Plan to close Tempelhof Airport angers many Berliners

28th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

The airlift, which began in June 1948 and lasted until September 1949 was a historical turning point in postwar German history.

Berlin (dpa) - Sixty years ago Tempelhof Airport was a focus of world attention when the Allied airlift began, and vital food supplies were flown in round-the-clock to save West Berlin from starvation.

The airlift, which began in June 1948 and lasted until September 1949 was a historical turning point in post-war German history. It put paid to the Russian blockade in a bid to drive the Western powers from the city and turn Berlin into a communist stronghold.

The West Berliners were rescued by bright C-54s and battered C-47s landing at Tempelhof at a rate of one every three minutes. On one record day in April, 1949, British and US crews flew in 12,490 tons of fuel, food and coal to Berlin in 1,398 flights.

For the 2.2 million West Berliners it was the moment they no longer looked upon British, US and French servicemen as post-war "occupiers," but rather as "protectors" during a Cold War flashpoint period.

Ten years ago then US president Bill Clinton flew to reunited Berlin on the 50th anniversary of the airlift, linking up with 900 veteran US, British and French pilots who were also invited back for the occasion.

In 2008 it will be different. The Berlin city authorities plan no special city celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary. Instead, the Berlin authorities have stunned many Berliners by announcing that Tempelhof Airport is to be closed at the end of 2008.

Citizens living in the city's western districts are particularly enraged.

The decision has sparked a political squabble, with opposition Christian Democrat (CDU) politicians accusing the coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Left Party members, of "ignorance in destroying a valuable city asset - one with enormous economic potential."

Friedbert Pflueger, who heads the Berlin CDU, is calling on Berliners to sign a protest petition aimed at forcing the government to reverse its decision.

Close on 150,000 people have so far signed, but for it to have political clout 170,000 signatures are needed by a February 14 deadline.

Berlin's SPD governing mayor Klaus Wowereit has said that even if that number is reached, it will not cause the government to change its plans.

His stance has triggered an indignant response from Wolfgang Wieland, a Greens Party deputy.

If 170,000 sign, the Berlin Senate is duty bound to keep Tempelhof open - at least until the completion of a new airport to the south- east, he argues.

Pflueger, who aims to be Berlin's next mayor, talks of Tempelhof Airport being a unique location, with short, direct routes to "the new centres of Berlin."

He says foreign investors propose transforming Tempelhof into an international health centre, with affiliated airport landing facilities.

These plans would be worth 350 million euros (520 million dollars) to the city, as well as creating more than 1,000 new city jobs, Pflueger claims.

The CDU leader says another idea is that the world's biggest solar plant should be built atop the airport's circular-shaped terminal building, which was designed in the Nazi era to resemble an eagle's wings.

Wowereit, however, is unimpressed by such talk. The airport has to be closed before Berlin can proceed with plans to develop the new Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport (BBI) at Schoenefeld, he argues.

A court has also decreed that Tempelhof, which has been heavily subsidized by the Berlin authorities for years, should close this year and that Tegel Airport to the north-west of the city, should also go, albeit at a later date.

Legions of stories surround the airport's history, which dates back to 1922. Originally there were just two hangars and some 1,000 square metres of shop and administrative space.

But by 1936, the Nazis had conceived plans for a modern Tempelhof Airport, housing the Air Ministry, commercial and foreign airlines, freight and passenger facilities.

These called for a concrete apron of 1.2 million square metres, complete with facilities to store almost 7.6 million litres of fuel.

Builders dug five stories below street level. But construction came to a virtual halt in war-time Berlin, due to a scarcity of building materials.

When it was evident the Nazis were facing defeat, Colonel Rudolf Boettger, then chief of the Tempelhof project, was ordered to blow the place up.

Instead, he collected the Tempelhof blueprints and blew himself up with them before the Russians entered the city.

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