For years, residents of a small Black Forest town wondered what the metal boxes contained that were delivered to a local mine shaft. Explosives? Military secrets? No, nothing so mysterious. Just Germany's history.
The works of Goethe will never be lost, thanks to Germany's unique cultural bunker.
The Schauinsland mountain in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany is a favorite outing for hikers and mountain bikers. Little do they know that the country's most valuable cultural goods lie deep below the surface.
Steel gates in the middle of the forest mark the entrance to the Barbara mine shaft. Until the end of the Cold War, the site had top secret status. Not even the municipal authorities in the region were aware of what was being stored in this mountain.
Twice a year, trucks would deliver mysterious metal containers. These were carted into the mountain and then the steel gates would shut again. Local rumors on the site ranged from a warehouse for explosives to a command bunker in the case of war.
A miniature version of German history
But the Barbara mine shaft in this idyllic area near Freiburg is actually home to Germany's "Zentraler Bergungsort", or Central Salvation Site. It houses significant contributions to the country's history and culture.
The Cologne cathedral
The Central Office for Civilian Protection (ZFZ) is responsible for the site. ZFZ archivists have recorded everything from building plans of the Cologne cathedral to Goethe's private letters on microfilm and deposited it here.
Anyone venturing through the long dim tunnel leading almost 500 meters (1640 feet) into the mountain will not find any state secrets here, though. The film kept in the two cool storage rooms shows documents stored in German archives that are open to the public, such as the coronation deed of Otto the Great from year 936, the 1648 Westphalian peace treaty, or the protocol from the Wannsee Conference from 1942.
A safe haven
The German government founded the site following the "Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict", adopted in The Hague, Netherlands in 1954. The agreement foresees the safeguarding of cultural goods in times of armed conflict.
But it also stipulates setting up mechanisms for protection. Since 1961, the ZFZ has copied archive material which is unique or of particular importance for German history and culture onto microfilm. In 1975, it began storing it in the Barbara shaft, which currently holds some 600 million photos.
The small town of Oberried in the southwestern tip of Germany was chosen with great care for the site. No airports, industrial centers or thriving metropolises are nearby and it is also almost as far away from the former East-West German border as you can get.
Freiburg Berg Schauinsland
Due to its remoteness, planners decided Oberried was probably the last place to be bombed in a possible armed conflict. And even if it did, the detonation would have to get through 200 meters of gneiss and granite.
The microfilm is kept in over a thousand airtight stainless steel cylinders. According to tests, these are expected to last for at least 500 years, and are protected from acid rain and nuclear radiation. Planners chose microfilm because of its durability. Also, anyone finding it wouldn't need more than a magnifying glass and a light source to decipher the material.
Unfortunately Germany didn't need 500 years to find out just how worthwhile the site is. During the catastrophic floods in the eastern part of the country last year, several archives were flooded and significant documents destroyed. Now, copies of these historical fragments can be made from the microfilm in the Barbara shaft and help rebuild the archives.