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Just a Field? Tempelhof is a Presidential Barometer

Updated on May 18, 2017
Clive La Pensee profile image

Clive lives part of the year in Berlin. The history of the city and its 20th century torments, are of special interest.

Local Beer Uses President Kennedy's Saying

One of Berlin's beers pays homage to Kennnedy's speech, fifty years on.
One of Berlin's beers pays homage to Kennnedy's speech, fifty years on. | Source

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

President Kennedy visited Berlin and famously announced, "I am a doughnut," and was cheered by 120,000 West Berliners. Wikipedia says it was 450,000, which seems an unlikely number outside Rathaus Schöneberg. What the President said was, "Ich bin ein Berliner." What he meant to say was, "Ich bin Berliner." That's how tricky foreign language speaking can be. Without the indefinite article, Berliner is a person living in Berlin. With the article, ein Berliner is a doughnut. I’m sure his speech-writers had red ears, but It didn't matter. Language is about communication and West Berliners understood the message. The President was standing near the Berlin wall and he had just promised to keep the Russians the other side of it, The world understood the President's statement as a declaration of solidarity. Only the East Germans enjoyed the mistake, and made propaganda capital out of it.

That was 26th June 1963. The modern beer advert, "Ich bin ein Berliner Kindl," shows that Kennedy's words have changed the language and have taken his meaning. "Ich bin ein Berliner," no longer means just doughnuts.

John F. Kennedy Platz

The square in front of Rathaus Schoeneberg, has been renamed after the President, in honour of his declaration of solidarity.
The square in front of Rathaus Schoeneberg, has been renamed after the President, in honour of his declaration of solidarity.

President Obama Commemorated the Day

50 years later, to the day, a helicopter circled over the city. President Obama was about to land or had landed and for some reason we were supposed to be excited. By then, the Middle East had replaced Berlin as the cockpit for World War 3. Iraq is far away and I guess people were less enthusiastic and interested than 50 years before. So much had gone wrong in the intervening years. Kennedy guaranteed a balance of power and peace. Presidents since have been reduced to delivering platitudes. Once so much hope. Now, post 9/11, terrorist groups are queuing to assassinate innocent shoppers or revellers.

President Obama arrived that day in 2013, with his wife and children. Why expose them to this risk?

'Because we can't be seen to be driven from our streets. It's the American way!' he would have replied. Respect!

We so want a better world and it is so elusive. On the day he landed, I cut out newspaper articles.

1. A civil war had been raging in Syria for over a year. A hundred thousand dead.

2. Hundreds were killed that day by bus and car bomb attacks in Bagdad. It was over a thousand dead in the preceding month. The Middle East is in turmoil. Back then it seemed that the more we wanted a western democracy in Iraq, the further it slipped from our grasp. The more we helped, the greater the chaos.

3. The civil unrest in Turkey and Brazil that day, went on unabated, despite horrendous violence by the police in those countries.

4. After years of occupation the Americans announced they are entering talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, because they had to concede what we have known for decades. You can't beat them. Wow! That was what the papers claimed. I'm not sure the Obama government knew of this development. Nearly four years on, we refer to it as 'fake news'. The expression hadn't been invented then.

5. Genocide from the air was a daily occurrence in Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan...... the list is long. But war is a messy and inexact science. Walking away would be easy - short term.

Berlin Airlift hub is now a Playground

Tempelhofer Feld, hub of the Berlin Airlift, has changed from the pivotal point of East/West conflict, to a playground for Berliners
Tempelhofer Feld, hub of the Berlin Airlift, has changed from the pivotal point of East/West conflict, to a playground for Berliners

Tempelhof as a Barometer

It seems, we all must learn that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is easy for me to be wise after the event. That day in Berlin, as the President landed, we all felt smug. Economy was booming, terrorism seemed a long way away – for us – back then.

I made up my mind to ignore the helicopter, which is more than the dwellers closer to the city centre could do. Some shops and businesses were shut for two days with no economic help for those affected. I was warned that any bicycles left within the city-centre zone would be removed by the police. It would cost to get your wire donkey back again. Major city-centre venues were shut to the public. That was tough stuff for those who had spent a fortune to travel half way round the world. And the final insult? It was stifling 37oC on my north facing balcony and due to get hotter. Those unlucky enough to live along Mr. Obama's intended route were not allowed to open any windows. 'So much for basic liberties,' I snorted to a neighbour. But I can be critical. It wouldn't be my backside going through the mangle if someone took a pop at the President. Did anyone not connected to the circus, appreciate the dangers?

I decided to see what the people thought. Where better to look than the disused (once American) airfield just up the road. It's the one where President Kennedy must have landed - the Tempelhofer Feld, which hosted the Berlin Airlift, when the Soviet Union blockaded the city in an attempt to get the US, Britain and France out of Berlin. The lighting gantries are still visible around the field. They remind one of enormous birds, standing on one leg, beaks poised menacingly, perpendicular to the leg. It was the perfect metaphor for the changing world – post 1948.

It was late evening as I pedalled up the slope and onto the field. At first, when I saw the crowds, I thought it was turning-out time. There were so many people milling around, but like me, they were on their way in. When I reached the perimeter track, intended for sporting types who want to charge at high speed round the 6 km, I found so many sporting types that no one charged anywhere. I managed a sedate 8km/h on my bike. No one minded. Just so long as we were not trapped in front of the TV, watching Barack and Angela.

Old Rolling Stock Still Plods up the South Side

Ancient S-Bahn trains still keep the circle line running. The new trains are great, when they work.
Ancient S-Bahn trains still keep the circle line running. The new trains are great, when they work.

Enterprise in a Supermarket Trolly

There was a terrible clanking noise from across the grass. I shielded my eyes against the setting sun to see who or what has a problem. There was no problem. An old man, down and out judging by his dress, unkempt hair and beard, pushed a supermarket trolley full of empty, (mainly beer) bottles. Every so often he saw a bottle in the grass and stopped to pick it up. His main source of income was found in and around the over-full waste bins. He picked out everything with a deposit on it and clank it went into his stolen trolley. 'That is enterprise Mr. President,' I thought, 'unlike prime rate mortgages, which were a swindle'. One sees well-dressed Berliners going through waste bins - in the richest country in Europe.

His trolley was nearly full. I estimated 50 bottles. The deposit on the bottles ranged from 15 cents to 25 and he had the problem of taking some back to their point of purchase. If he got 20 cents average per item, then he had maybe €10 in his basket. I once sat next to a young woman at the main train station. I was waiting for the train to arrive. She was waiting to start work. She wanted to tell someone about her enterprise, so she sat next to me.

As the huge trains pulled in, she knew she had five minutes to get through the carriages and collect the empties. She knew on which trains the railway personnel would have all the empties by the door ready to throw into a waiting waste trolley. She would get to the trolley first. I think railway staff let her. She told me that she was unemployed, probably unemployable due to her less than adequate school leaving certificate, but she earned around €30/day from the empties. I muttered encouraging words and wondered, if someone with so much get up and go was really unemployable. I know that welfare payments barely cover the rent and a buttered roll each day. With her €30 she was able to go to the cinema and buy some new knickers when needed.

On up the hill I cycled and an ancient train just beyond the perimeter fence rumbled past. It still works. Many of the new generation were stuck in sidings, because no one can make them work. I have realised that the richer the country, the easier it is to rip the government off. Germany is plagued by failing projects, and yet it is known for its efficiency. In 2013, the boys with the big money were enriching themselves at the expense of the state. Four years on, the newspapers are full of the legal processes that will see many project leaders go to jail. They will get a few months in an open prison and then retire to a tax haven with their millions.

Beyond the railway line is the motorway - gridlocked. That's not progress, but if you block off the city centre you inevitably leave a few stranded on the motorway. The knock-on effect is that no one can move. Cheers Barack. Why am I so negative? Back in 1963 we forgave the President everything.

Grill Smoke Stands for Multi-Culti

I am overtaken by a group of skateboarders. They've got their lycra and crash-hats on and are not going to be slowed by anyone. A group of cheeky early-teen, slightly overweight girls, have decided that a couple of thousand hectares is not enough and the only place to really throw a Frisbee, is across the path of the sporting types, and the angrier the latter get, the more the former giggle, so much that it takes even longer for them to retrieve their errant Frisbee. Good on you girls! That's enterprise. Slow people down and save an accident.

The warm wind roared in from the east, making progress up the south side slow. A man practiced kite gliding on the vast main runway over to my left, but he only made limited lifts and was just a few seconds airborne. I think the expanse of tarmac was too crowded to risk a proper take-off. At the north end, the blue smoke of grill parties carried enchanting aromas from around the world, across the vast expanse. Grill smoke; the ephemeral multiculturalism.

Mini-Golf and Minarets

A mini-golf play area, created from scrap metal and sited where once planes parked, sits beneath the minarets, behind the Tempelhofer Feld.
A mini-golf play area, created from scrap metal and sited where once planes parked, sits beneath the minarets, behind the Tempelhofer Feld.

Annoying Hitler

It had become fashionable to fence off colonies and plant gardens on the old airfield - all unofficial I assume. There is no access for non-essential vehicles so the buildings and fences are made of scrap wood that could be carried. No planning, meant no continuity of shapes, but the overall effect is, to this day, stunning. If too many random plots appear, then presumably, they will be removed.

Some carried signs such as 'Arrived in the night - built by aliens.' That was clever. If they belong to no one, and are used by everyone, the authorities will look like spoil-sports if they remove them.

Some resourceful types have managed to get a caravan on the field, from which they claimed to repair bikes and skateboards. It's called enterprise too, but I wouldn't entrust my bike to them, due to the pile of broken old bikes next to the caravan. Looks dodgy. They have since been moved on!

Behind the caravan, I saw two containers, which had been turned into a house with some cunning wooden frames and Perspex. That was taking liberties, and they have since disappeared!

After 4 km I was near completion of my first round. I approached the old airport buildings, which still show evidence of the American way. An old Rosinenbomber (raisin bomber) stands in front of the US - Air Force building as a testament to the Berlin airlift, when the Soviets blockaded West Berlin. To this day, it is fenced off, as apparently, no one trusts the people to behave. Ridiculous! The square outside the airport, and the underground station have been renamed to commemorate the huge enterprise and the tiny planes of yesteryear, that carried everything from bread to coal to the starving, freezing city. Very few raisins, ironically.

The airport buildings are believed to have the largest surface area of any non-factory building in the world. The Pentagon may be bigger, but as one can't find out how big the Pentagon is, the record will stand. The interiors are austere Hitler-inspired Jugendstil, and now house Syrian refugees. That would really annoy him!

Scrap Wood Makes a Children's Paradise

Parents have carried scrap materials and tough greenery, onto the field and colonised it for their children.
Parents have carried scrap materials and tough greenery, onto the field and colonised it for their children.

Eco-Warriors Thwart Planners

The Berlin Senate wanted to allow the perimeter of the field to be used for housing. It seemed a good idea when one said it quickly, but it would have meant an end to the spontaneous feel of the place. We all know how touchy householders are and whether rock concerts or televised sporting events would still have been allowed with their attendant noise, is anyone's guess. Maybe the African drums I heard beating in the distance would have been verboten, too. The building idea turned out to be much ado about nothing. The development companies and estate agents revealed their hand too soon. We were blitzed with ads for new housing - housing no normal person would be able to afford. Another referendum returned a huge 'NEIN', and the building plans were filed into 'history'. Smart eco-warriors fenced off vast grassy areas and left them to go wild. They have now been colonised by plants and animals rare in an inner-city location. Building is now impossible without upsetting the grass or a lizard.

Art for the People, by the People

Artwork for Entertainment. There are bikes everywhere on the Tempelhofer Feld.
Artwork for Entertainment. There are bikes everywhere on the Tempelhofer Feld.

Plane Park Becomes Construction Park for Refugee Accommodation

No building is allowed, but no one said the Berlin Senate couldn't build buildings to be used elsewhere. These will house refugees.
No building is allowed, but no one said the Berlin Senate couldn't build buildings to be used elsewhere. These will house refugees.

No Invite for President Trump

The Tempelhofer Feld remains one of the political barometers in Berlin. Few tourists find their way to it. When the grill parties rage, they are fuelled by locals and we know the feel-good factor is alive and well. That evening we wallowed in self-satisfaction.

Today, I worry about the level of indifference among Berliners, when Presidents come to call. There is one certainty. If Germany had played a World Cup qualifier that evening in 2013, the field would have been empty, but not the area around the big screens. In such a fragile world, why couldn't Mr. Obama pull 'em like President Kennedy, or twenty-two lads in silly shorts?

I doubt President Trump will be invited to Berlin. If he is, indifference will be the least of the City's problems. Love him or hate him, he gets us off our lazy backsides the way Mr. Obama never managed. Are our days of smugness over?

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 10 days ago from Auburn, WA

      Great hub. Very interesting. Surprised they did not do more w/Tempelhof.

      Thanks. Sharing.

    • Clive La Pensee profile image
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      Clive La Pensee 10 days ago from East Yorkshire - UK

      Thanks for your interest CJ. I think the people have solved the problem of what to do with an obsolete airport.

    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 5 days ago

      A very thought-provoking article. Berlin saw 4 profound régime changes within 70 odd years: 1918, 1933, 1945-49, 1989-90; each time, Berliners - however they may be defined - have been expected to adopt enthusiastically the latest, officially 'correct' identity. While these successive changes represent far from a mutual moral equivalence, what I think your article is saying that much of what motivates Berliners is far from ideological. It's interesting also that you perceive that what JFK's visit signified to (West) Berliners - as opposed to anyone else - was some kind of security and continuity, in other words, the best version of security and continuity available, rather than an impressive ideological flourish. I think that what you are also saying is that in terms of bread and butter issues, Berliners are no more ideological now than they have ever really been, below the surface. Despite the disappearance of the Wall and the GDR, Bertolt Brecht's maxim seems to prevail: 'Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral' (=The trough comes first, figure why later). While Tempelhof might be dressed up as representing a lot of physical and ideological coming and going, action and inaction speak louder than words and ideologies.

    • Clive La Pensee profile image
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      Clive La Pensee 5 days ago from East Yorkshire - UK

      Thank you for your comment - most interesting to see another idea on how to interpret this amazing city. I had forgotten the Brecht quote but enjoyed the reminder all the more.

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