The Black History of the Tempelhofer Freiheit. The concentration camp and the forced labour – the remembrance and the future.

Tempelhof's forced labour camps during the Second World War. ©Archiv EADSDeze update verschijnt in het Nederlands op de site van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis.

With its 386 hectare in the middle of the city, the former airport Tempelhof has played a major role in the city’s history. The airport already catched attention when it was opened by 1927 – and when Speer developed the impressive design in 1938, the Americans closely looked with. During the airbridge with Berlin, Tempelhof was the biggest of the three airports to stuff the hungry mouths of West Berlin’s population. Now the airfield is public space since 2008, the Tempelhofer Freiheit attracts many barbecuing families, air-kiteboarders and it hosts a free, public garden. The questions arises: what is the dark side of this innocence?

When the airport was still a field for foot-drilling in 1900, a military prison with 156 dungeons was erected in front of the police station across the road. After the First World War it changed to a regular prison under command of the police, till it was closed by the end of the 1920s due to the low hygienic standards which didn’t fit a humane democratic state anymore. When the nazi’s took over the power, this lack of hygiene was not considered to be disadvantage – on the contrary. The Gestapo used the Columbia-Haus as a prison as soon as they could. By July 1933, 80 men were imprisoned again – a number which grew till 450 by February 1934. Seen the 156 available dungeons, the limit was crossed over tremendously. Initially, the problem of overpopulation was solved by equiping the SA guards with weapons. Molestations with deadly result followed by itself. By December 1934, the prison was handed over from the Gestapo to the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager (IKL – the inspection for concentration camps) and turned officially into the only concentration camp on Berlin’s soil.

On the right: the 'Columbia-Haus' (Photo between 1900-1918). ©Hans Ulrich Schulz

As a concentration camp, the Columbia-Haus was guarded by the SS. Various SS officers have been fired for being ‘too weak’ and were replaced by more fanatic SS officers who later made carreer as commanders of Nazi Germany’s biggest concentration camps. The prisoners of the Columbia-Haus were still brought to the HQ of the Gestapo at the Prinz-Albrecht-Straße – where they were questioned and tortured. The Columbia-Haus was closed by 1936 – the imprisoned men were generally sent to the newly opened concentration camp Sachsenhausen. The Columbia-Haus was demolished in 1938 – during the building of the new Tempelhof airport’s building. Through the two years of its existence, 8- or 10.000 men have been imprisoned in the Columbia-Haus. Most of the imprisoned men were political opponents of the nazi’s – with a remarkable imprisonment of homosexuals in 1935. When a prisoner happened to be jewish, he was tortured more. The most famous prisoners were Ernst Thälmann and Erich Honecker.

Tempelhofer airplane production. ©Archiv EADS

Propaganda photo of the Tempelhofer airplane production. ©Archiv EADS

In the meanwhile, the contemporary airport building was constructed by the design of Albert Speer. In the airport building’s western wing, the reparation of damaged airplanes took place. In the eastern wing it came to mass production of 2000 Sturzkampfflugzeuges (Stuka’s, dive bombers) which were tested on the airfield. Initially, the production of the airplanes was done by German workers. During the autumn of 1940, Polish women were sent. French Prisoner of War followed in 1941, as well skilled labourers from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Italy. Some of them were recruted by propaganda and went totally voluntarily others were forced by their employers – who were pressured by Germans. By 1942, the so-called Ostarbeiter (Eastern worker) from the Soviet Union and Ukraine were forced to work at the Tempelhof Airport. Another year later, also western men were forced to work for the nazi’s. By 1944, over 2000 forced labourers worked in the production of airplanes which bombed their own occupied countries.

For these 2000 forced labours, there were about 20 barracks, of which four were reserved for the ill. The worst faith was of the jewish labours. They were forced to stay in a barrack which was guarded with machine guns, barbed wire and searching lights. Their barrack was one kilometer away from their working place – and the only toilet which they were allowed to use was situated there. Also labourers from occupied eastern countries were Unfrei (unfree). In contrast to what them was told during their recruitment, they were not allowed to take place in Berlin’s public life and they were not given money but vouchers. The western labourers were Frei – and they had a (scanty) salary too. If they had the energy and money to walk around and go to bars, they were judicially allowed do to so. The barracks were located at the northeast border of the airfield. Hedges between the barracks avoided contact between ‘different’ groups of forced- and slave labours.

As one can expect, the work most have been close to slavery – for the one group even more than the other. The work was done 24/7 without any public holidays. There were only two shifts, meaning that an average working day took 12 hours. It happened that one was forced up to three shifts in a row. By the end of 1943, the airport’s old building was destroyed during and air raid. Although the new building with its reinforced concrete was better proofed against bombs, much of the forced labour was done now in the underground levels of these buildings. During 1944, most of the production moved outside Berlin – in underground camps in what is now the Czech Republic. Still, forced labour took place at Tempelhof till the 25th of April – only three days before the airport was liberated by the Soviet Army.

Memorial site for the Columbia-Haus' victims. Background: eastern wing of Tempelhofs airport building. Berlin-Kreuzberg, January 2013. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

The post-war history of Tempelhof – being the central airport during the ‘airbridge’ in 1948/9 – is worth writing a whole entry about, which I might do later. When it comes to the memorisation of the Columbia-Haus and the forced labour camps, no memorial was erected to remember the victims of the Columbia-Haus before December 1994. Klaus Wowereit – who was not Berlin’s mayor by then yet – had the honour to reveal it for the public. Since July 2012, two information panels at the previous location of the Columbia-Haus are developed to inform anyone who is interested. Up till nowadays, no memorial for the forced labours is developed yet. On the contrary – the former airfield became public space in 2008 and is now named Tempelhofer Freiheit. According to the Förderverein für ein Gedenken an die Naziverbrechen auf dem Tempelhofer Flugfeld (Association for a memorial to the Nazi crimes on Tempelhof’s airport) this is respectless towards the many victims of both the concentration- as the forced labour camp. With this argument, they try to pressure a memorial for the victims before other city planners develop a new neighbourhood on the airfield.

Taking everything into account, there is no doubt that the liberating role which Tempelhof played during the airbridge ‘won’ over the destructing days not even five years before. That the airfield is now named Tempelhofer Freiheit might be ironic and slightly forgetting the past, though one can hardly deny that the 386 empty hectare amidst the city gives a liberating feeling nowadays. Nevertheless, I want more information and awareness about the dark days of this historical site. On top of this all – I don’t think that there is a better place to remember the Nazi victims than at the place where freedom houses now.

Fence seperating the Columbiadamm with the Tempelhofer Freiheit. Berlin-Kreuzberg (January 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

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