Berlin: The Flash-Point of the Cold War, 1948-1989: David Williamson Explains Why Events in Berlin Twice Threatened to Unleash a Third World War

By Williamson, David | History Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Berlin: The Flash-Point of the Cold War, 1948-1989: David Williamson Explains Why Events in Berlin Twice Threatened to Unleash a Third World War


Williamson, David, History Review


Without Germany's defeat in 1945 and the subsequent power vacuum in central Europe, in which the former members of the Grand Coalition confronted each other eyeball to eyeball, the Cold War would not have occurred in the acute form that it did. At the Yalta Conference it had been agreed that Germany should be divided into four zones, each administered by one of the victorious powers. Sovereignty passed collectively to the Four Powers, who, it was envisaged, would govern Germany through the Control Commission based in Berlin, which was itself divided into four sectors. Disagreements intensified, however, and a united Germany became a prize which neither the USSR nor the Western Allies could concede to the other.

In any East-West conflict Germany's industrial and manpower resources would be decisive. In the Ruhr the Western Powers already possessed the industrial powerhouse of Europe, and could therefore afford to risk the partition of Germany by pressing ahead in 1948 with the creation of a semi-independent West Germany. Without war the USSR could not stop this, but, with the Western military presence in Berlin, they did have a hostage. By bringing pressure to bear on this outpost they could, so they hoped, wring concessions from London, Washington and Paris. It was Khrushchev who crudely observed: 'Berlin is the testicles of the West ... every time I want to make the West scream I squeeze on Berlin'.

The Berlin Blockade, June 1948-May 1949

With the economic integration of the British and American zones (Bizonia) in January 1947 and the announcement of Marshall Aid the following June the Americans had given notice that they were not ready to wait indefinitely for an agreement over a united Germany. The British Government, faced with subsidising its densely populated zone in north-west Germany at a time when Britain itself was nearly bankrupt, enthusiastically supported American plans for a self-governing and financially self-supporting West Germany. At both the Moscow and London Foreign Ministers' Conferences in 1947, Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, played a key role in preventing any last-minute agreement between the USA and USSR which might have delayed or averted partition. The decision to set up a West German state was finally taken at another conference attended by Britain, France, the USA and the Benelux states, which sat from February to June 1948 in London.

In the meantime the Russians were already beginning to hint at the pressure they could exert on the Allied position in Berlin by interfering with western Allied inter-zonal traffic, and in March 1948 they walked out of the Control Commission and broke off discussions on the introduction of a single currency for the whole of Germany. Over the next two months the Western Allies prepared for the coming trial of strength. Broadly speaking, the British military authorities on the ground adopted a cautious waiting policy, which did not rule out eventual evacuation, while General Lucius Clay, the American Military Governor, argued that the Allies should stay in Berlin come 'hell or high water'. Essentially this line was supported by Bevin, who stated in the House of Commons on 4 May 1948 that 'we are in Berlin as of right and it is our intention to stay there'.

In June the Soviets were dealt a double blow to their German policy: on the 7th the Allies announced the decision to create a West German state. On the 20th the new Deutschmark currency was introduced into the western zones and three days later into the western sectors of Berlin. Stalin believed that he could force the Western Allies to drop their plans for a West German state by blockading West Berlin. Consequently on the night of 23-24 June all rail, road and canal links to the west, as well as power supplies from the eastern sectors, were cut.

Although the Russian action was no surprise, the initial Western response was confused and unsure.

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