Tempelhof airport sits at the southern tip of Berlin’s city centre. The immense building, 1230 metres in length, curls around the airfield. Tall, narrow windows cascade down its facade, and an almost human-sized metal eagle’s head stands at the main entrance. The airport, which ceased operations in 2008, was largely designed and built under the Nazi regime. Once at the centre of Hilter’s vision of ‘World Capital Germania’, the Nazis’ megalomaniacal project intended Tempelhof to be the gateway to a Europe commanded by the Third Reich. Harnessing architecture as a form of propaganda, Hitler involved himself in numerous building designs. According to Reinhard Mohr of Der Spiegel, Hitler demanded Tempelhof be ‘eternal’, ‘overwhelming’, and attest to the ‘greatness of our faith.’
‘Like many regimes, particularly dictatorships, one way they [the Nazi party] sought to secure their place in history and immortalise themselves and their ideas was through their architecture,’ writes Colin Philpott in his book Relics of the Reich. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect, believed through architecture he could facilitate new American culture. Nazis believed much the same, only now their buildings have come to incite a very different culture than the one they intended.
Since 2010, the airfield, Tempelhofer Feld, has been open to the public as a park. A flat grassy expanse with two concrete runways rolling down its centre, the landscape of Tempelhofer Feld has changed little since the airport’s closure. Only now, during the summer months, the park is covered with barbecues, barely clothed rollerbladers, kite surfers and men flying model planes. Despite the multiple plans proposed to develop the land, Berliners have consistently fought to keep the space as it is. According to Ingo Gräning of Tempelhof Project, ‘no other city would treat itself to such a crown jewel [of open space].’
But to focus only on the buried capital is to miss the point. Considering the Nazi terminal that encloses one end of the park, the reason for Berliners’ refusal to allow the space to become another urban development is clear: living beside a history of fascism, public spaces for integration and diversity are integral. Reclaiming the land as a public space is a project facilitated by the memory of freedom’s impermanence. Visible, physical sites are a far more potent reminder of this than abstracted forms of memory.
As the refugee crisis hit Europe in 2015, Tempelhof terminal became a refugee shelter. Today, it is Germany’s largest refugee camp. Inside the hallow terminal, portable dividers have been set up, enclosing multiple bunk beds into makeshift rooms. Hael Haj Bakri, a Syrian refugee who lived in Tempelhof refugee camp for ten months, tells me that when he arrived at the camp, he did not know the building’s past: ‘No one told us where we were. The place contained 3000 refugees, it was like a city … We did not know the history of this place until later.’ For Hael, the building was strong, and it signified ‘a new life.’ Reflecting on the space, he tells me, ‘the shape of the building is different and it has become like a room for refugees whose shape has changed.’ During his time in the camp, Hael often received help from individual volunteers donating time and resources. Somewhat ironically, Tempelhof has become emblematic of Germany’s ‘wiedergutmachung’ culture, which can be literally translated as ‘the act of making things good again,’ connected, undoubtedly, to Germany’s legacy of shame.
Yet the refugee camp at Tempelhof has been widely criticised by a number of international and national outlets for its subpar living conditions. Oday Nasri, also a Syrian refugee living in Berlin, spent time in Tempelhof refugee camp as part of Ai Weiwei’s production team, shooting a film inside the terminal in 2016. Oday says that life inside the camp is, for many families, extremely difficult and there are numerous problems. Only ever intended as a temporary solution to the housing crisis, German news outlets have reported the camp will be closing later this year. In spite of the struggles, both men are happy to have been given the chance to start a new life in Germany, one of the few countries in the world currently allowing large numbers of people to seek asylum.
While community engagement and inventive repurposing reveal how fascist-built spaces can be reclaimed, there other Nazi relics that prove more problematic. In Nuremberg, the city perhaps most associated with the Nazi party, lay the infamous remains of the Nazi rally grounds. Designed by Hitler’s master architect, Albert Speer, the rally grounds include the shell of the Deutsches Stadion, a Greco-Roman style stadium designed to hold over 400 000 people, as well as the iconic Zeppelin Field Grandstand. Today, the grandstand is fractured and grey-stained, and weeds grow between warping stairs. On the day I visit, there is a picnicking family on the platform where Hitler gave speeches, and nearby a German teenager freestyle raps. Despite the decay, the rally grounds retain something of their theatrical objective. Standing on the upper platform, I can clearly envisage how the space was designed to create a spectacle. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the persona Hitler cultivated and those of world leaders today. The remains of the rally ground now are in a kind of purgatory: problematic to maintain and problematic to destroy.
Against the outer wall of the Deutsches Stadion, a bride is having her wedding photos taken and a young boy posing between the archways. It’s difficult to say whether these uses of the building are borne out of ignorance or a more problematic motivation. What the site means to different people is impossible to circumscribe, a raw issue for many. According to Norbert Frei, a history professor at Germany’s Jena University, refurbishing a space admired by neo-Nazis is an unpardonable expenditure of tax-payers money. Although there is general discordance over what to do with fascist relics, the act of seeing instigates an awareness that means communities must be in constant dialogue with the past and the ideologies that created these sites.
Many of the allied forces from the Second World War, including America, Australia, England, France, have framed their triumph over Nazi Germany as an integral part of national identity, a testament to their righteousness and commitment to equality and democracy. Yet today these very same countries seem to be suffering a sort of collective amnesia over the dangers of exclusionary politics. Not coincidentally, these countries also have very few physical relics of fascism.
Purpose-built memorials are future generations choosing how and what to remember of the past. Unlike once functional spaces, they do not capture past moments, but are symbolic representations of them. Relics, on the other hand, impose themselves; the past speaking to the future. ‘You are looking at a real thing – a door, a window, a wall, a detail of some kind; you are not looking at an “idea”,’ says Timothy Brittain-Catlin, an architect and academic. These physical spaces are sensual interactions with the regime that once seriously threatened western democracy.
Again, unlike the historically-allied countries, where longing for bygone nations has proved a serious motivator, there can be no outward nostalgia in Germany. In fact, it was not until the 2006 World Cup that the German flag became (somewhat tentatively) a symbol of pride. Still today there are very few souvenir shops in Germany, and even less carrying items with the country’s national colours.
However Germany certainly shouldn’t be held up as a beacon of progress. As author Sabine Heinlein points out, Germany’s tendency to take pride in their collective guilt often masks the country’s ongoing problems and tensions with ‘foreigners.’ Germany is not impervious to anti-immigrant sentiment, and, like most countries in Europe, is polarised by the influx of refugees. According to Oday Nasri, these views are exacerbated by the visibility of refugees on German streets. Oday tells me that of the millions of refugees who have arrived in Germany over the past few years, it is inevitable that some will not be, what he calls, ‘good people.’ ‘But we try so hard to improve our image,’ he says.
Not without its problems, the fact of seeing history, being confronted with its legacy on a daily basis, forges a different relationship to memory. As an Australian living in Germany, I am often struck by how heavily Europe’s fascist past weighs on daily life. Before Trump’s election caused similar movements worldwide, many people were taking to the streets here, protesting fascist rumblings. In cities like Berlin and Nuremberg, home to numerous Nazi relics, far-right marches have always been met with larger crowds of anti-fascist demonstrators blowing whistles to drown racist chants.
Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher, claims that with seeing comes the realisation of responsibility. That is, we cannot understand our duty to others and the world until we are able to bear witness. Facing buildings from the darkest era of modern history brings a much deeper understanding of how drastically fear-mongering populism can shape countries and individual lives.
Brittain-Catlin argues that architecture makes us feel, rather than think. Nazi architecture’s unwavering masculinity, its inflexible materials and its ultra-clean geometry are a visceral experience of rigidity. These buildings demand a unilateral type of perfection, sweeping individuals into accordance with autocratic ideals. Yet their presence is a powerful reminder to learn from the mistakes of the past. Standing in these spaces it’s difficult to forget that domination and despotism are inextricable facets of strong anti-immigration policies, and that these phenomena will encompass entire countries for many generations to come.
Image: Tempelhof Flowers / pixabay