The original 1930s ceiling of Tempelhof’s terminal arrival hall.

9L/27R names one of the two runways by which airplanes once descended to Zentralflughafen Tempelhof-Berlin. First constructed in the 1920s on land previously paraded upon by Prussian forces, Tempelhof has been closed to international traffic and passengers since 2008. In the 1930s the earlier terminal was adapted to Nazi purposes by Ernst Sagebiel; though further adaptions have tended to temper his architectural style — sometimes labelled ‘Luftwaffe modern’ — the clad concrete columns of the airport’s entrance hall, as well as the arced sweep of the terminal buildings, still do their best to impose. Today the great flat expanse of the landing strip has been requisitioned as a massive urban park. Inside, within buildings still studded with signs orientating you towards arrivals and baggage reclaim, you can do as I did, and take the tour.

The tour I took was in German, a language I learnt very little of as a GSCE student in Handsworth, Birmingham, and which I am now trying to learn a great deal more of as an integration student in my local Volkshochschule. For 120 Euros, I get to attend three four-hour lessons a week for seven weeks. Compared to what private language schools charge, that isn’t even one whole salted peanut. At the moment I’m at level A2.2. If I continue through to B1.1 and B1.2 and pass the test that then comes, I’ll be able to enroll on a short course introducing me to German culture, history, and politics. This too doesn’t cost much at all, and if I complete it, I’ll receive some of my money back for all the courses I’ve taken to get to that point. Given the numbers of Anglo expats here in Berlin, it’s notable that you don’t meet quite as many of them at the Volkshochschule as you do South Americans and continental Europeans. In Berlin you can, if you want to, get by with only speaking English. English is everywhere. English is imperial. But I have moved away from England and now I want — if I can manage it — to move out of English. Not forever, but definitely for a while.

The Tempelhof tour leader was very good to us. He knew we understood some German but not enough to follow everything, so he scattered his sentences with semi-translations and occasionally said something only in English. He didn’t need to translate the English segments for the Germans who were touring with us. He also looked our way whenever he mentioned the Royal Air Force, who both dropped bombs on German citizens and who gave them a lifeline via the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. I walked away from the tour thinking that if the bombing of Berlin had to happen — and I think it did — then it had, and has to have, nothing whatsoever to do with British bravery or heroism. There is bravery and there is heroism, but bravery and heroism are not and should not be predicated on nations. That we won the war is nothing to be proud of, because war is poverty whether you are winning or losing. There is an argument for saying that all nationalism is warfare.

England might be my home again; English may still be my nationality. I love the English language: I love what can be done with it and what it can do to me likewise. But had I been talented enough and funded enough to have won a medal in the London Olympics, the Internationale would have been my anthem.



The “Ballsal” above the check-in room – or a basketball court created by the Americans in 1945.


About whenwebuildagain



  1. I don’t think I necessarily feel any more British then you – let alone English – but I’m with Benedict Anderson on this one. Nationalism doesn’t have to be exclusive of supra-, sub- or para-national identities – or of identities falling entirely outside those registers – and it’s not necessarily antagonistic, I don’t think. Europe’s recent ugly romance with the creed doesn’t have to be the whole story.

  2. The Internationale definitely deserves more public outings, though.

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