[3 March 2010]
The media has been all over World War Two. Academic and historical research as well as popular media such as film, books and television have generated a mountain of material covering every aspect of that war. The Cold War too has been a popular target of attention.
The period in between those two wars, however, has been neglected. Those were the few ambiguous years when for America and the West, the Soviet Union turned from wartime ally to communist enemy. The same interlude saw Germany turn from a being a dangerous Nazi state into, for America, at least, a friendly country. It was an amazingly brief turn around and one with momentous consequences for the decades that followed.
Richard Reeves turns our attention to that period by telling the story of the Berlin airlift, a massive undertaking in 1948 and 1949 to feed West Berlin when the Soviets attempted to blockade the western sectors of the city. It’s a story that has been easy to forget. Of relatively short length and boasting no direct combat, the airlift seems to have no hook. It lacks the blood and guts of the World War and the intrigue and nuclear drama of the Cold War. Reeves does a fine job in resurrecting the airlift and pinpointing its particular appeal.
He first details the factors that led to the airlift and which need a bit of explaining in today’s post Cold War, united Germany world. After the defeat of the Nazis, Germany was divided into four provisional occupation zones and the capital city itself, Berlin, located 100 miles inside the Soviet zone was also divided into four zones. The American and the Soviets both wanted to control Berlin but the Soviets had the upper hand. Their area of control produced much of the food for all of Germany. West depended on East.
In Berlin this situation was even more critical since the city itself was surrounded by Soviet territory. These circumstances were perfectly suited for a blockade and the Soviets, hoping to starve the Americans and British and French out of Berlin, eventually put one into place.
Reeves ably tells the technical story of what happened next: a huge, unprecedented airlift that mobilized thousands of planes, pilots and support personnel from Britain and the United States to ferry incredible amounts of food and fuel and materials into West Berlin. Reeves details the logistical headaches that had to be overcome and the political opposition to the effort back home. There was much daring and hard work by commanders and managers and especially pilots to keep the endeavor aloft. Reeves reports well on the statistics of the airlift: the tonnage and the number of flights and people involved.
If that were all there was to this book, it would be a nice, somewhat dry, historical survey. Reeves, however, has done something a little deeper. As his title suggests, he has focused on the “daring young men” who pulled this thing off. He has not simply done the now very familiar trick of personalizing a particular era of history or some particular grand event by concentrating on the individual’s role, the sacrifices and heroism that the ‘little people” displayed; he has found the ambiguity and moral uncertainties of the people who were involved in this mission.
That moral ambiguity, the emotional challenges faced by individual pilots, soldiers and workers is bound up in the larger turn of history. The American and British pilots who were called upon to heroically feed the German people had just finished, only three years ago, catastrophically firebombing the cities these Germans lived in. All these pilots had been fed a steady diet of anti-Nazi propaganda and, if that weren’t enough, the British had lived through the bombing of their own country by the Germans.
Real German atrocities were fresh in the news and on their minds. Now these men and women were called upon to feed and save what had just been the greatest enemy humankind had ever known. Mistrust, confusion and moral whiplash were common among Germans, too. Many hated the Americans still and were convinced that the whole affair had some nefarious ulterior motive.
Amazingly, this is a story where goodness won out. Whatever the larger geo-political aims Americans did risk and give their lives for those who had lately had been their mortal enemies. They hastily abandoned families for the sake of the mission. They disobeyed rules and gave candy to kids, hid food for strangers, went out of their way to do good. Many recognized the strange twist of events. As one said, “I felt a lot better feeding people than killing them.”
The Berlin airlift deserves to be remembered. The people who pulled it off deserve to be remembered. That strange period of time between a world war and a cold war deserves attention. Reeves helps us remember and see the strange way history turns and the strange, twisting roles individuals sometimes have to play.