What We Can Learn from the Berlin Airlift

March 23, 2020

The 1948-49 crisis taught us some lessons about food capitalism, good and bad.

I’ve always had this weird affinity for tales of food shortages and famines, perhaps because they make me appreciate living in relatively prosperous times. Now those tales are starting to seem uncomfortably relevant.

In that spirit, I hauled off my bookshelf “The Berlin Airlift,” published in 1988 by Ann & John Tusa. It describes what was arguably the greatest single postwar triumph of American and British foreign policy: the defeat, through a massive airlift, of the USSR’s attempt to coerce West Berlin into the Soviet bloc by strangling it with a blockade.

Berlin is located inside what was then the Soviet sphere of influence in Germany, and would eventually become the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany. (Don’t you love how communists, the dictatorial flipside of fascists, threw around words like “democratic” and “republic”?) The Western allies insisted on placing the western half of Berlin under their own influence. The city was still unified; the Berlin Wall lay decades in the future.

But starting early in 1948, the Russians began barring train and truck traffic from western Berlin. They used the sort of bland excuses that Soviet bureaucrats were so good at – a “greater system of organization,” that sort of thing – but their intent was plain: to interrupt shipments of food and other vital supplies, starving west Berliners into submission.

The Allies were in a bind. Forcing their way into Berlin was not an option; the Soviets had far superior forces on hand, and in any case, the public would not stand for another war, so soon after the last one ended – against an erstwhile ally, no less.

So they organized the Berlin Airlift, pressing into service every military and private transport aircraft they could scrape up. It was a struggle. West Berliners, who had just been through World War II, got to experience a new round of privation: thin rations, electricity four hours a day if they were lucky, undependable water and gas supplies.

What especially interests me about “The Berlin Airlift” is its description of the role food processing and packaging played in making the airlift work.

The basic mandate was to pack the most calories possible into the least amount of space. To that end, fresh potatoes, a favorite of the German diet, were banned; too much water. The staple became dried potatoes, which quickly bared the difference between the best kind (German, but in short supply) and the worst (French and American).

Interestingly, the besieged West Berliners got to eat fresh bread, because flour, yeast and coal for baking collectively took up less space than the equivalent amount of RTE loaves would have. The yeast, however, had to be dried to reduce weight, even though, as the Tusas write, some of it “had low fermentation and gave ‘cloddy’ bread into the bad bargain.”

Packaging was a special source of vexation. Logistics masters were driven crazy by how manufacturers arbitrarily switched between 40- and 90-pound bags. Fish had to be struck from the manifest because the wooden barrels it was shipped in kept bursting, with disastrously smelly results. Pasta came in paper bags, 40% of which broke in one month.

It’s interesting to see how, while some food processors in the Allied zone of Germany stepped up, others kept trying to fob off onto the West Berliners products they could never sell to consumers who had a choice: pea soup that took forever to cook (with precious coal), bean soup that “smelled stale and tasted soapy.”

Perhaps the most outrageous interlude was when dried-potato factories in West Berlin, which were just beginning to ramp up production of much-wanted German dehydrated potato, were visited by men posing as officials of the Allied governing force, who directed them to give priorities to dehydrating vegetables instead of potatoes. “They may, indeed, have been muddled officials, though there was some suspicion that vegetable wholesalers had been looking for quick sales,” the Tusas write.

But by early 1949, the airlift was functioning so well that it was clear Berlin could be supplied by air indefinitely. The USSR lifted the blockade in May. That year, the German Democratic Republic was established, and Berlin’s separation was finalized by the erection of the Wall in 1961.

As we all know, the GDR, and European communism in general, would fall, done in partly by the incompetence of communist states in furnishing their citizens with the necessities of life. This stood in stark contrast to the Western capitalists providing for their consumers so well – even in trying times like the Berlin blockade.

Something to keep in mind in trying times like these.