July 23, 2015

1949. The Soviets Lift the Berlin Blockade

Strategic Failure for Communism in Europe
Bill Downs filming "We Went Back" in Germany in 1947
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

May 7, 1949

Berlin must have looked like a cinch to the Communists when the Russians clamped on their blockade off this city eleven months ago.

Here it was—the American, British, and French sectors of the city a capitalist island 120 miles inside the Soviet zone. From a prestige viewpoint, the stakes were high—complete Communist control of the former German capital, a sizable industrial prize, and the banishing once and for all of the disruptive political influences of the Western democracies.

According to the Marxist revolutionary texts, here was a chance for a classic operation by the Comrades; a chance to put into practice the dynamic principles of Stalinism.

I have been studying this problem in Marxist political warfare for the past eight months. Here was what was supposed to have happened.

The blockade would be slapped on. A tremendous propaganda campaign would start simultaneously to discredit the Western Powers. The shortage of food and supplies, of coal and fuel, would paralyze the basic public services. American, British, and French garrisons here would be forced to evacuate all but skeleton staffs. At this time, the German Communists would hail the abandonment of the people of Berlin as a capitalist defeat.

As the winter wore on, more and more West Berliners would be forced to register in the Soviet sector of the city to get food and fuel. And as more and more of them registered, the more pressure that could be exerted to join the movement to oust the three Western administrations.

Then, when conditions became hard, or when the German Communists reckoned they had an effective core of support in the British and American and French sectors, then it would be time to move in. The so-called "People's Police" had been trained and armed in the meantime. Activist bullyboys would be ready to move in for rioting and street fighting.

At this point, the Russian military government of Berlin would announce that these disturbances were threatening the peace of their occupation and take over the administration of the western part of the city.

From the Communist viewpoint it must have looked a simple operation; much less complex than, say, the seizure of the Czech government.

But it didn't happen, and today we know why. The Western Powers stood up on their hind legs and said no. The miracle of the airlift defeated the blockade. And most importantly, America, Britain, and France demonstrated to a confused and conquered people that democracy is no sissy-prissy lace-pants ideal, but a working formula for free government with muscles as tough as any Communist. The defeated people of West Berlin who had enough of totalitarianism took the cue and stood by us.

In the sense that we have defeated the Communist strategy and frustrated their attempts to capture all Berlin in these past eleven months, the lifting of the blockade means a victory for the West in Berlin.

But it by no means can be interpreted as a conclusive one. The struggle for Germany continues.

With the lifting of the siege only five days away, and with the important conference of Foreign Ministers impending shortly after that, the big international mystery today is: "What is the new strategy? Why this reversal of policy at this time?"

Experts here give four possible reasons for the change in the Communist line in Germany.

First, they say, it could be that the decision to abandon the blockade was made simply because it failed. If you remember, during these eleven months of siege the Communist parties of France and Italy last fall made an all out effort to wreck the economies of those nations. Thus, it is reasoned, the big 1948-1949 offensive of the party in Western Europe didn't come off; it is time to stop and try a new line.

Secondly, although the offensive of the Left is making giant strides in the Far East, a really serious situation is developing in the Western nations through formation of the Atlantic Pact. As long as crises such as the Berlin Blockade persist, the North Atlantic alliance will be solidified. Therefore remove this international irritant and remove the urgency of the Atlantic Pact organization.

Another reason that observers here give for the lifting of the Russian blockade is the success of our own counter-blockade halting trade with the East. East German officials themselves admit the critical state of industry in the Soviet zone of Germany. The Russian satellite nations such as Poland and Hungary were once big customers of German industry. Consequently the counter-blockade provides a serious disruption of the balance of trade in Eastern Europe.

And finally, the Communists have an eye on the American Congress, which is now considering the United States military appropriations. By removing the Berlin Blockade as a major international irritant, they could hope to prevent expansion of American armed forces and armed aid under the Atlantic alliance.

What is going to happen now?

If one is to believe the current Communist Party line being spread in this city, then the Russians at the Foreign Ministers' conference will press for a quick peace treaty with Germany and the withdrawal of occupation troops. The question of German unity will arise, and since both the East and Western Powers are committed to a unified Germany, then there should be extensive debate on that.

But there is another school of thought here that predicts a new shift in Soviet policy is a radical one; that the Russians are willing to go to almost any lengths to bring about settlement in Germany. In other words, establish a unified Germany in which the Communists would participate; let this unified Germany become a play form for the East-West struggle, and thus give the Communists a chance to capture the entire administration.

An interim West German government was established yesterday in Bonn. A similar government will be established in the Soviet zone.

But the question of whether these two German governments will ever assume power depends upon the meeting this month in Paris.

In fact, so much depends upon this conference of Foreign Ministers. Berlin is praying that it will be a step towards peace.