March, 2001

Andreas Magdanz - The German Government Bunker in Marienthal

By Renate Puhvogel

In an extensive operation that was completed literally just before the door closed, Andreas Magdanz, a photographer from Aachen, has produced a photographic study of West German post-war architecture and, in so doing, has brought to the attention of the general public a subject of major importance. A German government bunker in Marienthal - a huge underground complex lying in the idyllic Ahr valley 20 km south of Bonn, the former federal capital. This “Emergency seat of the constitutional organs of the Federal Republic” was designed to ensure that important bodies of the state would be able to continue to operate if a crisis occurred during the decades of the Cold War. The bunker was built between 1960 and 1971 “to serve as joint emergency accommodation for all constitutional organs of the Federal Republic in the event of a crisis or military conflict”. Some 3000 government officials and members of parliament would have had a ambivalent chance to survive for 30 days, totally cut off from the rest of the world so that, from their underground perspective, they could govern a people which, in the event of a nuclear war, would probably have no longer existed. This complex, which was politically questionable and militarily way out of date, has completely lost its importance since the Eastern Bloc collapsed and the West German government moved to Berlin following reunification. Now it is to be “returned to its original state and sealed” at an unbelievable cost of DM 60 million after attempts to find alternative uses have failed. If Magdanz had not seen a notice in the Handelsblatt, and had he not obtained permission from the Ministry of the Interior to produce a photographic documentation as a result of being inspired by Paul Virilio’s "Bunker Archaeology", this absurd construction would have disappeared just as secretly as it was once planned, built and maintained over decades.

Its location and general design are based on a 4 km long railway tunnel, construction of which started in 1910 towards France, the then arch-enemy, but which ceased at the end of World War I. The French naturally destroyed the tunnel, but it was then later rebuilt and, towards the end of World War II, was used for the assembly of V 1 and V 2 rockets. When West Germany joined Nato, someone remembered the tunnel and saw in it the basis for a government bunker that would be ideally protected by the slate rock above it.
The Marienthal bunker, codenamed “Rose Garden” for cosmetic or cynical reasons, is the most extensive construction in Europe, if not world-wide. One cannot really use the word architecture to describe it since the rooms inside the bunker are purely functional, whereas the exterior is camouflaged in the guise of a peaceful vineyard. For this reason, it was engineers and not architects who were involved in erecting this monstrosity of German perfection. Five independently functioning units were built over an area of some 83,000 m² with a tunnel length of 19 km. The tunnel is on two levels and is divided by the valley floor. 936 spartan bedrooms, 897offices and conference rooms, five command centres, the same number of canteens, washrooms and hairdressing salons, five hospitals, together with operating theatres, were intended to provide the necessary fundamental requirements for selected government members. Interestingly enough, there is no library. On the other hand, the impressive facilities for fresh and waste water, ventilation and lighting match the size of the complex. We must also bear in mind that the taxpayer has in the meantime forked out some DM three billion for this “exclusive hotel”.
However impressive these figures and dimensions might be, we still cannot really imagine what the bunker is like in its entirety, especially since only a small-scale model of the complex is available. This mental shuttling between reality and fiction, past and present brings to mind a ghostly photo from 1945 which shows a smiling Adolf Hitler in his bunker as he gazes upon a model of his planned mega-city at Linz, while up above him in bombed Berlin the final battle is raging.

Regardless of where we are in the Marienthal bunker, we never have a feeling for the full picture, we are always disoriented. This kafkaesque situation always caused feelings of claustrophobia despite the 38 links to the outside world, as is witnessed by the 180 strong team of maintenance personnel who were permanently present in the bunker, and some of whom still suffer from the after-effects. Moreover they were all men since the entire enterprise was purely a male domain. The technicians and white-collar workers were all given civil-servant status and sworn to secrecy, as were the soldiers who spent three weeks a year on exercise in the bunker, together with a group of government members who turned up annually. At the same time, however, there are also some engineers who were involved from the very beginning who now see their life’s work being destroyed as a result of the closure. This underground scenario, which existed unnoticed for decades, thus reflects the overall fear-driven attitude of West German politics and society between 1960 and 1990.

Andreas Magdanz has prevented this politically, militarily and architecturally absurd monster from disappearing in total silence and has made it a subject of public discussion, not least due to the considerable attention paid to it by the press. The photographer, who was born in Mönchengladbach in 1963, spent seven months in 1998 and 1999 systematically researching the east wing of the complex where he took some one thousand photographs, primarily in black and white, using a plate camera to capture both major and insignificant details. One hundred of these photos have now been selected to create a “monograph of a building”, which he has published at his own expense. Michael Naumann, the former minister of state, declined to provide any support for the project as it was not of “federal importance”. Like the rest of his political colleagues, he fails to see that an artist is fighting here against the fact that, yet again, a piece of West German history is being destroyed without any public discussion. The government should not only pay for the photographs, it should also retain at least part of the complex as an authentic museum for visitors. What right do we have to be annoyed about the criminal destruction of cultural items by the pious warriors of the Taliban if we are depriving ourselves of memorials to our own history. It is hard to imagine that archaeologists might one day come across the bunker and classify it as an out-of-this-world object on German territory inhabited by people who are to all intents and purposes taking part in a “gas mask testing action”.

For the want of a prominent feature from within the bunker itself, Magdanz has provided his magnificent coffee-table style book with an orange-coloured dust jacket, showing a bomber symbolically flying through the middle and obviously from the enemy’s view point, from east to west. The logo comes from one of the countless magnetic strips that Magdanz found inside a cupboard in the military situation room and was, to his great surprise, allowed to photograph. When we see the huge number of military symbols on these strips, such as “Surface forces”, “Interdiction flight”, “Screen” or “Losses”, the countless placenames and other cryptic symbols, not forgetting the political maps of the 60’s and 70’s, we start to get an idea of the unbelievable madness of these military sand-table games - played along the lines of the children’s game “Submarines” - and their relationship to what could well have been a nuclear world catastrophe.

The photographs illustrate the route that a visitor would travel within the East Bunker, moving from section East/West to East/East. They start with an entrance door at ground level that instinctively recalls the guard towers of communist East Germany. This is followed by a picture showing one of the control centres which, in turn, is followed by a photo of a heavy airlock door. The photographer thus brilliantly involves the observer from the very start in the ambivalence of the bunker, which is both fascinating and horrendous in its detailed and yet abstruse planning. This purely documentary volume reveals both the creative and dramatic skills of this experienced photographer, who studied at the Aachen university under Wilhelm Schürmann. For example, in order to hold the attention of the observer, he scatters amongst the normal black-and-white photos the occasional colour photograph with its lead-like lighting that reflects the reality of the scene. These thus form a break between the individual chapters, while at the same time capturing the frozen aesthetics of the 70’s. He shows, for example, the red covered chairs in the conference room that is lit by orange-coloured lights, or elsewhere the hairdressing salon with its violet-blue seats. Compared with this scene, when we look at the shower room through the glass window we think instinctively of the perfidious “cleaning methods” used in the concentration camps. Magdanz has left the furniture fittings in the bunker totally untouched - most of them had already been removed at the time he was taking his photographs - and as a result has captured clinically sterile rooms and still-life scenes with tools inadvertently left behind. In accordance with his strategy, he manipulated nothing and dramatised nothing: The naked facts are more than sufficient to create a feeling of fear. In particular, the huge elements of the bunker’s technology, which are to be found everywhere, and the countless threatening warning signs, these fear-inducing close-ups interpose themselves dramatically between the otherwise objective reporting.

What the photographs might fail to provide can be seen in a supporting one-hour video film. In a range of sequences, Magdanz leads the observer through endless cathedral-high corridors and arched tunnels, producing a feeling of vertigo stemming from the monotonous movement, as if a violent jaw is about to open up, but naturally less abstract than the “Canal” video by Fischli/Weiss. This aggravating movement through the bunker is accompanied by dull echoes or hissing noises, caused by the heavy doors, weighing tons, as they slowly close, or by the ventilation system, or what is left of it.

This video film can at present be seen at the "Alte Rotation" exhibition in Bonn. The architecture of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in its temporary location provides a suitable backdrop, providing an impressive, if minimal insight into Magdanz’s complete undertaking. Original objects taken from the bunker are exhibited between a few of the photographs, for example a truck loaded with ugly, post-office grey telephones or an electric carriage, or some of the seats already mentioned - both inviting and rejecting in their nature. However real these requisites might be, taken out of context, they fail to create that same atmospheric effect that comes from the photos and video, let alone from a visit underground.

Asked about his future plans, Andreas Magdanz says that after his last two photography projects on Garzweiler nuclear power plant and the Marienthal bunker he now wants to devote himself to topics that do not relate to legacies of mankind’s pending doom. He is only too well aware that photography - whether it concerns live action or documentation - is always directed at capturing non-permanent events and is thus ultimately linked with death.

Book: Dienststelle Marienthal - Eine Gebäudemonographie (The Marienthal Government Bunker - Monograph to a Building), Aachen, DM 198.