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.
"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.
What Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit has considered a municipal issue is now a matter that could determine his political future – and that of the SPD.
A leading figure in the SPD, Mr. Wowerweit has thrown his weight behind a "no" vote. If the city votes against him, it could deliver a blow not only to his aspirations of one day becoming chancellor; it could also hurt the SPD nationally if it led to Mr. Wowereit being dethroned.
"If the referendum is successful, it would be negative for the image of an important SPD politician," says Langguth. "Wowereit is considered to be one of the next generation of SPD leaders."
Wowereit has said he will close the airport regardless of how the referendum turns out. He boasted in an interview with the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel last week: "I am in touch with Berlin's soul."
Wowereit's understanding of how the city ticks has been expressed in a massive advertising campaign with posters showing class-conscious Berlin workers deriding Tempelhof as a "VIP airport" in a coarse Berlin dialect.
The Left party, whose constituents are largely in East Berlin, sent letters to voters throughout the city, urging them to vote "no" on the referendum.
Meanwhile, Wowereit's political rival, the Christian Democrat Friedbert Pflüger, has plastered the city with posters showing a person with his hand on his mouth and the words: "We won't let them keep us quiet. Save Tempelhof."
Mr. Pflüger, who ran unsuccessfully against Wowerweit in 2006, is betting that he can harness West Berlin anger over Tempelhof to reverse the airport closure and gain momentum in a renewed bid to unseat Wowereit next year. That would also give Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU a boost as she tries to win a stable majority without the SPD in federal elections next year.
Mrs. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, has urged Berliners to vote in favor of keeping Tempelhof open, both for its historical significance and for the economic benefits.
Those who favor closing Tempelhof say such opposition is just rooted in the nostalgic emotions of the war generation.
But local rap group "P-Zak & Konstant" give testimony that saving Tempelhof may be catching on across generations.
Last weekend they uploaded a new hip-hop song to their MySpace page (www.myspace.com/kingkonone) calling on Berliners to save Tempelhof.
"We're not political, we don't support any party," says Philipp Pietrzak, alias P-Zak. "But Tempelhof is our history and we wanted to show everybody that young people care."