Vote Fails to Save Historic Berlin Airport

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 28, 2008

BERLIN, April 27 -- A grass-roots campaign to save Tempelhof Airport, the epicenter of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, fizzled Sunday after supporters failed to win enough votes in a citywide referendum.

Voters endorsed a measure to prevent the closure of the Cold War landmark this year by a 3 to 2 ratio. But election officials said they could not certify the results because turnout was too low. Only 22 percent of registered voters cast ballots in favor of the measure, just short of the 25 percent required.

Berlin lawmakers had previously decreed that the historic site -- Orville Wright tested one of his flying machines on the grounds, and Adolf Hitler later built the largest building in Europe there -- must close down in October to make way for a planned international airport on the southeast edge of the city.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit said after the vote that the city would move ahead with its plans to mothball Tempelhof.

"I have sympathy for the feelings of those who, for emotional or historical reasons, disagree with the closure of the airport," he said in a statement. But he asked those people to "respect" the results of the referendum.

Supporters said they wouldn't give up their campaign, although it was unclear what options they had left.

"We reached our goal, with more than 500,000 votes to keep Tempelhof Airport open," Friedbert Pflueger, a leader of Berlin's Christian Democratic Party and a political opponent of the mayor, said on German television. "We won today, and the battle for Tempelhof goes on."

Many Berliners -- particularly those in the western half of the city -- hold a passionate regard and nostalgia for Tempelhof, a long-standing symbol of efforts to keep Berlin free after World War II.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union cut off electricity and all access to the Allies' sectors in West Berlin in an attempt to force them into submission. The Allies responded with the Berlin Airlift, the greatest humanitarian air-relief mission ever.

Over the next 15 months, they delivered by air more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and supplies, the equivalent of 1 ton for each resident of West Berlin. At the height of the airlift, relief planes landed at Tempelhof every 90 seconds. The massive response led the Soviets to call off the blockade in May 1949.

Air traffic has since dwindled to a trickle at Tempelhof, with most carriers departing for Berlin's two larger airports, where there are fewer restrictions on aircraft size and nighttime flights.

But city hall's effort to shutter Tempelhof sparked an uprising in some corners of Berlin, with many residents protesting the closure of one of the few 20th-century historical sites in the city of which they are proud.

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