In the aftermath of World War II, a conquered and devastated Germany became the fi rst fl ashpoint in the cold war. At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the victorious Allies had divided Germany into four occupation zones, and each zone was administered by one of the Allied military commands.

The three Western zones, occupied by the United States, Britain, and France, coordinated their activities relatively closely, but a dangerous rift was developing between these Allies and the Soviets, who occupied eastern Germany. The former Nazi capital, Berlin, had also been divided among the Allies, but it lay deep within the Soviet zone. The Russians had pledged to allow the Western Allies to cross their territory to supply their enclave, West Berlin, but by 1948, tensions were at a boiling point.

As the Soviets tightened their grip on Eastern Europe, the Western Allies issued a shared currency for use in their zones, hoping to stabi-lize Germany’s devastated economy. The move angered the Soviets, who responded by cutting off all surface traffi c into West Berlin on June 27, 1948. Diplomatic entreaties had no effect, and the beleaguered people of West Berlin, cut off from shipments of food, fuel, and medicine, faced the grim prospect of starvation.

The Western Allies immediately began preparing to supply the city through a massive airlift, in what would become the largest aerial supply operation in human history. Turning the massive air fl otillas of World War II into a humanitarian relief force, American, British, and French pilots delivered more than 2 million tons of needed supplies. During a harsh German winter, which would have caused the death of thousands of West Berliners, the Allies fl ew more than 270,000 relief fl ights.

The Soviet blockade was fi nally lifted on May 12, 1949, as the frustrated Red Army commanders realized that the Allies had the resources and resolve to supply the city indefi nitely. The Berlin Airlift had demonstrated the growing animosity between East and West during the cold war and presaged the eventual triumph of the Western democracies in the ideological struggle. It would take another four decades, however, before a divided Germany was fi nally reunifi ed.