For, in the Allied Kommandatura, the frustrated Soviets vetoed his election.  It was a step ominous and foreboding.

Until that moment, the city had been divided in name only.  But, from then on, the Russians made the divisions more clear-cut.  They set up a Communist system in their own sector and established decided barriers between it and those of their recent allies.  These were the years in which the expression ‘Iron Curtain’ became a reality.  Along a line from the Baltic to the Balkans, a clampdown.  In place of the comradeship of victory: barbed wire, suspicion and distrust; years of disillusionment. 

Meanwhile, over the frontier paths there flowed a steady flow of refugees east to west.  Soon it became clear that most were moving westwards because they could not tolerate life in the east.  Again, an ominous sign. 

In the eastern sector of Berlin, Communist power was fully established.  Party bosses, party youth, party rallies, permeated with all the hysteria previously associated with the Nazis.  By organising special police and paramilitary units, the Soviets were illegally rearming East Germany.

In the world councils of the United Nations, the war-weary were endeavouring to establish a lasting peace.  But these were the days of Stalinist expansion.  And so, by repeated refusals to cooperate, except on their own terms, the Soviet delegates sabotaged any progress towards real stability. 

On 23 June 1948, West Berlin introduced monetary reform, without which economic recovery would have been impossible.  New notes for old.  The currency was revalued.  For the Russians, their disagreement gave them the excuse for action.  West Berlin they could not touch, but they could and did interfere with the lifelines on which West Berlin depended.  The roads, the railways, the canals; these were West Berlin’s vital arteries.  So, stop the trains, close the roads, bar the canals and cut the power. 

West Berlin was 100 miles deep in the Soviet zone of Germany.  This was to be the way to force the Western Allies to quit Berlin.  Thus, two million people were isolated, to be faced with the prospect of hunger, cold, unemployment and misery.  No way in; no way out. 

The only element still open: the air above.  It started as a trickle, as a temporary measure.  Plane after plane.  Destination: the airfields of West Berlin.  The vital necessities, food, raw materials, even coal brought in by air, until the United States, Great Britain and France were embarked upon the biggest air transport operation history has ever seen.  Round the clock, plane after plane.  Even flying boats to set down on West Berlin’s lakes. 

In the beleaguered city, power shortage enforced skeleton transport services.  Food shortage necessitated careful distribution and queues.  But rather short measure than surrender.  As each night fell, the roar of aero engines continued.  Dependent for the most part on power from the eastern sector, West Berlin was plunged each night into a blackout.  But while West Berliners felt their way through the gloom, still their airlift continued through the hours of darkness.  When West Berliners rose each dawn, it was again to the roar of planes, but because of those planes there was bread in the shops, and this was to be the pattern for many a hard month ahead.

It was to be expected that the Soviets would not take the airlift without some reaction.  Across the eastern boundary, the Communists staged demonstrations against what they called, “this Western interference with Berlin affairs”.  These in turn, led to riots, but forced the non-Communist councillors to abandon the Berlin Town Hall, which lay in the eastern sector.  But in the western sectors, unity against the blockade was overwhelming, symbolised by the leadership of Ernst Reuter.  [Speech in German.]

Any joint administration of Berlin as a whole had already ceased to exist, a fact emphasised by the abandonment by the Russians of the Allied Kommandatura.  City government for greater Berlin was impossible, since the western councillors had been driven from the east, so Reuter and the non-Communists moved into new quarters in the west, and at their meetings empty chairs stood witness to the fact that the East Berliners were denied the right to choose their representatives freely. 

For the West, the Berlin Blockade came as the last straw.  Soviet behaviour had demonstrated that no-one was safe.  After much negotiation, 12 nations came together to form an alliance for collective defence.  Its name: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Or, as it came to be known, NATO. 

Together in Washington in April 1949, they put the seal on their union.  They were resolved, as they put it, to unite their efforts for collective defence and the preservation of peace and security.  It was to be the end of leaning over backwards in the face of consistent Soviet expansion. 

Meanwhile, for West Berlin it had been a tough winter.  On the airfields, fog, mist and freezing cold.  Yet, in spite of the conditions, the airlift had carried on.  In spite of the conditions, and the losses.  By means of the airlift, West Berlin had been kept alive, but only at a cost.  All the sufferings of war, in the midst of peace. 

But there could be no turning back now.  If the Russians thought that the city could not be supplied indefinitely by air, they were going to be proved very long.  For the airlift, all possible reinforcement.  More planes, improved runways, greater facilities, and so what had begun as makeshift became routine.  Food and supplies, month in, month out. 

Soon it became clear that the West had not only won a victory against logistics, but also a moral victory, which drew the admiration of the world.  Thanks to the crews of the airlift.  Victory through determination to defend the right. 

Meanwhile, series of signatures on a piece of paper had slowly but surely turned into practical steps towards military cooperation and collective rearmament within NATO.  Indeed, the growth of unity in the West was such that the Russians, though still breathing threats, realised that their pressure was inducing the very opposite of that disunity on which they counted. 

And so, for the free world, an historic night.  The night, when on the autobahn leading to West Berlin the barriers were pushed aside for the first time in nine months.  As the trucks and cars streamed forward, so the railway destination boards read once again: ‘this train for Berlin’. 

But if the Russians believed that the lifting of the blockade would cause the West to lower its guard, they were mistaken.  NATO had been born, and until the East displayed a vastly different spirit, NATO was to stay.  No stopping now.  As yet, forces were still weak, but as soon as possible they must be built up; a strong defensive shield. 

And what now, Berlin?  Mayor Reuter and the Berliners, having won, with Western help, the battle of the Blockade, now began the process of placing West Berlin onto a basis of economic prosperity.  A city still an island, linked with the world only by the arteries, whose continued existence had been so hardly won.  But now, through them, West Berlin was to draw strength, to make itself no longer just a fragment of a city, but a unity within itself. 

Yet, still across Berlin as a whole, there was much traffic over the borders.  On the overhead and underground railways, Berliners came and went.  True, the sector boundaries still loomed up, but they did not prevent passage across the city; though it was passage under difficulties.  At the eastern sector border the trams, though continuing on, nonetheless were forced to change both drivers and conductors.  While at this border too, anyone passing had first to change his money, for the East did not accept Western Marks, and vice versa.  But, at the Potsdamer Platz, on the very border itself, watched by the police on both sides, still a steady movement both ways.  Why not, when all were Berliners? 

But there were many passing but one way: a steady stream of refugees to the West; a steady stream, unceasing since the end of World War Two, but growing day by day as life became more intolerable under a Communist regime.  The island of West Berlin had become the staging point for the free road to the West.  To all but the most prejudiced, it was obvious that all was far from perfect beyond the Potsdamer Platz. 

And, on 17 June 1953 came proof.  On that day, a protest march of East Berlin workers turned into a general rebellion against the Communist regime.  For some hours, that regime was helpless against the disorder.  Until, in desperation, they called in the Red Army.  [Pause.]  And so, because stones and courage against tanks are not enough, the revolt died. 

After the June uprising, the movement of refugees could no longer be termed, ‘a stream’; it had become a flood.

Throughout the western sectors of Berlin, the humming factories were evidence of their rising prosperity.  Soon, indeed, West Berlin was to become again the most powerful production centre in all Germany. 

But with the confidence, there had been sorrow.  Before the bier of Mayor Reuter, crowds passed to pay homage to the man who had helped save their city.  Ernst Reuter was dead, but his work was already showing great results.

Meanwhile, in these years of uneasy truce, the Soviet Union had systematically turned her zone into a purely Communist regime, and blocked every attempt to treat Germany as a whole.  The three Western powers had no alternative but to move forward with the economic unification of their zones.  This was followed by political unification.  Independence was not long in coming, and there was born a new sovereign state: the Federal Republic of Germany.  The status of Berlin, however, was not changed; it remained the responsibility of the four occupying powers, and the garrisons stayed. 

The guarantee of security for Western Germany depended on the overall strength of the Atlantic Alliance.  Chancellor Adenauer and the federal parliament agreed that the new republic should join NATO, so bringing the Organization’s strength up to 15 nations.  And by now, strength was no misnomer.  Although the crisis was far from over, NATO’s power was such as to make any aggressor think carefully.  Now the West could negotiate from a position of strength and confidence. 

At the Geneva summit, the Soviets paid lip service to the principle of German reunification, but blocked any practical progress.  In those negotiations, all the trying could not break down the Iron Curtain. 

But, for West Berlin, it would still go ahead.  To the traveller flying in, the city displayed a brave new face.  First, on arrival, he would see the memorial to the airlift, a sign that West Berlin remembers those who won its survival.  After that, a new skyline risen from the rubble.  If West Berliners had, as the Communists alleged, little hope for the future, it was not apparent in the face of their steadily changing city.  In West Berlin, a new look.  In East Berlin … [Pause.]  From beyond the Potsdamer Platz, still thousands arriving; still a flood to airlift off the island to find new homes in the West. 

In the face of continued Soviet obstruction, the 15 NATO nations sought to clear the Soviets’ minds as to how the Alliance stood on the thorny question of Berlin.  Already, in 1954, the three powers responsible for Berlin had made it clear beyond doubt that any attack against Berlin from any quarter would be treated as an attack on their forces, and on themselves.  The other members of NATO immediately associated themselves with this declaration. 

All proposals made by the Soviets towards solving the question of the reunification of Germany implied their refusal to acknowledge the principle of self-determination by means of free elections, to which the West was and is firmly committed.  Until such time as the Soviets change their minds, the NATO nations will stand firm in face of all Soviet pressure, and honour their pledge to maintain the freedom of West Berlin and its people; a pledge often repeated at NATO ministerial meetings. 

So, until there was a change of front on the part of the East, it would seem that Germany and Berlin would remain divided.  But evidence that the status quo did not suit everybody in the East was the continued flood of refugees passing through to West Berlin. 
In November 1958, Soviet pressure comes on again.  Mr Khrushchev begins to create his own crisis by threatening to sign a separate peace treaty with the East Germans. 

Paris, May 1960, Mr Khrushchev uses the U2 incident to break up the summit conference, which was meant to bring the Berlin and German questions nearer to a solution.  He drops his threat to take immediate action, but does not change his tune.  Berlin, he alleges, is the capital of a sovereign East Germany, and the Allies must be made to quit Berlin.  And in rearmed Communist Germany, the forces there, men and armour. 

June 4 1961, Khrushchev to President Kennedy, Khrushchev repeats his threat to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, which he claims, wrongly, will end all Western rights in Berlin.  And so on.  Move after move, until …

On 13 August 1961, a wall of East German police stands at the Brandenburg Gate.  All communication between the eastern sector, and those of the West, has been cut as though by a knife.  Before it, West Berliners stand, stunned.  But soon they give voice to their indignation.  [Shouting in German.]  But to all objections, all approaches, the only answer: jets of water from eastern armoured trucks. 
Soviet attacks on the rights of the Western powers in Berlin showed that the wall was meant to be a step towards control of the whole city; towards forcing out the Western powers.  As the last escape routes were cut, one after the other, final scrambles, so as not to be left behind in the prison.  And this was an exodus not confined merely to the civilians.  Even among the East German police guarding and maintaining the new barrier, there were some who decided that they too had reached the end of their tether.  And there was nothing left for it, but to cut and run. 

[Speech in German.]  At protest meetings held in the western sectors, the mayor and people of West Berlin called for help and support from the three Western powers.  And they did not call in vain.  Along the autobahn leading to the city came reinforcements from the three Western garrisons stationed in Berlin.  In all, these garrisons number only 12,000 men; a small force compared with the massive weight of the 20 Soviet divisions which surround the city; a force so small that it gives the lie to Soviet charges that Berlin is an aggressive Western base. 

But, these reinforcements were the symbols of Western determination.  They demonstrated to the Soviet Union that any aggression threatening the life of West Berlin could bring into play all the defensive power of the West.  A firm stand: so far and no further. 
Brick by brick, until no contact but a friendly wave.  [Pause.]  So that when Chancellor Adenauer visited the crisis area, he was met not only by radio truck insults, but literally by a wall.  But a wall can never create a permanent prison for the human spirit.  Its strength is measured only by the fears of those who build it.  By night, by tunnels, somehow a few still manage to make their escape.  Though others failed, and fell riddled with East German bullets. 

For the East, the wall is evidence of how they would like to treat the whole of Berlin; of their kind of settlement of the Berlin problem.  So that this, today, is the Potsdamer Platz, where freedom, like the trams, comes to the end of the line. 

But for the West, such settlements are unacceptable.  Ever since the Atlantic Alliance was created, it has striven to resolve all problems by peaceful negotiation, including the reunification of Germany, and Berlin in freedom.  But it is negotiation from the strength necessary to withstand the threat of force, and in NATO’s determination to resist aggression lies the hope for peace and freedom of millions all over the world.