Walking across the huge empty Theresienwiese field in the middle of Munich belies the craziness of the Oktoberfest crowds that gather there every fall. When my Dad came to visit, I took him to this empty space and asked him to guess what it was used for. He stared across the empty expanse – and didn’t have a clue.
In a similar but vastly more historically significant fashion, the giant Tempelhofer Field in the middle of Berlin also hosts scores of roller skaters, kite-fliers, picnickers, and dog walkers today with no hint of its past. But 75 years ago, a constant stream of military cargo planes landed and took off again every few minutes, for this is the site of the famous Berlin Airlift. Careful observers can spot an airlift memorial at its edge erected by Berlin’s thankful population, called Hungerharke or “hunger rake” by Berliners because of its shape.
This airlift rescue led by the Americans to save West Berlin from being starved to death by the Soviets is well known. It was the response to the Soviet Union’s completely cutting off land supplies to the western part of Berlin, completely encircled by Soviet-controlled territory following the end of WWII.
But most are unaware of the event that triggered this crisis: the introduction of the Deutschmark or D-mark on June 20, 1948. Germany’s post-war economy was in shambles and something needed to be done. It’s safe to say that the Nazi regime had lost its credibility (hope I’m not exaggerating here), rendering its currency, the Reichsmark, practically worthless.
But why would the Soviets care so much about the introduction of a new currency in the West? Why would they go to such great lengths to try to force the Allies and West Germany to revoke it?
At that moment in time, the future of Germany was up in the air. It was unclear how long the two Germanies would stay divided and who would govern, and the same applied to the divided capital of the now defunct Third Reich, Berlin (it’s amazing how fast those 1,000 years flew by). The cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Allies quickly gave way to antagonism once the Nazis were defeated.
The Western Allies and the Soviet Union had agreed to share the governance of Berlin, with the Allies in the West and the Soviets in the East. The symbolic nature of this cannot be overstated, as Berlin was the capital of the Third Reich, whose defeat is still commemorated by Russia every year in what they call the Great Patriotic War, which cost the lives of 37 million Russians.
The U.S. government printed a new currency in a secret operation called Operation Bird Dog and brought in 23,000 boxes of this new money. The Deutschmark or D-Mark was designed and printed by the American government and brought to West Germany in preparation for its introduction. This was in line with the Allies’ goal of creating a solid market economy in West Germany to enable it to fully integrate into Europe’s economy.
The introduction of the D-Mark was the catalyst for a series of events that cemented the separation of the two halves of the country. The Soviets responded by quickly introducing the Ostmark, literally “Eastern Mark,” to counteract the Western D-Marks, which almost immediately began clandestinely filtering into the East as a valuable hard currency. Because they were taken by surprise, the Soviets did not have freshly printed bank notes to distribute and instead had to make due with putting stamps on the existing Reichsmark notes. Thus from day one, the East German currency was less attractive than the Western version.
Little did they know that the battle to maintain the value of the Eastern currency against the West’s would continue for 40 years, right up until the two halves of Germany were finally reunified. Sometimes it’s better not to know what lies ahead. The introduction of separate currencies in East and West placed the two parts of the country firmly on separate paths, as it provided a fundamentally different economic basis for each.
The airlift planes were nicknamed Rosinenbomber, “raisin bombers.” American pilots were known to drop little bundles of candy outfitted with parachutes which excited children then collected – likely the first time these children from war-torn Berlin had even seen candy. Planes took off every three minutes with up to a thousand take-offs and landings per day to provide West Berliners with food, medicine, and even coal.
Sometimes they even brought family members that had been stranded in what had now become West Germany and who found themselves suddenly unable to cross via land, resulting in tearful reunions at the airport. Berliners would gather there to wave and cheer as the planes landed. So critical was this airlift that it even spawned a bustling souvenir industry.
Shortly after arriving in Berlin, my younger daughter reported with great excitement how she had gone roller skating “at a big park called Tempelhof” and got caught in a big thunderstorm. She was unaware of the fraught history of the location.
I thought about how a young woman, half-American, half-German, was able to look up at the Berlin sky and see only nature’s wonders and not thundering planes dropping bombs – or chocolate. How much better to have to flee from the rain.