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Between Times


Between Times: The History of the Messestadt Site
by Vera Sprau

The view from the control tower of the old airport extends a long way out over flat countryside, blocked only by the city of Munich in the west and by the Alps in the south. To get to the tower, I have walked across the vast building site that is Messestadt and its future business district. From the top, the half-finished residential and commercial buildings and the omnipresent cranes, which seemed so imposing at ground level, appear tiny. It is still difficult to imagine that in about twenty years' time some sixteen thousand people will be living and working in this huge area.

From the tower I can see eight villages, four of which mark the limits of the oval space in which Messestadt is taking shape. The old village of Riem, which gives Messestadt its full name - Messestadt Riem - lies to the north-west. Dornach is to the north-east of Riem, with which for centuries it formed an administrative unit. Looking east, I see Salmdorf and Ottendichl, and to the south-east Gronsdorf, beyond which Haar can be glimpsed in the distance. In the south, on the far side of the railway line, is Waldtrudering, and to the south-west the double village of Kirchtrudering and Strasstrudering. Apart from Waldtrudering, a woodland area developed in the twentieth century as part of Trudering, these villages are ancient settlements, older than Munich.

The villages have gradually grown together, but each is still easily identifiable by its church tower. They originated over one thousand years ago, in an area in which traces of far older settlements have been found. Evidence of habitation in prehistoric times has been discovered around the area in which Messestadt is being built. The oldest find was made near the railway line between Trudering and Haar: a late Stone Age axe dating from c. 3000 BC. In Kirchtrudering, near Emplstrasse on the edge of the former airport, rows of over one hundred seventh-century Bavarian graves have been excavated.

The name Trudering comes from Truchtharo, a serf to Fagana who settled in this area with his clan, probably c. 500. Although not documented until 772, Trudering is the first recorded settlement in the area. Riem is first mentioned in a document of 788, but was probably settled at an earlier date. The other places visible from the tower are first documented in 839 (Gronsdorf), 856 (Dornach), 981 (Ottendichl), 1015 (Salmdorf) and 1050 (Haar). The history of Munich begins over one hundred years later than this last date, when Henry the Lion founded the market town 'Zu den Munichen' (near the monks) in 1158.

For centuries, the inhabitants of the villages around Riem were unfree tenants - that is, serfs who did not possess the land they cultivated, which was owned by the Church, monastic institutions and the aristocracy. Tenants were permitted to use the land only if they adhered to certain strict regulations and paid high levies. Primitive farming methods meant that yields were extremely low, so the levies were particularly oppressive and the tenants became increasingly impoverished. Pillaging, fires, debts and compulsory services rendered to their lords aggravated their situation. Even the priest of Trudering, to whose parish most of the other villages visible from the control tower belonged until the early twentieth century (St Martin's in Riem is still a daughter church of Trudering), could barely make ends meet with the tithes paid to him on the low agricultural yield of the Church's land. And the teachers at the school in Trudering, to which the children of Haar and Riem had to walk, were sometimes so poor that they were not permitted to marry. In those days marriage was a privilege reserved for those who owned goods. Not until thirty years after the introduction of compulsory school attendance in Bavaria in the early nineteenth century did classes begin to be held in Trudering (on the first floor of the Hofmann farm), and it took another twenty years before the village acquired a separate school building. Eventually, schools were built in Riem and Haar, in 1881 and 1910 respectively, so the children no longer had to walk the long, lonely way from village to village.

Farmers in the area did not come to own the land they cultivated until the mid-nineteenth century. The resulting division of the fields into small units meant, however, that distances between sections belonging to one farmer were long, and this made it extremely difficult to farm profitably. Official reparcelling of agricultural land in 1856 finally united dozens of small separate strips of land to form fields suitable for cultivation by individual farmers. In this way, relatively large farms were established in Trudering, Riem, Salmdorf and Gronsdorf.

The villages in the area were linked by a network of roads and paths. Traffic along these was dominated by agriculture, but pilgrimages and processions with decorated carts on Church feast days were also a characteristic sight. Marriages among inhabitants of the various villages and the transfer of farms generated close links between them. The roads formed part of two major cross-country trade routes - from Munich to Wasserburg and from Munich to Salzburg - and were also used to reach local markets. Many of the villages had their own distillery. Some of these have remained in existence and some are even still in use. Looking at the distillery chimneys of Salmdorf and Gronsdorf in the increasingly intense light of the late afternoon, it is not hard to imagine the carts moving towards the distilleries with their trailers loaded with potatoes and then returning full of residue from the distillation process - the 'slops' used to feed the animals at home.

In the mid-1930s the area was suddenly transformed. The airport at Oberwiesenfeld in Munich had become too small to cater for the large number of passenger flights, and preparations for war, though hardly noticed by most people, were already well underway. The city of Munich, known as the 'capital of the Nazi movement', therefore decided to move the airport to the area south-east of Riem. Farmers and market gardeners in Trudering, Riem and Gronsdorf were called on to give up land. There was no need to acquire permission from the parish of Trudering because it no longer existed, having been 'annexed' (as some documents put it) by Munich on 1 April 1932. In May 1937 the city of Munich signed an agreement with the parish of Haar, which was required to relinquish approximately 160 hectares of land, most of it in the Salmdorf and Gronsdorf area. The largest part of the area required for the new airport belonged to the farmers of Riem. What simpler way could there be of removing this obstacle than to incorporate the whole of Riem in the 'capital of the Nazi movement'? That is precisely what happened in 1937. As in the other parishes, farmers here received compensation to the tune of 3,000 Reichsmarks per Tagwerk (a land measure of approximately 3,500 square metres), but for many the loss of land made agricultural activity unprofitable. The Empl farm in Riem, for example, was required to give up 214 of its approximately 300 Tagwerks. As a result of the new airport, the connections between the villages that had been established over the centuries were destroyed and the villages themselves separated from one another.

The most up-to-date airport of the day was built on the 556 hectares between the villages, under great pressure and using vast amounts of compulsory labour. The airport was designed by Ernst Sagebiel and, although finished later than planned, it opened almost exactly in time for the Second World War, on 25 October 1939. Over the next fifty-five years, the control tower was to watch over the take-off and landing of a huge number of planes. For more than half a century, air-traffic controllers, initially members of the Luftwaffe, later civil aviation employees, looked out onto a large area with a runway that had to be extended with each advance in aeroplane construction. In 1958, as a result of one of these extensions, the last remaining road between the local villages disappeared - an ancient pilgrimage route that had connected Riem with Salmdorf. The Neubau estate and its comfortable inn had traditionally been a place of rest for pilgrims, but the expansion of the airport robbed it of its raison d'être and economic viability.

Just think of all the things that must have been seen from the glazed control room of the tower and from the floors below, now all empty! What must the flight controllers' thoughts have been in the first six years, during the war, when they guided battle planes with their deadly cargo to the start or let them land again after a 'successful' flight? What must conditions have been like in these rooms following the devastating Allied attacks in the last year of the war, when the runway was subjected to carpet bombing and often dozens of men engaged in clearing-up and bomb-defusing operations were killed or wounded? Such operations were generally carried out in forced labour, the teams consisting of prisoners of war and hundreds of prisoners from the SS riding school barely three kilometres away, which in the final year of the war was a sub-camp of Dachau concentration camp. In the last years of the war these men also dragged the small jet planes of the Galland fighter squadron away from the airport to the safety of the neighbouring villages, along gravel paths laid out for the purpose.

Eventually, the airport was abandoned to the Allies, who occupied it in early May 1945. Now it was Americans who directed aeroplanes from the control tower. Their planes used temporary iron runways, while below them prisoners of war - now Germans - made essential repairs to the runway and the airport buildings. Until 1948 the American soldiers were housed in large barracks on the edge of the airport behind the curved visitors' stand, and these too could be seen from the tower.

In the late 1940s German air-traffic controllers once again moved into the tower, initially under the supervision of the US civil aviation authority, then independently, following the establishment of the Munich-Riem Airport Co. Ltd. Germany did not reacquire air sovereignty until 1955, however, and in March of that year the first post-war Lufthansa plane landed at Riem. Foreign airlines followed over the next few years, as the airport again became an up-to-date facility. The late 1950s saw the first charter airlines at Riem, and as the Economic Miracle started up more and more people could afford holiday flights.

In February 1958 those in the control tower witnessed the notorious crash of a BEA plane in a snowstorm. Eight members of the Manchester United football team, along with other passengers and reporters, died in the crash. How must the occupants of the tower have felt when, after two false starts, the all-clear was given for the plane to start and the disastrous consequences unfolded before their eyes? They will have followed events with comparable horror on 9 February 1970, when a Comet C4 crashed on the outskirts of Kirchtrudering. Both accidents took place in immediate proximity to the fence surrounding the airfield. In the nearly fifty years of its post-war existence the airport was the scene of several such tragedies, but Riem also became the focus of many positive memories. Time and again, the airport attracted public and media attention because of the high-ranking politicians from Germany and abroad who used it. Many celebrities first set foot on German soil here. In 1963 the number of passengers first exceeded the population of Munich, not least as a result of holiday flights.

This huge increase in air traffic naturally had disastrous consequences for those who lived nearby. The growth in noise and air pollution caused by planes that flew ever more quickly stretched residents' tolerance to the limits of endurance. Protests became increasingly vociferous as low-flying jet planes blew off the tiles from more and more roofs and news of mishaps and narrowly avoided accidents became more and more frequent. In 1968 the number of those who took part in a demonstration organised by the airport's opponents exceeded five thousand for the first time.

One of the questions repeatedly asked was whether a major airport like that at Riem should be permitted to remain in such dangerous proximity to a city. Despite the fact that local residents had been suffering for decades, despite countless demonstrations and despite increasing willingness among politicians to move the airport, it took a very long time before all parties could agree to the building of a new airport in the Erding Moors north-west of Munich. In the meantime, the fiftieth anniversary of the Riem airport had seen the number of passengers rise to over ten million. Two years later, on 31 October 1991, the last plane, a PAN AM airbus, took off from the runway at Riem. When the last vehicle involved in the airport move left Riem, peace and quiet was restored to the area after fifty-three years. The burden of this period in its history had finally been lifted.

It is to be welcomed that the new suburb will incorporate remains of the airport, by hinting at the course of the runway in the landscaped area and by preserving the control tower and another airport building. Yet it again took several years after the airport move before this stage could be reached, before it was determined what would happen to this huge area in the east of Munich. Eventually, it was decided to erect a new suburb containing the city's trade fair grounds and an extensive residential district. This 'Messestadt' is in the process of being built, and the beginning of a new century thus marked the beginning of a new era for the area.

After a final look at the cranes looming up in the evening light against the background of the Alps, I descend the stairs in the control tower, deep in thought as I leave the building. Will people in future years remember the history of this place when they pass through the densely populated Messestadt with its many green spaces and pulsating life? Who will think of the countryside farmed for centuries by the inhabitants, or recall the later period when the airport represented both a fascinating world of up-to-date technology and a nightmare for local residents? The old control tower has given me a unique opportunity to gaze 'between times' in an area rich in history, an area whose appearance and character will once again change completely in the very near future.