To what extent was Stalin to blame for the Berlin crisis 1948-9? Essay
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Several factors have a role to play in causing the Berlin crisis – the emerging Cold War, differing ideologies between the US and USSR, the Marshall Plan, formation of Trizonia and subsequent introduction of a new currency, the Deutschmark. However, Stalin, thorough his desire to oust the increasingly collaborating allies from Berlin, is largely to blame for the emergence of the Berlin crisis.
Stalin’s decision to launch the Berlin blockade was the first incident highlighting Cold War tensions. The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, designed to contain the spread of communism, had clearly provoked Stalin, whom Judt views as “losing the initiative in Germany”1, Stalin believed Marshall Aid would lead to U.
S economic domination and Western economic integration would undermine Soviet influence in Eastern Europe – his actions in causing the Berlin blockade were in part a defensive move to defend the Soviet bloc against this threat, which he was perfectly justified to do so. Roberts focuses on plans to create a separate West German state, established under 1948 London Programme, conflicting with Stalin’s perspective of a “united, but peace loving and democratic Germany”2, and implies Stalin was “quite frank” about his aim.3 Stalin couldn’t control the decision to introduce the new Deutschmark into West Berlin, which Sewell places strong emphasis on being “the trigger” for the crisis,4 but he could pressure West Berlin.
There are several examples to validate Sewell’s argument. By pressuring West Berlin, Williamson focuses on Stalin’s aim of forcing the Western allies to “reconsider the whole German question”5, as well as protecting the East German economy from financial ruin by stopping their zone being swamped with devalued Recihsmarks, validating Sewell’s argument on currency issues being the trigger for the crisis. Several historians, including Zubok and Pleshakov, McCauley and Sewell all acknowledge the fact that Stalin “had no risk to wish war”6 over Berlin, however by June 1948 Trizonia’s continuing economic integration, heightened by the Deutschmark’s introduction on June 23rd, gave Stalin the pretext to blockade West Berlin, as he wasn’t prepared to accept the “major geopolitical defeat” that Zubok and Pleshakov imply would be “particularly damaging”7.
Zubok and Pleshakov also focus on the Yalta and Potsdam conferences of 1945 where “4 partite administration of Germany and its capital” was agreed,7 this agreement conflicted with plans for a separate West German state, Stalin couldn’t sit back and let this happen, McCauley and Judt both argue Stalin’s purpose in blockading Berlin was to force the West to choose between quitting or abandoning their plans by using Berlin as, in Judt’s view, a “negotiating chip”8 strengthening McCauley’s argument which highlights Stalin’s desire to “ensure communist control over all Berlin, and end access by the West”, 9 envisaging Soviet influence over the whole of Germany via manipulation of its internal politics.
Miscamble focuses on Stalin’s intention to pressure the West into rethinking their proposal, inflicting a “political defeat” upon them he suggests would be a ”risky gambit”10, but one Stalin chose to take by applying pressure on West Berlin. Miscamble’s argument implies that Stalin had his sight set on stopping Western proposals. The actions of Stalin and the “high stakes”11 Edwards suggests he played for had a significant impact in causing the Berlin crisis.
Miscamble’s argument focuses on the Soviet regime who also “vehemently opposed”10 the creation of a new state. Soviets aimed to block the initial step to introduce the Deutschmark, and instituted a blockade on West Berlin, attempting “to force the Western powers to accept a German settlement more to their liking”10, however Miscamble goes onto argue that other events had greater significance, in particular the actions of Stalin. McCauley argues the “inept piece of diplomacy” attempted by the Soviets in bullying the West “amounted to little more than blackmail”, and there is evidence to make this a credible argument as the West were dependent on supplies crossing through the larger Soviet zone within Germany. The German question is another issue where the Soviets had clear issues with, the West had grossly underestimated the effect of the Second World War on Russia, and Edwards places strong emphasis on the prospect of a “reconstituted Germany” horrifying the Soviets, with possible rearmament “even more disturbing”12.
Due to geographical proximity, Russia still held fears of a future German offensive, and Edwards implies this in his argument, ” the spectre of an economically strong and rearmed Germany revived fears of an invasion from the West”. Such fears affected Soviet judgements on the London Program. Ideologies had a key role to play here, the Soviets based their entire European policy on a “weakened, non Western Central Europe” and LeFeber’s argument focuses on the introduction of a new capitalist German state leading to “the imminent defeat of that policy”.13 The Soviet regime and the U.S greatly differed on what they wanted for Germany at Yalta and Potsdam. Whereas Stalin wanted a buffer of friendly states, and a repeat of the crippling reparations seen in Versailles, the Americans wanted a democratic, capitalist Germany as a trade partner strong enough to halt the spread of communism.
Once Germany and its capital had been divided into four, conflict was inevitable, the two superpowers had achieved their shared aim of defeating Hitler and ideologies were far too differing, especially concerning the economy. Economic policy such as Marshall Aid and introducing the Deutschmark were clearly designed to affect the Soviet economy, and subsequent Soviet actions ultimately led to conflict. This inherent conflict between Russia and America meant that the two sides could never permanently resolve their differences. That is why the West could only contain Soviet expansionist efforts, and partially explains why the Berlin crisis occurred.
Despite Stalin’s actions being the catalyst for the Berlin crisis unfolding, Stalin and his regime were not solely to blame. The actions of both the Americans and the British in ensuring Western occupied territory did not slip behind what Churchill famously described as the ‘iron curtain’ had an impact; however Zubok and Pleshakov place emphasis on political parties such as the SED who also pressured Stalin into acting. Leading SED politician William Pieck had grave concerns the next elections in Berlin could end in “a humiliating defeat” for his party, and that such a result could be averted “if one could remove the allies from Berlin”.
Stalin responded to this claim by stating “Let’s make a joint effort, perhaps we can kick them out”14. The prospect of communist authority being challenged from within the Soviet zone raised considerable fear not only for the Soviets, but for SED leaders, this is a good example to validate their argument. Western demands for free elections and competitive markets seemed unnecessary and dangerous to both Moscow and the SED.15 McCauley also focuses on Stalin’s emissaries in Berlin who reported they “expected the airlift to fail”16, which may have put further pressure on Stalin to continue the blockade, despite American reiteration that they were going nowhere, which furthered the extent of Stalin’s blameworthiness for the Berlin crisis, but also pins a degree of blameworthiness onto Stalin’s emissaries, who may have deliberately fed him false information out of fear.
Despite Stalin being mostly to blame, Soviet actions were in part influenced by America and Britain. In the increasing distrust and conflict between East and West, the actions of the Americans were seen by the Soviets as a direct threat to them, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were clearly designed to contain the spread of communism and even bring Soviet satellites to capitalism, Ryan’s argument suggests some cominform states were “willing participants” but “ultimately, Stalin pressured them into withdrawing”17 and there is further evidence to validate his argument as these countries were devastated following the war. Edwards focuses on a principle concern of the Americans, Germans in the West ”would want to join those in the Soviet zone in a unified Germany under Soviet control”18. To help combat this, economic unification within their zones was agreed by the Western powers. Since the old currency had lost its value, and had even been reduced to what Edwards argues to be a “barter economy”18 in some parts, the aim was to significantly boost the economy.
This was regarded as a threat by the Soviets, however the Western powers were largely blameless in this decision as their judgement was solely based on how it would affect their zones, the effect it could have on the East German economy would tie in with their aim of reducing the influence of communism, however it was not the primary goal behind introducing the Deutschmark. Miscamble’s argument strongly focuses on American actions within Germany being heavily influenced by the 1948 Presidential election, such as their decision to keep the new currency secret until the last moment. The Government had “marked time” on their decision while awaiting the result, as Truman’s “sinking popularity” had led to widespread predictions of his defeat19. There are numerous examples to validate his argument as several historians, including McCauley, also acknowledge that “President Truman decided not to risk war in election year”20.
McCauley’s fairly forceful argument implies Truman ”had to appear tough and not to be seen caving in to Stalin”20, so it didn’t appear as if Stalin was gaining the upper hand. McCauley’s statement didn’t simply refer to Truman, however. General Clay, American Commander in Berlin, stated that ”if Berlin falls Western Germany will be next. If we mean to hold Germany against communism, we must not budge.”21 This made it perfectly clear to Stalin that America would not give in as easily has he had hoped – McCauley describes the “advantageous agreement” Stalin could have had over Berlin which had disappeared as he’d “overplayed his hand”22, which McCauley further implies as a “bad miscalculation”23. Stalin’s actions here mean that he was the principle cause behind the Berlin crisis by taking things too far.
McCauley’s argument also suggests that in addition to the Americans, Britain also can take partial blame for the Berlin crisis, in particular their “strongly anti-communist foreign secretary” Ernest Bevin. Bevin was “alarmed at the waxing of communist influence”23 and consistently worked to undermine Soviet ambitions for German unification, rejecting proposed agreements at the 1947 Moscow Conference, the last American effort to fully cooperate with the Russians, however McCauley goes on to argue other events had a greater significance, namely the incompetence of Stalin and the Soviet regime. Bevin believed that Stalin wished to make the whole of Germany communist, in 1948 Prime Minister Atlee approved a foreign office paper, to be used in preliminary discussions with the Americans and which Ovendale implies to be ”endorsed by Bevin”24. Ovendale’s argument focuses on this paper which stated the Soviets “had established themselves solidly in Eastern Europe, and from that secure entrenchment they were trying to infiltrate the West”24. Bevin, like most
of the West, failed to understand how badly Russia had suffered during the war, mistaking Soviet fears of a resurgent capitalist Germany. Ovendale focuses on Bevin’s preparation to accept division within Europe “as early as 1946”, but ”it had to appear that the Russians were to blame”24, There are several limitations to Ovendale’s argument as Stalin’s actions meant this was unnecessary, however it does established Bevin was prepared to take action himself. Despite primarily being Stalin’s fault, Britain is not blameless in causing the Berlin crisis. However since Britain was a main beneficiary of Marshall Aid, they were in debt to America. Britain’s role amounted to little more than supporting the Americans, and has a very small role in causing the Berlin crisis, despite putting more pressure on Stalin.
The Berlin crisis of 1948-9 was ultimately the fault of Stalin. Despite having legitimate concerns to the re-emergence of a capitalist Germany, heightened by American anti-communist action such as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, his actions far outweighed the circumstances. Despite pressurisation from his Soviet regime, communist parties within the satellite states, and the Western Powers, Stalin’s actions were the main catalyst for the crisis unfolding.
Edwards, Oliver. USA and the Cold War 1945-63. Hodder Education, 2002.
Judt, Tony. Post-war: A history of Europe since 1945. Pimlico, New Edition. 2007.
LeFeber, Walter. America, Russia and the Cold War 1945-2006. McGraw-Hill Higher Education; 10 Edition. 2006.
McCauley, Martin. Russia, America and the Cold War 1945-91. Longman, First Edition. 1998.
Miscamble, Wilson D. From Roosevelt to Truman – Potsdam, Hiroshima, Cold War. Cambridge University press; 1 Edition. 2006.
Ovendale, Ritchie. Anglo American Relations in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave McMillian Press Ltd, 1998.
Roberts, Geoffery. Stalin’s Wars, from World War to Cold War. Yale University press, 2006.
Ryan, David. The United States and Europe in the Twentieth Century. Longman Publishing Group, 2003.
Sewell, Mike The Cold War. Cambridge University press. 2001.
Williamson, David Europe and the Cold War 1945-91. Hodder Educational, 2006.
Zubok, Vladislav and Pleshakov, Constantine. Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Harvard University press, 1997.
Cold War I: Berlin Crisis – Major Events: http://www.opb.org/education/coldwar/berlincrisis/events/index.html
Berlin Blockade – Information on the Berlin Blockade:
Cold War 1945-63
Excerpt: Containment of the Soviet Union
The Cold War
1 Post War (Tony Judt) p145
2 Stalin’s Wars (Geoffrey Roberts) p350
3 Stalin’s Wars (Geoffrey Roberts) p395
4 The Cold War (Mike Sewell) p38
5 Europe and the Cold War 1945-91 (David Williamson) p69
6 The Cold War (Mike Sewell) p39
7 Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, from Stalin to Khrushchev (Zubok and Pleshakov) p51
8 Post War (Tony Judt) p146
9 Russia, America and the Cold War 1945-91 (Martin McCauley) p35
10 From Roosevelt to Truman – Potsdam, Hiroshima, Cold War (Wilson D. Miscamble) p313
11 USA and the Cold War 1945-63 (Oliver Edwards) p48
12 USA and the Cold War 1945-63 (Oliver Edwards) p48
13 America, Russia and the Cold War 1945-2006 (Walter LaFeber) p84
14 Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, from Stalin to Khrushchev (Zubok and Pleshakov) p52
16 Russia, America and the Cold War 1945-91 (Martin McCauley) p35
17 The United States and Europe in the Twentieth Century (David Ryan)
18 USA and the Cold War 1945-63 (Oliver Edwards) p48
19 From Roosevelt to Truman – Potsdam, Hiroshima, Cold War (Wilson D. Miscamble) p313
20 Russia, America and the Cold War 1945-91 (Martin McCauley) p35
22 Russia, America and the Cold War 1945-91 (Martin McCauley) p29
23 Russia, America and the Cold War 1945-91 (Martin McCauley) p25
24 Anglo American relations in the 20th century (Richard Ovendale) p76