Almost exactly 60 years ago, on June 26, 1948, the first US Air Force plane landed at Tempelhof with critical supplies for Berlin’s population. It was the start of the Berlin Airlift – a decisive moment in Europe’s history during the 20th century. Supplying more than two million people from the air seemed nothing short of impossible at the time. Besides, many people in America, Britain and France questioned why their governments should help the Germans only three years after the end of the Second World War. Hadn’t Nazi Germany forced a gruesome war upon the world? The devastation was unfathomable – not just in Berlin and Germany – but throughout much of Europe.
Then, of course, there was the Soviet Union. The communist member of the victorious Allies wanted shape the future according to its ideology and with its military might. Nearly one million Soviet soldiers remained stationed in Central and Eastern Europe after the war.
The United States joined the war in Europe in 1941 to rid the Continent of National Socialist dictatorship. With America’s occupation in Germany guided by the principles of freedom and democracy, the stage was set for a confrontation between Washington and its former wartime allies in Moscow. The Berliners took sides early in this struggle. As Western troops marched into the city in July 1945, they crowded into the western part of the city.
The blockade took the Western powers completely by surprise. Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet zone and its citizens relied on the surrounding countryside to survive. Only after a hard-fought internal debate did the United States and the other Western Allies decide to defend their position in Berlin. There was no way of ruling out military conflict with the Soviets. But if they hadn’t stood up for freedom and democracy at that moment, belief in those precious ideals would have faltered at a key point in history.
Of course, Berliners’ view of the Airlift was always tightly focused on coal and potatoes. The intensive global efforts behind it went unnoticed by most of the city’s citizens. Men and machines from as far away as Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand came to Berlin. The same can be said for the goods and supplies that were West Berlin’s lease on life. This turned enemies once at war into friends at peace.
The Berlin Airlift never existed in East German school history lessons. However, on the Western side something also needs to be set straight: the Berlin Airlift was not simply an American affair. Great Britain introduced food rationing in order to help raise goods for Berlin and the Royal Air Force ferried crucial fuel supplies to the city. Without the support of France, Berlin’s main airport Tegel never would have been built. And, of course, the American and British taxpayers – who ended up covering the massive costs of it all – shouldn’t be forgotten. Nobody back then could have imagined West Germany’s amazing economic miracle in the ensuing postwar years.
But back to Tempelhof – the debate surrounding the airport’s planned closure is a political issue that has only little to do with its historical importance. Of course, the future of the city cannot be guided by historical considerations, but this should not keep us from keeping the memories of this key moment in Berlin’s history alive.
Tempelhof is slated to close this autumn as part of Berlin’s plan to build a single major air hub, Berlin-Brandenburg International, by 2011. Many local residents near Tempelhof want to keep the historic airport open until at least then.
The author is the director of Berlin’s Allied Museum. Translation by The Local.