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||Translation of an article that appeared in the newspaper
FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU on 22 December, 2000
No Future for the German Government Bunker
The Marienthal Nuclear Bunker: A monster that is still going strong
By Ulf Erdmann Ziegler
While for two years now newspaper articles, rumours and TV reports have been spreading the word, no one has apparently wanted to believe it: in brief, West Germany has built an underground bunker to the south of Bonn that is like a town constructed in caves and which was intended to house top government and military personnel in the event of Armageddon. This huge facility, which is, from a technical point of view, completely independent of the outside world, could offer refuge for up to 3000 people for 30 days while an nuclear war raged overhead. But that is only the first part of the news item. The second part reveals that this symbol of megalomania, which was completed 30 years ago, has been kept operational by an army of officials who were sworn to secrecy. Part three continues with the information that the federal government, which has now moved to Berlin, is now of the opinion that it no longer needs the bunker and has, to all intents and purposes, given it up. This monster of military perfection, designed for so-called civil purposes, is no longer on the secret list. Anyone looking for the entrance will find it a few hundred meters above Marienthal near Ahrweiler.
There is reason enough for a desire to keep this matter quiet, and the principle behind the button marked Delete is suppression of information. Perhaps the whole subject of the Marienthal facility may well not have become public knowledge if a photographer called Andreas Magdanz had not devoted himself to the topic with sense and sensitivity, in so far as a colossus like this permits feelings at all.
After two year’s labour, the result is now available in the form of an exquisitely printed, coffee-table style book with an orange-coloured dust jacket that shows, for some odd reason, the black image of an American B-52. The aircraft represents the active side of a possible nuclear war, and the image itself was found by Magdanz in the bunker’s military situation room where, together with thousands of magnetic strips, it was waiting to be used if ever it came to the crunch. Andreas Magdanz put the bomber on the jacket since he came to the conclusion, following his extensive photographing of the site, that there was nothing else that could truly represent the high-tech aspect of the bunker in its entirety.
Nevertheless, the book is a respectable attempt at depicting in picture form an edifice which, with the exception of two plain entrance blocks, has no face as such: instead, it consists of a never-ending sequence of interiors, most of which all look alike. Everywhere there is evidence of heavy equipment, neon light strips, huge fans and air-lock doors weighing many tons, air passages and tunnels that can be walked in and which are so long that not even the penetrating eye of an architecture camera can determine their end point. The heavy-industry aspect of the bunker is complemented by photographs showing offices and duty rooms in all of their merciless functionality. In a few cases, the black-and-white modus of the book is sacrificed for some of the bizarre pearls to be found at the site, for example a cream-coloured hairdressing salon with purple-coloured seats that could just as easily have been found in the world of spaceship Enterprise or that of the Barbie dolls.
For the photographer-cum-recorder, who studied and taught at Aachen Technical University, the Marienthal bunker was a stroke of luck: He suddenly had the privilege of taking a close look at this »vacuum of social, historical and aesthetic history”. Having been captivated by the inexplicable, Magdanz took the bull by the horns and published his book at his own expense, organised its marketing, made a video film as well, and set up his own webpage (www.dienststellemarienthal.de). Work was started on dismantling the fittings and equipment in the bunker while he was still photographing it: Beds, tables, chairs and telephones, floor-to-ceiling maps, exquisite baths, ceiling light fittings all disappeared. Magdanz found himself in the classical role of the photographer, i.e. a vulture of history. He did an about-turn and suggested that the site be retained as a kind of Cold War museum. He regularly accompanied journalists into the bunker to show them what was left of the former secret location.
Thomas Ernst Hofmann, a senior official from the Federal Assets Agency at the Regional Financial Headquarters in Koblenz, also appeared at one of the tours. Three years previously he had not even known of the existence of the bunker, and now he was trying to find a buyer for it, as he had done already for the former military airbases at Bitburg and Hahn, which had been bought by private investors.
A whole range of exotic ideas for the bunker’s future use came into being, ranging from the gloomiest - establishing reserved bunker places for the well-to-do - to the grotesque idea of establishing an underground amusement park along the lines of the new role for the former nuclear reactor at Kalkar. However, the demand from officialdom that the entire complex was to be stripped to its bare concrete in the event of the planned purpose failing was something that no one was prepared to accept: Who is going to have DM 60 million tucked away for a rainy day when they have just gone bankrupt?
Secrecy has been lifted
By December 2000 there are only very few officials and technicians present to keep the essential machinery in the complex running - electricians, fitters, who have grown old with the bunker. They are friendly people, all men, who have kept well in the timeless atmosphere of the tunnels. The years have left their mark in their faces in the form of agelessness, and their eyes and eyebrows still register the tremendous surprise that stems from the dramatic about-turn that has occurred in their lives: Official secrecy has now given way to the curious questions from members of the press, with the latter’s own amazement at this huge complex, bordering sometimes on horror. You can sense the pride of the workmen, some of whom point out that they were here when the whole construction started in the 60’s. And yet, the reticence remains, a resistance that has to be overcome before they are prepared to give any information to strangers. »And the radioactive air would then have been passed through these carbon filters ...” The two-week exercises for possible scenarios, with Bundeswehr generals and naval cooks, have left their traces.
Even if Magdanz’s photos give you a taste of what to expect, it is still a shock when you actually walk through the bunker. In fact, you ride through on narrow electric cars with their trailers that transport visitors through the never ending corridors at a speed fast enough to create a headwind. When underway, you have to watch that you do not trap your feet in the steel teeth of an airlock door that might be open. The photographer follows on his bicycle.
We get the standard tour that lasts more than two hours and get to see equipment that looks just like any similar items used in industry, such as water storage tanks, oil-fired heaters. But as the tour continues, the image is not that of a factory that has been shut down, but rather of a self-sufficient fortress that is probably still in good working order with its doors that could shut in a fraction of a second, thus sealing it off from the outside world. Next to the diesel-generators that would have produced the power is the electrical control centre that can be completely shut down with one press of the red button. The next room is for the batteries, which would supply a minimum level of power to permit the system to be re-started.
Visitors are quickly tempted to ask about potential weaknesses in the complex, i.e. food stocks, water purification, while the feature writer is delighted that someone had thought of having a hairdresser, an operating theatre and a cinema. But there was no library for those privileged to have been locked away here, something which would have spoken volumes.
As hard as you try to imagine the extent of the complex, you simply have to admit that this is just not possible: there is no point, no view that reveals the full size of this mammoth. You are told that there are 900 bedrooms here, and just as many offices, that there are five independent sections of the complex in all. The private room for the German chancellor always causes amazement: a narrow room, where the bare steel bed still stands because Japanese visitors like to lie on it. However, the chancellor never visited the bunker, not even unofficially.
At the end, however, you are left with a feeling of horror: it is easy to imagine being stuck here - you have survived, but the doors are closed for ever. Magdanz has selected an eyeless head of steel with a nozzle as a mouth - it is a testing device for gas masks - as »the only human face” that has a legitimate place here in Marienthal. He points, rightly so, to the uniqueness of the bunker that had no need of an architect, but which was conceived by engineers to conquer reality. Perhaps it was intended that we should never forget the bunker so that we remain aware for ever of the real origins of the democracy in which we live. It would certainly be easier if we could forget it.