The officers’ mess was destroyed in early 1945 by an Allied bombing raid and marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich’s rule over the airfield.
Schoenwalde, Germany. The buildings, empty and gutted, are crumbling into disrepair. Nearly 30 years have passed since the Soviets left it behind to a unified Germany.
While the barracks bear traces of the 1990s, a solitary walk through the overgrown airfield whispers stories of every decade as far back as the 1930s when it was built under the Third Reich—illegally.
As per the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, the German nation faced severe restrictions to their air force and were not allowed to build air bases. As 1933 arrived and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, rules began to be broken and, a year later, Schoenwalde was built.
Over the years running up to the Second World War, the base saw the implementation of some major construction projects that would make it become an important airfield which would even eventually house Hitler’s personal fleet.
As well as having a concrete runway, several hangars, and a control tower, Schoenwalde was connected by a couple of major railway lines and included a swimming pool and a casino.
Despite breaking the rules of the treaty, the air base initially appeared unthreatening to the outside world. Labeled a “sports airfield,” Schoenwalde was a base for the training of pilots. But soon began a slow expansion of the German air force.
In hindsight, the base serves as evidence of how early Hitler began preparing for war by calling the Allies’ bluff as he nudged Germany into a powerful military nation once more.
From 1939-1940, Nazi Germany speedily occupied most of Europe. They defeated unprepared nations, often in one fell swoop, and pushed the French and British armies to the coastline and back into Britain.
The British were battered and bloody, but not broken. As the German army assembled on the French coastline, armed and prepared for the invasion of Britain, they waited for the Luftwaffe to do the job of softening Britain’s airfields and defenses. To Germany’s surprise, they were fiercely thrown back across the channel, where they dug in.
Until 1943, Schoenwalde was used to train pilots for the Luftwaffe—more specifically, III Group/Jagdgeschwader 52 (or “Fighter Squadron 52”).
The officers’ mess was destroyed in early 1945 by an Allied bombing raid and marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich’s rule over the airfield. On April 22nd, 1945, as the Soviets closed in, the Luftwaffe deserted. Left to defend the air base were old men and young boys of the Volkssturm (or “People’s Militia”). The Red Army faced almost no resistance as they took the base.
And so, the Second World War came to an end. Being situated just outside the northwestern perimeter of Berlin meant Schoenwalde was in East Germany and, therefore, under the jurisdiction of Soviet Russia.
Positioned directly under the air corridor used by the Allies to reach West Berlin, Schoenwalde was monitored closely by the Allies and was subjected to strict regulation by the Allied air traffic control. As a result, the Soviets downgraded the base: knocking down hangars, breaking up railway connections, and leaving sections to fall into disrepair through lack of use.
The tight restrictions and better options elsewhere saw the end of all fixed wing activity by 1955 and left just a helicopter section functioning until 1965. From then until 1992, the base was used to train and house Soviet troops. And it posed a nagging threat to the Allies in West Berlin should the Cold War have ever turned hot.
It now stands neglected. A farmer owns part of the land and a battered fence marks the perimeter of the rest. The grass continues to grow through the cracks in the runway and the metal girders of the hangars have rusted themselves into dangerous skeletons.
Windows have been smashed by kids born after the Cold War, who have only the stories of their parents to explain what this apocalyptic film set once meant to people who have long since gone.