Hitler’s Airport

Berlin has buried every trace of the Third Reich—with one big exception.

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During a recent week in Berlin, I found myself, again and again, doing Berlin things. There’s really no way around it, in Berlin. On my first evening, a friend took me after midnight to the voluminous abandoned basement of an office building that, as far as I could tell, sat dormant 364 days a year, but this night was the site of a roving weekly gay dance party called Horse Meat Disco. The DJ spun Italian disco; bartenders sold artisanal sparkling juice. I visited the Museum der Dinge—the Museum of Things—which displays collections of mundane objects: ashtrays, faucets, sardine tins, household keys, cellphones, candlesticks, lightbulbs, sieves, soap dishes. I saw Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo play at the Lido, formerly a movie theater that was one of the few cinemas in East Berlin to show Western films, and came across a store that sold Sonic Youth winter hats. I heard English spoken often, but almost exclusively by nonnative speakers.

I subleased an apartment connected to a clothing boutique that sold a shirt made out of pants: the collar was the unzipped fly; the sleeves were the pant legs. Over my futon hung a life-size photograph of a naked woman being branded on one ass cheek. The neighborhood restaurants were Turkish, Syrian, Moroccan, Sudanese, French, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cantonese. I didn’t come across a single schnitzel. I ate matzo-ball soup and a pastrami sandwich at a restaurant that, modeling itself after Katz’s Delicatessen, aspires to bring “classic” New York food culture to Berlin. The restaurant is situated in a classroom of a former school for Jewish girls. The school closed in 1942, when most of its students and teachers were sent to concentration camps to be tortured and murdered. The pastrami was gross: slippery with fat and garishly pink.

Berlin is caught between the future and the past, which is not the same as being of the present.

Berlin is caught between the future and the past, which is not the same as being of the present. The city has solved, for instance, many of the problems that will continue to bedevil metropolises for decades to come. Urban planners visit from around the world to study its vast, efficient public-transportation system, its elaborate network of bicycle lanes (more trips are made by bike in Berlin than in any other European city), its generous integration of parks and canals, and its imaginative transformation of industrial and manufacturing sites. Because few buildings survived the war, Berlin has become a showroom for architects like Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, and Frank Gehry, whose sleek glass-and-metal hexagons, ziggurats, hyperboloids, and orbs possess the cold, austere gigantism that science-fiction films have taught us to expect from the dystopian cities of the future.

Yet the past constantly asserts itself. Berlin is a nostalgic city, its nostalgia extending to every part of the past except its own recent history. You see this in the quantity and quality of its museums; in its many tributes to Prussian glory, which include the Brandenburg Gate, the Victory Column, and statues of Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck; and in the ubiquity of stores dedicated to selling magazines, books, vinyl records, and vintage clothing. While it’s impossible, especially during the uniformly gray winter months, not to feel haunted by the knowledge of the atrocities that were plotted and carried out in the city, it’s also nearly impossible to see any traces of that history. The few Third Reich monuments that survived the war have been razed or repurposed to prevent them from becoming neo-Nazi shrines. Hitler’s bunker is now covered by a parking lot. His chancellery has been replaced by apartments and Peking Ente, a Chinese restaurant. Five thousand Soviet soldiers are buried beneath the lawns of Treptower Park; 2,000 more lie under the Tiergarten.

Left: Orville Wright (center) prepares for an exhibition flight from Tempelhof’s airfield in 1909. Center: Hitler, arriving in Berlin for the Olympic Games, lands at the airfield in July 1936. Right: Berliners look up at an American cargo plane, which is delivering food during the Berlin airlift in 1948. (Getty; AP; LIFE and TIME Pictures/Getty)

An astounding exception to the rule is “Hitler’s Airport,” Tempelhofer Freiheit. Though it opened in 1923, Hitler expanded it in high totalitarian style. He ordered Hermann Göring to construct a capacious new terminal, which remains one of Europe’s largest buildings and is a rare surviving landmark of Nazi architecture. During the war, Tempelhof’s airfield was home to a Gestapo prison and Berlin’s only concentration camp. The camp’s inmates were forced to build combat aircraft. Later the airport was redeemed, for some, by serving as the site of the Berlin airlift. In 2008, facing declining traffic, and competition from Tegel and Berlin-Schönefeld airports, Tempelhof was closed and slated for demolition.

Citizens rallied to save it, however, and it is now a park. The terminal, which will be converted into offices, stores, and restaurants, is fenced off (though available for tours), while dog parks, public vegetable gardens, and two baseball fields have been installed around the perimeter. But other than the absence of airplanes, the airfield itself appears untouched. Imagine a perfectly flat, treeless open space larger than the entirety of Central Park, and you will begin to understand the exhilarating sense of freedom you feel upon entering Tempelhof.

All airports were once wilderness. In the future they will return to wilderness. Berlin has made peace with this idea, and Tempelhof has become a playground where you can experience the past and the future in a simultaneous, disorienting, thrilling rush. One chilly November afternoon, I found hundreds of Berliners strolling, running, and bicycling on the tarmac. Others flew kites, juggled, and gathered for picnics. A skateboarder holding a windsurfing sail glided by on the strength of the breeze. There is room for everything and everyone at Tempelhof. There is room for ghosts and for fantasies of the deep future. I bicycled the length of one of the runways, giddy beyond reason. I felt like I was going as fast as an airplane and, if I kept pedaling faster, I might take off.