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The Berlin Airlift

On 26 June 1948, the Berlin Airlift began in earnest after the Soviet Union cut off land and water routes to the isolated western sector of Berlin.

Germany’s capital, Berlin, was deep within the area controlled after WWII by the Soviet Union. Initially governed in four sectors controlled by the four Allied powers (US, UK, France and the Soviet Union), tensions of the Cold War escalated until the Soviet forces implemented the Berlin Blockade, intended to force the allies out of Berlin. The allied response was the dramatic airlift. Surviving a normally harsh German winter, heroic allied aviators carried over two million tons of supplies in 270,000 flights. The blockade of Berlin was finally lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949. Afterward, the sectors controlled by the NATO Allies became an effective exclave of West Germany, completely surrounded by East Germany. From 1952, the border between East and West was closed by the Iron Curtain everywhere but in Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans defected to the West there, a labor drain that threatened East Germany with economic collapse.

In 1961, the East German government erected a barbed-wire barrier around West Berlin, arguing that it was to keep spies and agents from crossing into the East. Over a period of months the wall was rebuilt using concrete, and buildings were demolished to create a “death zone” in view of East German guards armed with machine guns. Yes, people were killed there.

On 26 June 1963, President Kennedy visited West Berlin, where he made his famous declaration: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). This great message was aimed as much at the Soviets as it was at Berliners, and was a clear statement of U.S. policy in the wake of the construction of the Berlin Wall. While “Berliner” is also the name for a jelly donut—in much of the world, but not Berlin, Germany, despite reports to the contrary in media as prestigious as the New York Times and Newsweek, he didn’t say “I am a jelly doughnut.”

Both the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall came down as the Cold War ended as the Soviet Union spent itself into debt and final collapse in Dec 1991.

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