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Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport Tells Germany’s Story

BERLIN—There are few places that tell Berlin’s—and modern Germany’s—story better than Tempelhof Airport. 

Born just before the horrors of the Nazi regime, and later occupied by both the Russians and the Americans, Tempelhof sits quietly today, as far as its original purposes go. As the sun sets over the abandoned runways, only children’s kites are left flying here. Two years after the last plane touched down in 2008, the airport grounds opened to the public and have since hosted techno raves, queer festivals, community gardens, and, most of all, refugees—the first ones as early as the 1950s, when Germans escaped the Soviet-occupied east.

Decades later, in 2015, when then-Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders to those fleeing war, mostly in Syria, and told the country “we can manage this,” Tempelhof was quickly transformed into Germany’s largest refugee camp with a planned total capacity of almost 7,000 people. Some people lived in the hangars in propped-up rooms with thin walls, no roofs, and curtains instead of doors for two years. 

“Last year, Tempelhof opened up again,” explained Sascha Langenbach, spokesperson at the State Office for Refugee Affairs in Berlin. “We are currently hosting 850 asylum-seekers in the hangars, many of them from Afghanistan and Turkey,” he said, adding that there are at least another 1,000 people in containers outside, many of them Ukrainian refugees who already hold residence permits. The accommodation, including in the hangars, has since improved: The new containers at least have roofs and doors.

Tempelhof Airport, sitting just south of central Berlin, is one of the world’s largest urban open spaces: At 877 acres, it is bigger than New York’s Central Park. While the initial runways opened 100 years ago, the construction of the main terminal with its seven hangars was begun by Adolf Hitler in 1936. The statue of an eagle, wings spread wide and sitting on top of a globe, once perched atop the building. The Nazis wanted Tempelhof to be Europe’s biggest airport, and before the Pentagon’s construction, the imposing Nazi-architecture terminal was indeed the world’s largest building. But construction never fully finished. Instead, the war started. The grounds nearby had already hosted one of the first concentration camps; with the onset of war, it became a forced-labor facility to support the Luftwaffe, the German air force. The terminal was bombed twice during the war, though damage was minimal.

After the war, the Soviets occupied Tempelhof, albeit only briefly. When Berlin was divided into four occupation zones, the airport went to the Americans but was essentially surrounded by Soviet territory. The Americans removed reminders of the Nazi regime, built a basketball court and cinema inside the hangars to entertain their troops, and later, between 1948 and 1949, operated the Berlin Airlift, delivering food for a total of 322 days to 2 million West Berliners cut off from supplies by a Russian land blockade. 

Germany took control of commercial flights again in 1951, but the war had left the nation—and Berlin—divided and defeated, its image tainted by the atrocities of the Nazis, its economy in shambles. A constant flow of refugees tried to escape Soviet-rule in the east, and many passed through the airport that stood as a witness to it all. At least 13 airplanes from Soviet territory landed at Tempelhof without permission, the pilots and passengers seeking asylum in West Berlin. 

In 1993, the Americans left Tempelhof, handing it back to the German government, but at that time, new airports on Berlin’s outskirts had already started to replace services here. Years after it eventually closed to air traffic, a referendum was held to decide whether the area—prime real estate close to the city center—should be redeveloped to help Berlin cope with a growing housing crisis. The majority of Berliners voted against it, which is why Tempelhof essentially remains as it was when flight operations ceased. 

But the airport, like Germany, has come a long way. “Today, Tempelhof is one of the most liberal places in the city,” said Johanna Scheurer, 31, who lives close by and cycled over to the runway after work to meet a few friends for an evening beer. “We come here regularly. It’s such a great open space. You can breathe, forget the busy city.” Other visitors whiz by on bicycles or roller skates, families gather for barbecues or to play mini-golf, and sheep graze near the runway. Templehof has starred on the silver screen, as well: in James Cagney’s One, Two, Three and later as a set for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. During the pandemic, it was transformed into a vaccination site. 

Today, it once again houses people. Berlin currently hosts around 32,000 asylum-seekers and refugees, and with accommodation scarce, the government decided to open up several of the Tempelhof hangars once again last December. Tegel, another former airport on the outskirts of the city, has also been turned into housing for refugees. 

From the opposite side of the 2-kilometer runway, Tempelhof’s hangars are barely visible in the distance. Many of those who live inside them today escaped more recent invasions. The containers that line the hangars are cramped: Four people packed into about 130 square feet. The rooms have bunk beds, lockers, a table, and a fluorescent light. The bathrooms are public.

“It’s smaller than the standard size of 161 square feet for two people,” explained Peter Hermmans, head of communications at the Berlin International Federation, one of the organizations managing the Tempelhof shelter.

Among the people living in the hangars as well as in containers just outside the building—mostly Ukrainians, Afghans, Iranians, and Turks—are 80 children. Most, though, are single men.

Abdul Khaluq, 24, escaped Afghanistan shortly before the Taliban took over the country for a second time. He was a soldier with the Afghan Army, mostly fighting the Taliban, and about three years ago, he wanted out. Life had gotten too dangerous at home, and too many of his friends had been killed, so he cobbled together his savings and paid a smuggler to take him to neighboring Iran. He eventually arrived in Germany by walking from Bulgaria after he had paid another smuggler to take him there from Turkey. 

“It’s difficult to live in the airport,” he said, sitting at the small table in his container. He doesn’t speak German or English and until his asylum case has been approved, he has little opportunity to take a government-funded language course. “There’s no privacy and little space here, but it’s still better than being in Afghanistan right now. It’s safe here,” he said in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian. 

“Tempelhof is for everyone today,” said Fatih Cilek, a 34-year-old Kurdish man sitting on a bench near the old runway, looking toward the hangars where Khaluq lives. 

Three years ago, Cilek fled Turkey and also arrived in Germany as an asylum-seeker. His case has since been processed, he explained in perfect German, but admits that he misses his family and the Mediterranean. 

“When I’m sad, I walk over and sit here,” he said. “You know, it’s a funny place. People come here for picnics and parties and to find a temporary home. Tempelhof is the only place that offers it all. This open space feels like an ocean,” he said, then paused. “You can find the history of the world in an ocean.”

Source : Foreign Policy

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