The Myth of Berlin's Tempelhof The Mother of all Airports

By Reinhard Mohr

Part 2: A Backdrop for Dietrich and Monroe

The fact that the structure, which, next to the Pentagon in Washington and the monstrous parliament building in Bucharest, is one of the world's largest free-standing buildings, did not go down in history as a Nazi creation is due in part to its unquestionable esthetic quality and in part to American influences. The Americans were the ones who completed the departure terminal, a strangely fascinating building to this day, between 1959 and 1962. The Nazis, distracted by the war, had put the project on hold. They were more interested in assembling their bombers in an abandoned railroad tunnel in Tempelhof's vast catacombs.

When Soviet troops became the first to arrive at the airport in April 1945, they stormed the underground chambers. When they used hand grenades to blast open reinforced doors, the Wehrmacht's secret film and archive bunker went up in flames. The valuable celluloid burned for days, and the walls have remained blackened to this day.

After engaging in a power struggle with the Russians that lasted a few weeks, the US Armed Forces took over Tempelhof in July 1945 and expanded the complex, which even had its own power plant and hot water system, and used it as a base for decades. The last US troops were not withdrawn until 1993.

On the top floor of the building, where the Nazis had planned to build a large airport restaurant, the US Air Force installed a bowling alley and basketball court in a classic style that became a protected landmark long ago. The huge "Hall of Glory," as timeless as it was excessive, which the Nazi architects had originally designed as a five-story structure, was never completed. Hardly anyone today would imagine this Nazi "Hall of Glory" behind the simple lettering "Tempelhof Central Airport" above the entrance.

The 1960s were Tempelhof's heyday. Air travel was growing rapidly, and the stars and directors of the movies -- Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Romy Schneider -- were eager to use its grand scale as a backdrop for their public appearances.

The Beginning of the End

But the airport was also bursting at the seams, and Berlin's new Tegel Airport was opened in 1975. After that, things went downhill, slowly but surely, for Tempelhof. Passenger volume declined, partly because the runways were too short for the new, bigger jets. When Lufthansa finally moved all of its operations to Tegel in 1994, many other airlines followed suit. In 1996, the federal government, the city of Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg reached their so-called consensus decision: Air traffic at Tempelhof would have to be cancelled as soon as the official approval of the plans for the city's new mega-airport, BBI, became law.

Construction of the new airport in Schönefeld has been underway for months, but the controversy over Tempelhof is still raging. Proponents want to see it preserved as a commercial airport, arguing that it is the ideal base for business and recreational aviation, as well as for special tasks with related service facilities. Opponents want to see Tempelhof turned into a museum, together with new residential buildings in a park-like setting.

There is one thing Tempelhof will continue to be, though: a monument from another time. Demolition is not in the cards for Tempelhof, which is protected as a historic landmark.


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