“They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” said Talleyrand of the Bourbons after they’d returned to power in 1815 and continued as blithely as before the Revolution. But what might he make of Angela Merkel if he were alive today? At the weekend, the German Chancellor said that the EU (and thereby Germany) would be “losing something” with Britain’s departure; but although this shows she has learned something, she still appears also to have forgotten rather a lot.
Frau Merkel knows that, as Sir Humphrey Appleby explained to his minister, Jim Hacker (Yes, Minister), one of the reasons the Germans went into the EU was “to cleanse themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race”. And, indeed, in September 2015, as the refugee crisis mounted, Merkel was in full redemptive mode, urging Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, to comply with the Geneva Conventions.
Last year, too, she quoted the Geneva Conventions at President Trump in a telephone call about his immigration ban. But has Merkel drawn the right conclusions from her country’s dark past? What Trump said in reply is not known, but Orban spoke plainly: “There should be no moral imperialism”.
What’s so puzzling about German kriegsschuld (war guilt) is that it often seems to lack any sense of obligation to those who paid the heavy price of delivering Germany from their Nazi evil and then, again at much cost, shielding them from its consequences. Notably any obligation to Britain. One of the most remarkable episodes in that 51-year story (from the outbreak of war in 1939 to the reunification of Germany in 1990) was the “Berlin Air Lift”, or as the Germans themselves have it, the Luftbrücken(air bridges), whose 70th anniversary it is this year.
At the end of the Second World War, US, British, and Soviet military forces divided Germany into three zones of occupation as agreed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 (Stalin conceded to France’s having a zone too, though their forces were few, but it would have to be drawn from the US and British zones). Berlin, though far inside the Soviet-controlled eastern Germany, was also divided into four occupation zones. As the wartime alliance began to turn sour, however, Stalin tried to subvert the Allied zones of Berlin in the hope of absorbing them into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.
The two and a half million Berliners across the four occupation zones faced deep privations. Allied bombing had reduced the city to rubble, shelter and warmth were scarce, the black market dominated daily life, and starvation loomed. (Rations in some parts of Germany fell to as little as 900 calories per day.)
In January 1947, the US and UK unified their respective zones in Germany itself to form what was known administratively as Bizonia (the French would combine with them 18 months later in Trizonia). Then, in March that year, the tension increased with the breakdown of the Moscow conference of foreign ministers and the enunciation of the ‘Truman Doctrine’ (President Harry S Truman pledged US support for free peoples against armed subjugation, primarily through economic and financial aid).
In June, the US Secretary of State, the former General George Marshall, announced the European Recovery Program. The purpose of the Marshall Plan, as it came to be called, was not only to support economic recovery in Western Europe but to create a bulwark against Communism by drawing participating states into the US’s economic orbit.
Early the following year, 1948, the US, UK and France began to plan the creation of a new German state from the three occupation zones. On discovering this, the Soviets withdrew from the Allied Control Council and began to restrict rail and road access to Berlin. The Red Air Force also began to violate West Berlin airspace, ‘buzzing’ flights in and out of the city, and on 5 April, a Soviet Yak fighter collided with a British European Airways Viking airliner, killing all aboard both aircraft.
In June, the western allies introduced the new Deutschmark in Trizonia, and also in West Berlin to wrest economic control of the city from the Soviets and enable the introduction of Marshall Aid, as well as curbing the black market. The Soviets responded by issuing their own currency, the Ostmark, and on 24 June, Soviet troops imposed a total blockade of rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of the city, cutting off electricity as well as food and coal.
The allies had been making contingency plans for such a case, but the Soviets had calculated that an airlift of food and fuel for the civil population and the allied garrisons would be simply too expensive, even if it were technically possible. Nevertheless, two days later the US Air Force launched Operation Vittles (cf “victuals”) with the aim of doing just this. Britain, though in the grip of post-war ‘austerity’, with fuel and food still rationed at home, and Clement Attlee’s Labour government trying to introduce its great scheme, the National Health Service, followed suit on 28 June. With understated punning literalness, the RAF called theirs ‘Operation Plainfare’.
Truman and Attlee had calculated that the Soviets would not forcibly interfere with the airlift of humanitarian aid, especially after the crash of the BEA airliner, but as a warning, Truman sent nuclear-capable B-29 bombers to the UK.
The Soviets offered to drop the blockade if the Allies withdrew the Deutschmark from West Berlin. The Allies refused. In September, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany – the German Communist Party of the Soviet zone of occupation) marched on the Berlin City Council and forced it to adjourn. Fearing the Allies might halt the airlift and cede West Berlin to the Soviets, in turn 300,000 West Berliners rallied at the burned-out Reichstag to show their opposition to the Soviets.
As the months passed, the airlift became ever more efficient. The number of aircraft and sorties increased, and the turn-round times – loading, unloading, refuelling and take-off – decreased. At the height of the campaign, one plane was landing every minute into either Gatow, Templehof or Tegel airfields from hub airfields near Hamburg, Hanover and Frankfurt.
When Stalin lifted the blockade in May 1949, aircrew from the US Air Force, the RAF, the French Air Force and from the Commonwealth, and civilian lines, had flown 277,804 sorties in 689 military and civil aircraft (441 US, 147 RAF and 101 British civil) carrying 2.3 million tonnes of supplies – two-thirds of it coal. Berliners had received an average of 2,300 calories a day – higher than in food-rationed Britain.
The Berlin blockade, though a resounding and largely bloodless victory for the Western Allies, nevertheless solidified the division of Europe. Shortly before its end, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created, and two weeks after the blockade was lifted, the Federal Republic of Germany was formed from Trizonia, though for the time being the Allies retained control of foreign policy (the Soviets replied with the creation of the German Democratic Republic). And Berlin – Angela Merkel’s father’s city – became both the actual and symbolic outpost of freedom and democracy in the fight against Communism.
Today, Templehof is no longer an airfield but an open space in the middle of the city, where Berliners jog, skate, sunbathe and barbecue. At the airfield’s former entrance, however, they might catch a glimpse of the Luftbrückendenkmal (airlift monument) commemorating both the aerial lifeline and its 76 casualties, both aircrew and civilians. Designed by the Bauhaus architect Eduard Ludwig and unveiled in 1951, it is reminiscent of a hungry hand reaching up. The curved concrete structures have three claws facing westwards to symbolise the three air corridors – Hamburg, Hannover, Frankfurt – through which Berliners were sustained, and the three sustaining powers – the US, UK and France.
Modern, prosperous, united Germany exists only because Britain stood alone against Hitler in 1940, and then after the war helped contain the Soviet Union. Yet how much of this is weighed in the balance when it comes to Brexit? It would not perhaps be quite a Ronald Reagan moment, when he stood at the concrete divide between East and West Berlin and said “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, but perhaps when next she goes to Berlin, Theresa May might consider making a speech in front of the Luftbrückendenkmal– something along the lines of “To avoid the danger of learning nothing, it is first necessary to forget nothing”.