Post-War Europe: the Berlin Airlift & the Marshall Plan

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  • 0:05 Conditions in Postwar Europe
  • 0:52 The Marshall Plan
  • 4:18 The Berlin Airlift
  • 8:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift. We will examine the conditions in postwar Europe that resulted in these events, and we will understand why they are important.

Conditions in Postwar Europe

The Second World War left Europe devastated. Millions of people had been killed or wounded, while many major cities lay in ruins. Agricultural production had declined, resulting in near-famine for millions of Europeans. Industrial and transportation infrastructures had been disrupted, leading to countless problems. In Eastern Europe, the dark shadow of Soviet occupation loomed. Even as the world celebrated Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, Europe lay in shambles.

How would Europe recover from such devastation? What plan would guide Europe through reconstruction? Let's take a look.

The Marshall Plan

To assist in the recovery of war-torn Europe, the Marshall Plan was implemented. Between 1948-1951, the Marshall Plan provided economic aid to 16 European countries struggling to rebound from the destruction of World War II. The Marshall Plan was officially called the European Recovery Program, or ERP. The program has come to be called the 'Marshall Plan' because U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall was instrumental in developing it. Diplomat George F. Kennan also played a key role in its development.

When it was all said and done, nearly $13 billion dollars in assistance was given away under the Marshall Plan. Assistance took the form of food shipments, fuel, machinery, and other staples. Distribution of aid was coordinated through the Economic Cooperation Administration, a U.S. government agency created specifically for the Marshall Plan. When the Marshall Plan first rolled out, the United States invited the Soviet Union to participate. The Soviets, however, refused, along with their Eastern Bloc states.

Great Britain, France, and West Germany were among the countries receiving the most substantial aid packages. If you think about it, this makes sense. Great Britain and France were America's closest allies during the war, and America had a vested interest in seeing these countries prosper.

Okay, so what about West Germany? Wasn't Germany our enemy during the war? When World War II ended, the eastern half of Germany was occupied by the Soviets, while the western half was occupied by the Allies. In 1949 the two zones of occupation became the countries of East Germany and West Germany. East Germany was communist and highly influenced by the Soviet Union, while West Germany was democratic and highly influenced by the Western Allies.

It is helpful to consider the rivalry between the two German states. If East Germany became more prosperous than its counterpart, it could be seen as a sign of the superiority of a communist system, whereas if West Germany became more prosperous, it could be taken as proof of the superiority of the democratic-capitalist system. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. realized the tremendous propaganda value of 'their' Germany's prosperity. For this reason, the U.S. placed high value on seeing West Germany rebuilt - and rebuilt better than East Germany.

We have to understand that the apparent generosity behind the Marshall Plan was, to a very large extent, motivated by a desire to thwart the spread of communism in Eastern Europe. The Western democracies believed that the devastation following World War II was fertile soil for Soviet expansion. The United States, therefore, felt obliged to assist in the economic restructuring of Europe in order to ward off communist expansion, and ensure the foundation of democratic states. Most historians regard the Marshall Plan as a major success.

The Berlin Airlift

Just as the occupation of Germany was divided between the Soviets and the Western Allies, so too was the capital city of Berlin. The Soviets controlled the eastern half of Berlin, while the Americans, British, and French each controlled sectors of West Berlin. Now the city of Berlin lay inside the Soviet half of Germany, so basically Allied-controlled sectors of the city were completely isolated, kind of like an island within a sea of Soviet-controlled territory.

In an attempt to gain control of the entire city, the Soviets began ordering American military forces out of East Berlin in the spring of 1948. In June they began restricting traffic between the eastern and western sectors. They also cut off electricity and food shipments to West Berlin. Basically West Berlin was being completely isolated. This was called the Berlin blockade. Without access to the outside world, the people in the Allied sectors found themselves in a grave situation. President Harry Truman and American officials determined they could not afford to be bullied out of the city.

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