Berlin

Armageddon – Part 1: Lessons from the Berlin Airlift (1948 – 1949)

9 March 2023

7.1 MINS

If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!
But passion and party blind our eyes,
and the light which experience gives us
is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind.
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834)

This is the first of a three-part series inspired by the novel Armageddon by Leon Uris (1963). (Read part two here.) A remarkable fictional story based on actual history, from the American perspective, of the end of World War II in Germany with a particular focus on the administration of Berlin.

What can we learn from these events? Can we see any parallels with our situation today? I believe we can learn invaluable lessons to strengthen our faith. I believe we can be inspired by the courage and passion of the men and women who sacrificed all to serve and protect their former enemies, and I believe we can be supported in our stand for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our generation.

The End of World War II (1945)

I find it impossible to imagine the physical and psychological carnage experienced on a daily basis at war’s end.

Berlin was a city of millions that had been all but demolished at the hand of the Allies — British, French, American and Russian forces. With precious little infrastructure left to sustain the surviving population, the Allies divided the city into administrative sectors: Northwest, French; West, British; Southwest, American; and East, by far the largest sector, Russian.

I am sure that all of you will know of the Berlin Wall. It began on 13 August 1961 and was taken down on 9 November 1989. Most of you will associate it with the beginning of the Cold War between the western nations and the communist eastern bloc.

But fewer will know of the Berlin Blockade and the Berlin Airlift that lasted 462 days from 26 June 1948 until 30 September 1949 — the Western powers’ answer to the Communist blockade. I am not going to recount the history per se, but I commend these resources for those interested in understanding the background in more detail:

The Destruction of Nazism and the Leadup to the Blockade of Berlin

There were two opposing currents pouring through the bombed-out Berlin streets. The Nazis had been defeated and now the Allies’ responsibility was to mop up all remaining Nazis and herd them off for trial and imprisonment. But how would you define a Nazi?

Surely one descriptor could include ‘all German and conquered peoples who went along with the Nazi machinery’? Under that definition, nearly all Germans would fall into that category. But on the streets, the round-up of surviving Nazis left millions of Berliners to be administrated, who were now deemed victims of the war, not perpetrators.

The opposing current was the sense of responsibility towards the German people, to support their survival amidst the ruins and to start the rebuilding of a city, a nation and a people. How would the Allied forces manage their emotions as they sought to support ‘the people’ responsible for the death of family and countrymen by their complicity with the Nazis? This stream was Uris’ focus in Armageddon.

The Russian method of administration could be described as the rape of German women and girls and the rape and pillage of anything of value that could be salvaged from the ruins of Germany. There was some of this at the hand of the western Allies, but far less.

After a little while, when the liberating forces had settled into their roles, the western Allies began to take the Russians’ behaviour to task. I think this tension between their opposing values could have been the seed of the Cold War to come.

A further distinction between the western Allies and the Soviets was their respective understanding of the value of democracy. Prior to the Russian blockade of Berlin, the Russian communists took every opportunity they could to intimidate or silence the voices of the freedom parties at any of the local elections and at the appointment of the Oberbürgermeister (Lord Mayor of the city).

The Russians only knew one party, the Communist Party, so by process of elimination, anyone who could not swear allegiance to The Party, was, by definition, an agitator, a protester, a rebel and one to be removed or silenced. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973) depicts the machinations of the Community Party over many decades in the treatment of their own people, and I am sure that the Berliners knew something of this reputation in the immediate years after the war. Imagine the Russians’ attitude to any Germans who would not conform! They had been ‘given’ a sector to administrate, so they naturally saw their Berliners as their responsibility to indoctrinate.

What Provoked the Russians to Blockade the City of Berlin?

The Soviets’ own information channels to their own people perpetrated the myth that they alone, the Russians, had ‘liberated’ Berlin from the dictates of Hitler’s Fascist, Nazi Party. In reality, it was most certainly a team effort involving all the Allied forces.

The Russians were shown the evidence on numerous occasions, but they barely believed the western powers, putting this rhetoric down to, western propaganda, much in the same way as they knew their own machine was at work creating Soviet propaganda. The result was that the Russians felt cheated by the western Allied claims, even if they could not prove it.

It has been widely argued that the central provocation for the blockade of Berlin was the Allies’ introduction of the new German currency, the Deutschmark, on 20 June 1948. This included a special currency for use in Berlin, the B Mark, the new Deutschmark with a B stamped on it. This angered the Soviets, as they knew that whoever controlled the currency, controlled the economy and the people.

So, the Russians’ response was to cut the power supply to West Berlin, most of the power being generated in the Russian Eastern sector. They really wanted to consolidate the communist bloc and they did not want to see a few rebellious suburbs thwart their plans.

The West saw red. This provoked the highest-ranking American Army General from Berlin to fly back to Washington DC and offer these impassioned words to the American President and his team:

We cannot abandon the one place on this planet where we hold an offensive position. “This is no ordinary city. Berlin… is our Armageddon.” Hansen leaned forward, his knuckles pressed against the table and turned white. He looked now at the President alone, “In the name of God, Mr President, the future of freedom on earth requires our presence.”
~ Uris, Armageddon (1963), p. 441

In Uris’ terms, the argument had been going the way of withdrawal prior to this impassioned speech. It certainly stuck a chord, as the President of the United States responded just a few hours later with his authorisation for the stand against the blockade, and he endorsed the general’s plans for the Berlin Airlift:

General, I am going to send you those Skymasters you wanted. You get back to Berlin and tell those people we intend to stick by our word.”

It is going to take a little time to convince everybody here, but you just leave that to me. You can depend on the first squadrons arriving within the week. Now, what else do you need?”

~ Uris, Armageddon (1963), p. 442

The Berlin Blockade and the Airlift

All land, road, rail and waterways between West Germany and West Berlin were cut by the Russians. But they did not block the air corridors. It is my understanding that the Russians never once sought to block landing in Berlin, as their airfields were in West Berlin and to do so would have been to provoke military retaliation. For this reason, they never opened fire on any Allied aircraft, though some Russian pilots ran scare flights around the Airlift planes by flying far too close for safety.

At the height of operations, Allied planes were landing every 45 seconds. In about a year and a quarter, 2.3 million tonnes of cargo were flown in, two-thirds of that being coal for power generation, heating and cooking. One of the greatest achievements, in my mind, was the dropping of 23 tonnes of parachute candy. Thousands of little parachutes were made and attached to bars of chocolate and the like for the children. The planes would drop these from the back of the planes just before landing so that the children could seek them out and have a little joy in their otherwise near-starvation diets.

Nevertheless, even though this was not ‘warfare’, there were 101 fatalities from the Airlift, 40 British and 31 Americans — 17 American and eight British planes crashed, mostly the result of bad weather. Some of the casualties were Germans whose homes the plans had crashlanded into.

Lessons from the Berlin Airlift (1948–1949)

There is nothing uplifting about war, but the Berlin Airlift has certainly lifted my spirits. First of all, it highlighted the victors’ compassion and commitment towards the defeated. The Allied forces did not turn tail and leave Europe to pick itself up and start over again defeated and alone. No, they stayed, they battled to serve, with at least 71 armed forces personnel paying the ultimate price for their service.

I have been struck by the contrasts between the western Allied forces and the Soviet forces in the aftermath of war. The West’s self-sacrifice and commitment to an extraordinary work ethic contrasts with the East’s regimentation, the constant haemorrhaging of deserters, even from the highest-ranking officers, and the painstaking surveillance of every single one of their people. This is to say nothing of their whole focus being on control, destruction, and depravity.

Most of us don’t study the impact of Communist Party operations on a routine basis; rather, we think that the communists are just another political party, like all the others — they probably have their good points and their failings.

My study of the Berlin Airlift and the events that led up to it which made it imperative for the western Allies to fight for freedom and democracy, has shown me that the Communist Party, the Russians’ police state, is not really a political movement at all: it is pure nationalistic totalitarianism.

Armageddon can be defined as:

  1. The place where the final battle will be fought between the forces of good and evil (probably so-called in reference to the battlefield of Megiddo. (Revelation 16:16)
  2. The last and completely destructive battle
  3. Any great and crucial conflict, especially one seen as likely to destroy the world or the human race.

The western democratic powers saw these events as their ‘Armageddon’ with the eastern bloc’s communists. Thankfully, it was only a Cold War, but extremely frightening nonetheless. I can remember nearly being frightened into the Gospel by the Cold War in the 1960s. The Berlin Blockade and Airlift teach me so graphically about the seriousness and the severity of the physical and spiritual battles between good and evil.

___

Photo: US Government/Wikimedia Commons

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2 Comments

  1. Stephen Lewin 10 March 2023 at 12:28 am - Reply

    well written true events in summary of that situation to help realise the challenges still faced today

  2. Jim Twelves 10 March 2023 at 7:12 am - Reply

    Stephen, thank you. Yes, it has occurred to me that in a very real sense the War in Ukraine is an actual manifestation of Cold War I, the west pushing back against communism. It is ironic that its is not portrayed as such in the general discourse. In fact the fight against communism rarely gets mentioned, it is arguably ‘condoned’, but not when it can be used for a war.

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