What led to the Berlin Blockade and subsequently to the Berlin Airlift? In short, opportunity and deteriorating relations between East and West.
The opportunity came with the special situation after World War II. After winning the war against Germany, the Allies split Germany into four occupation zones: an American, a British, a French and a Soviet zone. The country’s capital, Berlin, was located within the Soviet zone, and was also subdivided into four sectors, each belonging to one of the four Allies.
While land and water access to the Western part of Berlin was never formally spelled out in an official agreement, an accord was reached that three air corridors could be used by the Western Allies without advance notice to the Soviets.
In addition, the air corridors could be used without risking escalation.
“If Soviets barred surface routes to Berlin, the West could reopen them only by force, risking a third world war,” explained Daniel F. Harrington in his book ‘A History of the Berlin Airlift.’”The situation in the air was the exact opposite. …To stop them, the Soviets would have to use force, and that ran the risk of starting a war with the only country that had atomic weapons.”
The motive for the blockade was the deterioration of the relations between the Soviet Union on the one side and France, the United Kingdom and the United States on the other side after 1945. The Western Allies were willing to grant Germany a certain amount of independence, while the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, wanted to keep Germany weak.
“His main fear was German power coupled with that of his capitalist foes. The Marshall Plan in his eyes risked exactly that,” Harrington wrote about the American economic plan to help rebuild war-torn Western Europe.
When the West started planning on merging their zones, introducing a new currency and creating a separate West German government, Stalin responded by restricting traffic to and from Berlin. On June 18, 1948, the Western Allies introduced the new currency, the Deutsche Mark, in the Western zones; Berlin not included at that time.
On June 22, the Soviets in return announced their own zonal currency including all of Berlin by arguing that Berlin was located within their zone.
“To accept such a claim … would place Berlin in Soviet hands. They had little choice but to introduce a special version of the Deutsche Mark, stamped with a “B” and therefore quickly dubbed the “B” mark, into their sectors 23 June. At 2 a.m. the following morning, Soviet officials announced the rail line from Helmstedt had closed due to ‘technical difficulties,’” Harrington wrote.
Tensions heightened; however, none of the four occupation forces wanted to risk a new war.
The Berlin Blockade began June 24, 1948. This move by the Soviets, which cut off over 2 million West Berliners from essential supplies such as food and coal, became the first major international crisis of the Cold War.
Source: Harrington, D. F. (2008) The Air Force can deliver anything! A history of the Berlin Airlift.” Ramstein, Germany: USAFE Office of History.