Sunday, 7 September 2014

Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof

Berlin Tempelhof Airport was one of the first commercial airports in Germany and began regular services in 1923. It was extensively rebuilt and added to by the National Socialists, but never completed. After the war it was taken over by the US Air Force, and played a pivotal role in airlifting goods and fuel into West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade of 1948. During the 1950's Tempelhof Airport resumed commercial services, which continued and grew right up until the airport was closed on 30th October 2008. The year before its closure, around 350,000 passengers passed through its gate. This was a great reduction on the airport's heyday in the seventies when around five million passengers per year were handled.

Outside the airport is a memorial to the Berliner Luftbrücke, or Berlin Airlift, of 24th June 1948 to 12 May 1949 during which the airport played a crucial role. This crisis occurred when the Soviet Union blocked all road, railway and canal access to the Allied sectors of Berlin, with the aim of starving the population into submission and handing over full control of Berlin to the Soviets. Only by a truly phenomenal airlift of supplies - food, coal, clothing - by the Allied air-forces into Berlin-Tempelhof did the Allied Sector hold-out, and eventually the Soviet Union capitulated.

The Airlift Memorial pictured below represents the three air corridors used by Allied planes to keep West Berlin supplied with the necessities of life. It has a counterpart at Rhein-Main Airbase in Frankfurt (now part of Frankfurt International Airport) which if you consider is the other end of this memorial makes it the biggest sculpture in the World.

We visited Berlin-Tempelhof on a quiet Sunday afternoon in September as part of a guided tour in English. These start out Sundays at 2pm (Saturdays at 3pm) and depart from the airport's former General Aviation Terminal (GAT) building and cost 11€. They seem popular, so get there in good time. To get there, take the U-Bahn to Platz der Luftbrücke and walk South down the hill beside the dual-carriageway until you come to an Esso station on your right, next to the central Polizei offices. The GAT is on the opposite side of the road on your left, and the entrance is marked by an old observation tower (see photo below). Unfortunately you don't get to go up the tower as part of the tour!

Here is the former GAT entrance where the tour starts. Buy tickets here (or online here).

The former GAT was added to the National Socialist structure in the 1950's, and is surprisingly small in size.

Once you get going on the tour though, you begin to get a feel for the monumental architecture (some would say megalomaniac) that the Nazi regime was famous for. This airport was intended to be the flight gateway, in Hitler's schemes, to an awe-inspiring German capital (Germania) that would last for a thousand years. Indeed, the Berlin-Tempelhof building is still one of the largest single-structure buildings in the world, or as architect Sir Norman Foster called it; 'the mother of all airports'.

The National Socialists never got to use their newly designed airport as it was intended, but down below under the protection of the building you can still see where railtracks brought Messerschmitt planes in for repair during the war.

A warning though, if you have a walking disability. Apart from a trip in a large goods elevator, there are lots of steps to climb up and down on this tour!

Down in the bowels of the airport, there are bunkers where staff and their families could go in case of gas attack:

The walls are decorated by contemporary illustrations following the style and prose of children's humorist Wilhelm Busch. It is believed that the purpose of these wall-paintings was to try and dispel the fear and anxiety of the children who would have been huddled down here in times of air-bombings. It is notable that when the Americans re-painted the walls, they painted around the designs to preserve them.

This was an American airbase after the war, so naturally you will find a baseball court!

Up on the top floors, there are large spaces above false ceilings. The National Socialist architecture was designed to intimidate and impress with its colossal dimensions. In practical terms, they were just too gigantic to be realistically functional, as well as the heating costs for such vast hall-ways. So when Berlin-Tempelhof was re-commercialised in the 1950's, the ceilings were lowered to more realistic heights, leaving these unused areas, stripped of marble wall and pillar coverings and fixtures.

The more recent terminal areas that were functional right up until 2008 still stand as if the airport had closed for cleaning for the night. Actually, it occurs to you how well-polished and clean the floors and abandoned booths and baggage carousels are. Someone must routinely keep them clean, and the electrics working, and the heating on, and the structure sound. This for a building that is gigantic, and yet not used for anything any more.

Outside on the apron of the airfield they have kept preserved a 'Rosinenbomber' (English: something like 'candy bomber') that took part in the Berlin Airlift. They were so-called because of the actions of the American bomber pilots who in a demonstration of winning hearts and minds (and stomachs) dropped chocolate bars and sweets out of the plane on little parachutes for the children of Berlin to pick up. The originator of this practice is generally said to be American pilot Gail Halvorsen; he was nicknamed Uncle Wiggly Wings, because he would tip his wings on approach before releasing his gifts of sweets, so that the kids below would know it was him, and not be afraid that as all too recently the plane was going to drop explosives.

The tour is an interesting way to get to know the history of Berlin, and the two hours it takes soon passes. We visited Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof just before it closed, in November 2008, so it was doubly interesting for me to compare what it looks like now to the photos I took back then. Really, nothing much has changed, except that the departures and arrivals board is now empty, the baggage carousel is still, and the check-in desks are empty.

It is hard to know what Berlin City Council is going to do with these vast buildings now; there is controversy enough about whether to keep the airfield itself a public park, or to build apartment-blocks and businesses on this lucrative, inner-city green-space. I can't see the buildings being left empty forever though, so my advise is to go on the tour now, before it is turned into the new central library or an Ikea warehouse!

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