Special: Berlin-Tempelhof in the shadow of the BER opening

Tempelhof lettering on the former airside (Photo: Granit Pireci).
Tempelhof lettering on the former airside (Photo: Granit Pireci).

Special: Berlin-Tempelhof in the shadow of the BER opening

Tempelhof lettering on the former airside (Photo: Granit Pireci).
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On October 31, 2020, a new era began in Berlin with the opening of BER. But the history of German aviation, as well as that of Lufthansa, cannot be told without the former Berlin-Tempelhof Airport (THF). The imposing architecture of the "central airport" is the product of the gigantomania of the National Socialists.

If the focus is on Tempelhof, it must be pointed out at the beginning that the area has a very dark past, because the Columbia concentration camp was not only a concentration camp in which thousands of people were tormented and countless people lost their lives, Instead, forced laborers had to work under inhuman and unworthy conditions for the National Socialist war economy. Many lost their lives, which every visitor to this airport must have in the back of their minds.

The history of Tempelhof Airport as it is today is extremely changeable, but it also had positive highlights for the population. During the time of the blockade of Berlin by the GDR and the Soviet Union, the Allies used this airport - along with Tegel and Gatow - for the airlift, which has also gone down in history as the “cherry bomber”. If the western victorious powers hadn't brought this logistical masterpiece into the air, then the history of West Berlin would very likely have taken a different course. In this respect, Tempelhof did a great service for the population of West Berlin and saved them from starving and freezing to death, because the Allies flew in everything that was needed for life and could not be produced in the west of the city. The unbelievable suffering that happened on the Tempelhof airfield at the time of the Nazi dictatorship is inexcusable and absolutely nothing to make up for, but during the time of the airlift, THF could at least be more useful than a useless gigantic Nazi legacy standing around on the unbelievable suffering burdens.

For a short time the largest building in the world

From 1941, the central airport was the largest building in the world with a gross floor area of ​​307.000 square meters for two years before it was replaced by the Pentagon. The total length of the complex is around 1,2 kilometers, making it one of the longest connected buildings in the world to this day. The new BER Airport simply cannot keep up with this. In fact, Tempelhof would have had perfect conditions to function as a major Berlin airport. This is exactly what the National Socialists had in mind, but downright crazy as a world capital airport. To underpin this aggressive claim, a huge imperial eagle was mounted on the roof of the main hall. He carried a globe with a swastika in his claws. The somewhat disturbing “work of art” was denazified after the war and the eagle's head later became a symbol of friendship between the United States and Germany. This was set up in front of the airport a few years ago, but with a notice board that explains exactly why an imperial eagle head is in the middle of Berlin.

The Nazis paved the entire Tempelhof complex with their special bird. Almost all of them are still there today and - like everything else - are listed as historical monuments. Of course, immediately after the end of the reign of terror, the swastikas were removed or particularly stubborn specimens were covered with concrete.

Tempelhof is an airport that was built in a dark time in German history and still reflects the gigantomania to this day. At that time, the airport was completely oversized, but various uses were planned straight away. The then Lufthansa had its headquarters here, the many rooms that were not needed for actual flight operations were supposed to unite everything that has to do with aviation here. In addition, a basement was built under the area and protective bunkers were built. If you consider that construction began as early as 1936, from the point of view of that time it was questionable why a gate to the world was being built that also contained numerous protective bunkers. From today's perspective, it is clear why: The war was planned from the start. The Tempelhof bunkers were an important refuge for the local population, especially children, during the air war over Berlin. In order to take the fear away from them, many Wilhelm Busch drawings were made.

Nazis wanted to "abuse" the roof as a grandstand

If you are wondering what the airside roof in Tempelhof was actually used for, you would be wrong to assume that aircraft can stand “dry”. Numerous stairwells lead directly “up”. The Nazis also wanted to "abuse" Tempelhof for propaganda events. So the roof should have served as a huge grandstand. From there, Nazi supporters should have listened to the Fiihrer's speeches.

In comparison, Tempelhof suffered only minor damage in the Second World War. However, the complex was never completed. Numerous plans were no longer implemented after the war or even the interior fittings were omitted or only implemented many years later. But anyone who believes that Tempelhof is a "lost place" is wrong. Flight operations have ended forever, but around 80 percent of the space in the huge complex is currently rented. The largest tenant is the Berlin police, which employs around 40.000 officers at this location. Dekra is also one of the major users.

After the war, the airport was initially used for military purposes by the armed forces of the United States of America. They did not understand that there was a pompous ballroom for state receptions almost directly above the main hall. The Americans turned it into a basketball hall and also built other sports facilities. The home games of the military team took place in the basketball hall and after they had been withdrawn, this was also used by local clubs. All of this can be seen on guided tours through Tempelhof Airport and anyone interested in aviation, architecture, history or the Cold War era should not forget this tour on a trip to Berlin. Of course, there is a lot to see that the Americans have left behind, for example an interrogation room that is still almost fully equipped.

Most important Berlin airport from 1950

The Americans granted permission for civilian joint use on July 1, 1950. The main hall was not used at that time because it was still under construction and had some war damage. A provisional facility that later served as the General Aviation Center was the "first THF terminal". Even then, it was very small. Pan Am, British European and Air France were the first airlines to offer scheduled flights to / from Berlin-Tempelhof after the war. Air traffic increased steadily and the Americans gradually released more parts for civil use.

On July 2nd, 1962 the time had come: the actual main hall was given its purpose and served as a passenger terminal. However, the so-called “Hall of Honor” was “defused” by inserting a false ceiling. However, the “hidden” part can be visited during guided tours. At that time they didn't want to express gigantomania so much. Tempelhof was one of the most modern airports in the world in the 1960s, but capacity had already been reached again in 1970. Although it was possible to provide relief by using other previously closed areas, the Americans withdrew the corresponding permit in 1975. The result was: Berlin's civil air traffic moved to Tegel. Afterwards Tempelhof was purely military.

There was a comeback after the closure

The civil comeback followed in 1981. First, the General Aviation Center was reopened and gradually scheduled flights were also allowed. The volume is increasing so rapidly that Berlin Airports put the main hall back into operation on December 16, 1990. The airport was gradually modernized to bring it up to date with the latest technology. But the Berlin Senate was never really happy with this decision, because the discussion about the final shutdown of Tempelhof started as early as 1995.

In 1993 the THF was transferred to Berlin Airports and the Americans withdrew. In the years that followed, passenger numbers initially developed well, but the record set in 1973 with over four million travelers was never reached again. In 1993 there were still 1.124.822 passengers, but airlines were gradually pushed to move to Schönefeld and Tegel. Partly with discounts. Tempelhof was artificially made in deficit and the airport was not given a future.

In 2003 the Berlin Senate wanted to close the airport, but in September 2004 a court overturned the decision. Several airlines, including the Austrian company Intersky, took legal action, which ultimately led to Tempelhof not being closed until October 30, 2008. Before that, there were a few interesting attempts to signal to politicians that the closure of Tempelhof is the wrong way: under the ownership of Hans Rudolf Wöhrl, the DBA (formerly: Deutsche DBA) took up numerous routes from this airport, as did its competitors Germania is increasingly using Tempelhof with its Fokker 100. Even Easyjet wanted to set up a base in Tempelhof, but the Berlin airports persuaded the British and got them to take off from Schönefeld.

InterSky logo is a listed building

It has been quite quiet in Tempelhof in recent years, but Cirrus Airlines, Brussels Airlines and InterSky, for example, use the central airport until the last day. It was almost a bit disturbing that on the last day of operation some airlines, including Germanwings and LTU, offered special flights from THF. In this respect: Air Berlin withdrew the entire DBA flight offer from Tempelhof and relocated it to Tegel, and that very soon after the takeover.

Since it was closed on October 30, 2008, Tempelhof has been a former airport in a deep slumber. Everything is under monument protection and must not be changed. This gives the impression that it is just the end of the day and that the next morning the flight will take place again. But that's not how it is. Incidentally, the main hall is often - and currently - used for exhibitions. However, the former gate areas are only accessible as part of guided tours or with the permission of the municipal project company.

Tempelhof is history, but indirectly lives on in BER, because some features of the architecture, for example imposing columns and marble, are deliberately based on Tempelhof. Of course, but contemporary and not overwhelming and gigantic like the Nazi builders in Tempelhof did. By the way: The logos of InterSky, Cirrus Airlines and all other providers who were active in THF up to the end are under monument protection and must not be removed.

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Editor of this article:

Jan Gruber is Senior Editor at Aviation.Direct. Before that, he had held the same position at AviationNetOnline (formerly Austrian Aviation Net) since 2012. He specializes in low-cost carriers, regional aviation in the DA-CH region and in-depth research.

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Jan Gruber is Senior Editor at Aviation.Direct. Before that, he had held the same position at AviationNetOnline (formerly Austrian Aviation Net) since 2012. He specializes in low-cost carriers, regional aviation in the DA-CH region and in-depth research.

Nobody likes paywalls
- not even Aviation.Direct!

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If you enjoyed this article, you can check Aviation.Direct voluntary for a cup of coffee Coffee trail (for them it's free to use).

In doing so, you support the journalistic work of our independent specialist portal for aviation, travel and tourism with a focus on the DA-CH region voluntarily without a paywall requirement.

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