„I cannot reword“

Since 1949, it has stood there, like on a green island, surrounded by the runways of Schönefeld Airport – the former Soviet „Generalshotel“, called „Spezialgästehaus“ after being handed over to the GDR. With its hipped roof and wide entrance halls crowned by balconies, one could mistake it for a manor house from around 1800 in the Mark Brandenburg region.

Now, according to a decision made in 2011, it is supposed to be demolished, maybe it already is by the time this article is published. And this is because of a government terminal, whose extravagant 350 million euro plan has been off the table for a year due to cost reasons. Instead, the federal government had planned to continue using a building that was originally intended as a temporary solution; it had only cost one-fifth of the price. However, the Generalshotel, which was recently used by the federal police, should still be demolished for a parking space that would only accommodate one aircraft in an inconvenient location after the relocation of the flight readiness in 2034, according to renowned airport planner Dieter Faulenbach da Costa. Instead, this area, which is also important for noise protection, should be included in the competition for the reorganization of the northern area – the building would be a valuable component for that.

Is the federal government only concerned about saving face?

Now that a completely new situation exists, an open letter from experts to the federal government (not the first of its kind!) has gathered more than 1000 signatures. None of the responsible federal ministries for transportation, defense, and finance responded to the invitation from Green Party state representative Sarah Damus to an information event at the DDR Museum. However, there are indeed prominent advocates for its preservation, such as Brandenburg’s Minister-President Dietmar Woidke (SPD). State conservator Thomas Drachenberg, who assesses the building as „wonderfully in order“ in terms of its structure, and representatives from ICOMOS, the advisory organization for UNESCO, are suggesting a change in its use.

The new situation requires a moratorium on demolition in order to create time to consider how the representative building with its marble and travertine halls can be incorporated into the development area. Given that several new government buildings are planned in the vicinity, the 2.7 million euro demolition seems even more incomprehensible: it appears as if they are consciously ignoring the trend in the professional world towards preservation and reuse in light of the „grey energy“ stored in existing buildings. Those involved in the discussion were left with the impression that the government’s only concern is saving face. However, it would not harm the reputation of the executive branch to revoke a decision made on outdated principles. Instead, there is now massive wastage of money, showing cultural and ecological ignorance. At this point, the representative of the Schönefeld community, who strongly values their architectural monument, made a strong statement: „And then people wonder why others vote for the AfD.“

Che Guevara, Nikita Chrustschow und Louis Armstrong waren da

What makes this place so valuable for Soviet top officers and later celebrities? After all, politicians like Che Guevara and Nikita Khrushchev were supposed to get a first impression of the GDR here; Louis Armstrong visited as a state guest in 1965. The building, designed in the classical tradition – not „eastern modern“ – was created in 1947 by Max Schmidt, the planning director for the conversion of the former Henschel aircraft factory into an airport. After his arrest, and here we are already talking about the historical significance of the house, Georg Hell revised the plans.

Herta Hammerbacher from the Charlottenburger TU designed the landscaping. The railings and grids inside were created by Fritz Kühn, the most significant metal designer in the GDR, who even equipped the West German pavilion at the Brussels World Expo in 1958 with a grid wall. The project, which was initiated on the orders of the Soviet Military Administration, was coordinated and primarily financed by the Brandenburg state government. The progress of construction was hindered by competition for competence and fear of espionage, strikes by the West Berlin construction companies involved, and massive shortages. There was only one telephone line on site for over 100 participating companies, connected by the Schöneberg telephone office – in the blockaded western part of Berlin.

Only a fraction of the manageable construction volume of the early post-war years until 1951, when a great variety of styles was still possible in East Germany, is preserved today. With the loss of this characterful house, we lose a key document of a time of upheaval, an early, well-preserved magnificent building that tells the story of the self-presentation of the occupying powers in a destroyed country, as well as little-known interconnections within all of Germany.

Andreas Butter promovierte zur ersten Wiederaufbauphase in der SBZ/DDR und ist Mitautor des Buchs Der erste Flugplatz in Schönefeld. Im Dienst des nationalsozialistischen Kriegs (Wasmuth & Zohlen, 2022), das auch die Frühphase des DDR-Zentralflughafens behandelt.