The Berlin Airlift: Definition, Summary & Facts

Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels. He has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

The Berlin Airlift is considered one of the biggest aviation feats of all time. We'll look at its historical background, its impact, and consider some facts of the Airlift.


Imagine it's your responsibility to bring food to a whole city of 2.8 million hungry people? Sounds like a logistical headache, huh? Now imagine that you can't carry in any food into the city by car, train or boat. This leaves you with the only option of flying in the food. Now the task is way harder!

This exact scenario described above is what the United States, Great Britain, and France faced in 1946 with the city of Berlin. The Berlin Airlift was a time period in history in which these three allies were forced by the Soviet Union to feed the city of Berlin by flying in all food and supplies to help Berliners survive. It is considered one of the most remarkable aviation feats of all time, considering that a plane full of food had to touch down every three minutes just to keep up with the food needs of the city.

Berliners watch as an ally plane lands in Germany to deliver food to the city.

Historical Background

When you were a child, did you ever fight with your brothers, sisters, or friends over who got the biggest piece of a pizza? This scenario is very similar to what happened between the Allies at the end of World War II.

The Soviet Union, Great Britain, United States and France were allies who worked together to fight off Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the war. But soon after realizing they were going to defeat the Nazis, a great divide came between these groups of allies. Great Britain, the United States, and France were all democracies, but the Soviet Union was a communist country. The time came for these former allies to decide how they were going to set up a government in Germany after the Nazis were defeated. And just like brothers and sisters who fight over the best slices of pizza, so too did the former allies. The solution that they came up with was to divide Germany into four zones, with the Western zones controlled by Great Britain, United States, and France, and the eastern zone controlled by the Soviet Union.

The Allies after World War II divided up Germany into the following sections that they each controlled.

Even though the picture above shows the four countries dividing up the territory into seemingly equal 'slices', the truth was the Soviet Union's slice was the most appealing. This is because Germany's biggest city, Berlin, was in the Soviet Union's territory. The democratic allies (the U.S., France and Great Britain) didn't want the biggest city to be controlled by the communist Soviet Union. So part of the agreement they created was for the city of Berlin itself to be divided in four parts -- the western part controlled by the democratic allies and the eastern part controlled by the communist Soviet Union.

Berlin was divided into four sections after World War II.

Although the Soviet Union agreed to this division, Joseph Stalin -- the leader of the Soviet Union -- came up with a plan that he thought would make the democratic allies give up on their part of Berlin. He decided to create a blockade around west Berlin. No cars or trains would be allowed into West Berlin. Stalin's plan here was that the west side of the city would run out of food, West Berliners would get mad and riot, and the democratic countries would have to give up their part of West Berlin.

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