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Save Berlin: Tempelhof’s buried demons

The sprawling 950-acre park/stage/playground that was formerly an airport is one of Berlin's most beloved urban experiments. But few realise that below their bicycles, rollerblades and high heels lie some of Berlin’s darkest secrets.

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Many Berliners were pissed off when the city shut down its historic Tempelhof Airport in 2008, but most changed their tune when the ex-airfield reopened as a park in 2010.

Taking a cue from its new title, Tempelhofer Freiheit – “Tempelhof Freedom” – they’ve transformed its 950 acres into a sprawling playground/stage/urban laboratory where joggers and gardeners cross paths with runway models and techno DJs. But few realise that below their bicycles, rollerblades and high heels lie some of Berlin’s darkest secrets.

Berliners love their new park’s don’t-fence-me-in vibe, but the city’s planners say Tempelhofer Freiheit is a little too free. First they want to nibble away at the edges, ringing the park with a mini-city of apartments, offices and a massive central library. Then they’ll tame the wild open middle with a kind of art installation/amusement park. The proposed design by British landscape architecture firm GROSS.MAX calls for a round reflecting pond, raised walkways and fake 60m-high mountain peak.

Around 20 barracks were built on Tempelhof’s grounds, ringed by barbed wire fences.

Two local professors saw the plans and realised all this mucking about would do more than limit freedom – it would destroy history. Archaeologists Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck of Berlin’s Free University petitioned the Senate to dig for artefacts of the airport’s past before it’s too late. After a year of excavating, their discoveries remind us that, before Tempelhof became an icon of freedom via its role in the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, it was a symbol of Nazi megalomania, brutality and repression.

Gateway to the World

Tempelhof’s flying days go back to 1909, when aviation pioneers Orville Wright and Armand Zipfel showed off their newfangled biplanes. In 1923 it was officially declared Tempelhof Airport, one of the world’s first. Its original terminal, built in 1927, stood near the north edge of today’s park until 1948 and, at its peak, hosted up to 100 flights a day. Pollock and Reinhard uncovered the building’s foundations and the concrete frame for a 15m-long “R”, part of a jumbo-sized sign telling pilots they’d arrived in B-E-R-L-I-N.

Nazi Temple

Things took an ugly turn in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor. On May 1, a million Nazi supporters gathered at Tempelhof for a massive rally. Soon after, Hitler ordered architect Ernst Sagebiel to rebuild the airport as a monumental gateway to his “World Capital Germania”. The 1.6km-long building, one of the largest in Europe, is a vivid expression of Hitler’s lust for power. Like his planned Nazi state, its blocky, undecorated forms and rows of limestone columns are pure and indestructible. The monumental terminal was still under construction when World War II broke out in 1939.

Slave Camps

As Hitler’s army invaded their eastern neighbours, thousands of Jews and other prisoners were sent back to the capital and housed in Berlin’s own concentration camps. Around 20 barracks were built on Tempelhof’s grounds, ringed by barbed wire fences and watched by machine gun-toting guards. Prisoners ate starvation rations, slept on bug-infested straw beds and had minimal toilet facilities. Though they lacked gas chambers, the barracks were modelled after the death camps.

The unfinished terminal’s hangars became a makeshift aircraft factory. Prisoners worked at gunpoint assembling passenger planes for Lufthansa and super-lethal Stuka bombers. Work never stopped – shifts lasted 12-36 hours.

The FU archaeologists hoped to dig up evidence of everyday life in Tempelhof’s camps. Last summer, they discovered a trench, apparently a crude bomb shelter, which had later been filled with rubbish. Among the finds was a piece of porcelain stamped by the euphemistically-titled Amt für Schönheit der Arbeit (photo), the Nazi office tasked with making factory labour “a beautiful experience”.

Later this year the FU archaeologists will return for a second season of excavating at Tempelhof. 2013 also marks two important anniversaries: 80 years since the Nazis came to power and 75 years since Kristallnacht, the wave of violent attacks against Jewish citizens on November 9 and 10, 1938. In Berlin, these events are being commemorated by exhibitions, lectures and tours under the banner “Theme Year 2013: Diversity Destroyed”. Drs. Bernback and Pollock invite Berliners to tour the FU dig as part of these events and witness evidence of Tempelhof’s dark past before it’s buried again.

For information about the Tempelhof excavation: www.ausgrabungen-tempelhof.de