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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.

We met on a street corner in Wedding, a predominantly working-class, heavily immigrant district in the northwest of the city. It was cold, and an icy mist hung in the air. Arnold showed up in a leather jacket, carrying a military rucksack. As we walked through a wintry park toward the bunker entrance, he told me about the adventures that he and his friends had had as children, exploring a bunker near his Wedding home.

Ignoring warnings, they dug under a concrete slab blocking the entrance of a bombed flak tower and stole into the bunker, where they discovered pieces of medical instruments, old electrical equipment, uniforms, boots, unexploded ammunition and a bazooka. On the way back home they encountered a policeman, and feeling guilty, handed over the bazooka. The next day, the policeman showed up at Arnold's apartment to warn his mother to keep her children away from the bunker because of the danger of contracting smallpox or typhus.

We reach a small concrete pillbox on the edge of the park. Arnold produces a key from his coat pocket and opens a heavy metal door. Flashlights ablaze, we descend a flight of concrete stairs into the unknown.

Left, right, left, we troop down a maze of narrow corridors. Arnold swings open a steel door, and we step across thresholds into low-ceilinged rooms that branch off into more corridors and more rooms, most empty, some furnished with cots, rickety tables and boxes.

Arnold opens another door and ushers us into a well-lit corridor at the foot of a broad set of stairs leading down into a spacious low-ceilinged hall. Suddenly a stream of people ascends the steps. "Zuruckbleiben!" - stand back! - barks a loudspeaker, and I realize that we are standing on a subway platform. The bunker, explains Arnold, was incorporated into the station in 1940 and was used as an air raid shelter during the bombing of Berlin.

And then up we go, ascending another flight of stairs, passing through another heavy door into another network of concrete lairs, through dark rooms with "No smoking" signs and phosphorescent arrows indicating exits and entrances.

In one cavernous room with 20-foot ceilings, Arnold draws my attention to some unique cobwebs clinging to a corner. "Fantastic, eh?" he says.

The cobwebs, blackened by decades of accumulated dust, climb up the corner of the wall like little shelves. Arnold and his friends spent months cleaning up this bunker in hopes that they could do something with it, turn it into an exhibition space or a nightclub. But these cobwebs, they decided, simply had to stay. "They are artifacts," says Arnold. "Sixty years it took for them to get that way."

We reach the end of the tour in a narrow room lined with primitive benches where, more than six decades ago, people huddled while Allied bombs rained down and the city erupted in flames.

"Maybe people are ashamed of our history," says Arnold. "But we must reflect on it and make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

"In places like this," he says, gesturing around us, "you can feel the past. You get a sense of erleichterung - relief - here. You can talk about the past."

I knew what he meant. Standing in that bunker, I felt that I was catching a rare glimpse of a city untouched by the passing years - a virtual time capsule of World War II Berlin.

Rigney is an American writer living in Berlin.

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