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Tempelhof airport divides Berliners along cold-war lines

The German capital votes Sunday on closing the airport that served as a crucial conduit for Allied supplies during the Soviet blockade of Berlin from 1948-49.

By William BostonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2008


Horst Molkenbuhr still recalls the day in 1948 when the first American C-47 planes landed at the Tempelhof airport, bringing supplies to a city shut off from the world by Soviet tanks. Coming in the wake of World War II, the Allied airlift was remarkable not only for supplying Berlin solely by air for nine months, but for dissolving the intense distrust between West Berliners and US troops stationed in their neighborhoods.

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"The American military hated us. They thought we were all Nazis," recalls Mr. Molkenbuhr. "It was during the airlift that enemies became friends."

As Berliners prepare to vote on Sunday in a referendum over whether to keep the historic Tempelhof airport open, the city is once again divided along cold war lines. For Tempelhof's supporters – West Berliners such as Molkenbuhr who remember how the Allies kept them alive during the Soviet blockade, the airport is a symbol of their struggle to withstand communism and the friendships they developed. But for East Germans, there was no airlift and no Marshall Plan to help rebuild a country devastated by bombing.

"For West Germans, Tempelhof is a symbol of freedom; it's not just another airport. But the eastern Germans do not share this emotional attachment," says Gerd Langguth, political scientist at Rheinische Friedrich Wilhem University in Bonn. Indeed, an opinion poll by the Infratest Dimap polling agency shows that 60 percent of West Berliners want to keep Tempelhof open, compared with just 35 percent of East Berliners.

The city government, a leftist coalition of Social Democrats and former East German communists, wants to close the airport in October as part of a plan to consolidate the city's three small airports into a massive new Berlin Brandenburg International airport, which is under construction and is expected to open in 2012.

But what seemed like a done deal has suddenly become one of the most divisive political issues in the city in years. Opposition began in earnest earlier this year when a ragtag band of hobby pilots and business charter airlines gained enough support to force the city to hold a referendum. Coming just a year before elections in Berlin, and at the federal level, the Tempelhof referendum has taken on national significance, with the two major parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) who govern in a federal coalition – split on the issue.