What lies beneath
Dark secrets are waiting to be uncovered under the bustling streets of Berlin
WITH a few precious hours to spare in a big European city, most visitors would head to a world-famous gallery, museum or attraction. I opt for tales of oppression and nuclear Armageddon told in claustrophobic subterranean tunnels.
In 1997, a passionate gang of local academics founded Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworld), to preserve and document the city’s underground treasures. With much of Berlin’s history unfolding in the shadows, it offers a veritable goldmine for the macabre-minded through a series of fascinating tours.
Named after Mauer, the German word for ‘‘wall’’, Tour M digs into tales of the myriad tunnels built under the Berlin Wall, which split the city in two between 1961 and 1989. It starts in the disused rooms of Gesundbrunnen station, where original maps, artefacts, photos and posters are used to set the scene.
The desperation of about 13,000 separated families, and devious mea- sures employed by the Stasi (secret police) to prevent their reunion, make for chilling stories. While more than 300 successfully crossed underground from East to West, many failed. I cringe hearing how close one tunnel came, only to be foiled when a winter dusting left a suspicious snow-free line above its route ( damn that clever underground heating).
After a subway ride to Bernauer Strasse, the tour lands in an area that our guide says ‘‘looked like a Swiss cheese’’ at the peak of tunnel-building frenzy. Sadly, despite all this activity, no original tunnels exist and so careful reconstructions have been built in an old brewery cellar.
One of the more famous recreated tunnels is the Klaus Koeppen, a masterpiece of intricate wooden supports with a ventilation system, lighting and even a telephone. Unfortunately it failed in its mission but survivors work with the association and even helped construct the Channel Tunnel.
Few lived the Cold War more intimately than Berliners, with ‘‘enemies’’ living just a wall apart. Tour 3 takes you deep inside an eerie fortified bunker built to protect residents should the three-minute warning sound.
At the Pankstrasse subway stop we discover the bunker is the station itself. Ingeniously, the West Germans blocked off a centrally located station with colossal steel and concrete doors to create a huge, ready-made shelter.
Passing through the station, you’d never suspect what sits behind those unmarked metal doors. After passing through the air lock, operated slowly for theatrical effect, the elements needed for 3500 to survive for two weeks are explained. Each bunkhouse has 70 beds stacked five high and makes a backpacker dorm seem palatial.
The infirmary would put off even the most determined hypochondriac and here Berliner Unterwelten’s obsession with historic accuracy is well illustrated. Apparently it contacted the still-operating bodybag manufacturer to ensure durability estimates were valid (30 years, if you were wondering.)
Our dry-humoured guide concludes by explaining the bleak shelter’s futility, since a nuclear explosion would create a 400m hole extending far beyond Berlin.
Your fate would be the same following the exhibited propaganda poster saying ‘‘jeder hat eine Chance’’ (everyone has a chance). Lie on the floor with a bag on your head, it advises.
The Berliner Unterwelten tour graphically illuminates the tales of the myriad tunnels built under the Berlin Wall, which split the city between 1961 and 1989