Berlin-Tempelhof in 1943, showing many unidentified aircraft on the platform.

Planes on the tarmac at Berlin Tempelhof, 1948 around the time of the Berlin Airlift.


Berlin Tempelhof Airport Main Buildings which remain since the closure of the airport in 2008

Two airports in Germany’s two leading cities, both created as monuments to Nazism and both now closed to air traffic, are further examples of the grandiose architectural ambitions of the Third Reich. They are best known for events after the Nazi era – Tempelhof for the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and Munich-Riem for the 1958 air crash which cost the lives of many of the Manchester United football team and others. Although no longer airports, they both survive in the twenty-first century with new uses but with the Nazi connection ever-present.

The former Tempelhof Airport, south of the centre of Berlin, is yet another pre-existing site which was appropriated by the Nazis after their assumption of power for propaganda and practical reasons. Tempelhof was an airfield in the early years of flying before the First World War and the great aviation pioneer Orville Wright was one of the first to land there. The first operational terminal building dated from 1927 but, after 1933, Albert Speer commissioned Ernst Sagebiel to redesign Tempelhof in a style befitting the capital of the Third Reich.

Like many other Nazi projects, it was conceived on a monumental scale. The outcome was something far bigger than necessary for the actual needs of a 1930s airport. Its main feature is the quadrant-shaped terminal building over 1km long with lofty arrivals and departure halls. Building began in 1936 and continued into the early years of the war when the airport was one of the largest buildings in the world. Relative proximity to the city centre and the building of its own U-bahn station helped its development.

In the latter half of the 1930s, as commercial aviation grew in popularity, Tempelhof became one of the busiest airports in the world and compared with Paris-Le Bourget and London Croydon as the glamorous hubs of a new form of transport only available to the wealthy. At its peak Tempelhof received over 100 flights daily using the old terminal building while the new one was under construction – and that remained unfinished during the Third Reich.

Part of Tempelhof was built on the site of one of the earliest Nazi concentration camps, Columbia, which had opened in 1933 but which was closed three years later to make way for the airport.

During the Second World War, Tempelhof was used as a base for assembling Junkers Stuka dive bombers although it was not used as a military airfield. The Russians captured the airport during the Battle of Berlin in the last days of April 1945 and that July, under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement, the airport became part of the American occupation zone from where commercial flying resumed in February 1946.

Tempelhof’s biggest claim to fame began in June 1948. The western-controlled sectors of Berlin were surrounded by the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany. Land routes between West Berlin and West Germany had been agreed but, as tensions mounted between the West and the Soviet Union, these were blocked by the Russians. West Berlin could only remain connected to the West by the three air corridors which were part of the 1945 agreement. For almost a year the Western Allies organised a continuous stream of aircraft bringing vital supplies into West Berlin via Tempelhof before the Russians called off the land blockade in May 1949.

From the 1950s onwards Tempelhof developed as a major commercial airport peaking in the early 1970s with over five million passengers a year. It also retained a military role until the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the withdrawal of American forces in 1994.

By the 1990s Tempelhof’s position as Berlin’s leading airport was already weakening. Some airlines had transferred to Berlin Tegel and, by the mid-nineties, Tempelhof’s main traffic was smaller commuter flights. In 1996 plans were announced to create a single unified airport for Berlin based next to Schönefeld Airport; these required the closure of first Tempelhof and then Tegel airports. A non-binding referendum in Berlin failed to stop the closure and the last flights left Tempelhof at the end of October 2008.

Tempelhof has since enjoyed a new lease of life. It is now a massive urban park known as Tempelhofer Freiheit, bigger than New York’s Central Park, and crowds flock there daily to enjoy Berlin’s ‘urban lung’. Concerts and sports events are staged and tours can be taken around the old preserved terminal buildings. The historical legacy of Tempelhof is also marked by a memorial to those who suffered and died at the Columbia Concentration Camp. The main U-bahn station serving the area was renamed to commemorate the Berlin Airlift – it is now called Platz der Luftbrücke. In 2014 a plan to build a large housing development on part of the site was defeated in a referendum. Berliners have taken Tempelhof to their hearts. Meanwhile, Berlin’s new airport is beset by delays and problems and not due to open until 2017. In 2015 both Tegel and Schönefeld airports remain in use.

Remaining terminal building from Munich-Riem Airport which has been preserved as part of the redevelopment of the site since its closure as an airport.

Munich-Riem was also a product of the Third Reich designed as a prestigious gateway to the Bavarian capital. Work started in 1936 and the airport opened in 1939. Hitler flew in to Munich-Riem in November 1939 as one of the first passengers to use the airport. It replaced Munich’s previous airport at Oberwiesenfeld – an area nearer the city centre which later became the site for the 1972 Olympics. Immediately it was opened, Munich-Riem was pressed into service for military purposes although civilian flights continued through much of the war.

On 9 April 1945 an Allied air raid virtually destroyed the airport but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1948 as a commercial airport. Its traffic grew steadily and there were various improvements over the years. As early as the 1960s, however, Munich recognised that it would eventually need a new airport as expansion at Riem would involve sacrificing nearby communities. Another thirty years elapsed before, in May 1992, Riem closed and was replaced by the new Munich Franz Josef-Strauss Airport.

In the early years after its closure Munich-Riem Airport was the scene of a lively alternative music scene hosting concerts and raves. The area has now been redeveloped as Messestadt Riem, a convention centre with associated housing and other developments. The control tower and terminal building of the old airport are preserved as historical monuments.

Munich-Riem Airport is most associated with the events of 6 February 1958 when a charter plane returning the Manchester United football team from a European Cup tie in Belgrade crashed on take-off. Twenty-three people died including eight members of the team. The cause of the crash was eventually established as slush on the runway. There is a memorial to the crash victims at the airport site.


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