First Impressions of Cold War Berlin

My first visit to what was then West Berlin was during the spring of 1975. I was a senior in high school and my father pulled me out of school for a two week trip to Europe. He was a commercial pilot, and he'd studied German and French in college. He loved to travel, and he especially loved to travel to Europe. I'd studied German for four years in high school, so, as a graduation present, he took me to Denmark, Germany, and Paris for a couple of weeks nearly forty years ago. We spent three days in West Berlin in the middle of that trip.

We flew into West Berlin from Hamburg. It was a short hop on Pan Am. My recollection is that Pan Am was the only American airline with the right to fly in and out of Berlin back then. We landed at Flughafen Tempelhof, a tangible, working relic of the Nazi era and so much more. Being at Tempelhof was a remarkable experience for many reasons that were instantly apparent.

The Pan Am pilot on our flight introduced himself to my father, a fellow pilot, and offered to take us on a brief tour of the city after landing. We, of course, accepted. Our first stop after fetching our luggage in the airport's spacious main passenger terminal was Pan Am's administrative office in the Tempelhof complex. Our tour guide had to pick up his paycheck. Spending my first moments in Berlin taking care of some frankly mundane matters in a building so closely associated with both the notorious infamy of Nazism and the heroic resistance of the Berlin Airlift was a phenomenal experience. The central role of this building in some of the most important events of the 20th century rendered my brief visit nearly overwhelming. Tempelhof's origin and its symbolic role in Nazi propaganda, its capture by the Soviets at the end of the war, and its use by the western allies during the Airlift were, in 1975, far more than abstract, distant memories. I imagine there are other landmarks that are as closely identified with prewar Germany, the war itself, and Cold War Europe, but of all the places I've been, Flughafen Tempelhof stands alone in that regard, and my brief visit was a poignant beginning to my lifelong connection to Berlin.