The door in the hill

Pauline Web­ber vis­its an un­der­ground bunker near Bonn with ghostly over­tones of Dr Strangelove

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE Cold War was a se­cret war, its op­er­a­tions clan­des­tine, its foot sol­diers shad­owy and in­sub­stan­tial fig­ures, so per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing that there are so few con­crete re­minders to­day. The Berlin Wall, ul­ti­mate sym­bol of the di­vide be­tween East and West, has all but dis­ap­peared, along with the mem­ory of a di­vided Ger­many. But far to the south­west of Berlin, in the pic­turesque Ahr Val­ley, there is a Cold War relic that epit­o­mises the ab­sur­dity that un­der­scored life in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury.

Bad Neue­nahr-Ahrweiler, about 30km south­west of Bonn, is in a wine-grow­ing district — the rotwe­in­strasse , the red wine route, runs through here — and the vines hang in can­tilevered drapes down the steep hill­sides that flank the River Ahr. The re­gion is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for res­i­dents of the sleepy lit­tle city that housed the gov­ern­ment of West Ger­many be­fore re­uni­fi­ca­tion. In those days, only a se­lect hand­ful of peo­ple knew of the 20km long net­work of tun­nels that hon­ey­comb th­ese vine-cov­ered hills.

This top-se­cret un­der­ground bunker was de­signed to shel­ter es­sen­tial gov­ern­ment min­is­ters and staff in the event of a nu­clear at­tack. It was boarded up and aban­doned af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, but a sec­tion has re­cently been con­verted into a mu­seum. On a sunny morn­ing in May we set off to see it.

But our first stop is a mu­seum of a dif­fer­ent sort. Just off the main road near Ahrweiler is a hand­some build­ing of wood and glass cov­er­ing an arche­o­log­i­cal dig. A Ro­man villa, dat­ing back 2000 years, was dis­cov­ered here in 1980. The space is light and airy and we wan­der en­tranced among the rooms where frag­ments of exquisitely painted mu­rals can still be seen, through the bath­house with its elab­o­rate wa­ter heat­ing sys­tem, and into the kitchens and gar­dens.

It is such a de­light­ful place we are re­luc­tant to leave, but even­tu­ally we climb the stair­case lead­ing from the villa site to a nar­row road that winds up through the vine­yards. There are no sign­posts and we stop to ask the way from a vint­ner at work in his seem­ingly vertical fields.

Yes, he says, the bunker is up there, an­other 500m or so. We keep climb­ing and soon find our­selves fac­ing a wall of con­crete propped against the hill­side and, next to that, a starkly aus­tere metal struc­ture that looks as if it may be the mu­seum en­try.

Yes, we are in the right place. Yes, the mu­seum does con­duct tours in English but only with ad­vance no­tice. Yes, there are tours in Ger­man ev­ery few min­utes. No, it is not pos­si­ble to go into the tun­nels un­ac­com­pa­nied. We buy tick­ets and wait in the chilly grey foyer un­til our tour guide joins us. There are about 15 in our group and we are the only for­eign­ers.

Our guide is a dap­per lit­tle man in his late 50s with the look of a sprightly gar­den gnome. He spent much of his work­ing life in the bunker as a main­te­nance tech­ni­cian and we quickly dis­cover how much his in­sider knowl­edge en­riches our ex­pe­ri­ence.

First stop is at a large elec­tronic model of the tun­nel sys­tem where we are told some­thing of the his­tory of the place. The first tun­nels were con­structed be­fore World War I as part of a rail­way sys­tem sup­port­ing Ger­many’s planned in­va­sion of France and Bel­gium. Af­ter the war the rail­way was aban­doned and the tun­nels put to use by lo­cal farm­ers, at one point as a mush­room farm.

In World War II, the V2 rocket, the fly­ing bomb that so ter­ri­fied Lon­don­ers when it struck without warn­ing in 1944, was man­u­fac­tured here and, when Al­lied bombs be­gan to fall on the re­gion, the tun­nels served as an air­raid shel­ter.

In the post­war world, Ger­many was the front­line be­tween NATO coun­tries and the Soviet Union. The nu­clear weapons faced off against each other on Ger­man soil and so the gov­ern­ment in Bonn de­cided to pro­tect it­self against the un­think­able. While the an­cient prac­tice of wine-mak­ing went on above ground, an­other 17km of tun­nels were blasted and bull­dozed into the hills to form what was to be known unof­fi­cially as Dien­st­stelle Mari­en­thal, af­ter one of the nearby vine­yards, and of­fi­cially as the ‘‘ emer­gency seat of the fed­eral con­sti­tu­tional or­gans in the event of cri­sis or de­fence sit­u­a­tions to main­tain their abil­ity to func­tion’’.

It’s a name the screen­writ­ers of DrS­trangelove would be proud of and there is some­thing about the whole setup that is rem­i­nis­cent of Stan­ley Kubrick’s mad cin­e­matic mas­ter­piece.

Here, in this her­met­i­cally sealed Hades, were 936 dor­mi­to­ries, 897 offices, 9000 beds and 2000 fil­ing cab­i­nets. There were fully equipped kitchens, a tele­vi­sion stu­dio (so the chan­cel­lor could let those un­happy souls above ground know their leaders were on the case), recre­ation rooms, hos­pi­tals, a den­tist, even a hair­dresser. There were war cab­i­net rooms and op­er­a­tional con­trol rooms as well as enough food and drink to keep 3000 gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials alive for 30 days. What was to hap­pen af­ter that is any­one’s guess. Only a few hun­dred me­tres of this net­work, re­stored to orig­i­nal con­di­tion, are open to the pub­lic.

It is time for our lit­tle group to en­ter the tun­nel com­plex. First we pass through the white-tiled de­con­tam­i­na­tion show­ers where the cho­sen few were to lather up with a mix of wa­ter and chem­i­cals sup­pos­edly suf­fi­cient to wash away resid­ual ra­di­a­tion. This cold, grey world is such a con­trast to the sun­lit Ro­man one at the bot­tom of the hill that we can barely take it in, es­pe­cially when we see the round, 25-tonne bombproof doors, like gi­ant ver­sions of sub­ma­rine hatches, that were to seal shut the bunker like a tin of sar­dines.

Once a month, says our guide, it was his job to check the doors were in work­ing or­der. But the process was so cum­ber­some that he and his col­leagues would just roll the mono­liths a few cen­time­tres for­ward and back. If they went that far, he fig­ured, they’d prob­a­bly go the rest of the way.

Be­yond the doors, the bunker re­ally does look like the set for a 1960s sci-fi movie. The big, clunky switches, enor­mous con­trol pan­els, old-fash­ioned tele­vi­sion screens and whop­ping wall-mounted phones are straight out of Doc­torWho. The black air ducts mounted along the cor­ri­dors are a sin­is­ter re­minder of what this bunker was de­signed to pro­tect against. Would the elab­o­rate ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems have worked in a real at­tack, we ask our guide. Rue­fully, he ad­mits that it seems un­likely.

For a while, the mil­i­tary-style ar­range­ment of bunkrooms and offices makes the place feel less threat­en­ing. We are amused by the chan­cel­lor’s bed­room (stan­dard mil­i­tary is­sue bunk bed with non­stan­dard pil­low and blan­ket in a pretty shade of blue). And we pos­i­tively chuckle at the recre­ation room, where the moulded plas­tic Day-Glo ’ 60s fur­ni­ture and spacey ta­ble lamps fail ut­terly in their bid to project a sense of nor­mal­ity.

A cou­ple of mu­seum staff in or­ange flu­oro vests swish by perched on a toy car, ex­tras in this sur­real film we have be­come part of. Work­ers at the com­plex dur­ing the Cold War got around the cor­ri­dors on bi­cy­cles or in mini elec­tric cars and it seems this handy method of trans­port is still in op­er­a­tion.

Now we are deep in the heart of the com­plex. The round tun­nel is di­vided along its length by a con­crete roof — bed­rooms above, offices be­low — and we are all sub­dued by the con­strained space and op­pres­sive gloom. It seems unimag­in­able that such a place could have been called into use, that those deemed es­sen­tial to the con­tin­u­ance of gov­ern­ment could have aban­doned their fam­i­lies (no spouses or chil­dren ad­mit­ted) and en­tered this sub­ter­ranean world with any sense of pur­pose or hope.

Ev­ery two years, gov­ern­ment min­is­ters and em­ploy­ees were re­quired to take part in train­ing ex­er­cises here. All were sworn to se­crecy and most had to stay for three weeks. (Oddly enough, min­is­ters were re­quired to stay only a cou­ple of days as their ser­vices were con­sid­ered too es­sen­tial to the real run­ning of the coun­try for them to be ab­sent for long.)

Our guide shows us the long stretch of tun­nel, now blocked off by a strong metal cage, that con­nects our part of the bunker to the re­main­der of the net­work buried in the next hill­side. We are in no doubt that we are far be­low the ground and, for the first time, the im­men­sity of this labyrinth of tun­nels be­comes deeply af­fect­ing.

It is the end of the line for vis­i­tors so we slowly re­trace our steps. We ask our guide how he used to deal with the stan­dard din­ner party con­ver­sa­tion opener of what one does for a liv­ing.

‘‘ Ah, I’d just say: ‘ I work at Mari­en­thal’, and that would be the end of it.’’ It oc­curs to us that this sup­pos­edly se­cret place must have been known to many: lo­cal farm­ers and vil­lagers, the thou­sands of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees re­quired to take part in the bi­en­nial ex­er­cises and, un­doubt­edly, the en­emy.

The project was code-named Op­er­a­tion Vine­yard. Once an East Ger­man Ge­orge Smi­ley ac­quired that bit of in­for­ma­tion, it would surely have been a sim­ple task to work out the ex­act lo­ca­tion of West Ger­many’s nu­clear de­fence cen­tre: cap­i­tal city Bonn, near­est wine­grow­ing re­gion the Ahr Val­ley. Ex­cel­lent; let’s drop a bomb there first. www.auswe­ich­sitz.de www.bad-neue­nahr-ahrweiler.de www.ger­many-tourism.de

Pic­tures: John Sta­hel

A lit­tle town in Ger­many: Vines cloak the hill­sides of the pic­turesque Ahr Val­ley, one of the coun­try’s most northerly wine-pro­duc­ing re­gions

Tun­nel vi­sion: The aus­tere, and well hid­den, en­trance to the Cold War bunker mu­seum

Cold com­forts: An of­fice in the bunker mu­seum

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