First they drew up plans, then they enacted them. They didn’t hang around. The secret plans were made in 1934, and a year later construction began. Construction, that is, of a new military airfield, just west of Berlin. This was the Nazi's way of circumventing Germany's treaty obligations: rearm, but do so in secret. The rearmament had been going on during the Weimar republic as well, but on a much smaller scale. It was only after the election in 1933 that brought the Nazis to power, when Germany started taking aggressive, single minded steps towards building a military capable of once again fighting wars.
The Nazis, of course, had always promised that they would rearm. The Treaty of Versailles was an embarrassment to all Germans, they said. Only they could recover Germany’s lost pride. On the 16th of March, 1935, Adolf Hitler announced to the world what the world already suspected: that Germany was going to rearm, regardless of what the Treaty of Versailles said.
The rearmament would eventually lead to a second world war, just 19 years after the previous one had reached its bloody conclusion. But back in 1935, the Nazi party were enjoying their electoral honeymoon, and rearmament was a matter of principal. The thought of war didn't seem quite as terrible as it had done not so long ago, and would do so again in the not too distant future.
Flugplatz Schönwalde, the military airfield west of Berlin, was just one part of the rearmament plan, although a crucial one. It was named after the rural municipality of Schönwalde-Glien in which it was located, and was designed to perform the important task of training the pilots of the German Luftwaffe.
First, they built wooden barracks, mainly to house the workers. Then they cleared the scrubby land and began work on the concrete runway and radio control tower. The permanent barracks followed, buildings built using Clinker brick, typical of the interwar period. There was a large canteen, a casino and an outdoor swimming pool all on site – all luxury for the time. The airfield eventually opened in 1939, becoming home to the supplementary and transport group of the XIV Air Corps for the newly created Luftwaffe. During the war, the airfield continued to train new pilots for the German Luftwaffe, quickly getting them up to speed, before they faced deployment to any one of the many battlefronts.
On the 24th of April, 1945, Soviet troops of the 1st Belorussian Front reached Flugplatz Schönwalde, having encircled Berlin. Central Berlin itself was still under siege, but not yet conquered. Two days previous, Hitler had burst out into a tearful rage, having being told by his generals that his plans to defend the city were unachievable, that defeat was almost certain. The Germans soldiers at Schönwalde knew that already, and surrendered the airfield accordingly, without attempting to counter the Soviet advance. Flugplatz Schönwalde fell straight into the hands of the Soviets, a full week before the rest of Berlin capitulated and the war in Europe came to an end.
Hitler’s suicide in the Führerbunker came just eleven years after his government had ordered the construction of Flugplatz Schönwalde. Their rearmament program, and subsequent invasion of neighbouring countries, had once again reduced Germany – and much of Europe – to ruins. Now, Germany was occupied by the armies of four foreign powers. One world war had just ended and it soon looked like another one was about to begin.
Thousands of Red Army soldiers moved into the barracks, filling them and necessitating the construction of two new tower blocks to house them. The Soviets stationed several of their MIG fighter aircraft in the hangars, ready to project force should the deteriorating situation between themselves and the militaries of the western powers require them to do so.
But by the late 1950’s, it was becoming apparent that the runway was simply too short for the jet engine propelled planes of the second half of the twentieth century. Extending the runway to accommodate them was not an option, given that the airfield was located in the German state of Brandenburg, just six kilometres from the border with the city state of Berlin. West Berlin, that is, the Sector under administrative jurisdiction of the British. Already, the proximity of Russian MIG’s to Berlin and the western militaries stationed there was an annoyance to the Soviets. It was therefore decided to re-station the fighter planes at larger airbases to the south of Berlin, and instead used Flugplatz Schönwalde to house Russian air force helicopters.
The helicopters were based at Flugplatz Schönwalde for ten years, until it was obvious that it was too impractical for them to be there too. Again it was the location of Schönwalde that was causing the problems. The airfield happened to sit directly under the flight path of planes in and out of Berlin. Any operations at Flugplatz Schönwalde required informing the Allied Air Traffic Control Centre, something the Soviets clearly did not want to do.
The helicopters left and the runway was abandoned to nature. From 1965 onwards, Flugplatz Schönwalde was used exclusively as a military training ground by the Red Army. The Soviet presence, just west of West Berlin, was preserved for strategic reasons, but no aircraft could and would take off from here.
In 1992, the Soviets received orders to return home. The world had changed, communism had died. The soldiers were to hand the site back to the German authorities, return to Russia and embrace free market capitalism.