Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Tempelhofer Freiheit (image by notmsparker)

Anyone who enters Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld, now the famous Berlin park and formerly an even more famous Berlin airport, knows this feeling well: the incredible vast space opening before you both elates and overwhelms. With colourful kites flying above you and picnicking groups enjoying their leisure day, you are excused to believe that by just spreading your arms and inhaling deeply you should able to rise in the air yourself.

But just as free as the place – aptly renamed Tempelhofer Freiheit – is today, as complex and dark is some of its past. The 1930s airport, Zentralflughafen Tempelhof – “the mother of all airports” (so the British architect, Sir Norman Foster) – was first and foremost a megalomaniac Nazi project. It replaced an older, 1923 airport located on the southern side of today’s Columbiadamm. Before the aeroplanes took over around 1909, Tempelhofer Feld served Prussian imperial army as military exercise and parade grounds.

In 1933 Goebbels – Hitler’s right hand and the brain behind the most powerful Nazi weapon, propaganda – used the site to stage a perfect, meticulously planned and carried out presentation of that weapon’s wide range.

May 1, 1933 the Tempelhofer Feld rally preparations (image via Deustches Historisches Museum LEMO collection)

“The day of the German Volk has dawned… with proper Hitlerwetter” wrote Joseph Goebbels in his diary about May 1, 1933. It was the day of his great personal triumph as the mastermind at the helm of Nazi propaganda and the death call for free German trade unions. The mass-rally organised by Hitler’s evil minion on Tempelhofer Feld and camouflaged as a great celebration of the German workers, proved to be the final blow for all independent workers’ organisations.

May 1st was traditionally celebrated as the day of working class’ fight for better working and living conditions: as Kampftag der Arbeiterklasse. To crush the potential resistance within that group (the NSDAP found relatively few supporters among workers whose majority were followers of the Social-Democrats or German Communist Party) Hitler and his closest “co-workers” chose to stage a secret two-day campaign aimed at breaking the neck of the trade unions.

The mass-rally held on the first day – which Goebbels, to severe the tie with the Weimar Republic tradition, re-branded Tag der Nationalen Arbeit, “Day of National Labour” – was a terrifying show of the extent to which the Nazis were capable of controlling the crowds. Some 1.5 million men, women and teenagers gathered on the former Prussian military exercise and parade grounds, right next to the old, 1923 airport.

Flugzeugaufnahme vom 1.Mai 1933 auf dem Tempelhofer Feld

Organised in ten blocks (with other guests there would be twelve of them on the field) they marched through Berlin to Tempelhofer Feld from their respective factories and workplaces. In a touch of evil genius the Nazis called that May Day a national holiday, which meant that full wages would be paid despite leisure time. Even though the day was no leisure at all. Many of the workers, like members of Germany’s biggest free trade unions’ association at the time, ADGB (Allgemeine Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund), had no choice but to participate in the day-long festivities: in a attempt to pacify the Nazis their union obliged all its members to take part in the rally.

From 8 AM until long after midnight they marched, they stood, some of them cheered raising their arms in a Nazi salute, listening to Goebbels and Hitler wooing and praising them as “Soldiers of Labour”, part of the “Brotherhood”, the substance of “One United Volk”. The participants arrived from all over Germany with delegations flown in by especially chartered ten aeroplanes from, among others, Königsberg, Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, Stuttgart and Breslau.

The idea was very simple: convince the workers of the Nazis’ respect for them, boost their feeling of dignity and sense of community and eventually to separate the workers from their leaders by convincing the former that the new regime was on their side and whatever was to come was solely the fault of the latter.

And come it did. After at midnight the whole of Tempelhofer Feld had been illuminated by the largest fireworks show ever held in Europe, the workers walked home filled with awe. The lights, the fireworks, the speeches, the “Graf Zeppelin” airship flying above them during the day as well as the giant swastika flags flowing down from 20-metre tall masts placed behind the massive platform on which some 13,000 people could stand (both the 15m x 20m flags and the biggest platform ever were designed by Albert Speer especially for the occasion) – they did their job well, leaving the participants with the feeling of both pride and respect. So they hardly expected the blow.

But at 10 AM the next morning, on May 2 1933, the Nazis carried out the second part of their secret plan: having stormed all of the trade union offices in Berlin and the rest of the republic, they arrested the free trade union leaders as well as many others whose political views were not line with their own.

2.05.1033 SA troops entering the Trade Unions House in Engelufer in Mitte – the building still exists (image via DHM, LEMO collection).

“German Volk! You are strong when you become united!” screamed Adolf Hitler from his tall rostrum on Tempelhofer Feld the night before. “Such a beautiful spring day,” he added, “should not be wasted for combat, abused for divisions and fight!” A “holiday for national labour” was better than “a day of fighting” – on May 1st 1933 the Nazis proved beyond any doubt that their talent for manipulation and perfect timing were one of their most dangerous tools. You can actually listen to the original radio broadcast  from the rally, transmitted that day all over Germany (including the speeches) here – thanks to the incredible source that is. A word of warning though

The story of that May Day in 1933 is often forgotten and does not automatically spring to your mind when cycling through the vast open spaces of Tempelhofer Feld today. Neither do the stories of the Polish, Soviet or Czech slave-workers held in a labour camp on the field and made to produce weapons used against their own people (like the terrifying Stukas, Junkers dive-bombers whose unique sound when diving for attack became a symbol of that war). The new project, Field Trip Berlin – an excellent open-source web documentary to be introduced in Berlin on Sunday the 12th of May and prepared as part of the 70th-anniversary celebrations for the end of Berlin Airlift of 1949 – attempts to change that. Follow them to learn more about Tempelhofer Freiheit than is apparent to the eye – to learn that the “Freedom” in its name came at a price which should never be forgotten.


You can support the @FieldTripBerlin project by participating in their crowd-funding campaign at




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