Berlin-Tempelhof – Hitler's favourite airport and centrepiece of the city's famous post-war airlift – faced the prospect of imminent closure last night after a referendum designed to keep open the loss-making Nazi relic appeared to have failed because too few Berliners could be bothered to vote.
Initial results of the city-wide referendum held in Berlin for the first time yesterday, showed 21.7 per cent of voters took part in the poll, which required at least 25 per cent to be legally valid.
The outcome was certain to be taken as a surprise victory for Berlin's ruling Social Democrat/Left coalition government which has insisted on enforcing a permanent shut down at Tempelhof this autumn.
Before yesterday's referendum, opinion polls had suggested a 60 per cent majority in favour of keeping the airport open and pro-Tempelhof campaigners had been certain of victory claiming that 80 per cent of the city's population wanted to keep the airport.
Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's governing Social Democrat mayor, has argued the loss-making airport should close to ensure the success of the city's revamped Schönefeld airport, due to open in 2013.
Pro-airport campaigners complained his city government had underestimated the appeal they claimed Tempelhof held for many Berliners. The airport played a crucial role during the Berlin airlift of 1948/49, when more than 278,000 allied air force planes kept capitalist West Berlin alive during a Soviet military blockade.
Its supporters, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, argued that Tempelhof is not only a piece of key Berlin history but one that could be developed as a successful inner-city airport for short-haul destinations, leaving major intercontinental and European flights to Schönefeld and Berlin's Tegel airport.
Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats ran an emotional advertising campaign quoting the famous lines of President Kennedy: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) to win support for Tempelhof.
The pro-closure campaigners, including Berlin's Green party, relied on smaller billboards showing pictures of building workers, pensioners and single mothers complaining that Tempelhof would only indulge the wealthy. "An airport for the rich – don't take the mickey!" ran one slogan.
Closure of Tempelhof would mark the end of a 103-year chapter of German aviation history. The flight pioneer Orville Wright landed at the site in 1903 and put on shows for curious Berliners. Six years later the first Zeppelin was shown off at Tempelhof.
The atmosphere of the airport's massive terminal prompted the British architect, Lord Foster to dub Tempelhof the "Mother of all airports." It was designed by the German architect Ernst Sagebiel and was intended to inspire awe in Hitler's visitors arriving by air at the planned Third Reich capital of Germania.
Yet during the Second World War plans for Germania were abandoned and the terminal was used a massive factory for building military aircraft. Hundreds of slave labourers were employed at the site.
Tempelhof, a vast concrete and stone building cast in the shape of an arc, still has former Nazi eagles on its outside walls. It rates alongside the Pentagon and Ceausescu's People's Palace as one of the largest free-standing structures in the world.