A Future for Berlin's Cold War Icon? Allied Museum Wants to Move into Tempelhof Airport

Berlin's Tempelhof Airport is set to close after those campaigning to keep it open failed to win a referendum last weekend. Now Berlin's Allied Museum has said it would like to move into the building which West Berliners will forever associate with the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift.

By R. Jay Magill, Jr. in Berlin


In the run-up to the recent referendum on the future of Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, proponents of keeping the loss-making airport open pushed all the nostalgic and emotional buttons, arguing that the airport has a unique place in the history of the city due to its role in the Berlin Airlift.

But their efforts were in vain. The pro-Tempelhof camp failed to reach the necessary threshold of 25 percent of the city's registered voters, and they lost the referendum.

But even if the airport now looks set to close in October, its historic role during the Cold War may still be remembered: Berlin's Allied Museum has expressed interest in moving into the colossal building.

"It's a crucial location for the history of Germany after World War II, and the history of American-German relations," museum director Helmut Trotnow told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Allied planes saved West Berliners cut off by the 1948-1949 Soviet blockade by flying in thousands of tons of food and supplies every day for several months. For this reason, he says, the museum "would like to be part of a discussion about what would go into Tempelhof."

As well as the historical aptness of the Allied Museum being located in the airport, there's also a very practical reason why the it would like to move: space. "There are scores of objects and items from Allied daily life, over several decades, to be displayed, parts of everyday history you would not see anywhere else -- and we just don't have the space any more," Trotnow says, explaining that 30 percent of the museum's collection cannot be displayed due to lack of space.

The Allied Museum, located approximately 12 kilometers (6 miles) southwest of Tempelhof in the Berlin neighborhood of Zehlendorf, opened in 1998 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. Spread over two buildings -- including the Outpost Theater which was built by the US army in 1952 and since designated a historical landmark -- the museum sees between 60,000 and 70,000 visitors a year.

But the museum is in some ways a victim of its own success. "These facilities just are not rigged up for that sort of traffic," Trotnow says. "We are still in a provisional situation. The establishment of a fully functional museum was never really completed. A lot of this is ad hoc."

One of the main arguments for a move to Tempelhof is the simple fact that some of the museum's exhibits are already stored there. "Some years ago we rented some space at Tempelhof, helped by the federal government," Trotnow says. After they got it, they put some of the museum's larger objects there, including a historic British Hastings reconnaissance plane which is stored in a hangar at Tempelhof together with a second French plane.

And the museum may be in with a chance. "We could very easily imagine the museum moving (to Tempelhof)," Torsten Wöhlert, a spokesman for the Berlin government, told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel.

However, the Berlin branch of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- who argued in favor of keeping the airport open -- are against the idea. "We want to use Tempelhof to commemorate the airlift, not the allies," Michael Braun, the Berlin CDU's spokesman for cultural issues, told Tagesspiegel.

And there are plenty of other ideas floating around for how to use Tempelhof, now that the bid to keep it operating as an airport has failed. Some in the city-state's government want to see the 400-hectare (990-acre) site turned into a "center for creative industries," complete with a park and 5,000 new apartments, while Berlin's Babelsberg film studio would like to use the airport as a movie location. Meanwhile Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who opposed the initiative to keep the airport open, would like to have a competition for the best suggestions.

One thing is certain: Even after the failed referendum, Tempelhof is still going to be the center of discussion for months to come -- especially as June 24 sees the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

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