Berlin Airlift anniversary sparks German goodwill

60th anniversary of the airlift happens Thursday
6/22/2008 BERLIN Thursday is the 60th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift - the daring American-led operation to feed some 2 million West Berliners under Soviet blockade.

As they celebrate the event with fond reminiscences of American courage and generosity, many Germans are filled with excitement at the possibility of Barack Obama capturing the White House. German media have anointed the Democratic candidate the new John F. Kennedy, and see him as being more in sync with their views on the Iraq war and global warming.

Karsten Voigt, the conservative government's point man on U.S. relations, said this month that many Germans see in Obama a "mixture of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy."

What most Germans want is "an American president again whom it does not just respect because he represents a world power, but with whom it can identify, whom it can love," he told ZDF television.

However, he cautioned that both Obama and Republican John McCain have pluses and minuses for Germany, and Germans shouldn't expect an entirely smooth ride with either.

Still, most Germans expect a new start after a mostly sour eight years, during which the Iraq war triggered huge protests in Germany and sharp exchanges between the two governments.

Gerhard Schroeder's opposition to the Iraq invasion helped him win re-election as chancellor in 2003 after a campaign in which, among other barbs, his justice minister appeared to obliquely compare President Bush to Adolf Hitler.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, 200,000 Germans streamed to Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate, many wearing shirts proclaiming: "We are all New Yorkers."

But the warm feelings quickly wore off, and apparently have yet to be rekindled.

This month's Pew Global Attitudes survey showed only 31 percent of Germans have a favorable view of the United States - down from 78 percent in 2000. However, 55 percent like Americans as a people, the survey by the Washington-based organization showed.

"The Iraq war ... is on one side, and on the other side are the people," said Mercedes Wild, who was 7 during the airlift and remembers the U.S. planes dropping candy in tiny parachutes made of handkerchiefs.

"The main bridge remains because the largest bridge has been built between the people."

The bridge, historians say, was largely forged by the airlift, coming at a time when many Americans were still recovering from their war with Hitler's Germany.

"The airlift caused the former enemies to become partners, cooperate, and that developed confidence that ended up in a partnership and friendship," said Helmut Trotnow, director of Berlin's Allied Museum, which hosts a permanent airlift exhibition.

"If it hadn't been for the airlift, probably there would have been no German-American friendship, because America would have left."

Instead Americans stayed. A total of 30 million American soldiers, their families and diplomatic personnel were posted to West Germany and West Berlin between 1945 and 1994, when Russia completed its withdrawal from the former East Germany, Trotnow said.

The U.S. military says roughly 85,000 U.S. troops, plus their families, remain at bases in the country today, underlining the lasting legacy.

When World War II ended, zones of western Germany were turned over to Britain, France and the U.S. to administer, and these became democratic West Germany. The Soviet Union got what became the communist state of East Germany. Berlin was entirely inside the Soviet sector, but divided among the four powers.

In an effort to squeeze the Western occupiers out of Berlin, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin blockaded all rail, road and ship traffic into the city. The only access for the Western powers was by air.

On June 26, 1948, the airlift began. Over the next 15 months, American, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and South African pilots flew some 278,000 flights to Berlin, carrying some 2.3 million tons of food, coal, medicine and other supplies.

On the busiest day - April 16, 1949 - nearly 1,400 planes carried in nearly 13,000 tons over 24 hours - an average of one plane touching down every 62 seconds.

West Germans - especially Berliners - were shown the human face of their former enemies, working with the occupying forces on a large scale for the first time, Wild, now 67, recalled.

More iconic moments would follow - Kennedy in 1963 declaring "Ich bin ein Berliner" in solidarity with West Berliners, two years after the Berlin Wall cut the city in two; and Ronald Reagan in 1987, urging the Kremlin to "tear down this wall."

In 1989 the wall indeed came down, and the following year the two Germanys were reunited.

More recently, the conservative government under Angela Merkel that replaced Schroeder's administration has worked to warm up the relationship with Washington. While it has not departed from Schroeder's refusal to send forces to Iraq, Germany keeps 3,000 troops in Afghanistan's relatively calm north, providing security and helping to oversee reconstruction.

The anniversary is being marked with events at airfields that served the airlift, reunions of pilots and ground crews who took part, speeches by dignitaries and a special display at the Allied Museum.

Today, with the Cold War fading into history, some young Germans say it's time to get over the mentality of indebtedness.

"Germans were so grateful for everything America was doing for them - America helped them rebuild, and in the airlift the Americans kept Berlin alive," said 22-year-old university student Maxi Lehmann.

"But Germany has developed so much - it's a stronger country. Germany is working with other European countries to strengthen the European Union. They don't need America the way they did then."

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