The Berlin Airlift

The Berlin Airlift

While goods and supplies pour into Berlin from the air, the real question hovering over the city is whether there will be a war between the West and Russia.


Del Vayo—Inside Berlin

As I sat talking with a German the other day in a room in a New York hotel, I felt as if by some magic I had been transported to the capital of the old Reich, which I last visited two years ago My companion was a Berlin professional man who had been brought to the United States for three weeks for consultation. On the next day he was to take the plane back to Germany. Central Park was spread out below his window, bright in the February sun and radiating a feeling of spring which belied the reputation of a New York winter. His room was warm and comfortable, and on his table were the remains of such a breakfast as he could not have dreamed of eating at home. New York fascinated him, and he spoke of it with almost provincial enthusiasm.

After talking with him for more than two hours I still could not tell what his politics were, if, indeed, he knew himself; but it was clear that he was counting the hours until he could leave New York, which offered so much, and return to the ruins of Berlin. Having been present at the opening of the most spectacular and most decisive battle of the cold war, he seemed to feel in some way bound to see how it developed. He gave me the facts about Berlin without dramatizing them, and what he told only reinforced the story of Germany related by “Carolus” in last week’s issue of this magazine.

The crucial fad in the life of Berlin is the Soviet blockade and the American answer to it, the air lift. For the air lift my companion showed the interest which is aroused in all Germans by any prodigious feat of organization. But he was too realistic to be dazzled by it. On clear days, he reminded me, the air lift can bring in seven thousand tons of goods; in normal times Berlin used to receive daily twenty-five thousand tons. No admiration for the wonders of aviation can cover up that difference. Besides, the air lift must first take care of the needs of the Western troops stationed in Berlin; after that it must bring in enough food to provide minimum rations for the civil population and enough coal for minimum power requirements—that is, to furnish electric current during perhaps two hours in the twenty-four. Often the electricity is on only at night, and people have to get up at three in the morning to wash and iron and cook, and then go to bed again until it is time to start for work.

Much more serious is the currency question. On the very morning of our talk the New York papers carried news of the panic in Berlin when the rumor spread that the Russians were planning a new monetary reform in their zone. The official rate of 3.20 or 3.40 eastern marks to one western mark dropped to six to one, and on the black market ten and even twelve eastern marks were paid for one western mark. The German pressed his hands to his head despairingly as he thought of all the complications introduced by the new exchange rate. Even before he left Berlin the mathematical variations of the two marks could have been followed only by an Einstein. It was bad enough, he said, for the director of a factory, who must comply with countless regulations and formalities when he pays his workers, but it is worse for the plain citizen. If a Berliner takes his shoes to be half-soled and then tries to pay for them in eastern marks, he discovers that he cannot get them back unless he gives the cobbler much more than the official rate.

The contest between the two marks was described to me in a forty-minute-long learned lecture in the best German style. The speaker believed that it offered opportunities for subtle psychological warfare, and that in this field the Russians would certainly win. He also believed that the Russians would finally win the Battle of Berlin. In one year or in two, in spite of the glory and efficiency of the air lift, the Americans would either break the blockade by force or withdraw from the city.

Although my German insisted he was no politician, one thing he told me revealed his political acumen. “The Russians,” he said, “propose to sovietize first eastern Germany and then, if possible, the western zones. But they have an alternative policy. If they perceive they cannot carry out their plans, they will content themselves with attaching Germany to them under any form of government. They will be willing to sign a pact with a bourgeois or conservative Germany which considers that its interests lie with Russia.” This amounted to saying that while western Germany might aid the Anglo-Saxon powers in the cold war, it would not necessarily aid them if a “hot” war broke out. For in that event the Russians could always say to the Germans: “Join us, and we will help you to achieve unity under any regime you choose.”

We talked then about transportation in Berlin, and as concrete evidence of its dreadful state be showed me his overcoat with three buttons almost torn off. The crowds in the trams were almost unendurable, he said, and before you could push your way on you had to wait on the street corner for an hour. The reasons of course were shortage of power and wornout equipment. Moreover, while people waited endlessly in the cold they would see the omnibuses of the occupation forces go by almost empty—a couple of Englishmen would be sitting where there was room for forty or fifty people. “That doesn’t make the occupation more popular.”

People count the days that the blockade has lasted. “When I left, it had been 250 days, my cleaning-woman told me.” The winter has been mild and the absence of snow has allowed air transport to be stepped up. “The Russians miscalculated about this; they counted on the air lift running into trouble between November and April. Perhaps they hope next winter will be more severe.” I interrupted him: “You are contemplating another year of it?” “Why not?” he answered soberly. “It is easier for the Russians to continue the blockade than for the Americans and British to maintain the air lift.” I asked, “How do the people of Berlin think all this is going to end?” “The optimists,” he said, “think the difficulties caused the Russians by the Allied counter-blockade will induce the Kremlin to yield. The pessimists predict war in May. The majority of the people have no time to think.”

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