Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof, Berlin

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Looking for Ghosts in Berlin – Tempelhof Airport Tour

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

Tempelhof – How could this former WWII Nazi bastion not be home to ghosts?

According to our Tempelhof tour guide, Ernst, if you wander around the halls, tunnels, and passages of Tempelhof Airport at night you will encounter the ghosts of the past. And after our two hour walking tour through this interesting building, I’m fairly sure he’s right. For us, it was just like visiting the our own ghosts from travels long ago. We had been in Tempelhof before, in the early 1990s, and had a limited time to explore the building while it was still an active military installation. But for Corinne and I, both Cold War veterans, Berlin has always had a strong draw and taking a Tempelhof airport tour was especially high on our list.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

This giant poster hanging inside the building gives a good birds-eye view of USAF Tempelhof Airbase

Ghostly Opportunities

Tempelhof Hafen has been a symbol of Berlin from its beginning. First as the world’s premiere airport, it was a symbol of German efficiency and style. For Hitler’s Third Reich, it stood as a symbol of power and strength through air power. During the Cold War and the Berlin Airlift the building stood as a symbol of freedom for the Western world. It does have its dark side, though. During World War Two, Tempelhof field was used as a forced labor camp where prisoners were forced to fabricate munitions in the deeper basements of the building.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

Tempelhof was an active airport between 1923 and 2008

We were very excited to get back to Berlin, Germany and even more excited to find that this historical Berlin airport is being preserved and tours are available! On our first real visit several years ago, we stayed in the Air Force lodging wing of Tempelhof Airbase and explored that little section, just barely scratching the surface. The Tempelhof tour, on the other hand, takes you on a journey through time to several levels within the building.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

Remnants of airport operations still remain

Taking the Tempelhof Airport Tour

The tour starts in the main “airport” sections of the building. The reception hall for departures and arrivals is a grand meeting place, very airy and light. Though it wasn’t hard to imagine the spacious hall and long windows darkly festooned with the red, black, and white swastika flags of Nazi Germany hanging eerily in the tall windows.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

The view from the aircraft parking apron

I landed in a C-130 at Tempelhof field during the 1980s flying out of Rhein Main and this is the view I saw back then. Little has changed and you can still see the stairways that passengers would have taken to walk out to the airplanes and off to their final destinations.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

Lufthansa flight LH 103 to Frankfurt now departing from gate C

The Berlin Airlift

At one time, this hangar space, built right into the massive building, was teeming with activity. Imagine a constant flow of aircraft, one every 10 minutes, as thousands of tons of food, medicine, clothing, coal, and other supplies were delivered non-stop. Aircrews set the record for the most tonnage of airlifted cargo in one 24 hour period: nearly 13,000 tons of coal delivered through more than 1300 flights in one 24 hour period.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

A real ghost from the past, one of the original Berlin “Candy Bombers”

During the Cold War, Soviet-backed troops in East Germany built a wall around Berlin to blockade the “Western” controlled parts of the city in an effort to drive out American and British influence. The response was to supply West Berlin entirely through airlift. The result was a constantly flowing air train of goods and supplies to keep the inhabitants fed and warm during the cold winter. The C-54 was the workhorse of the airlift and came to be known as the candy bomber after crews began air dropping small bundles of candy for the children of the city.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

This mural tells the whole story of the Berlin Airlift in one picture

In any operation of this magnitude there were bound to be mishaps, and 39 British and 31 Americans lost their lives defending freedom and supplying the Soviet encircled city. The Luftbrucke memorial was built at Tempelhof and Rhein Main as a remembrance to the aircrew and ground support personnel that died during the effort. I’m sure the ghosts of these men still walk the flight line at night, hoping to make one last cargo run for the people of Berlin.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

The Luftbrucke stands as a memorial to the men and women of the Berlin Airlift

Into the Depths on the Tempelhof Tour

With the flight line and airport operations area behind us we started to descend into the depths of the building. This is where things started getting really interesting. I knew, from my explorations in the 1990s, that there were hidden passages and tunnels throughout the building. I just didn’t know to what extent.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

Into the service tunnels and then down into the underbelly

We climbed down three or four levels of sub basements and behind a defunct heating plant to find this decrepit passageway leading into the Nazi war staff bunker system. The area had been burned out under Nazi orders and the commander killed himself here rather than surrendering to the approaching red army. If there was a haunted area of Tempelhof, this is surely it.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

The passageway into the hidden Nazi bunkers

In another part of Tempelhof we found these old World War II air raid shelters. There were several self contained rooms, large enough to hold nearly a hundred men, women and children. I’m not sure what the meaning of these old German murals was, but I’m pretty sure they were meant to raise the spirits of the people that would spend long hours, night after night, in the shelters as bombs rained down on the city above.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

The bomb shelters were decorated quite gaily to brighten the spirits

Any Other Ghosts?

Did we find any ghosts on our tour? No, none that felt compelled to show themselves to us at any rate. Still there is a sense of loneliness in this once bustling building. At one point we entered into the old gymnasium on one of the upper floors and found the basketball court still displaying the USAF squadron emblem emblazoned on the parquet wood floor at center court. The sound of running feet seemed to still be echoing in the cavernous room.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

One of the stairwells, so many flights to climb!

While the Berlin Tempelhof Airport is a very utilitarian building, the architect took great lengths to instill his sense of style that imparts a stately strength to the structure in the details inside and out. It’s easy to imagine the clattering footsteps of war time workers, clerks, secretaries, running up and down these stairs, some critically important dispatch in hand.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

A view from the outside, this was really a beautiful building

Important Facts

  • At one point Tempelhof Berlin was in the top 20 largest buildings on Earth, over 300,000 square meters
  • Airport operations began in 1927, making it one of the oldest airports in the world
  • The airfield has been turned into a massive city park open from sunrise to sunset, a great place for kite flying!
  • The current building was built in the 1930s during Hitler’s reign of terror
  • USAF operations closed and the building was handed back to a unified Germany in 1993
  • Civilian airport operations continued until 2008 when the airport was finally closed

Practical Information

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof

Gotta run! Time to catch our flight…

Have you been on the Berlin Tempelhof Tour? Did you see any ghosts there?

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About the Author

Jim Vail, cofounder of Reflections Enroute, is a perpetual traveler who loves writing, photography, and learning and sharing more about the world around him. He's visited more than 80 countries and has lived outside his home country for over half his life in Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands. Least favorite question--Where are you from?

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2 Comments

  1. Great post! I lived in Berlin a couple of months but still haven´t been to Tempelhof! No ghosts during the day tour: I could definitely imagine being there all alone at night as the creepiest experince of my life [lol] Thanks for sharing all these useful tips, won´t miss this place next time!

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