No, it’s not the new punk scene – it’s the vast underground network of Germany where Hitler’s ghost roams still.
In the Berlin underground train station, Gesundbrunnen, there is a green door which thousands of people pass everyday, completely ignorant to the treasures that lie on the other side.
The lights are out, but with special luminous paint, now over sixty years old, still glowing in the faint darkness, marking the exits, a sign can be made out: Room 14 – 38 persons. In other rooms, there are old toilets, triple-bunk beds, exposed pipes, old egg-shaped lights with steel frames, and even a Wehenzimmer (labour room) for pregnant women. The images of people shuffling in with battered suitcases, pots for helmets and a small stool to sit on are clear. And the earth thumps and groans with the rhythm of the bombs.
The rooms are dank and claustrophobic, with low ceilings and thin air. A hand-powered ventilator from WWI is still in working order; it was used to thwart the lethal gases used in that war. The old word for toilet, Abort, is used because Toilette sounded too French. There are old tubes from the pneumatic dispatch system, remnants from underground breweries, and a railway cart that was used by the TrÃ¼mmerfrauen (rubble women) to move debris to special rubbish hills after WWII. Berlin, a flat city set along the River Spree, has many hills.
The obscure door in Gesundbrunnen leads to an extensive network of underground bunkers which the Berliner Unterwelten society has successfully prepared for exploration. Every Saturday, they conduct informative tours, with each of the three bunkers set up to explain a different section of history: from WWI through to the Cold War. Also interesting is how the bunkers were modified and updated to cope with modern war technology, and how the underground train system was used as an air ventilator and later as a means of escape by East Germans.
Because the bunker was left untouched after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, you get an immediate sense of the past. The Berliner Unterwelten society also prepared the nearby Humbolthain air raid tower, the last of Berlin’s three WWII towers, for public viewing. The other two were destroyed, with one now a large hill in Friedrichshain (the Grosse Bunkerberg), and the other incorporated into the Zoo.
The bunker at Gesundbrunnen is one of 100 in Berlin. Many are underground, like the four level bunker at Alexanderplatz, in the centre of the city. One also enters this bunker from an inconspicuous door in the train station. It has only just opened to the public and houses an exhibition by local artists. Indeed, the location is as interesting as the art.
This bunker is also amazingly well preserved, untouched since WWII, and feels like it has only been given a once over cleaning before opening for exhibition. The rooms are bare, with rusted steel door hinges and frames lending to a fantasy of six inch thick steel doors. In an historical fancy, one can imagine the civilians huddled in here during air raids, so deep at the fourth level they only just feel the tremors of landing bombs, and freaking out because it feels like the walls are closing in; even the least claustrophobic person would become anxious down here.
Hitler had grandiose plans for his bunkers. From 1940 to 1944, there were over 1,000 in Berlin. Included was an extensive network of underground tunnels, with one running from the government sector in Mitte to the airport in Templehof. Goering could ride in his car the 7 kilometres from his Luftwaffe building on Wilhelm Strasse to the airport in secret. Connected to this tunnel was the famous FÃ¼hrerbunker.
After the fall of the wall in 1989, historians excavated Hitler’s bunker, from where he had orchestrated ‘total victory or total annihilation’, got hitched, and then took his bride’s life and then his own. From 1961 to 1989, the bunker had remained untouched in no man’s land at the border between east and west. When historians went in, they found of wealth of treasures, like unlocking a time capsule: dinner menus, Nazi paintings, hair brushes, plates, and some rooms still in tact, including the children’s room of the family Goebbels, with the wire bunk beds unmoved.
Unfortunately, worried the site would become a Nazi shrine, the German authorities destroyed the bunker and built inoffensive and plain buildings over it. Nearby, a large Jewish Memorial is currently under construction. A great historical find was lost, but with sound reasons. The German people struggle hard with their legacy and the world transpires to never let them forget. One wonders why this, and future, generation(s) should be held accountable for the actions of their past generations, especially the longer the time passes.
What makes exploring Berlin’s bunkers so fascinating is that they were the bunkers of ordinary citizens, the people who held no political ideology and just got caught in the middle; every war has millions of such people. The remaining bunkers are located in suburban areas, surrounded by apartment buildings and offices, and even today, do not look out of place. Indeed, people walk past these buildings every day without giving them a passing glance; they are as much a part of Berlin’s cityscape as any building.
Such is the case of the above ground bunkers on Palais Strasse and Reinhardt Strasse; you have to look hard to find them. They are still perfectly in tact and are used for special art exhibitions, discussions and theatrical performances. The bunker on Reinhardt Str. has a rather poignant red cross painted above the back entrance, and is located across the street from a university cafeteria.
Another suburban bunker, located at Anhalter Bahnhof, is open to the public all year round. It houses the Gruselkabinett (Horror Cabinet), a grisly exhibition of medicine practices in the middle ages, replete with screams and resounding cracks. However, in the underground level, there is an excellent display of the bunker’s history: with newspapers from wartime, an outline of the last days of the FÃ¼hrerbunker, and air recordings from Allied planes.
Sadly, with most of Berlin’s bunkers privately owned, trying to visit them all presents a bit of a headache. There is no such Berlin Bunker Tour, but one hopes that it will come in the future. Other underground areas of note include the radiation proof bunker located under the Story of Berlin museum, an underground hospital in Wannsee, and the ghostly rebuilding of the abandoned Potsdamer Platz underground station.
Several underground stations in Mitte, which were left unused between 1961 and 1989 because the borderline cut the network in half, are also quite unnerving, even though they are now used today. When Berlin fell in ’45, citizens went into the underground network to escape the streetfighting. The Russians blasted the Spree canal walls and flooded the network, killing thousands of innocent people. Many still believe the underground is haunted. BVG, the Berlin public transport company, run tours every Friday night in an open topped train.
Keeping with the underworld theme is the restaurant, Nocti Vagus. Located in the Backfabrik (Baking Factory) a short walk from Alexanderplatz, this cavernous locale has fast become one of Berlin’s most famous eateries, if not for its location and food but for its darkness. You literally cannot see the hand in front of your face. Guests order in the lobby bar, with most selecting the ‘Surprise Menu’, and are then led downstairs and into the hands of a blind waiter. The waiter helps you into your seat and you sit there in the dark using your hands to explore the table. It’s quite satisfying to successfully find your wine glass, put it to your mouth, and then replace it without spilling or breaking anything.
The concept of Nocti Vagus is to allow your other senses to come alive; eating in the dark, you become aware that we eat primarily with our eyes. Without the aid of vision, when a plate arrives, the first sensation is smell, but you also feel the warm aroma tickling your nose. The only problem is getting something on your fork. After minimum success, you edge closer to your plate, and, since no one is looking, use your hands. Guessing the food makes great conversation, which is spoken in hushed tones, because shouts in the darkness are out of place.
It is an incredible experience to eat in the dark, to open your mind to a different way of eating. But more astounding is the feeling of liberation of not having to watch your behaviour, or to watch the people, or feel watched. You can eat with your hands, and get your face covered with food. That alone makes it an amazing eating experience.
It is possible that, during the air raids of WWII, people ate dinner in exactly the same way, and thought it more a hassle than an adventure. Their meals in the darkness were often interrupted by the wail of sirens, the sounds of bombs, and the screams of frightened civilians as they rushed to the nearest bunker, to a bunker that still stands today. No other city in the world captures 20th century history quite like Berlin, and all the remnants remain to warn, remind and educate.
- For details about Berliner Unterweltern, visit http://www.berliner-unterwelten.de or