Monday, February 8, 2016

In the Valley Below

After WWII, the responsibility of Germany's new babysitters, the British, the French, the Americans, and the Soviets, was to demilitarize the country that had begun two world wars by violating land treaties. As the saying goes, do it once, shame on you. Do it twice, shame on me. Wanting to avoid a third world war, these four powers set to work getting rid of Germany's military might. In other words, they blew shit up.  More or less everything went: the military headquarters, the weaponry, and the bunkers. 

Bunkers were fortifications above ground and below ground, constructed with thick concrete made to be indestructible. Some proved their worth, and the powers in Germany held friendly competitions about who could blow up as many bunkers as efficiently as possible. 

In 2016, only 2.5 bunkers remain, one completely inaccessible.

The half bunker existed between the French and Russian sectors and, while the French blew their side up, the Soviets never did. One bunker that proved too strong for bombs was Hitler's bunker, where he spent the last few weeks of the war, killed himself along with his new wife and his beloved dog, and plotted military strategy with a largely imaginary army. For myriad reasons including, but not limited to Germany's desire to separate themselves from this notorious once-leader, not wanting to encourage any sort of hero worship of the man who Eddie Izzard rightfully labeled "a mass-murdering fuckhead," and, of course, the order to demilitarize, Hitler's bunker was buried in its own rubble (after many attempts to destroy it with TNT) and finally paved over. Today it is a car park. 

The one bunker that remains and that is both usable and tourable is directly next to and was once part of Gesundbrunner Station. It, of course, wasn't destroyed because of its proximity to public transport. 

Today, tours enter the bunker guided by a straight-faced German woman whose dry humor works well with her straight-lipped, no-nonsense attitude. Everything in this underworld is grey, except the rusting artifacts. The walls still bear the paint indicating which direction the toilets are, how many people can fit in a bunker, as well as messages about the war. One wall still highlights the phosphorescent paint used for the inevitability of a blackout. Though faded now, at one point it was rumored to have been so bright you could read by it. We were warned not to lick the walls.

The bunker on its own is pretty amazing, but the collection of things assembled from the war are what make the bunker downright impressive. Included in the collection are helmets with bullet holes, propaganda, old weaponry, condoms (dried and certainly ineffective), suitcases, shoes, and knickknacks either salvaged from Berlin's rubble or left in the bunkers.  

After the war, Berlin was in ruins. Anything salvageable was used for, well, anything. Helmets were turned into cooking pots, a bomb was turned into an oven, bricks were cleaned and repurposed in order to rebuild; and the vast majority of this work was done by women. There was nothing to eat and stories remain of people eating newspaper and tapestries. Rubble turned into playgrounds for youth that had survived the siege of Berlin, but often turned disastrous when unexploded artillery was disturbed by young feet. According to our guide, more Berliners died after the war than during it. 

The bunker leaves visitors with a strange sense of both calm and eeriness, much as one could imagine the occasional inhabitants felt as the crowded into the small spaces, lured by the promise of safety from the world on fire above them. 

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