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In Berlin, Building a Future on a Troubled Past

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

"All right, who is interested in touring the nuclear fallout shelter?" asked the young, bespectacled museum guide. It was 4:30, the last tour of the day, and she had been on her feet for hours. With a little luck, no hands would go up.

Every hand went up. The woman uttered a deep, vaguely melodramatic sigh.

"All right. Follow me. Please."

We tiptoed behind her, all 25 of us, out the doors of the Story of Berlin -- the museum with the on-the-nose title -- and onto the Kurfurstendamm, once a bastion of louche bars and Sally Bowles-ready night life, later a bastion of Berlin capitalism when its first name was West, now a bastion of Japanese tour groups and general ho-hum-ness. (At least by comparison with a real fallout shelter, that is.)

Undaunted by our leader's ennui, the group crowded into a stairwell off the adjacent parking garage and descended several flights, our skin growing clammier with every step. At last we were herded into a small, dimly lit room. "Please undress completely and then shower," read a large sign on the wall, in English. We appealed to our guide.

"The German sign fell down," she said languidly, returning to her spiel. "The car park above your heads was built in 1974. As part of the deal, the owner was given financial incentives to build this shelter. It was designed to hold an absolute maximum of 3,600 people for a maximum amount of time of 14 days."

"This would be used if there was a nuclear war?" asked an Italian man in heavily accented English.

"Uh-huh," said the guide.

"But what if you came in when the attack had already started? Would they let you in?" he continued.

The group did a collective pan left to the guide, who uttered another deep sigh. She seemed to be struggling to stifle a sarcastic response. Then, quietly:

"Yes, but you would need to shower first."

Someday, soon perhaps, Berliners will tire of the whole Cold War tourism thing, their fatigue exploding into retorts like What the hell makes you think this fallout shelter would have made a hill-of-beans difference in a nuclear war, for God's sake?!!

But don't worry, we haven't gotten there yet. For now, the residents of the German capital are content to be patient with us, aware that the excitement and energy of their city -- and it truly is the most exciting city in Europe at present -- are due in no small part to its unabashed, dedicated absorption in past insanities.

"Here are the 3,600 beds," said the guide, leading us into a cavernous room bathed in a purplish glow. ("The ultraviolet light would hopefully kill the germs.") Rows of identical canvas cots piled four- and five-high -- little trampolines, really -- extended into an infinity of darkness. This was the room where thousands would supposedly ride out the storm, waiting contentedly for the bombs to stop falling and the radiation to dissipate.

At least 25 shelters like this one were built in West Berlin, according to our guide, and to say there's an impossible-to-describe horror to them is to risk gross understatement. But they also have a kind of, well, ingenuity to them, just as the Berlin Wall had an ingenuity, albeit of a crueler sort.

"The wall had a German perfection," concedes a man in the film shown at the entrance to the House at Checkpoint Charlie, an unfancy and enthralling museum in another part of town on the Friedrichstrasse. The perfection in question was a 96-mile-long, 12-foot-high structure that was erected seemingly overnight in 1961, effectively sealing off East from West in an instant. Later this year Germany will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the wall's sudden, gleeful demise in 1989 -- indeed, the country's celebrating already -- but the Checkpoint Charlie house has been having a celebration of sorts for years. A celebration of the ingenious lengths people will go to to escape oppression, that is.

"Why is she in those suitcases?" asked a young girl with a laugh, if I understood the German right, pointing to an exhibit with a female mannequin whose top half was in one suitcase and the lower in an adjacent one. Her mother explained that with the suitcases placed close together, their common sides could be removed, making it easier for a refugee to hide in the trunk of a car.

Not far away from the pair was a deflated hot-air balloon, the one that eight East Germans employed to float over the wall in 1979. In another corner was the pair of hollowed-out surfboards that a Stuttgart mechanic fastened to the roof of his car in 1987, creating a compartment large enough to smuggle his girlfriend to freedom; in still another, the welding machine that meant freedom for 29 people who hid inside it during border crossings in the early '70s. Nearby, too, is a mini-submarine, the first sub ever with a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, according to the museum. The contraption went just 3 mph in rough waters, but somehow its inventor managed to cross the Baltic Sea in it, escaping the old German Democratic Republic, or DDR, via Denmark.

Which brings us back to the fallout shelter.

"The point was to survive," said the guide, leading us past the 3,600 cots to the restroom that was to be shared by up to 800 men at a time, and the kitchen once stocked with plenty of provisions for your garden-variety two-week nuclear war.

"What about the people who came in after the attack started?" asked the Italian man, still stumping for his contingent. "Would there be food for them?"

At this, the guide turned her attention from the man to me, glaring. Can't you do anything to stop this, her look said. I shrugged helplessly. She turned back to the man.

"They would have to -- actually, I don't know," the guide sputtered, turning and motioning us down a hallway.

Maybe it's nostalgia for a crisis that we know ended happily, but tourists from around the world are flocking to Berlin these days, clamoring to hear its story told over and over again. Inevitably, then, Cold War commemoration has become something of a cottage industry, which means you get everything from Christmas ornaments with pieces of the wall inside to such elaborate efforts as the DDR Museum.

The latter, just across the Spree River from the Berlin Cathedral, likes to refer to itself as a "hands-on experience of the everyday life of a state long gone," even if the state in question is East Germany, which isn't quite 20 years gone. Point well taken, though. For all its proximity in time and space, Communist Germany remains a mystery to most of us; and the museum somehow manages to be both critical and respectful of the place, even in the face of its almost epic drabness.

Black-and-white news footage from the early days of the wall plays in an endless loop, capturing the initial confusion felt by Germans of all stripes. "We've moved out of a beautiful region only to find ourselves in a world of concrete," says one bewildered woman who has relocated to East Berlin from the provinces.

Disillusionment is given the lighthearted treatment in an exhibit devoted to the Trabant, East Germany's adorably misbegotten attempt at competing with the VW Beetle (itself a product of the Nazi era that soared to worldwide popularity under West German ownership). Museum visitors take turns trying to start the notoriously unreliable car, whose body was made of something called Duroplast -- an unhappy amalgamation of plastic and, believe it or not, cotton fleece -- and which nevertheless often boasted a 16-year waiting list.

German engineering is also delicately scrutinized in an exhibit devoted to the Palast der Republik, a parliament building and the most expensive structure ever built in East Germany, now demolished. (During its construction in the '70s, 5,000 tons of spray asbestos were used, even though the connection between asbestos and cancer had already been well established.)

Then there's the museum's detailed examination of the group potty bench that was standard equipment in East German preschools, a long trough with several holes in it meant to teach toddlers both communal toilet training and, apparently, submission to the will of the masses.

Which brings us back to the fallout shelter.

"Is this the only men's bathroom?" asked a woman in our group, referring to a sad series of stalls lost in a purple haze.

"Yes," the guide answered. "As you see, you would not be allowed to wash yourself, and there are no showers."

Both the guide and I instinctively turned to the Italian man for some reason, but he said nothing.

"And it would be smelly and hot in here, 32 degrees [Celsius] and high humidity."

Still nothing. And with that, the guide broke into a smile no one knew she had.

"Okay, that concludes the tour."

We wound our way back to the Story of Berlin, which itself winds its way through more than 700 years of the city's history, from exhibits devoted to the city's 13th-century founding (when two settlements came together, poetically enough) to 18th-century military uniforms from the days of Frederick II, to the period just before World War I, when Berlin already had elevated and underground railways. (Yes, so did New York and Paris, but Berlin was known popularly as the fastest city in the world.)

At that point, it was once more time to descend a set of stairs, this one into Berlin's dark 20th century, when the city slipped from Weiman decadence to dictatorship, and from a glittering center of culture to the largest collection of rubble the world had ever seen.

Back on the Kurfurstendamm, there are precious few reminders of postwar Berlin, when 80 percent of the city lay in ashes. Even the bombed-out steeple of Kaiser Wilhelm church, deliberately left unrepaired after a 1943 air raid, seems less like a war memorial these days than a symbol of resilience for a city -- and a world -- that's badly in need of it.

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