Voter Apathy Dooms Berlin's Tempelhof
Appeals to nostalgia and emotions were not enough to persuade residents in Germany's capital city to turn out on Sunday in support of keeping the historic Tempelhof Airport open. A referendum backed by the conservative political parties failed to reach the necessary quorum to keep Berlin's city center airport from shutting this October.
Despite the high-profile campaign appealing to Berliners to back the airport which had been the hub of the Berlin Airlift, only 21.7 percent of the 2.4 million eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. The minimum required was 25 percent. Significantly the turnout was much higher in West Berlin, as was the backing for the referendum.
Berlin's left-wing governing coalition, which includes former East German communists, had long insisted that the airport would need to be mothballed if plans for a large international airport on the outskirts of the city were to go ahead. And their campaign focused on the fact that the loss-making Tempelhof is now largely visited by private jets ferrying business people and celebrities into the city. They argued that keeping Tempelhof open would jeopardize the new Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI) Airport, which is expected to create 40,000 jobs when it opens in 2011 on the Eastern edge of Berlin, a city suffering from high unemployment.
But to many West Berliners and business people the historical significance of the airport plus its presence just 5 kilometers south of the Brandenburg Gate made it worth fighting for. Of those who did go to the polls, there was a clear majority of 60.2 percent in favor of keeping planes flying into Tempelhof.
On Monday Friedrich Pflüger, head of the conseravative Christian Democrats (CDU) in the city, said the fact that over a half-million people backed the referendum was a "clear message," to Mayor Klaus Wowereit that Tempelhof should be kept open. "The fight for Tempelhof lives on," he told his party.
But Wowereit, who had always insisted he would ignore the results of the non-binding referendum, said that Tempelhof supporters should now accept the vote. More than three quarters of Berliners had either voted no or not voted at all, he pointed out. "I would therefore ask the supporters...to respect this majority."
While the head of the Green Party in the Berlin parliament, Volker Ratzmann, called on the sponsors of the referendum to accept the result, he also criticized the Berlin coalition government for not having come up with sufficient proposals for what to do with the airport once it closes.
The director of Berlin Airports, Rainer Schwarz, welcomed the failure of Sunday's referendum. "For us, our customers, and the banks financing us, this result gives a clear signal—one that provides security," he told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on Monday. He criticized the airport's backers for being stuck in the past instead of the focusing on the important project for the future: "our new BBI airport."
The airport, which opened in 1926 and was then expanded by the Nazis with the construction of a huge terminal building, became a symbol of West Berlin's resistance to the Soviet blockade during the Cold War. A non-stop airlift kept the city going with supplies of food and fuel from 1948 to 1949.
But the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification spelled the end for the airport. By 2007 its traffic was down to just 350,000 passengers, a small percentage of the 20 million who used Berlin's three airports.
Still, there may be a way to hold on to the allure of this impressive airport—Hollywood is calling. The building has been used as a location in many a film, including Billy Wilder's "Eins, Zwei, Drei," and one of the "Indiana Jones" movies. On Monday, executives at Babelsberg Studios, based just outside Berlin, expressed interest in transforming the airport into a world-class film location. Studio director Carl Woebcken told the Potsdamer Neuesten Nachrichten that two of the massive aircraft hangers could be used for workshops while another could be used to build film sets.