The historical significance of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport can hardly be overestimated. As an embodiment of the Nazi’s racial imperialism, the eagle-shaped building was constructed not only to provide the Reich’s capital with a modern airport, but also to create a gigantic amphitheater to show its aerial dominance. The 1.6 km-long roof could host more than 100.000 people to watch military air demonstrations. Such a happening never materialized, but the airport became a malign symbol of an evil empire. However, the complex wasn’t destroyed by the allied forces. Tempelhof turned out to be an extremely useful tool in the next big battle. The Berlin Airlift was the Cold War’s first major crisis and this time the Zentralflughafen rescued the free world. When Tempelhof finally ceased its activities on the 30th of October 2008, the world said goodbye to its most controversial and colorful airport. Nowadays guided tours keep on showing us the absurdity of Europe’s twentieth century. A to do before you die.
The General Aviation Terminal serves as starting point for a highly documented two-hour walk through the catacombs of the artefact. It wasn’t that bombastic in the beginning: when Orville Wright showed his skills here in 1909, Tempelhof was no more than a deserted meadow. Graf von Zeppelin was announced to pass by with his airship that same year, but it took him three attempts in three days to reach the destination. Subsequently, the 100.000 spectators did have to fill the space three times before they finally observed the strange phenomenon. As did the Kaiser. It finally became an actual airport in 1923, the first building being a small hut for construction workers. The barrack was soon joined by a first terminal. The game could begin.
Tempelhof gradually expanded, but it was only with the current configuration, built between 1936 and 1941, that the spot got genuine worldwide attention. Speer incorporated the airport in the perfidious megalomanic plans for Germania, as the capital of Hitler’s Reich would be called. It had become one of the biggest buildings in the world – and it still is. You only realize the scale of the operation when you leave the terminal and enter the apron section: almost one curved kilometer of gates covered by a gigantic roof. And another one on the west side of the check-in hall with a big open tarmac in front of it to park the planes. It all seems a bit odd today: apart from a vintage US Army airplane, the place feels extremely empty without busy flight activities. But at the same time it adds tons of mystery to the narrative of Tempelhof: this wide tarmac is the most magic place to recall the heroism of the Berlin Airlift. The allied forces guaranteed the survival of West Berlin by meticulously coordinating 200.000 transport flights in about fifteen months. Tempelhof served as main hub.
That strange feeling of abandonment characterized the whole tour. The silence seemed hugely artificial as we continued to the baggage handling room right underneath the main hall. Nothing had changed since the last suitcase was distributed on that October night in 2008. Even the flight times, written on the window glass, are still there. It’s like you only need one push on the button to restart the machine. But that will never happen again. The guide took us straight to the roof to overview Tempelhofer Freiheit: the site has been turned into a park and is used for all kinds of things except flying and real estate development. Apart from an enormous surface for recreation, Tempelhof now hosts concerts as well as a Formula E race. This open space has a bright future in modern Berlin.
The upper floors of the central building housed US Army officials, who, among other missions, gained military intelligence from the East. Far away from their homeland, the American community that stayed in Berlin had all the opportunities to spend their time in a familiar way: the soldiers even had a small basket arena on top of the complex, almost right beneath the place that was once occupied by a giant Nazi eagle. The remains of the concrete animal now stand right in front of the airport entrance. As the upper floors are largely deserted since the departure of the Americans, a new destination for the rooms is being explored.
The airport has also served as a shelter during the many bombings of the city. The rooms underneath the gates were designed to function as a bunker for several thousand people. In order to calm the children in case of an air attack, pictures were drawn on the walls to tell stories and distract them from the drama. An additional but top secret bunker is located about 12 meters below one of the main buildings. It was never intended to protect civilians or soldiers, but – as is now assumed – it stored Lufthansa’s collection of illegal aerial pictures of Germany. However, the celluloid images in that bunker exploded at the end of the war when a negligent soldier threw a burning cigarette on the floor.
Tempelhof hasn’t released all of its secrets yet. There’s still so much to be discovered by historians and military specialists. In the meantime, the extensive walk through the former airport’s tarmac, halls, ceilings and bunkers proves once again how important this city has been for the twentieth century.
More information about the tours on http://www.thf-berlin.de/.
All my pictures of Tempelhof can be found here.