You wouldn’t give the two green steel doors any thought as you climb the stairs at Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn (underground) station in Berlin. If you even noticed them, you might simply think that they were to provide access to the workings of the underground railway system. But thanks to the Berliner Unterwelten Association (Berlin Underworld Association), a non-profit organisation made up of people from all walks of life, the mystery of what lies behind these innocuous doors is revealed. And as is often the case, looks can be more than deceiving. As you enter what was the airlock (whilst gas had effectively been outlawed, both sides possessed such weapons, and there was of course the danger of fire) of the Gesundbrunnen bunker, you are taking a step back more than 60 years into some of the darkest days of the 20th Century.
Hitler started building bunkers (both under and over ground) early into his reign, for both military use and civilian protection – if anything gave a clear signal of his intentions, this would be it. The bunker at Gesundbrunnen (one of approximately 100 that still survive) was a civilian facility, and would at one time have been one of around a thousand that were built to protect the women, children and elderly population of the capital of Hitler’s so called “Thousand Year Reich”. Berlin is built on marshland, and consequently its underground railway network could not be constructed as deep underground as that in London, where the tunnels were used by many to shelter from the Luftwaffe’s raids. An alternative solution was therefore required. In conjunction with the cellars of thousands of buildings, these concrete catacombs would provide some sanctuary for Berlin’s civilians during Allied raids.
The Gesundbrunnen bunker has been superbly preserved (the phosphorescent paint still glows in the dark!) predominantly thanks to a by-product of the bombing it was built to protect its inhabitants from – rubble. The withering pounding the city took from Soviet shelling and the Allied air bombing campaign had left the majority of central Berlin utterly devastated by the end of the war, and whilst much was recycled and reused, vast quantities of rubble still needed to be disposed of. The void of the Gesundbrunnen bunker was a natural place to dispose of the waste. But filling this and Berlin’s other bunkers barely scratched the surface of the problem - to give you an idea of the sheer volume of rubble, many of Berlin’s “hills” are actually huge piles of rubble created from the shattered ruins of the city – the highest of which is over 140 metres high! The scale of the onslaught of Berlin is unimaginable – even today unexploded bombs are found in Berlin on a frighteningly regular basis – indeed one had been found the day before our visit. Construction workers are probably at the most danger – especially bearing in mind the huge amount of building work that is taking place there currently – and in 1994 four people lost their lives to a bomb dropped some 50 years previously.
Whilst many of the fixtures and fittings in the bunker were looted immediately after the end of hostilities – literally anything that could be removed was – the Berliner Unterwelten Association have added a number of items recovered from other bunkers that are not in a suitable state for the public to visit (whether through flooding or general disrepair) in order to give the visitor an idea of how the bunker would have functioned. The sense of claustrophobia and fear that the bunker’s inhabitants would have experienced is brought home as a result, and although it’s the occasional rumbling of a nearby U-Bahn train going past rather than Allied bombs dropping, it is otherwise eerily quiet down there and the sense of airlessness is in itself quite unsettling. The sense of suffocation is furthermore heightened when your attention is brought to the signage painted on the walls indicating that a room that could comfortably hold over 50 people had a maximum capacity of only 20 – precise calculations had been made as to the volume of air consumed in a given time before oxygen deprivation would become critical.
Throughout the hour and a half tour you are reminded by your extremely eloquent and knowledgeable guide of the personal aspects – from a child’s board game where the object is the first to get home safely to have dinner with your family, to the personal possessions that are found with the remains of both Soviet and German soldiers that are still being unearthed to this day. These remains are treated with the utmost respect by the Berliner Unterwelten Association, who re-inter any remains that are excavated with the appropriate levels of dignity one would expect.
Berlin of course is not simply about World War 2 – the city possesses a rich history – and much of it has links below ground level – from the brewery cellars to the subterranean 19th century pneumatic postal system and not forgetting of course Berlin’s excellent underground railway system and its ties to the Cold War. Vibrant and full of life above the surface, thanks to the Berliner Unterwelten Association Berlin continues to fascinate beneath ground level.
About The Author
Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history. Read more about Jonny »