Intact German Cold War bunkers open to the public | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.04.2009
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Intact German Cold War bunkers open to the public

Two of the German government's top-secret Cold War bunkers have recently been opened to the public. Down to the extra toothbrushes in the bathrooms, they're remarkably intact.

Entrance to Cold War bunker in Ahrweiler-Bad Neuenahr

The bunkers used to be one of West Germany's best-kept secrets

In the small village of Urft just south of Bonn, a single-family home on the edge of town gives few clues to the concrete and steel chambers below. But sure enough, a dank stairway hidden behind the garage leads to a secret underground bunker.

This was West Germany's James-Bond-style answer to the atomic bomb.

The shelter had room for 200 state officials to manage the government during a nuclear war. Nearby in Ahrweiler-Bad Neuenahr, another bunker was built to house 3,000 federal officials for up to 30 days. Tour groups started exploring the pair just last month.

"We didn't have any illusions," said Joerg Diester, the author of a book on the bunker's history. If the Cold War escalated, "we Germans would have been the first to be punished for it" by the Soviet Union.

The government took precautions, and built the bunkers in the early 1960s. Both facilities were kept secret until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Several years later, Berlin decided that they had outlived their purpose, and planned to dismantle or sell them.

Dining table in the Cold War bunker in Urft

In the case of a nuclear attack, the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia would have moved in

In response, local organizations have taken on the task of turning the bunkers into a special brand of Cold War museum.

The organizers "almost deserve a daily medal of honor for seeing to it that the bunker can be used as a museum," said Diester.

War games in the bunker

A former official of the German Ministry of Defense, Wolfgang Mueller used to participate in a classified simulation of nuclear war. Today, Mueller gives guided tours of the former West German bunker - which had served as his top-secret home for a few weeks every two years during the Cold War.

"It may sound perverse," said Mueller, "but I thoroughly enjoyed the exercises in here. It was a welcome interruption of the daily grind in Bonn, and we were comfortable in the knowledge that it was just a game."

Unlike in a real emergency, these officials didn't eat canned food. They were given first-class meals, a lax schedule and lots of alcohol, according to Mueller. A phone operator once even reported getting pregnant during a bunker exercise.

But if the war games were a welcome change of pace for some bureaucrats, to be among the few officials allowed into the shelter in a real emergency was more of a mixed blessing.

Bunker in Ahrweiler-Bad Neuenahr

Nuclear drills were often quite comfortable

"The purpose of this facility was not just to protect its 3,000 occupants, but to ensure that the (West German) federal government was not crippled" by a nuclear attack, Mueller said.

They would be forced to make decisions about the life and death of millions of people while nuclear war raged outside. The bunker, which couldn't withstand a direct hit, was equipped for no more than 30 days of survival.

However, the bunker itself was a deterrent against nuclear war as it created the credible threat of a counterattack. For the same reason, some experts believe there is a modern shelter somewhere in or around Berlin today.

No information, no fear

Compared to the United States, Germans tended to be more relaxed about the possibility of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War era.

"The thought of nuclear war never crossed my mind," a seventy-three-year-old German man said of the Cold War as he finished his tour of the bunker. "Many of us didn't even have radios, and sources of information that are taken for granted today didn't exist back then."

"When you know nothing," he added, "you can't be afraid."

Author: Alex Bakst

Editor: Kate Bowen

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