The Latin Quarter
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The Latin Quarter

Affairs in Germany: 1947–1949

Following the end of the Second World War, and the agreements formalised at the Potsdam Conference of August 1945, Germany, and its capital city, Berlin, was divided into four sectors, one controlled by Britain, France, the USSR and USA respectively. The problematic nature of this division comes into light with the geographical location of Berlin: far enclosed within the USSR ’eastern’ sector. With the control of ‘western’ sectors of Berlin carried out within the Russian sector of Germany by military forces of the west, both east and west were facing a delicate issue. In the eyes of the USSR, Berlin effectively acted as a western military installation buried deep within the eastern bloc. With the growing prospect of war in the late 1940s, the presence of western military within the eastern sector of Germany became inherently more dangerous, conflict imbued with higher degrees of risk when already buried deep in the east’s territory. On the other hand, in the view of the west, Berlin, deeply influential culturally and recovering as a symbol of world unity after the war, was incredibly vulnerable. Western soldiers stationed in Berlin were completely surrounded by the Russian sectors, filled with USSR troops, the main means of transport between west-controlled Berlin sectors and the rest of western Germany, train lines and roads, easily suffocated in the event of war.

Joining of Hands

Facing the encirclement of western sectors of Berlin by the USSR-controlled eastern parts of Germany, Britain and the USA combined their Berlin sectors in a ‘Bizonia’ in January 1947. The amalgamation of two western sectors of Berlin would work in mutual benefit for the UK and USA, now able to co-ordinate to a higher extent, both economically and militarily. Desires to improve the country dramatically following the war to avoid a similar situation to the end of the First World War necessitated significant economic input into western sectors of Germany, decidedly simplified by the combination of British and American parts of Berlin. However, a more urgent motivation to combine resources in a Bizonia was political and military pressures. The size of the USSR standing army present throughout the eastern bloc worried the west, particularly in relation to the portion of a major city entirely enclosed within the east, Berlin. The merging of two west-controlled areas, both with military presence in western Berlin, would facilitate smoother military operation when required, and if required by conflict between east and west, growing more likely following the exposition of Stalin’s world-view in 1946.

In addition to the economic and military motivations of combining Berlin sectors, it was to some degree, an optics manoeuvre. Following the disagreement between ex-Prime Minister Churchill and President Truman upon world-views made in March 1946 during the Iron Curtain speech, one expressing a sense of separation, and the other maintaining a perception of world unity, at least to the public, the two countries used the Bizonia to repair the little damage done to internal western relations. In the face of a judgemental USSR, ready to pounce on any flaw, the USA and UK were quick to attempt to cover up any hint of discrepancy of world-view within the west. The optics capacity of the Bizonia also served as a small affront to the USSR, Britain and America seemingly capable of negotiation, agreement and unification, while the USSR had maintained its distance. By presenting the USSR as distant, and the western countries with good relations, the west would appear to be more open and democratic, undermining Stalin’s message of an ‘imperialistic’ western bloc.

While the combination of sectors served to preserve, and indeed force co-operation within the west, it caused considerable disquiet in the USSR, worries growing of a military attack on the eastern bloc from a western enemy, part of which was embedded within eastern territory. Growing threat of conflict from both sides, and unifying manoeuvres within west-controlled Berlin forced the USSR to respond, in order to assert dominance within their bloc, and to show the west that they were not to be trifled with. In June of 1947, the USSR put a stop to any western military equipment entering Berlin, in an act of putting their foot down on what they perceived as aggressive hostile military movement from their political enemies, the UK and the USA. By blocking transportation of this sort, it allowed the USSR to prevent the western military inside Berlin growing too powerful: in the event of conflict, it would not pose a significant threat; and to form some retaliation against an increasingly bold west.

However, blockages of transportation of military equipment travelling from west Germany into West Berlin caused considerable rise in tension within the west, who perceived it as both a hostile act designed to intimidate, but also a violation of agreements made at Potsdam in 1945. Freedom of transport from western Germany and western sections of Berlin by road, train and air, had been guaranteed by the USSR during discussions on Germany, and the blocking of military equipment movement served to go against that. Interference in western military affairs in Berlin from the USSR, coupled with an intimidatory act in violation of previous agreements helped to increase tensions between the two sides, the west growing suspicious of USSR action, while the USSR struggled to control the potentially fatal situation brewing in Berlin with western military present.

Discussions behind Closed Doors

As a result of USSR restriction of western transport into Berlin, the west grew increasingly concerned with the east’s interference with activities in western sectors. In an extension of concept of the Bizonia, the west entered into talks in early 1948, beginning in March, to discuss the possibilities of a unified western Germany. A unified western Germany, with its own autonomous government and military as proposed by the western states would function as a much more valuable asset in the event of conflict with the eastern bloc, an additional country capable of engaging in conflict. Economic reasons, as seen in the Bizonia, also applied for the proposals for the unification of western Germany, allowing more efficient markets and economies, which would work to the west’s benefit in showing a progressive capitalist world, proving successful even in a country that had been ravaged by war.

The omission of the USSR from these talks however, served to increase tensions. While the west had enhanced their internal relations in the agreements of unification, their interactions, hidden from the east, caused noticeable disquiet in the Soviet government, afraid of an intimidating west able to exert influence on the eastern bloc. A united West Germany would pose a significant threat to the eastern bloc, one larger autonomous country indefinitely more risky to the security of the east than several smaller sectors controlled by further afield western interests. The continued decision of the west to not include any countries of the east in these discussions then served to increase tensions further, the already deep rift between east and west growing deeper in an apparent unwillingness to communicate or co-operate in any form. The alienation of a wartime ally, one whom had given immense support and had turned the tide in the Allied favour through continued fighting on the eastern front, increased tensions further, the USSR feeling betrayed in not being included in diplomatic discussions on Germany, a country that had been split up as per the agreements of the USSR, Britain and the USA.

The Berlin Blockade & Airlift

Following months of talks amongst the western countries in control of Germany and the sectors of Berlin not subject to USSR control, the USSR moved to act decisively over Berlin and the German issue as a whole. In June of 1948, the USSR cut all form of road and train supplies going into western sectors of Berlin, prohibiting any coal, food, industrial goods or oil entering the city from the west. This move was not only to remind the west of the USSR’s control over the area, but also as a larger retaliation for issues regarding western Europe as a whole, the Marshall Plan having been enacted by 1948, and Truman’s interventionist policy having been outlined in 1947. The repercussions of this action were immediately felt across the west, both in Berlin, and further away. The hostile nature of the blockade quickly increased tensions between the two sides, the west angered in the violation of agreements, and the willingness of the USSR to lock away what they perceived as a section of the west.

However, the west were quick to respond, initiating the new “Operation Vittles” in less than a month following the placement of the blockade. Now known as the Berlin Airlift, starting from the 24th of June 1948, the western states began flying in cargo supplies to western Berlin, in an act of defiance towards the USSR. Bringing up to 8,000 tonnes of oil, coal and food into Berlin every day, a cargo aircraft landing every minute and a half, the west proceeded to laugh at the USSR’s feeble attempt to cut off Berlin from the west and assert dominance.

In addition, the USA and UK quickly then devised a counter-blockade, preventing any west to east trade from taking place, and stopping vital industrial equipment entering east Germany. The sectors that the USSR had been given of Germany ensured that trade would still occur, as the poorer sections that the east had inherited required industrial goods only produced in western Germany. The use of a counter-blockade to deprive eastern Germany of its needs sought to put an end to the eastern blockade as quickly as possible, in the belief that the USSR would give up, allow trade again, opening up West Berlin to the rest of Europe once more. Nonetheless, both the blockades and the airlift created escalated tensions between east and west, both sides imposing military action to impair trade, or support it in defiance of the other. By starting a blockade, the USSR had shown that it would not be reticent in face of western movements that could damage it, and in the airlift, the west had shown that it would not be passively receptive to any retaliation, or aggression without consequences.

End of the Blockade

Throughout the rest of 1948, the blockade and the airlift endured, both sides too stubborn to show weakness and lose dominance over the west Berlin issue. However, in January 1949, the east and west began to negotiate, initiated by the USSR, to cease the political stand-off that had occurred in Germany. The negotiations reached an end then after several months, leading to a breakup of the blockade on the 5th of May 1949, when transport from western Germany by road and train to West Berlin was resumed. In substantiating an agreement between two sides, and ending the effective hostilities between east and west, the USSR had conceded defeat, unable to maintain blockages of trade for significant periods, and unwilling to give the west a spotlight for their oppression and display of the west’s strength. Nonetheless, the end of the Berlin Blockade offers a small moment of respite in the otherwise incredibly dark late 1940s, a sign of peace-making at least present between east and west.

The cessation of aggression over the German issue, at least for the time being, was then exemplified in the creation of a unified West Germany later that month, in May 1949, under a democratic government, and no longer in direct control of the western superpowers. The receptiveness of the east to this movement, when the west’s talks on unification had caused such disquiet a year earlier, was a sign of relaxation of tension in that geographical region, the only ‘retaliation’ as such being the formation of an independent East Germany in October of 1949.¹

¹While East Germany was legally independent from the USSR, the USSR maintained a strong military and political presence in East Germany, culminating in the incidents of 1961.

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