Jungle World
Berlin, 18. April 2001

Just in Case Something Happens

By Ralf Schröder

Life was due to continue for 30 days in the West German government bunker in Marienthal for 3000 politicians and officials after a nuclear war. Today, the bunker is a museum depicting the German mentality and life style at the time of the Cold War. Before it disappears, Andreas Magdanz has photographed the complex.

When Egyptian and Syrian troops launched their surprise attack against Israel in October 1973, world tension increased. Our German teacher told us at the start of the lesson that the USA and the Soviet Union had put their strategic rockets on full alert. The third world war did not interest us, though, and so our teacher’s nervousness was not our concern.

A plan had been drawn up to cover the eventuality of the situation deteriorating even further: Some 3000 important people , including the government, the German president, members of the German parliament, administrative personnel and senior military personnel, were to travel to the Marienthal bunker, a huge complex lying in the romantic Ahr valley, 20 km from the then seat of government in Bonn. The bunker would have enabled those present to have survived the first 30 days following a nuclear attack unharmed and even to have continued carrying out their work as usual. 1973 would not have been a bad year to have officially brought the bunker into operation since it had only been finished the year before after a period of construction lasting 12 years. The nearby motorway, the A 61, had been designed so that in the Meckenheim area it could have easily been converted into a runway for jet aircraft. Since a nuclear war did not break out in 1973, the bunker was kept on a care and maintenance basis for the next 25 years. The whole complex was so secret that even workmen who had to enter the bunker to carry out maintenance were quickly given official status as civil servants and had to swear an oath of allegiance. In 1972, when the German magazine Quick published an article about the project, police officers were sent to newspapers kiosks throughout West Germany to seize all copies. However, everyone living in the Ahr valley knew about it, as did Honecker, the East German leader. At the beginning of the 80’s, protest groups from the peace movement held demonstrations in the vicinity of the bunker entrance to protest about the madness of trying to plan for survival in a nuclear war.

When the German government decided to relinquish the military use of the bunker in 1997, attempts were made, in vain, to find a commercial use for it. Among the ideas suggested were a techno-disco, a currency store, an underground adventure hotel, and a site for growing mushrooms. But then, Andreas Magdanz, a photographer from Aachen who was born in 1963, came across a mention of the bunker in the newspaper Handelsblatt. He had demonstrated his penchant for the relationship between large-scale technology, architecture, administration and everyday life a few years beforehand when he used his prize money from the Benningsen Award to spend a prolonged period of time at the Garzweiler opencast lignite mine in Germany to create an impressive documentation of the social conditions that prevailed there. And now, without any major complications, Magdanz was given official permission to photograph the Marienthal bunker. Originally, he was limited to three days, but this was soon extended, and he finished up spending four days a week between October 1998 and June 1999 in the complex, taking in all some 1000 large-format photos and about 500 in medium format - mostly in black-and-white. He neither rearranged the settings, nor altered the lighting. “What interests me”, said Magdanz, “is the actual state a place is in, the feeling that the empty rooms themselves generate”.

And rooms there are in the bunker system, in every possible combination. The tunnels have a total length of 19 kilometres (some 12 miles), and there are 25,000 doors. The five independent sections of the complex cover a total area of 83,000m² and have 936 dormitory areas, 897 offices, five large canteens, five command centres, five medical units, two parking areas for bicycles, a printing shop, a hairdressing salon and a room for ecumenical church services. In addition, there are workshops, lifts, stairwells, communications centres, supply shafts, and food and spare parts stores, the latter having 20,000 items in stock. The “Emergency seat of the constitutional organs”, as it is officially called, also has an assembly room available. Individuals rooms were provided only for the chancellor and the federal president. Everyone else would have had to sleep in double-bunks. According to Magdanz, “you never come to the end of Marienthal. Only recently, I discovered a huge central post-office that I had never come across before”.

Magdanz has now brought together a remarkable selection of photographs in a coffee-table style book that he has published himself. He has also produced a one-hour video, a camera journey through the endless corridors, with background noises, industrial effects that stem from the hydraulic doors, sirens and hooters and other technical equipment. For Magdanz, Marienthal is “a part of our cultural, technical and military history all frozen in time. A gigantic museum”. Indeed, the complex clearly documents the social and mental attitudes that prevailed in West Germany in the 60’s and 70’s. The corner seats in red and orange captured in the photographs depict a progressive living room, the technical equipment represents the engineering art of the final years of the economic miracle in West Germany, the hairdresser’s hairdressing salon seats in blue and white reflects the victory procession of plastic, while the bareness of the office rooms recalls the sheer purposefulness of today’s state administration.

The walls of the hall that houses the “nuclear situation room” are covered with floor-to-ceiling maps. The strips of territory that Germany had to surrender at the end of World War II are shown as being “Under foreign administration”. Nearby, steel cupboards store countless orange-coloured magnetic stickers that would have been used to depict the military situation. They bear titles such as “Strat. reserve”, “Cordoning operation”, “Reinforcements landing” or “Terrorists/extremists”.

Soon after starting his project, Magdanz was soon convinced that this biotope, or at least parts of it, should be preserved and made available to the public. He wrote to Michael Naumann, the minister for culture, but was notified that the project was not of national interest and could therefore not be supported. Nor was he to find support from other politicians. He discovered, however, that people were generally unwilling to talk about Marienthal. In several cases, prominent people who had taken part in the annual exercises there even denied that they had ever set foot inside the bunker.

Magdanz found an open ear, however, amongst the media. Newspapers and TV stations brought detailed reports, and a TV contribution from the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) in Germany reported that “deep inside the Marienthal hills it looks like a James Bond film set”. The Rheinische Landesmuseum in Bonn held an exhibition on the subject that might, in fact, move on to other towns and cities in the near future. The homepage for the project also records numerous visitors. This prompts Magdanz to hope that “art perhaps really does get things moving”. There are still various elements of the Marienthal story to be researched, for example the real value of democratic procedures. After all, the bunker, that cost DM 3 - 5 billion, came into existence without ever being discussed in parliament. It would also be interesting to ask who had the authority to decide who would have been allowed into the bunker when it came to the crunch. According to the West German daily, Die Welt, it is also interesting to note that the former SS officer Erich Priebke, who was later sentenced for the shooting of Italian civilians in World War II, was the first security officer to be appointed in Marienthal.

Questions about the bunker’s history, however, will have to raised without access to the bunker itself. The complex has been almost cleared out now at an expense of DM 60 million, and, apart from a few items, the interior has been scrapped. The underground ghost town will be earthed up and flooded. “What right do we have to get worked up about the Taliban when they criminally destroy items of culture, when we deny ourselves memorials to our own history”, asks the Taz newspaper. Andreas Magdanz asks himself the same question.

There is yet another aspect that is displeasing in the whole matter. In the reports on Magdanz’s project the Cold War is depicted almost exclusively as a period of collective failure to think. With the passing of time, irony dominates. The headline in the newspaper Die Welt read “A final farewell in the local pub”, and in the Süddeutsche Zeitung "The bunker is a grotesque example of architectural, political and military planning and thinking”. This attitude seems to suggest that military madness, with all of its absurdities and criminal potential, has been banned from our life. In reality, it has only adapted itself to the political requirements of the day. Should the command centres and the scenarios for the European rapid intervention force that is currently being established ever be made accessible, we shall probably find much here to amaze us. For example, the swindle concealed in the term “humanitarian intervention”

Information, book and video via: www.dienststellemarienthal.de