History lives on in Berlin's underground bunkers

By Robert Rigney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 17, 2010; 11:49 AM

We're several dozen feet beneath Berlin, in a low-ceilinged concrete lair. The walls are marked with phosphorescent arrows, still glowing after more than 60 years, that point the way through heavy, gas-tight steel doors to other rooms in this warren of underground bunkers.

This was where the residents of a working-class Berlin neighborhood sought refuge during the air raids of 1945. The floors are strewn with rusty ammunition, guns, old boots, helmets, rations, military cots - items that offer vivid testament to wartime Berlin. Here it's easy to imagine the bombs thudding overhead, the city erupting in flames, families huddled together, praying for safety. Suddenly the stories that old Berliners tell about traumatic experiences during the allied air raids of World War II come to life.

"To find the real Berlin you have to go underground," says Dietmar Arnold, "beneath the city's slick and modern streets, into the city's unconscious, as it were, history's hidden lair."

Arnold is a freelance architect and member of an association called Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds) that's devoted to mapping out and exploring the city's subterranean topography. For 12 years, he has been leading expeditions into the bunkers, tunnels and underground canals of the German capital. He believes that the Berlin underground has the potential to become an offbeat tourist attraction, like the catacombs of Paris, the sewers of Vienna or the cisterns of Istanbul.

Dressed in a black woolen sweater and a Basque cap pushed back on his head, Arnold drinks coffee with a dash of rum and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes as we chatin a local cafe. He tells me about the wonders of Berlin's netherworld: underground lakes, canal systems with vaulted ceilings overgrown with stalactites, eerie Nazi murals in a bunker under central Berlin, the remains of a Messerschmidt factory beneath the old Tempelhof Airport, tunnels built by Hitler's architect Albert Speer that were intended to run along the north-south axis of the Fuhrer's Germania project, a megalomaniacal Nazi city planning scheme, which, had it been realized, would have radically transformed the center of Berlin. The underground is "a solemn space," Arnold says, "with acoustics like in a church."

According to Arnold, central Berlin is honeycombed with bunkers, particularly in the area of the former government quarter around the Brandenburg Gate. The largest bunker complexes were destroyed by the Allies during and after the war. One of the last to be excavated was the so-called "Fuhrerbunker" on Wilhelmstrasse, where Hitler spent his last days. It has been largely destroyed and sealed off from the public. According to Arnold, some 600 other bunker complexes still exist, though most are flooded and inaccessible.

"Berlin doesn't have many historical remnants from the Nazi period," says Arnold. "Up until recently there was talk about doing away with other big Nazi-era buildings like the Olympia stadium. Only Tempelhof Airport and a couple of other buildings give one an insight into the Nazi mind. The underground is history's last refuge, offering clues to Berlin's dark history."

Some years ago, in the mid-1990s, developers stumbled upon Joseph Goebbels's private air raid shelter south of the Brandenburg Gate, beneath what was a stretch of no man's land between East and West Berlin after the war. Plans to eradicate the bunker proceeded until Arnold and the Berliner Unterwelten started campaigning to save the structure and others like it.

With the permission of city officials, Arnold started organizing bunker tours to raise public awareness of their historical value. Seven hundred people showed up for the first tour.

"This is Berlin history: The Wall, the bunkers, that's what foreigners want to see when they come to Berlin," says Arnold. "Not only that, but it is a valuable place for Germans to reflect on and confront the past. This, after all, was where the Endkampf [the final battle] took place. This is where the people who started the Second World War died. We had to preserve this for the next generation."

The Berlin media referred to Arnold's campaign as "a battle between David and Goliath." In the end, however, officials were unmoved. "They called us necrophiliacs and betonfanatiker [concrete fanatics]," recalls Arnold. "They said we wanted to turn Berlin into a museum. The politicians, they wanted to go into the next century without a skeleton in the closet. And so the bunker was eradicated."

But Arnold is pressing on. Last winter, I joined one of his tours of a bunker complex.

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