1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Civil protection: Calls for Germany to build new bunkers

July 1, 2024

German cities are calling for new bunkers to be built, to protect the population in the event of war. But critics argue there's no point.

Bunker turned cultural center in Bremen
Cities have called for the federal government to invest in civilian protection and revive the country's 2,000 Cold War-era bunkersImage: Sina Schuldt/dpa/picture alliance

There might be no better way to gauge a country's anxieties than by checking in on the companies building panic rooms and private bunkers.

Business has been going worryingly well for BSSD Defence, the Berlin-based company that builds "protection room systems" for private, business and military applications. As well as a range of home security equipment, the company offers everything from "pop-up panic rooms" for around €20,000 ($21,400) to full-scale bunkers for close to €200,000.

Mario Piejde, BSSD's technical director, said the company has had more calls from private citizens, fire services and local councils in recent years, an uptick that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and then was boosted again when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

"There's active demand and active interest because there aren't that many suppliers around," said Piejde. "No one could've expected that a conventional war could be waged in Europe again, but history keeps repeating itself, unfortunately. People who had been thinking about it before have now started to actually implement their plans."

No functioning bunkers left in Germany

The feeling appears to have seeped into political circles. At a recent interior ministers' conference in Potsdam in early June, the Federal Interior Ministry presented its state counterparts with a "status report on the development of a modern shelter concept" for the German population.

That report emerged three months after the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, which represents the country's 14,000 local councils, called on the federal government to invest €10 billion over the next 10 years in civilian protection — and use it to revive the country's 2,000 Cold War-era bunkers.

That would be no small undertaking. The Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) told DW that only 579 of those bunkers are still designated as public shelters, and they would have space for around 478,000 people (or 0.56% of the German population). And even these bunkers are "neither functional nor ready for use" after the previous shelter system was abandoned in 2007.

A new bunker concept, the BBK said, is in the planning stages — but the government report, leaked to various German media outlets, said protecting the entire German population would require the construction of some 210,100 additional bunkers, which would take 25 years and cost €140.2 billion.

Bunkers seeing booming business

"Construction on population protection has certainly been neglected in the last 35 years," said Piejde. But reviving such shelters should be feasible, he added.

"Not much has changed in the construction in the past 50 decades. There's a certain strength of walls, the thickness of walls and filter systems. All that has changed is the power supply and efficiency of batteries."

But how much protection is a bunker?

Hans-Walter Borries, director of the Institute for Economic and Security Studies FIRMITAS at the University of Witten in western Germany, agrees that the issue of protecting the population has been sorely neglected.

But he questions how much use bunkers would actually be, given the scale of military firepower available in a war between NATO and Russia — if that is indeed the scenario being prepared for. Russia, for example, now has hypersonic missiles that could reach virtually any European city from Kaliningrad in 2 to 5 minutes.

"It's not like in World War II, when warnings of bombers flying over Hannover toward Berlin gave people 15 or 20 minutes to find a bunker," said Borries, also a colonel of the reserve in the Bundeswehr. "With the reaction times now, there's no way to warn the population."

The federal government does recognize this problem. In the case of war, the government report said, large central bunkers would be much less use than decentralized protected spaces inside residential buildings. For that reason, the government is planning to recommend that citizens should acquire cheap and easily available building materials to build safe rooms in their basements to protect themselves.

Money better spent elsewhere, says Borries

Borries isn't convinced, especially given that such a conflict could quickly escalate into a nuclear war, and nuclear weapons are now unfathomably more destructive than the ones used by the US at the end of World War II.

"The effect is no longer comparable to Hiroshima or Nagasaki," he said. "With modern weapons, the entire Federal Republic of Germany could be wiped out with nine to 12 rockets."

Luxury bunker makers profit from fear

Bunkers that could withstand that kind of attack, he said, would need to be buried thousands of meters deep in the Swiss Alps. "And afterward you wouldn't want to come out any more," he said.

Instead of investing billions in building a network of bunkers for the case of war, Borries said governments would be better advised to invest in what he called "normal" population protection. This, he said, could be warning systems for disasters, especially natural ones like the floods that Germany has experienced recently, and creating better training for disaster relief organizations.

"That would mean money for training, exercises and modern equipment," he said. "All that would make more sense than imagining these end-times scenarios in which you basically can't do anything anyway."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight