Underground Berlin: A First-Hand Look at Berlin’s Buried History

September 8, 2012 by


Berlin underground and bunker city tour

Berlin Underground: Going Down

I make my way to the meeting point in Berlin, at Gesundbrunnen, feeling a slight degree of trepidation. The Cold War is a mystery to me, as is most of modern history. I was a little worried that I’d be spending the next few hours with boffins and military enthusiasts than someone like myself. I was happily proven wrong.

I signed up for a tour of Berlin’s underground bunkers and subways with Berliner Unterwelten, the society for exploration and documentation of subterranean architecture, who have opened up this underworld to the public since 1997.

Underground Berlin

We all follow obediently as our excellent tour guide leads us briskly across the square, over the road, and into the entrance of a park, before heading through a door in a small brick building, with, ironically enough, a Holiday Inn sign perched on the roof.

Once inside, we have an introduction to the place, with general information about when the bunkers were built, and how they were used in the Second World War, and then re-fitted a nuclear shelter during the Cold War. The historical overview takes us from the 1943 Tehran Conference to the dividing of Berlin into American, British, French and Soviet sectors at the close of World War II, to the 1948-49 Berlin Blockade.

I learn about the non-socialisation rule of West Berlin, where a soldier could be fined or court martialled for fraternising with the German community or — heaven forbid — falling in love with a local girl. (Any social and political system that keeps people on different sides and prevents us from seeing each other as human beings, and acting with compassion is, I guess what keeps the theatres of war in operation.)

Berlin underground bunker city tour - going down

The Berlin Underground tour office

We hear about the preparations made for civilians to take shelter in the event of a Third World War, and how the impact of a nuclear attack would devastate the city. It is a sombre and terrifying prospect, although something that is timely to reflect on in this nuclear age.

As I travel and meet people from different cultures and backgrounds, I am continually struck by our common desires to find community, connection and a sustainable future together on this beautiful planet. It’s good to be reminded of the history underneath this remarkable city, which is constantly regenerating itself, and to appreciate the peace and freedom that most of us take for granted.

What does one eat, living in a bunker?

One of the details that intrigues me are the supplies kept in the bunker: boxes containing hundreds of thousands of items, toiletries, shaving brushes, medical kits and canned food, including oranges, “herrings in tomato sauce” and sardines from Portugal.

This glimpse into the preparations for survival provides a fascinating insight into life at the time, and also tells a story of racketeering and greed, which you will have to take the tour to find out more about!

Moving deeper into the tunnels, we pass a grated opening that looks down onto the train line, and stories from our guide that give an indication of the desperate measures people were prepared to take in order to try and reach the democratic West. There is the darkly humourous sign indicating friend (Communists) and enemy (evil Capitalists) posted at the entrance to the ghost stations (subway stops that in East Berlin were sealed and closed-off), offering a slim hope of escape as West Berlin trains ran through them.

There is a chilling tale of the sewers, and gruesome details about the measures that the Soviet authorities were prepared to go to in order to secure the underground borders. This is best left to the tour guide to tell, as the location also helps create an echo of the atmosphere where these events took place, and gives a sense of the complete control over the population, which is of course the least appealing aspect of any totalitarian state.

Not all the walls came down in 1989

I am fascinated to learn that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the removal of the underground borders takes almost another 10 years. Living in contemporary Berlin as part of the international community, it is easy to forget just how present and immediate this history is for the people who grew up here. Berlin is a city that is constantly changing and reinventing itself, however the marks of history are deeply scored into the architecture and pysche of the city, and are still visible in the underworld.

berlin underground subway bunker tour - lights

Scene from a horror movie? Nope, just a seedy part of Berlin’s history

Taking a short underground ride to the next station, we have the fabulously bizarre experience of entering one of those anonymous doors you see along the railway corridors. The entire U-Bahn station of Pankstrasse was designed as a nuclear shelter in the 1980s, and can be hermetically sealed, with enough room for around 1,500 people to survive the blast and a few weeks afterwards.

We have a taste of the simulated “catastrophe rehearsal”, with an introduction to the decontamination chamber (and the bright blue-and-yellow tracksuits which were the only clothes allowed inside), then a look at one of the medical rooms.

There is a slightly seedy aspect to the recent past of this facility, however there was no time to go deeper into the complex, although another tour explores this one in far more detail.

During construction of new buildings, the engineers often dug very deep into the soil of Berlin, and the subway system is only a part of its subterranean architecture. Many other objects are to be found in Berlin’s sandy underground. Cemeteries, secret air-raid shelters, sewers and even an aircraft factory were built under the surface of the city. A lot of these structures still exist nowadays.

Birth of the Berlin Underworld

In the autumn of 1997, a few enthusiasts got together in order to explore this subterranean world. The organization they founded, the Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds Association), locates and documents such hidden installations, making some of them accessible to the public. And it uses these sites for cultural purposes (such as exhibitions, theatre performances and concerts). The organization has already discovered numerous forgotten subterranean structures – but many other secrets are still to be discovered down there.

I am left with a sense of sadness, for the effects of war on humanity, and respect for the courage and dignity which people of all backgrounds show in the most extreme circumstances. It was a relief to return to the sunshine and light of the outside world, not having had to spend days or weeks inside a bunker for survival, and gave me a much deeper understanding of the events and history of this extraordinary city.

-Jodi Rose

8 Responses to “Underground Berlin: A First-Hand Look at Berlin’s Buried History”

  1. finton Says:

    Nice article. Lacked personality though. It’s the web not lonely planet. I lived in Berlin in ’93. The wall was still there and the filthy squatters (my crew). Berlin is a city that draws life toward it. It’s darker aspects of history (and the depths of winter) gave me the feeling that if you didn’t get out regularly you would soon arrive at the last day you would ever leave. Can’t wait to get back there and take some underground tours. I went on some underground tour of Paris in ’95/’96. Done by this superfreak through Napoleons catherdrale like sewers and aquaducts. People had a different atitude to shit back then…

  2. Bipolar Emo Kid Says:

    hello finton. so are you married. and this is the dullest peice of crap blog i have ever read. i want to blog something…. but i am engaged to scott mc. I LOVE SM!!!! LOVE U BBY

  3. Gunter Hauss Says:

    Hello everybody….!

  4. BillB Says:

    I love this article! and I cant wait to take that tour. Fascinating as well as all WWII and Cold War history is to me.

  5. joe Says:

    i lived in gieblestadt and schweinfurt for three years. i found a hidden bunker a short way from gieblestadt. bunker full of all kinds of things. dumped out one container, about 30 gallons, and got scared when i saw what was inside. top half were human teeth and bottom half looked like rocksalt or small quartz rocks. what kind of sick bastard collects teeth? saw some statues and paintings also. sealed bunker door and covered opening and got the hell out. would love to go back and investigate again if i could. if i could get up the nerve!! that was 16 years ago. found several other bunker while i was in germany, but none as crazy as that one.

  6. joe Says:

    P.S. if anyone knows what it was that i found near gieblestadt, email me at cattheotherwhitemeat2003@yahoo.com

  7. Paul Says:

    joe, i was stationed in gieblestadt in 1980…..also found that bunker…or a bunker similar to it..had housing, couple jail cells and so forth…..and i still remember where the hole is……

  8. Chris Says:

    Joe, Paul I read your story… Creepy! Did you find any military items in the Bunker?

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