Historic Tempelhof An Uncertain Future for Hitler's Airport

A monument to Nazi ambitions that became a symbol of hope during the Cold War: Tempelhof is one of the world's most storied airports. Its fascinating history may not be enough to save it from closure. But plans are now afoot to transform it into a luxury clinic.
Von Siobhán Dowling

The intent was to wow visitors to the monumental new Third Reich capital of Germania. Monumental Tempelhof Airport was to be a statement of Nazi Germany greatness, and a stage for Adolf Hitler to be adulated by the masses.

It never happened of course. The dream of Germania collapsed along with the smoking ruins of Berlin at the end of World War II. But the airport was built, and went on to become a vital element of the massive Berlin Airlift, and one of the most enduring symbols of West Berlin's ability to survive its isolation deep within Communist East Germany.

In 2007 though, the airport is set to close. And even as a handful of small airlines heads to court next week in an attempt to block the closure order, the search is on for alternate uses for the site. One group from the US is hoping to transform the vast, Nazi-era building into a huge, luxury clinic complete with its own runway. But its life as a small, city airport nestled up to downtown will soon become a thing of the past.

Even Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, speaking before Berlin's parliament on Thursday, has made it a pillar of his second term in office. "We say that it will be closed," he told the gathered representatives in a speech outlining his government's goals for the next five years. "That is quite obvious."


So far, nothing about the transition has been easy. The airport's closure has been in the works for years as Berlin focuses on enlarging small Schönefeld Airport on the eastern edge of the city into a bustling, international airport worthy of the German capital. Plus, Tempelhof -- which sees only half a million passengers a year pass through its cavernous entry hall -- loses money every year and is over €140 million in debt.

Even the plan proposed by German-American investor Fred Langhammer, former head of Estée Lauder and current board member at the Walt Disney Company, is controversial. His business plan calls for a vast health and wellness center serving over 125,000 patients a year, complete with a research center, a hotel for patients from abroad, and a number of specialty centers.

"Tempelhof is a one-of-a-kind place in Europe," a spokesperson for Langhammer's consortium told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It offers real estate with huge development potential, right in the heart of a metropolis -- and in particular with a flight connection. A property of this kind doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world."

But the concept for the new international airport at Schönefeld doesn't allow for competition from any other airport in the region. Any investors in Tempelhof, warned Reinhold Dellmann, the politician responsible for transportation issues in the state of Brandenburg which surrounds Berlin, "must live without any air traffic whatsoever."

Not that air traffic at Tempelhof is heavy these days. Only six kilometers from the heart of the newly dynamic German capital, Tempelhof has all the hustle and bustle of a sleepy one-horse town. A recent midday visit revealed only a handful of passengers in the vast departure lounge. Security guards wandered about nonchalantly, while maintenance workers gathered in the cafe. Three taxi drivers waited optimistically for a fare in the half deserted car-park.

Inhuman scale

The emptiness was understandable -- the arrivals and departures board revealed that there was only about one flight an hour, mostly to German cities: Mannheim, Münster, Saarbrücken. In comparison the one flight to Brussels seemed positively exotic. The Oct. 31, 2007 closure date, it seems, can't come too soon.

Yet Tempelhof is no ordinary center of aviation. Dubbed "the mother of all airports" by star architect Sir Norman Foster, it is a building that resonates with German history, and its architecture -- though almost inhuman in scale -- is never less than imposing.

Tempelhof is Europe's largest stand-alone structure. Eight stories high, with another three below ground, it is almost 300,000 square meters (3.23 million square feet). The semi-oval building's columns and über-vaulted ceilings are typical of the fusion of modernism and neo-classicism so loved by Nazis and other fascists.

Tempelhof Central Airport officially opened in 1923, but the site in Berlin's south had long played an important role in aviation. In 1903 Orville Wright landed here and put on flight shows for curious Berliners. In 1909 the first Zeppelin landed in the capital.

The present terminal building was designed by the architect Ernst Sagebiel, who was also responsible for Göring's equally bombastic Air Ministry. Work began on the new building in 1936 but had to be abandoned in 1941 due to the more pressing matter of fighting the war. During the war, it became a massive factory-- complete with slave laborers -- for building military aircraft.

It was the Berlin Airlift after World War II ended that saw the transformation of Tempelhof from Nazi monument to beacon of hope. From June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, some 278,228 flights ferried supplies into West Berlin after the Soviets sealed the border. At its height, a plane was landing in Berlin every minute. Many of those flights landed at Tempelhof.

"You can't shut my airport"

Dieter Nickel, a West Berliner, describes himself as "a child of the Airlift." He has spent almost 40 years working at the airport, first, as the head construction engineer and, since his retirement, as a tour guide. When he started in 1967, over 1,500 US troops were stationed here, with 800 living in the airport. The soldiers had their own bowling alley and basketball court, on what had originally been the airport's ballroom.

Nickel explains that the biggest hurdle to Tempelhof's future may be its sheer size. The airport only needs just over 10 percent of the space to operate. The rest of the building is currently occupied by the Berlin police force, a flight insurance company, a youth training center, and other smaller tenants. Even still, only 70 percent is in use at any one time.

But the entire complex has to be maintained, with the not insignificant costs of heating and electricity, security and cleaning. It is difficult to attract new tenants while the fate of the airport remains undecided. And the entire building is a protected historical monument. Not exactly the most enticing investment opportunity.

Langhammer, though, is excited about the site, and says that any changes would not fall afoul of historical monument rules. And his friend and former business partner Ronald Lauder, of the Estée Lauder fortune, was so impressed with his clinic plans he agreed to co-finance the project if it gets the green light.

Even still, the site will likely cease operations as a working airport soon. And many, like Nickel, are sad to see it go. His gut reaction, he says, was "You can't shut my airport!" But he is also aware of the financial burdens and the problems entailed in keeping it open. "Its history is remarkable," he says. "But is that enough of an argument for keeping it open?"

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