Visiting Berlin-Schoenefeld, Germany: memories of vanishing aviation heritage

Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany | Source
Karin Janz and other German Democratic Republic gymnasts returning to Berlin-Schoenefeld from the Munich Olympics in 1972
Karin Janz and other German Democratic Republic gymnasts returning to Berlin-Schoenefeld from the Munich Olympics in 1972 | Source
An Illushin Il-14 of 'Interflug', and building work at Berlin-Schoenefeld in 1961
An Illushin Il-14 of 'Interflug', and building work at Berlin-Schoenefeld in 1961 | Source
Map location of Schoenefeld, Brandenburg state.
Map location of Schoenefeld, Brandenburg state. | Source

East Germany's former 'Interflug' air hub is still 'east'...

Soon, Berlin's new Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport will be open, and the nearby Berlin-Schoenefeld Airport may be absorbed by it. This is written without nostalgia. The German Democtratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republic ), which Berlin-Schoenefeld Airport served for decades, as East Germany's main civilian airport, belongs to the past. As with all aviation activities, it has primarily served a particular purpose, and any memories which aviation buffs and historians later have of it will be viewed from a somewhat different angle.

Hub of 'Interflug'

At one time, Berlin-Schoenefeld was the hub of a state airline, Interflug , founded for international flights in 1958. The name Interflug is a contraction of Internationaler Flug (international flight). In the strictest sense, Interflug would not be referred to today in the Federal Republic of Germany as a national carrier, for the simple reason that German unification in 1990 presupposed that Germany was one nation and Lufthansa was then known as the national German airline. (Subsequently, following the privatization of Lufthansa , even its status as a national carrier is in doubt.)

Airplane types flown by Interflug included the Ilyushin Il-14, the Il-18, the Il-62, the Tupolev Tu-134 and the Antonov An-24. Interestingly, those who have flown in both Western airliners and Soviet-built ones have sometimes commented favourably on the advantageous legroom of the latter. (Interflug as an icon for ergonomics and for deep-vein thrombosis avoidance advocates: now this is a thought... .)

Interflug's western airliners and related embarrassments raised in Canada

What is less known about Interflug is that it actually flew Western airliners as well as Soviet-built ones. It flew Airbus A310s, and a special East German postage first day cover was even issued when this airplane type was launched in the airline's livery, flying to Singapore.

The deal with Airbus Industrie, whereby A310s were supplied to Interflug , was facilitated by former Federal German defence minister Franz-Josef Strauss , then chairman of the company. In fact, in 2002, Karlheinz Schreiber, subsequently extradited to Germany to face criminal investigation, and facing legal troubles in Canada also, tried to raise in Canada issues over Airbus Industrie's sales to the by then defunct Interflug . (In relation to any of these aspects, as Canada's Oliphant enquiry later stated, no conclusions regarding civil or criminal liability are implied — and no Canadian postage first day cover is, to my knowledge, planned... .)

'Lufthansa' in East Germany

Interestingly, even some East German aviation prior to 1963 went under the name Lufthansa , until a court case ruled this inadmissable. How did this arise? At the end of World War 2, the last domestic German flight occurred with a Fieseler Storch taking off from the Tiergarten in April 1945. Subsequently the Occupying Powers banned powered German aviation for several years. (Some German pilots thus took up gliding.) When German civil aviation was revived, in the West the old Lufthansa airline name was also used again...but so was it also used in the East, until legal moves finally stopped this practice. There were also plans for the East German Lufthansa to fly the domestically designed and built Baade B-152 jet airliner, but this type was withdrawn before entering regular service. Thus, Berlin-Schoenefeld was the home airport for Interflug as the exclusive state carrier (to avoid the term 'national carrier', to which purists would object).

Some geography

Some words also on geography. The airport at Berlin-Schoenefeld is not actually in the German state of Berlin, but in Brandenburg, although it is not usual for large cities to give their name to the airport, despite lying outside its formal boundaries. (Another irony: the famous German landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, isn't in Brandenburg, either, but in Berlin.)

Another oddity was that Lufthansa (i.e., the Western-based entity) was banned from flying to Berlin-West: according to international law the city was not part of the Federal Republic of Germany, even though Federal Germany treated it as such in practical terms. But of course, according to international law, Berlin wasn't in East Germany either, although, in order to get to the Western sectors, Western airlines had to fly in designated East German air corridors to the city's airports. (Berlin-Schoenefeld naturally did not participate in the famed Berlin Airlift of 1948/49, being in the then Soviet-occupied area of Germany.)

East Germany, in the sense of the German Democratic Republic, may thus be an entity of the past...but what remains is very real: eastern Germany. When I flew to Berlin-Schoenefeld, the airport was obviously used by Polish travellers who had driven from the west of their country, who were treating it as their local airport. It is hard to think how German people who have lived most of their lives in the east of the country and have developed an outlook by which they relate to neighbouring Poland and the Czech Republic, can suddenly be expected to adopt, e.g., political priorities borne of the Ruhr area's economic links with Benelux and France. When people speak of an Ossi (easterner) 'mentality' which may be harder to breach than the Berlin Wall, this is partly in reference to the past ideology of the former German Democratic Republic. But Berlin-Schoenefeld's proximity to the Polish border serves a lesson that basic geography also has much to do with any reality which may inhere in a perceived Ossi 'mentality'.

Schoenefeld, the Brandenburg community in which the airport is situated, is actually twinned officially with Bayangol, in Mongolia. Oh, of course, western Germans may interject, this must be a throw-back from former communist days, when local politicians felt affinity with ideological fellow-travellers in the former Soviet Bloc! Well, not exactly. In actual fact, this official twinning arrangement dates from 1999, which was nearly a decade after the two Germanies were united. Western outlook? Hardly.

Eastern, if not East, Germany is here to stay.

Also worth visiting

Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor ), Berlin (distance: 22 kilometres), historic structure which formerly marked the frontier between East Germany and Berlin-West, opened by the East German authorities in December 1989.

The Reichstag building, Berlin (distance: 22 kilometres), the restored old Parliament building now part of the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) complex.

Humboldt University of Berlin (Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin ; distance: 22 kilometres) is one of the world's great academic institutions, founded in 1810.

Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom ; distance: 22 kilometres), is a massive, domed landmark, just off Unter den Linden .

The TV Tower , Berlin (Fernsehturm ; distance: 23 kilometres), the tallest structure in Germany. The Tower was previously seen as a symbol of the German Democratic Republic, and is still regarded as a symbol of Berlin.

Potsdam (distance: 51 kilometres), has historic palaces. It was the scene of the far-reaching Conference, which bears its name, between the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain in 1945.

Frankfurt an der Oder (distance: 83 kilometres) has a noted Gothic-style City Hall; its Friedenskirche is a church with twin spires which are a local landmark. The city was the scene of a Swedish battle victory in 1631 over forces of the Holy Roman Empire.

Slubice , Poland (distance: 85 kilometres) has the noted 'NMP Krolowej' church, with its distinctive tower.

...

How to get there: Continental Airlines flies from New York Newark to Berlin Tegel Airport (Flughafen Berlin-Tegel ), where car rental is available. For North American travellers making the London, England area their base, easyJet flies from London-Gatwick to Berlin-Schoenefeld Airport, where car rental is available. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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