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Once the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Berlin has made a comeback as a destination city. Now in more stable times, the city can show off its world-class museums and landmarks, such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building.

But most visitors don't realize that 40 percent of all the structures in central Berlin are actually underground.

In addition to the subway system, the U-Bahn, there's a ghostly world of war-time bunkers and dead-end tunnels, huge vaulted rooms and a complex labyrinth of sewers. Reporter Kyle James tells us a group of amateur urban archaeologists are working to preserve this underground world.

Digging Into Berlin's Past

By Kyle James [3/22/2002]

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(sound of a subway train)

Kyle: Hundreds of people pass by this unremarkable green door, on this ordinary Berlin subway platform, everyday. Few of them suspect that behind it lies a maze of narrow underground rooms -- that are about to send me on a trip back in time.

(sound of footsteps going down stairs)

Beyond the door, down this steep, dimly lit stairway is a World War II bunker.

I enter a murky world of concrete, stillness and stale air.

(sound of a slamming door)

The heavy steel doors that once protected Germans from air attacks seem also to have kept out the passage of time. Signs painted on the walls forbid smoking, or point the way to the men's and women's toilets. Long narrow benches line the walls. I can almost see frightened Berliners huddling here in the dark, as Allied bombs crash down on the city above.

Michael Foedrowitz: Everything you see is original -- all this on the walls and the furniture, and the tech. Equipment. Everything was original built during WWII.

Kyle: Michael Foedrowitz is a member of the Berlin Underground Association. It's a group dedicated to uncovering the historical treasures under Berlin's city streets. He's their bunker specialist.

Foedrowitz: And we collected all these things not only from this bunker, but from other bunkers in Berlin, and from bunkers in West Germany. And then we started to make an exhibition.

Kyle: So you can take a tour and walk through a recreation of the bunker's clinic, complete with old medical supplies stored in old-fashioned white enamel cabinets. A hand-cranked ventilation system that kept Berliners from suffocating down here still works. On a desk in the command center, there are air raid guidelines -- lying next to a 1943 edition of the Nazi party newspaper. It's all so real -- and disturbing. I keep glancing up at the sound of every footstep, half expecting to see a stormtrooper.

Michael Foedrowitz tells me there are more than just bunkers and Nazi relics under Berlin's sandy soil -- there's a whole catalogue of subterranean structures and systems. Buried mirrors of Berlin's turbulent above-ground history.

It began in the 19th century, when Berlin was the capital of an empire. The Kaisers built a massive sewer system and huge underground vaults -- along with a pneumatic tube dispatch system unlike anything at the time.

Foedrowitz: It was used to transport letters and postcards, and secret mails and so on -- and all the ministries were connected with this kind of communication system. It was the most modern in that time.

Kyle: Then, in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler expanded Berlin's underground . He built entire airplane factories and power plants below the surface. When that war ended, and a new war the Cold War -- began, bunkers got new life as warehouses. They stored food for a West Berlin population cut off by the Soviets. The subway system was walled off at the border, like an underground shadow of the more famous Wall above. And desperate Berliners continued to look underground for deliverance. Some burrowed their way to freedom in the West.

(sound of a slamming door)

I'm feeling distinctly uneasy now, standing here in the pitch dark. Our tour guide has closed the reinforced steel door in this modernized Cold-War-era bunker -- that's the last stop on our tour. It has been designed to withstand, in theory, a nuclear attack. The top of my head is brushing the ceiling and no one's talking anymore. Finally we're led back up to the world of daylight and street traffic.

(sound of street traffic)

The cool breeze on my face feels good after the stifling weight of the past I felt down there, below. It was fascinating, yes, but also terrible -- much like 20th century German history.

And some of the nation's officials share my feelings. The research of the Berlin Underground Association makes many of them uneasy. It's not in keeping with an image of modern, democratic, peace-loving Germany. Michael Foedrowitz says association members have even been accused of having neo-Nazi sympathies. Since who else, some ask, would want to dig up this past that's better kept dead and buried? When the organization located the personal bunkers of Goebbels and Göring, and asked permission to open them up for tours, the authorities weren't that enthusiastic.

Foedrowitz: They are very keen to eliminate those buildings from WWII or the Nazi time. It's a pity because it means it's a destruction of a part of our history. It's not a good one, but anyway it's a part of history.

Kyle: A history that's preserved below the surface here, as in no other city. That's according to Dietmar Arnold, an architect by day, urban spelunker by night, who co-founded the association. He says a full 40 percent of all the built structures in central Berlin are located underground. That means there still a lot to be explored, and he hopes, saved.

Arnold: I think we've got plenty to do for the next 5 years, surely, if not longer. We'll undertake underground expeditions and research more structures down there. We'll document them, and then make our findings available to the government, if it even wants them.

Kyle: Well, people are certainly interested. The tour I went on was filled to capacity. Maybe everyday Germans have less of a problem with the country's ghosts than government officials do. Or, at least an interest in coming to terms with them.

Besides the weekly bunker tours, there are special excursions through underground vaults, former breweries, power plants, and even the sewers for the especially brave. English-language tours can be set up for groups that call ahead. Dietmar Arnold finds he's spending more and more time underground as the association and interest in Berlin's subterranean world keep growing.

Arnold: But I hope I don't look so pale that people think I actually live underground. It's not that bad yet.

Kyle: Well, he does look like he could use a little sun.

In Berlin, I'm Kyle James for the Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources:

Berlin Underground

Zone Tour

Explorer's Club


Related Savvy Stories:

Cash Peters - Tour Of Sewers Of Paris

Jeff Biggers - Bologna Underground

Dave Karlotski - Mammoth Cave

Bernice Notenboom - Innertubing The Mayan Underworld


Other Underground Tours:

Seattle Underground Tour

Portland Underground: Shanghai Tunnels

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

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