Germany's capital is a city full of history. The Association of Berlin Underworlds looks below the capital - and brings history to life as it shows tourists around old bunkers and air raid shelters.
The beautiful weather on this late winter afternoon in Berlin seems much too nice to spend in a bunker below the city. However, a group of around 20 people has gathered in front of the giant building on Fichtestrasse in Berlin's Kreuzberg district to do just that. Among the group are people from all walks of life: foreigners, Berliners, and Germans from all over the country.
"Wrap up warm for the next 90 minutes - it's always cold in there," warns Sascha Keil as he welcomes the group. Wearing a warm jacket, cap and a florescent orange vest bearing the Berlin Underworlds Association's logo, Keil says laughing, "If at some point you can't see this, you have a problem. There are 800 rooms here, so I'm not that easy to find."
Berlin was built from the top down, explained Keil, "Below the city there are an unbelievable number of forgotten subway lines, brewery vaults, tunnels, shelters and bunkers. During the Second World War more than 1,500 air raid shelters were built here."
The Berlin Underworlds Association was established in 1997 and, since that time, has worked hard to make sure that some of these spectacular and historical significant sites have once again been opened to the public. The organization's aim is to make people more aware of Berlin's less obvious and somewhat daunting areas.
During the tour, the group hears about the resurrection of the German capital after the destruction of the war and Germany's division and reunification.
The idea has caught on. In 2011, 280,000 visitors opted to take these tours and around 300,000 are expected to join the excursions in 2012. Around one third of the guests come from abroad and the 13 regular tours by the Association are available in 10 languages.
30,000 people in the bunker
"There are 130 years of history here in Fichtestrasse alone," said Keil, as he stands in the former hospital ward and explains the purpose of the mother-child bunker. This bunker was capable of housing 6,500 women and children, who were protected from air raids behind the three-meter (nearly 10-foot) thick concrete walls.
There is silence among the visitors as they attempt to understand the circumstances of those forced to live in the bunker. Towards the end of the war, over 30,000 were forced to seek shelter here, he says.
"You can imagine how it must have been to be constrained here, hearing the constant hum and drone of the bombers," adds Keil.
Volunteers working for the Berlin Underworlds Association have spent endless hours clearing walls and making corridors accessible. In order to be as accurate as possible in their work, they carried out eyewitness interviews and rummaged archives for information. They also found a rusty ship diesel engine from 1942 that once served as an emergency generator to provide the bunker with fresh air.
The establishment of a project like this one by the Berlin Underworlds Association is possible through the efforts of workers like Sascha Keil. The historian is now a full-time member of staff, but gave up his job as a research assistant in the German parliament, the Bundestag, to join the association.
"The ground beneath Berlin is living history for me," he said, adding that he likes to make history approachable for everyone." He said he is already dreaming of the Berlin Underworld's next project which will incorporate the area beneath the disused Tempelhof Airport.
"There are miles of corridors, on six underground levels," said Keil with a twinkle in his eye.
After World War II, the huge bunker was used for residential purposes until the 1960s. Then the Berlin Senate used it to store food, which would have been necessary in the case of a Soviet blockade of Berlin.
Just a few weeks ago, one of the employees of the Berlin Underworld Association found 120 cans of sardines in one of the bunker's rooms. "My colleague tried one of the cans," said Keil adding, "It didn't hurt her - she was back leading tours through the shelter the next Saturday."
Author: Oliver Samson / bos
Editor: Kate Bowen