From Nazis to Refugees: The Story of an Airport in the Heart of Berlin

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Berliners walk and cycle along the abandoned taxiway at Tempelhof Airport. Credit: Bart Bernardes

In the center of Berlin, just beyond the trendy Kreuzberg neighborhood, is one of the city’s most beloved public spaces, the Tempelhof Airport. After closing in 2008, the airfield and large runways have become the city’s largest open space. On sunny days, the grounds are filled with children flying kites, families picnicking, and people rollerblading, running, and walking. The large hangars have been used to host conferences, trade shows, and festivals. In a segment from BBC’s The Travel Show, one Berliner described the importance of the park to the city, saying, “It brings so many cultures together, and everyone in Berlin knows Tempelhof. Everyone comes here.” Tempelhof was central to the fabric of the city long before its inauguration as a beloved park. The airport and its grounds have borne witness to the key players and events that have shaped Germany for the last century.

 

In the 1930s, Tempelhof was redesigned as the imposing entrance to Nazi Germany. The four hangars and over 9,000 rooms within the grounds are in the typical style of Nazi architecture: massive and commanding. During WWII, Nazi intelligence material was stored at the airport. With the fall of Nazi Germany at the close of the war, the airport came under Allied control. In the thick of the Cold War, Tempelhof became a lifeline for West Berlin when American troops used the airport to run the famous airlift in reaction to the Soviet blockade. The food, fuel, and other critical supplies delivered into West Berlin from Tempelhof for over a year provided civilians with necessary materials for survival.

 

Today, Tempelhof remains an invaluable symbol of freedom for many Berliners. While the building and nearly all of its facets, including signs and disused conveyor belts, were originally under legal protection as a national monument, the highly appealing location of the property made it attractive to city planners and developers for new housing and commercial projects. After a battle between city planners and Berliners, the community triumphed in May of 2015. With a winning margin of over 180,000 votes, the community voted to maintain the airport grounds as a public facility. This victory was perhaps an act of fate, as Tempelhof would shortly become a symbol of hope for a new generation of people in need of international assistance.

 

Today, Tempelhof has found itself in the midst of what is sure to be another important chapter in Germany’s history, as it is transformed into Germany’s largest refugee center. When completed, the airport is projected to house up to 7,000 refugees.

 

Currently, 800 refugees are being accommodated in one of the four hangars.

 

Next to remnants of the hangar’s past—signs reading “High Noise Protection Required” and “Berlin Brigade/Freedom City” left by the United States Army Aviation Department—are now clear signs of its next chapter. Graffiti on the walls include messages in Arabic and flags from Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and Syria. “Thank you Germane,” reads one message, with a heart drawn next to it.

 

While refitting the airport will be costly and challenging, and the political atmosphere regarding refugees in Germany remains uncertain, the Tempelhof Airport continues to be a symbol of hope for many, and a central landmark in the story of Berlin.