Notes From The Underground

Paul Sullivan heads underground to explore an immaculately preserved World War Two bunker…

Most passengers passing through S-Bahn Gesundbrunnen don’t think twice about the door at the bottom of the stairs. Why should they? It’s a plain old door, indistinguishable from a normal private entrance or storage area. But if you opened the door you’d be face-to-face with bonafide Nazi history, in the shape of one of Berlin’s best-preserved war bunkers.

The door is locked of course, but not inaccessible thanks to the (non-profit) Berliner Unterwelten society, who organise tours through a range of underground historical spaces in the city.

Turn up at the society’s ticket kiosk (located outside the station, at Brunnenstraße 105) on one of their allocated tour days, and you’ll soon find yourself on the other side of the mysterious time portal, enclosed in a concrete stairwell and surrounded by original Nazi-era signage bearing strange phrases like Männer Abort.

“It means Men’s Toilet,” explains Dominic, our affable, jocular guide. “The Nazis were not keen on using the French word toilette, nor the Anglo-American abbreviation W.C., for obvious reasons. There was no German word, aside from Scheisse-Haus, which would have been too long to put on the walls. So they dug up this strange, archaic word, Abort”.

Discovered in 1999, filled with rubble and untouched since the 60s, this bunker—built in 1941—was an extension of the restrooms and sleeping quarters built in the 1920s for the train drivers, Gesundbrunnen being the last stop on the line. The entire structure takes up 1,300 square metres and was built to hold 1,200 people—though in reality anywhere between 5-6,000 would be using it during an air raid, a terrifying figure when you consider the potential for panic, lack of air, food and water.

In any case, the bunker was mostly an illusion in terms of its ability to protect; real bomb-proof bunkers had walls and ceilings two metres thick—the ones here are less than a metre. Any direct hits would have been catastrophic.

Image courtesy of Berliner Unterwelten

We pass through into the toilet block, a tall, narrow concrete chamber with the lavatories still intact, lined up against one wall. The toilets operated by filling with earth after each use—slave labour was used to empty them, one of the only ways for non-Germans to enter these bunker areas.

In the next room, Dominic turns out the light to demonstrate the ghostly glow of the luminescent paint around the doors, walls and escape exits, used to prevent panic during blackouts. “It’s not as strong as it was in 1941,” he says. “Apparently you could read a newspaper for forty-five minutes by this light back then,” he says.

The rest of the bunker’s rooms contain a fascinating range of wartime paraphernalia. Propaganda posters loom down from the walls and glass cabinets are stacked with grisly curios: gas masks; an Enigma decoding machine; a brown tie decorated with a shiny Swastika badge.

One room, preserved for women and children, is filled with original bunk beds, the battered suitcases lying on the mattresses lending the space an eerily authentic atmosphere. Not that this embellishment is needed; just being in one of the bare, concrete rooms as the trains rumble ominously overhead is enough to give an impression of the bunker’s horribly claustrophobic conditions.

Image courtesy of Berliner Unterwelten

Dominic’s narrative and questions made us dwell further on the lives of the mostly ordinary German civilians that had passed through here. What possessions did people prioritise in those small, crumpled suitcases? (Photos, ID papers, jewellery, food and water for children). How did one test the dwindling air supplies in the air-locked rooms? (Candles positioned at floor, bench and chest levels). Why did people bring newspapers? (Not to read—for when the toilets were inaccessible).

More rooms, more insights: a wall map and up-to-date explanation of Hitler’s bunker (now an anonymous parking lot); smashed plates and papers salvaged from Hitler’s driver’s bunker; an enlarged photo of Speer‘s flooded bunker; a series of bizarrely sci-fi-esque Nazi etchings; giant photos of Berlin’s bombed-out centre taken after the war, and the famous Trümmerfrauen sorting through the rubble.

At the end of the ninety minutes, Dominic showed us remnants of the old pneumatic postal system and the sad demise of Berlin’s breweries. “We don’t want you thinking about the war all day,” he explained. But why not? Wasn’t that why we’d come here? And wasn’t he the one who’d told us how the final days of the Battle of Berlin had been played out near here, with German troops trying to stand their ground against the advancing Russians in nearby Humboldthain park?

It was his fault I could hear gunshots and grenades exploding against the grey sky outside, when in fact it was just another train rumbling by.

For more information on this tour and many others, visit the Berliner Unterwelten website here.

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