Construction workers searching for undetonated bombs just south of the Brandenburg Gate this week accidentally unearthed a different kind of explosive object--the concrete bunker in which Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the closing days of World War II.
The location of the bunker, beneath an unmarked plot of grass, has long been known. But the excavation of the 20-foot chunk of concrete with a tangled mass of protruding iron rods was something city authorities have tried to avoid as new federal buildings are erected along the former no man's land that was adjacent to the Berlin Wall.
Now that the bunker has been brought to light, it has reignited a sensitive debate. Should Germany bury all vestiges of the Hitler era to prevent such sites from becoming neo-Nazi shrines, or should the generations born since the war deal openly with such relics in confronting the Nazi era?
Moving briskly to quell any reexamination of a 1994 decision not to preserve the site of Hitler's death, city officials insisted today that construction work would continue and a new street would cover the bunker. A building that will house offices for several German states, and whose foundation is to be laid next to the bunker, will be built on schedule.
"The exact spot of Hitler's bunker has been known for many years," said Peter Strieder, the city planning supervisor. "The discovery of these remnants does not add anything to arguments about whether it should be left open for historical purposes. It is not worthy of debate."
Over the years, Germany has tried to obliterate prominent sites connected to Hitler and his top lieutenants to prevent them from becoming rallying points for fascist sympathizers. Last year, workers clearing a site reserved for the national Holocaust memorial uncovered the bunker used by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. It was quickly reburied, and officials said the memorial would be built over it, leaving no trace of its existence.
In 1990, shortly after Germany was reunified, workers discovered the underground rooms that housed Hitler's drivers just around the corner from his bunker. The rooms contained faded murals extolling the Nazis, and some historians felt the site was worth preserving. However, officials decreed it a danger to public order and sealed off the rooms.
Others, however, argue that it would be futile to deny Nazi historical connections in the German capital. The Foreign Ministry is now housed in the former Reichsbank, where gold stolen from Holocaust victims was stored in the basement. Other ministries are using buildings that once served as offices for the likes of Goebbels and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering.
Alfred Kerndl, the former head of Berlin's archaeological department, said he favors preserving the bunkers as historical artifacts. Kerndl dismisses the concern about such locations becoming an inspiration for neo-Nazis, saying the bunkers are not a secret and "every neo-Nazi knows to the meter exactly where they are."
Andreas Nachama, a leader of Berlin's Jewish community, said he sees the value of preserving some remnants of the Nazi era, particularly if they serve a pedagogical purpose for future generations. A good example, he said, is the "Topography of Terror" exhibit built on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters that displays substantial documentation of Nazi crimes.
The emotional quality of the Hitler bunker, however, is so great that some historians believe that any attempt to turn it into an exhibition of Nazi horrors would be counterproductive. Whether it contains anything of value is also open to question. Soviet troops are believed to have cremated Hitler's body, discarded the ashes, plundered the bunker and filled it with sand.