Feuilleton - Christmas, december, 23/ 24 / 25/ 26, 2000

The End of the End

By Michael Winter

No other structure reflected so clearly the state of mind of West Germany at that time as did its formerly most secret bunker. It is therefore vital that the former government bunker beneath the vineyards in the Ahr valley close to Bonn be retained!

There have been two kinds of state secrets since time immemorial - as software and hardware. The tangible state secrets were normally located underground or underwater, for example the largest corpse in the cellar of the western part of the two submerged post-war German states - a huge bunker beneath the vineyards of the Ahr valley close to Marienthal, a good 20 km as the crow flies from the former seat of government in Bonn.

Up to 3000 VIPs from the military, politics, industry and society were to have survived a nuclear war here, at least its first few weeks, and to have governed and controlled what was left above ground. This “Emergency seat of the constitutional organs of the Federal Republic to enable them to continue to function during a time of crisis and defence”, as it was officially known, was planned in the 50’s, and finally completed in 1971. On 8 December, 1997, the federal cabinet decided to close the bunker and to transfer responsibility for it to the Federal Assets Agency in Koblenz, the relevant regional headquarters, which would then dispose of it commercially. This date also saw the end of the secrecy surrounding the bunker: Representatives from TV and the press were, for the first time ever, allowed to have a look at West Germany’s best kept secret - any mention of the bunker’s existence beforehand would have resulted in a trial for treason.

Architecturally, politically and militarily, the bunker is a monstrosity from its basic concept to its very design. No other building in West Germany so accurately reflects the state of the nation’s soul between 1950 and 1980. The length of the tunnels in the five sectors of the complex, which can be completely sealed off from each another, totals 19 km. This underground world has 936 dormitory areas, 897 offices, 5 large canteens, 5 command centres and 5 hospitals, including operating theatres. The whole complex is divided into the West Bunker with sectors West/West, West/Central, and West/East, and the East Bunker with sectors East/West and East/East. This is where the assembly room, rooms for the offices of the federal chancellor and the federal president, together with their secretaries’ rooms, reception and conference rooms and the bedrooms for the chancellor and the president are located. The tunnels are on two levels and are equipped with elaborate ventilation and decontamination systems. The whole complex can be sealed off for at least a month from the contaminated world outside following a nuclear war. To ask what would then have happened would have meant asking the unaskable.

Even today, no former Bonn politician can be found who is prepared to talk about the bunker, let alone admit that he was ever inside it. Neither chancellor nor president were allowed to enter the bunker during the Nato exercises that were held annually because it was considered to be too dangerous.

By today’s reckoning, the taxpayer had to fork out between DM 40 - 50 billion for the construction of this monster. The purpose of the bunker did not disappear when reunification came about: To all intents and purposes, the German government bunker was obsolete as soon as it was built in view of the advances that had been made in weapons technology. And behind the secrets of the bunker there were plans that were even more secret. According to research carried out by the journalist Michael Preute, the VIPs on the bunker list would have been flown out to Orlando, Florida, if it had ever come to the big bang.

On its completion, the bunker was no more than a military backdrop for Nato scenarios. Nonetheless, it remained the best kept military and political secret of the Bonn government. Every workman who came to change even a lightbulb was made a civil servant and had to swear an oath of secrecy with his hand raised. So while an electrician was not allowed to tell his wife where he was working, although everybody in the Ahr valley knew what was hidden under the vineyard slopes, any resourceful journalist who had taken the trouble to write to communist East Berlin could have obtained the detailed construction drawings for project Rose Garden, as the complex was called in the intelligence world.

Officials in Koblenz have spent the last three years trying to find a commercial solution for the nuclear bunker. Possibilities have ranged from a bunker disco to an adventure hotel, a site for growing mushrooms and a place for storing currency or private treasures for posterity. These suggestions clearly demonstrate the pathetic imagination of civilians compared with the nuclear Armageddon ideas that emanated from the Cold War.

Before the bunker is finally stripped and sealed for ever following the German government’s decision to close it down, the Aachen photographer Andreas Magdanz has captured the complete bunker complex in all its horror on film and revealed it in an opulent coffee-table style book. He has succeeded in showing the two faces of the complex: All of the photos reveal to the observer the terrifyingly touching naivety with which administrators and military with their sand-table models envisaged nuclear war and survival. Magdanz’s photos show the bunker for what it really is - a pathetic attempt at salvation when faced with the end of the world on a biblical scale and implemented by administrators and the military with all the scope that their limited imagination could provide. The bunker architecture offers us the same naivety that we experience with officials from the nuclear power industry. Recollections come to mind of brochures recommending that, in the event of a nuclear war, we should close the windows, scramble under a table and hold a briefcase over our heads. This is the spirit which comes alive when you look at Magdanz’s photos of the bunker.

The architecture found at Marienthal is purely for the interior: The underlying purpose behind the bunker design is to ensure that it cannot be photographed from outside. What is on view is kilometres of corridors seen in a cold neon light and which merge into a black point in the distance. In the foreground, an arrow painted on the white-grey plaster with the sign “Emergency exit”. The ventilation ducts and the cables for power and internal communications are present everywhere. The technology dates back to the late 60’s and early 70’s. The design of the monitors in the control rooms clearly show this. The diesel engines and the metre-thick safety doors were manufactured specially by MAN, and today the spare parts can only be found in the bunker itself. Magdanz’s photos show a bare, functional architecture. Basic fittings in the offices. Telephones with dialling disks still in their original packing. Most of the almost 900 offices were never used. In particular, the military situation room, which Magdanz alone was allowed to photograph, is eerie in its irreality. At the entrance a sign: Nuclear situation room - Access only with CTS/ATOMAL conference authority. A cupboard reveals some of the Nato toys. In addition to symbols for nuclear power plants, bombers and paratroopers that are attached to the inside of a cupboard door on their orange-coloured magnetic strips you can read names such as Ankara, Berlin, Eisenach, Kola, Kiev, Kolberg, Moscow, Murmansk, and words such as “Low”, “Medium”, “Theatre reserves”, “Mainstay”, “Merchant ships”, “State”, “Surface forces”. The word “Losses” strikes you, in particular, since it is available in a whole range of type settings and sizes. Amongst the boxes with the individual magnetic letters there is a cardboard box visible with “Roast dripping” written on it. The state secret that Magdanz reveals to us via what are primarily black and white photos seems laughable in the distorted light of day. We hasten along the corridors in the search of the god of the Cold War who made two generations of inhabitants of Central Europe into co-players for the military and kept them in fear and trepidation until we reach the end of a corridor where a normal public telephone from the old Bundespost stands. What was the Cold War? A never-ending series of military exercises? A collective terminal madness? A real threat to humanity? As you travel on the electric vehicle through the bunker tunnels beneath the Ahr vineyards you finally understand how state secrets work: Like all myths - political, economic, and religious - they are composed of fantasies of fear, behind which there is nothing other than the force of authority organised in administrative procedures. The relics of the fear of officialdom of a complete era can be found in the Ahr bunker, and perhaps soon only in Andreas Magdanz’s book.

The bunker is Central Europe’s most significant architectural memorial from the Cold War period, and part of it at least should be declared a listed building. So far, not one single politician, either nationally from the government or regionally from the Rhineland-Palatinate, has spoken out in favour of such a move. The “returning to its original state” and “sealing up”, as its officially called, means the irretrievable loss of architecture that reflects the “burrowing mentality” so typical of post-war Germany, whether East and West. At present, no one mourns the loss of the bunker. Yet it is the Germans in particular who should know from their own experience that evidence from the past that is buried will unexpectedly reappear one day in a most spectacular manner.