[65] Freiheit - Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Coloured rubber bands on a fence at Tempelhof Field. Berlin-Tempelhof, Germany. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.


[Updated in October 2017] Taken some years earlier, I posted this photo in May 2015, one day after nearly two thirds of Berlin voters rejected plans for a large-scale property development on the site of the former Tempelhof Airport. At the time, I was unaware that there had been strong opposition to the former name of the public park, “Tempelhofer Freiheit” (Tempelhof Freedom), as it whitewashed the history of the site that once housed the Columbia concentration camp. As Dr Clare Copley, a lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Central Lancashire, explains in her article, “Curating Tempelhof: negotiating the multiple histories of Berlin’s ‘symbol of freedom’”, historians and campaigners argued that “framing the site so definitively in terms of its connection to ‘freedom’ exacerbate[d] the selective emphasis on just one layer of the site’s history and detract[ed] from the fact that Tempelhof was for many years a site of suppression.” This sentiment was mirrored in a declaration by the Citizens’ Initiative for the Commemoration of Nazi Crimes On and Around Tempelhofer Feld (THF): “The [history of the] airfield is essentially determined by National Socialism, not the Airlift and the Cold War. … We reject this term, as during the reign of the National Socialists, the Tempelhof Field was a place of unfreedom for tens of thousands of people.” In light of these entirely justified objections, I changed the title of this photo from “Freiheit” to “Un/Freiheit”. I highly recommend reading Dr Copley’s article, for which she was awarded the Dyos Prize in Urban History.

Tempelhof Airport prominently features in Billy Wilder’s comedy One Two Three, set in West Berlin during the Cold War, but before the construction of the Berlin Wall.

History of the Tempelhofer Feld

“Tempelhofer Feld is a green space of over 300 hectares in the heart of Berlin. Previously used for the grazing of cattle and for Prussian military exercises, the Feld became home to Berlin’s first airport in the 1920s. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, a disused Prussian military prison on the site was used as a Gestapo prison and then a concentration camp. It was closed in 1936 and subsequently demolished to make way for the construction of the monumental airport building that currently stands in the north-west corner of the Feld. Throughout the war, the airport building was used for armament production and was staffed by forced labourers who were housed in wooden barracks on the Feld. After the war, the American Air Force was headquartered within the building and opened it up for civil aviation in 1950. Following unification, the Berlin Senate announced that Berlin’s air traffic should be concentrated in one location and, as a result, Tempelhof would cease to function as an airport. The possibility of closing the popular city-centre airport sparked huge protests which saw the pro-closure SPD, Left and Green parties and environmental and citizens’ groups pitted against the CDU, the FDP, the Springer Press and other citizens’ groups. Despite the objections, flight operations ceased in 2008. The closure of the airport opened up questions over what to do with the vast site.” [2]

“Tempelhofer Feld” Photo by Sebastian Michalke (CC BY 2.0)

“Tempelhofer Feld” Photo by Sebastian Michalke (CC BY 2.0)

After the last planes took off in October and November 2008, the airfield remained closed for nearly one and a half years until on May 8, 2010 – the 55th anniversary of Germany’s liberation from the Nazi regime – it re-opened as an urban park. Now known as “Tempelhofer Feld” (Tempelhof Field), the over 300 hectares of open space include a six-kilometre cycling, skating and jogging trail, a 2.5-hectare BBQ area, a 4-hectare dog-walking field, an enormous picnic area, and one of Europe’s biggest urban gardens.

Bucking the trend

For years, Berlin’s post-unification urban development followed a “depressingly familiar narrative: the destruction of the Palast der Republik; the construction of ‘Mediaspree’ and the protracted closure of the artists’ squats at the Hackesche Höfe and Tacheles [as well as the demolition of parts of the East Side Gallery] have all seen the defeat of grass-roots protests against the erasure of culturally or historically significant sites. In May 2014, however, the trajectory that Berlin appeared to be on was disrupted through events at Tempelhofer Feld.” [2] As Berlin citizens cast their ballots for the European Parliament election, they also voted in a referendum aimed at preserving the green space that is roughly the size of New York’s Central Park.

The referendum was made possible by a fine example of successful citizens’ activism. A citizens’ initiative called 100% Tempelhofer Feld had collected over 185,000 signatures, over 10,000 more than required, to launch a referendum and stop the municipal government’s plans. Information provided by the initiative, summarised in a campaign video, painted quite a different picture than he views put forward by then-mayor Klaus Wowereit. (While video is in German, it includes interesting footage, including archive material.) Over 2 million people visit the park annually. The Berlin Senate planned to develop and remodel 40 percent of the total 305 hectares, under the pretence to create affordable housing. The construction volume for that purpose, however, would have amounted to just 9%, with 41% allotted for more expensive housing and 50% for commercial properties. The plan would have cost tax payers an estimated 600m euro. At the time, Berlin had 900 hectares of undeveloped, accessible real estate where construction would have been cheaper, and the Senate had sold 200,000 state-owned apartments to investors.

After the resounding of the referendum, a statute governing Tempelhofer Feld’s conservation (Gesetz zum Erhalt des Tempelhofer Feldes, ThFG) came into force in June 2014, prescribing protective goals and preservation objectives. Undeniably, “distrust [in no small part resulting from other post-unification urban development projects] was a key factor in shooting down the city’s proposals. … Berliners had had their taste of freedom; in hindsight, it is no surprise that they refused to give it back.”

Row reignites amid refugee crisis

In late 2015, the row over the site’s development was reignited amid a proposal to build refugee shelters at Tempelhof Field. Although the government stated that it was only planning temporary shelters, campaigners were skeptic of any changes to the law they had fought for. Felix Herzog, spokesman for the 100% Tempelhofer Feld campaign told DW, “‘The government is using this emergency situation to soften the law on the Tempelhof field.’ He pointed out there [was] a concrete space directly in front of the airport building that could be used for temporary shelters – and indeed would be better suited for the purpose. ‘There is a solid base there already, and getting water to the area they are suggesting would be very difficult. I think to change the law after just a year and a half is a real insult to the whole system of having citizens involved in the democratic process. If they want to change the law, it has to be within a discussion process.’””

In addition, “campaigners and social workers have long complained that centralized mass shelters are pretty much the worst way to house refugees – they incubate social tension and hinder integration. ‘Penning people up together in large group shelters for months leads to frustration,’ Christoph Wiedemann, director of a refugee shelter in the Karlshorst district of Berlin, told the Tagesspiegel. ‘The nights are the worst; that’s when the lack of any kind of privacy becomes most obvious.’”

Those concerns notwithstanding, Berlin‘s parliament pushed through a change of the law that allowed construction on the airfield after all. Campaigners fear(ed) that the refugee crisis was simply used as smokescreen to allow property developers onto the airfield permanently, thus subverting the very purpose of the law. As 100% Tempelhofer Feld spokeswoman Esther Witt told DW, “The question is, why do they so desperately want to build on the Tempelhofer Feld? We do think it’s about getting a foot in the door for the developers. We worked on this referendum campaign for three or four years, and if that whole debate can be taken away and hedged within two years, then of course we think that has damaged the belief in direct democracy.”

In 2017, state secretary for integration, Daniel Tietze, assured Berliners that the government would adhere to the law and begin dismantling the containers in the late summer of 2019. If the government kept its word, it would perhaps restore some of the trust Berliners lost in it.


[1] Berlin voters reject Tempelhof development | The Local

[2] Copley, C. (2017). Curating Tempelhof: Negotiating the multiple histories of Berlin’s ‘symbol of freedom’. Urban History, 44(4), 698-717 | White Rose Research Online

[3] Tempelhofer Erklärung 2014 | THF 1933-1945

[4] How the Biggest Airlift in History Saved West Berlin | Smithsonian Channel

[5] Nazis and candy drops: Tempelhof airport through history – in pictures | The Guardian

[6] An archaeological dig at Germany’s first concentration camp yields its secrets | DW

[7] Last Departure Tempelhof 24.11.2008 [German] | tagesthemen

[8] The speech about history that made history | Felix Steiner | DW

[9] Urban gardening takes off at Berlin’s fabled airport Tempelhof | The Local

[10] Long Good-Bye to Berlin’s Palace of the Republic | Hardy Graupner | DW

[11] East Berlin Building Project Sparks Protest, Praise | DW

[12] Era ends as Berlin’s Tacheles shuts down | Susanne Lenz-Gleissner | DW

[13] Developer removes segments of Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery | DW

[14] Der Film zum Volksbegehren [German] | 100% Tempelhofer Feld

[15] How Berliners refused to give Tempelhof airport over to developers | Ciarán Fahey | The Guardian (By the same author: Tempelhof: The mother of all ‘abandoned’ airports | Abandoned Berlin)

[16] ThF-Gesetz | Berlin Municipal Government

[17] Refugee crisis reignites row over Berlin’s Tempelhof airport | Ben Knight | DW

[18] Durch Großunterkünfte entstehen Ghettos [German] | Sandra Dassler | Der Tagesspiegel

[29] Berlin to build on Tempelhof despite drop in refugees | Ben Knight | DW

[20] Containerdorf bleibt nur zwei Jahre [German] | Thomas Loy | Der Tagesspiegel

*The hyperlinks in the above cited passages did not appear in the original texts but were added to provide further background.


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