A brief history of Tempelhofer Feld

Ian Farrell discovers armies, aeroplanes and art as he trawls through the fascinating history of Tempelhofer Feld…

Kaiser Wilhelm I during a victory parade at Tempelhofer Feld following the Franco-German war 1870/71
Kaiser Wilhelm I during a victory parade at Tempelhofer Feld following the Franco-Prussian war 1870/71

Though currently one of modern Berlin’s hippest cultural hotspots, Tempelhof’s story actually begins many centuries ago, in a very different time. The area was first populated as far back as the early 13th century – several years before the official founding of Berlin – by the Christian Order of the Knights Templar, who set up a commandery at the site and gave the region its name[1]. After their dissolution about a century later, it then switched hands several times before being repurposed as arable land[2].

For many years, the field continued to be used only by Schöneberg farmers, and it was not until half a century later that its potential was first recognised. On the hunt for greater resources for his ever-expanding Prussian army, Friedrich Wilhelm I, popularly known as the “Soldier King”, commandeered the land from the local farmers as his new parade ground in 1722[3]. From then on it became used increasingly for military manoeuvres, until it was finally bought and became the official exercise ground for the Berlin Garrison around 1827.

This step provided a catalyst for the site’s increasing importance as a military and transport hub. The following years and decades saw barracks set up, an important strategic rail link established to nearby Halle, and a sick bay and cemetery established for the victims of the Napoleonic wars. Commercial railways to cities such as Dresden followed, together with more permanent military office buildings and headquarters at the end of the nineteenth century. It was also around this time that the unified German army paved the way for the site’s crucial role in aviation history by establishing its first airship detachment here, in 1887[4].

The nineteenth century also foreshadowed another aspect of Tempelhof’s future use: at weekends and public holidays, when the parade ground was not in use, hundreds of Berliners would flock here for the weekend, deckchairs and picnic baskets under their arms. Various leisure facilities came and went: a horse racetrack was opened in 1930; tennis and cricket areas were marked out and there was even an outdoor pool (though its name, “Schlangenpfuhl” or “snake pool”, was less than appealing)[5]. Some of the similarities to the park’s modern-day use – such as the crazy golf and winter sports – are simply uncanny.

Indeed, Tempelhof at this time was, in many ways, as varied in its use as it is today. Unusual though it may seem in a city now known more for the success of its ice hockey team, the site also played a key role in the birth of German football. Berlin’s first football team, BFC Frankfurt 1885 (though confusing in retrospect, the name was given in honour of the hometown of founder Georg Leux, who originally moved to Berlin to become an artist way before it became cool), played on the pitches here, as did BFC Germania 1888, the oldest football club in the country that is still going. Both were key players in establishing the sport here, and Germania – who now ply their trade at local level in Kreisliga B – still train just south of the Tempelhofer Feld[6].

From parade ground to testing ground – the birth of aviation


The establishment of the army’s airship division in 1885 made Tempelhof a fertile testing ground for aviation pioneers of all kinds – the first German aerial photos were taken here in 1886[7], and between 1888 and 1899, Professor Richard Aßmann oversaw a series of manned and unmanned balloon flights from Tempelhof to perform the kind of important meteorological research that had been hitherto impossible. Amongst other things, these flights measured temperature, humidity and pressure, and would eventually lead to the discovery of the stratosphere two years later[8].

The large open space was also perfect for the inevitable crashes that would result from such tests, as when Friedrich Wälfert tumbled back to the earth in flames in 1922. Wälfert had been the first man to attempt to power his balloon using a petrol motor – a mistake that cost him his life when the fuel reacted with the hydrogen keeping the ship afloat, exploding violently.

However, there were also many more success stories. In 1909, Orville Wright chose Tempelhof as the location to demonstrate the motorised aeroplanes based on the “flying machine” he and his brother, Wilbur, had used to complete the world’s first powered flight six years earlier. These demonstrations set new records in both altitude and flight duration, taking passengers on a journey of over one hour at heights of over 160 metres[9].

Taking flight – Tempelhof Airport

Nazi rally at Tempelhof Airfield on 1 May 1933 (near the Columbia-Haus)

With the advent of the aeroplane and the need for long runways close to urban centres, Tempelhof finally seemed ready to take its place at the centre of Berlin life. It was first used as a proper airport in 1922, and was extended as the decade went on to cope with increasing demand for passenger and freight flights.

Despite its success, however, it struggled to escape its military heritage. After a brief period of use as a Gestapo “overflow” prison when the Nazis came to power, in 1934 the old military detention building at the north of the field became the site of Berlin’s first official concentration camp[10]. Used mainly for political prisoners who needed to be kept out of the way while Hitler consolidated his power base, its most prominent detainees included several members of the previous government and even a young Erich Honecker. In total, at least 8000 people were kept here in awful conditions over a period of three years: cramped, humiliated and tortured to such an extent that even the Nazi brass decided to draw a line, officially banning cruelty to prisoners in 1934.

The camp was closed in 1936 and the inmates moved to a new, more modern “facility” at Sachsenhausen. In its place, architect Ernst Sagebiel was enlisted to design and build an awe-inspiring gateway to Hitler’s new vision of Germany. Though never completed under his guidance – other priorities took precedence once war broke out, and the site became a forced-labour plane assembly factory – the plans did give birth to the imposing structure that still dominates Platz der Luftbrücke today, looming over visitors on their way to concerts at the Columbiahalle. At the time, this was the largest building on the continent, and an impressive statement of intent from Germany’s new rulers[11].

After the war, the USSR handed the site over to the American forces in charge of the city’s south-west areas, who repaired and completed it for use as both an air base and a civilian airport. The site was an obvious strategic advantage, and one that was put to the test in June 1948, when increasing tension between these former allies led to one of the defining events of the burgeoning Cold War – the Berlin Blockade.

As part of their plan to get West Germany back on its feet and prevent it falling to the communist system encroaching from the east, the USA had been providing the population with extensive aid and supplies. The Soviet Union was already uneasy with the imposition of the capitalist political system this entailed, and put its foot down on 24th June 1948, just a few days after it had been announced that the new West German currency would be extended to West Berlin. All land and water access through East Germany to West Berlin was cut off, leaving it completely isolated from the rest of West Germany.

Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948.
Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948.

Refusing to be intimidated, the Allies poured all their resources into keeping up support via the only means still available to them – air transport. For the next 15 months, a tight system of one-way “air corridors” was set up to manage the heavy traffic in and out of Tempelhof airport. With planes landing every three minutes, more than 2.3 million tons of supplies and materials were flown in, some of which were even used to build a new runway and lighten the load on the existing air strips[12]. Outgoing flights were also used to rescue refugees and children in need of medical attention.

By 5th May, 1949, the point had been made and an agreement was signed to lift the blockade. A line had been drawn, and the stage was set for the next 40 years of the Cold War. A square (Platz der Luftbrücke) was named in honour of the 77 people who lost their lives in accidents during the operation, and a monument erected bearing their names, with three prongs to represent the air corridors that channelled the traffic.

By comparison, the remainder of Tempelhof’s tenure as the city’s main airport was rather dull, albeit successful. Once the airlift was over, more and more over the airport was handed over for civilian use. The original buildings from Sagebiel’s plans were finally completed, and frequent flights flew to destinations in Western Germany (for those still uncomfortable in such a potentially volatile city) and all over the world. It returned to exclusive military use with the opening of Tegel Airport in 1975, only to then be re-opened to lighten the load of business travellers ten years later.

After the Wende

After the Cold War ended and Germany was re-unified, the Allied troops who had been protecting the country against Communism gradually packed up and went home. American troops finally handed Tempelhof over entirely in 1993, leaving the new government to decide what to do with the site. With Tegel and Schönefeld now also at its disposal, it was decided that Berlin no longer required the hassle of a busy airport in what was now the centre of the city. As early as 1994, plans were being put forward for the expansion of Schönefeld into a super-sized international airport to reflect Berlin’s resurgence on the global stage, and the conversion of the Tempelhof site into a multi-purpose area that would combine new housing estates with leisure and park facilities.

Such plans always take time to implement, especially for locations with so much associated historical and cultural value, and in the meantime, the airport kept running. By the early 2000s the airport was making huge losses and the company running it spent several years embroiled in legal battles for the right to close it down, opposed first by the airlines using the site and then by public pressure groups. Eventually, however, the Tempelhof’s fate was decided when the turnout for the referendum on its future in 2008 only attracted 21.7% of those entitled to vote, resulting in the final appeal against closure being dismissed.

The last flight left on the night of 30th October the same year, then the airport closed its gates forever.

The present day – Berlin’s green and pleasant land

Forever? Well, not quite. Amid murmurings of plans for luxury flats that would raise rents throughout the area and fill a potentially excellent public space in the centre of Berlin, the left-wing “Squat Tempelhof” group organised a demonstration at the site on 20th June, 2009[13]. The protest failed, broken up by police with tear gas, but the point had been made: the public wanted Tempelhof to be an open site for all, and they were prepared to fight for it[14]. The next year was spent searching for a suitable compromise, and Tempelhof was finally opened to the general public in May 2010, under the name “Tempelhofer Freiheit” (“Tempelhof Freedom”).

Tempelhofer Feld in 2013. Image by Paul Sullivan.
Tempelhofer Feld in 2013. Image by Paul Sullivan.

Over the past three years, the old airport has taken on a life of its own, shaped by Berlin’s diverse and adventurous population. In many ways, it has become an homage to the pre-Nazi days of picnics, sports and lounging around in the sun – the site received 235,000 visitors on its opening weekends, and has maintained its popularity ever since. Yet it is also becoming something more, the blank slate of such a huge open space offering Berlin’s creative types freedom of expression on a scale that is scarcely imaginable anywhere else.

On the north side, a Shaolin Temple nestles just opposite the “Nurture Mini Art Golf Course” – 18 interactive sculptures by local artists, designed in the form of crazy golf holes – while bars and “urban gardening” allotments adorn other corners, without ever diminishing the astonishing sense of space and openness. The former buildings, meanwhile, can be toured (click here to see photos).

The future, or “What to do with a big field” part 2

The Tempelhofer Freiheit project has been a roaring success, the site once again undergoing a complete transformation to revitalise its importance to modern Berlin. Yet despite its popularity, the debate on what to do with the space is far from over. The Berlin Senate is responsible for the official plans, but there are also a number of private initiatives staking their claims. With no independent body to mediate the planning, this conflict of interests has made it impossible for everyone to agree on a coherent structure for the site. Promising initiatives come and go, such as the proposal to hold the IGA international garden show here in 2017, originally intended to draw in more visitors but eventually discarded as a hindrance to normal use when the park’s popularity exceeded all expectations.

The Tempelhofer Feld “Masterplan”

The official plans are ambitious and expansive, combining residential areas on the outskirts and further park development with a new central library, school and sports facilities, plus a new S-Bahnhof, bus station and bridge to improve access. The airport building itself has proven a popular venue for the Berlin Festival and trade fairs such as Bread and Butter and the Automobilwoche car show, and office space has already been leased to a whole host of creative companies in the gaming, music and design industries[15]. There is clearly a desire to strike a compromise between redevelopment and maintaining the sense of space that is the site’s main appeal.

Nevertheless, there is still a sense of limbo hovering over the Tempelhof site today; a feeling that this free-thinking Utopia cannot last forever. While some welcome the money being poured into the area, others are less keen, perhaps wary that the current plans may only represent the start of the redevelopment work, and that in a few years, the park may be gone for good.

To represent these views, the 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative has drawn up a petition for a referendum on whether any development work should be allowed on the site. 174,000 signatures from German citizens resident in Berlin are required in order for the referendum to be approved. The initiative argues that the park should be left entirely as it is, due to its importance as “a leisure space, cultural and historical memorial and conservation area for plants and animals”. The deadline for signatures is Monday 13th January 2014, and forms can be printed off online and handed in at any Bürgeramt.

Throughout centuries of use, the Tempelhofer Feld has undergone a variety of guises, growing from simple arable land to a major airport at the centre of some of the twentieth century’s key historical events. Now it finds itself once more in transition, a key space that could define the face of the city for years to come. Yet it is also beautiful for what it is: a vast open space that exhibits the character of Berlin’s diverse population. Perhaps, after so many years at the centre of the city’s hectic life, this is exactly what it needs to be.


[1] http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/ueber-die-tempelhofer-freiheit/geschichte/chronik/

[2] http://www.jedelsky.de/flughafen_tempelhof/index_2.html

[3] Lothar Uebel, Viel Vergnügen. Die Geschichte der Vergnügungsstätten rund um den Kreuzberg und die Hasenheide, Berlin 1985, S.70

[4] http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/about-tempelhofer-freiheit/history/aviation-history/early-flight-attempts/

[5] http://tempelhof.binary-objects.de/page41.html

[6] http://www.bfcgermania88.de/verein/chronik.html

[7] http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/berlin-von-oben-die-ersten-luftbilder-deutschlands-a-412108.html

[8] http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/about-tempelhofer-freiheit/history/aviation-history/early-flight-attempts/

[9] http://www.jedelsky.de/flughafen_tempelhof/index_2.html

[10] http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/about-tempelhofer-freiheit/history/national-socialism/concentration-camp-columbia-haus/

[11] http://www.berlin.de/orte/sehenswuerdigkeiten/flughafen-tempelhof/

[12] http://www.afhso.af.mil/topics/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=17711 and http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/ueber-die-tempelhofer-freiheit/geschichte/symbol-der-freiheit/luftbruecke/

[13] http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/linke-gruppe-squat-tempelhof-erwartet-10-000-besetzer/1540870.html

[14] http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/berlin-tempelhof-flughafen-besetzung-scheitert-krawalle-1.115837

[15] http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/about-tempelhofer-freiheit/planning-development/

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