With the grounds it was built on having hosted the first demonstration of airplane flight in 1909, Tempelhof International Airport
, the world's second-oldest working commercial airport, was officially opened in 1923. Also known as City Airport, it takes its official name from the Tempelhof neighborhood of Berlin, itself named for the Knights Templar
who owned its land in the Middle Ages.
The Nazi era saw a redesign
by architect Ernst Sagebiel at the request of Albert Speer, widely hailed as one of the classic airport designs of the 20th century despite the darkness of its origins. In the postwar era, Tempelhof was the delivery site for the Berlin Airlift
, when the Western allies kept West Berlin supplied with the necessities of life for 15 months via nonstop plane deliveries from the so-called Rosinenbomber
or "Raisin Bombers", despite the Soviet blockade
. There have been very few logistical feats to rival the Airlift since: at the height of the deliveries, flights were arriving every 3 minutes, around the clock, with an average of 8,000 tons of goods being flown in daily. The operation succeeded, but at the cost of 101 British, American and German lives. After the blockade was lifted, this sacrifice for West Berlin's survival was commemorated with the Luftbrückendenkmal
, or Berlin Airlift Monument, which remains one of the few remaining loci of the extraordinary postwar relationship between the US and the former West Germany.
Nothing lasts forever. One of the big side-effects of the reunification of Berlin was that the city, formerly two cities, had multiples of everything: central train stations, operas, and a veritable embarrassment
. Plans were made for the BBI, a huge new consolidated airport
to be placed just outside of the city in former-East Brandenburg, and these plans were made contingent on the closing of Tempelhof.
Former-West Berliners were shocked, and although American Ronald Lauder
has twice offered to save Tempelhof by investing a half a billion Euros to turn it into an air-accessible health (or possibly beauty
) center, he has been rebuffed both times. Things took on an air of inevitability: much like the decommissioning of Charlottenburg's Zoo train station in 2006, another West neighborhood was going to lose one of its anchors as the price of progress.
? This winter, in a city of 3.4 million, over 175,000 Berliners signed a petition demanding a public binding refendum on whether to close Tempelhof, invoking a new procedural rule
for allowing direct voting on a city policy for the first time ever. Soon, the fate of the airport will be decided: if 610,000 Berliners vote to keep it...
...well, that part isn't clear yet. Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's slightly-starstruck
SPD mayor, has said that he will ignore the results of the vote and proceed with the closing plan. The conservative CDU party has made hay of this, accusing the Mayor of being anti-democratic. Even chancellor Angela Merkel has gotten into
the local tussle, encouraging Berliners to get out and vote to keep Tempelhof, and referencing the Berlin Airlift in her entreaty. Did I mention that Ms. Merkel grew up in East Germany?
Despite its intention to ignore the results, the SPD has decide to hedge their bets by making use of the Ron Lauder offers to invoke a little bit of class warfare [pdf]
, with a construction worker saying "Ick zahl doch nicht für'n VIP-Flughafen!" ("I'm not paying for a VIP airport!" in a Berlin accent) on their thousands of posters. But however the vote goes this Sunday, Wowereit's stance may have set the stage for something otherwise-unimaginable: Berlin having a conservative local government in its future.
Tempelhof is the rare working airport which still manages to evoke the golden age
of air travel
, and I recommended that any former flight lover who has lost their faith in an age rife with humiliations
make a pilgrimage to its graceful halls
and rediscover their wonder. But don't wait too long to visit or you may miss your chance.