The door in the hill
Pauline Webber visits an underground bunker near Bonn with ghostly overtones of Dr Strangelove
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
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