Berlin’s Lost Places: Demystifying Tempelhof Airport*

When it comes to myths and conspiracy theories, several cities come to mind as an author, the first one being Washington DC, followed closely by Paris, London, Moscow, Rome, Amsterdam, and of course, Berlin. You can write an endless number of thrillers based on one or more of these cities, but few can top the actual espionage history of Berlin, a city so full of mysterious abandoned places that tell more stories in their present state of ruin than when they were fully operational. As I wrote in the previous entry, abandoned places can be fun and very educational if you dig a little deeper. Tempelhof Airport is one of those iconic buildings that makes you wonder about all those historical theories that begin with “what if…”. What indeed, would Berlin look like today if Germany had won World War II, or the Allied Forces had not pulled out of Berlin. What would traveling in and out of Berlin be like if the city administration decided to close down Schönefeld and Tegel airports instead, never have started the construction of the new Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, and kept Tempelhof Airport operational…

What if... This was the question that ran through my mind as I walked around the abandoned Tempelhof Airport as part of the “Tempelhof Myths” tour, a continuation of my urban exploration of East Berlin. Some will argue that Tempelhof is actually right smack at the boundary between the former American and Russian quarter of Berlin, and accordingly, the airport changed hands back and forth over the years. This massive concrete block may be impressive in size, and hence the reference to it as the mother of all airports once upon a time, but beautiful is certainly not an adjective that I would use for Tempelhof. It’s fraternal twin, the current Ministry of Finance is the second of the two of the ugliest pieces of architecture to dominate Berlin during World War II, and yet, have undeniably played central roles in the city’s aviation history.

Tempelhof Airport departure hall ©MTHerzog

Upon entering the former departure hall, the fusion of grandiose space and suspension of time stop you dead in your tracks, and it took a few minutes before I remembered I had photo equipment with me. The infrastructure is still intact, the check-in counters seem to have ground staff ghosts lurking around to serve passengers, and the luggage carousel looks as if it is about to jumpstart to life any minute. Considering the chaos that ensues in Tegel and Schönefeld each and every time, I can’t help but scream in my mind “Why did they ever shut down Tempelhof?!” This place, in spite of the dark history, has the space that is worthy of a nation’s capital and doesn’t go through the pretense of being a glorified domestic airport that happened to be promoted to international status.

It could have been Roman… ©MTHerzog

The peculiar history behind the airport is reflected in the various halls and sadly, you end up weaving in and out of unfinished passages, torn apart, or digressed so much from the original design that the end result made no sense at all. The preceding image is a classic example of a fabulous design gone wrong. The original entrance to the airport had fabulous columns that went all the way up, something to the equivalent of three floors, but when the airport was operational, the management realized how expensive it was to heat the entire place that two intermediate ceilings were installed and this was left as a dangling participle. Unlike the departure hall that used to be rented out for balls, expos or conventions, this floor is utterly useless.

As I listened to the tragic and disastrous management of Tempelhof Airport, I couldn’t help but think that history seems to be repeating itself. Grand designs with no proper implementation or urban planning gone awry seems to be a common theme here, all resulting in ruined state coffers. There is a theory that Tempelhof was designed to resemble an eagle, but there is no supporting documentation for this. What it does resemble, however, is an olympic stadium of sorts. The two large side wings that house the hangars were originally intended to support 100 000 visitors to watch the aerial events or the spectacular show of power of the Air Force. The construction of this stadium was never finished and the roofs cannot support more than 100 people. Instead, the Tempelhofer tarmac is now home for several hundred refugees currently living in the white temporary quarters.

The other myth that constantly plagues Tempelhof Airport is that there are more than 10 subterranean levels beneath the departure hall, and some even claimed 21. The truth of the matter is that there are only three lower levels, and there are no secret passages leading to the Reichstag from here. There are, however, bunkers that were meant to keep the employees safe from the air raids. After the war, these windowless cubicles became office spaces, an absolute horror for anyone with claustrophobia.

The final stop of the tour before the group is led back to the starting point, is the last remaining Raisin Bomber in Tempelhof, a relic that brings back many memories to German families evacuated from here during World War II. This silent bird has spread its wings for the last time and stands symbolically abandoned on the tarmac. My suggested follow-up exploration in Berlin for those interested in aviation history of the Allied Forces is the Allied Museum in Zehlendorf, there are far less ghosts there.

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