A monstrous submarine assembly plant constructed by slave labour during the Second World War has been turned into a monument to the cruelty and fiendish technological capabilities of Nazi Germany.
Germany opens former U-boat bunker as museum to Nazi inhumanity
The massive site, named "U-Boat Bunker Valentin", lies like a sleeping monster on the bank of the Weser river north of Bremen, about 40 kilometres from the North Sea coast. The bunker is 33 metres high and spans an area the size of six football pitches. Its roof, intended to withstand Allied bombing raids, is up to seven metres thick.
The facility was built in just 20 months by more than 10,000 labourers drafted from all over Europe. The names of 1,200 who died from overwork, malnutrition, sickness and arbitrary killings are known. The true death toll is believed to be far higher.
The Bremen regional authority and the national government launched a ?3.8 million (Dh19.9m) programme earlier this month to set up a museum at the bunker to explain its history. It will place an emphasis on addressing younger generations of Germans, some of whom consider the Nazi era to be an abstract historical experience endured by ancestors they never met.
"The U-boat bunker Valentin was the monumental centre of an inhuman network that exploited human labour for the purposes of National Socialist conquests," Bernd Neumann, the culture minister, said in a speech to mark the opening of the site on May 8, the 66th anniversary of Germany's capitulation.
"Here, the whole spectrum of forced labour under National Socialism becomes evident, which makes Valentin an exceptional and educational site of remembrance," Mr Neumann said.
The bunker had 12 U-boat assembly bays and a basin that could be flooded for underwater tests. It was designed to build the most modern and deadly submarine in the German fleet at a rate of one every 56 hours.
The XXI class submarine was capable of spending far longer submerged and travelling much faster than its predecessors, and was hailed by the Nazis as a miracle weapon capable of swinging the war in their favour. The U-boat war in the Atlantic was a key battleground because the submarines threatened the vital lifeline of supplies from the US to Britain.
In fact, the XXI was a desperate response to Allied advances in radar technology and the breaking of the German Enigma coding system which had led to mounting U-boat losses. In May 1943 alone, Germany lost 42 of its 110 available submarines.
The bunker is an eerie, imposing sight. Its towering, grey, lime-streaked walls bristle with rusting iron bars.
Sections of it were used for equipment storage by the German army until 2010.
Part of its cavernous interior is off limits because of falling masonry and has been left in its original state, a crumbling, dripping ruin pockmarked by shell holes. There are thousands of bats and the silence is broken occasionally by the flapping of unseen wings in the cold gloom.
Marcus Meyer, a historian who is helping to convert the bunker into a museum, says: "It exudes a fascination, the size of it automatically fills one with an awe one can't suppress.
"It shows how Nazi Germany's military-industrial complex remained intact and powerful even after the turning point of the war marked by the defeat at Stalingrad. This was one of the world's most modern construction sites at the time and the technological innovation shown here was incredible.
"But it doesn't tell the story of the human suffering that went into building it. Conveying to visitors the human price that was paid is a huge challenge."
Several labour camps were built around the site. Concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war, French resistance fighters and press-ganged civilian workers from occupied nations toiled here.
They were forced to work in 12-hour shifts doing back-breaking labour such as hauling 50-kilogram sacks of cement and iron girders under the watchful eyes of SS guards. Workers who flagged were beaten or even executed.
As the eyewitnesses fade away, the need to keep the legacy of the Nazi era alive as the nation's darkest chapter is even more important, historians say.
Over the past 15 years, a number of prominent Nazi sites, such as Hitler's Berghof mountain retreat in Bavaria and major concentration camps, have been given to modern museums to cater to the vast majority of Germans who weren't alive during the war, or were too young to remember it.
The approach taken now is radically different from the period right up to the 1980s, when the principal purpose of these sites was to remind Germans, even young ones, of their national guilt. The distance of time is now so great that the desire to instil that sense of collective responsibility in children has waned.
"The culture of remembrance that seeks to trigger moral outrage, where you are told to be appalled, backfires nowadays because it doesn't work on the young generations," said Mr Meyer.
"Our aim isn't to shock people or stir their emotions, because that often just makes people turn away. The decisive thing is to accept that younger visitors have a distance to history, and just to let them ask questions."
The bunker, the construction of which started in 1943, is not just monumental evidence of a crime against humanity. It also demonstrates the gargantuan self-delusion of the Nazi regime.
The place made no strategic sense. The U-boat assembly lines might have been protected, but the supply of parts would have remained vulnerable to Allied bombardment, as would the finished submarines on their trip down river to the sea.
Although German cities maintained strict blackouts, the construction of Valentin continued at night in a blaze of floodlights, oblivious to the threat from Allied planes. The Allies were allowing the project to go ahead because it was binding scarce resources.
Then, on March 27, 1945, when it was nearing completion, the Royal Air Force rendered it obsolete with a single raid by attacking it with 10-ton "Grand Slam" bombs, tearing two holes in the roof.
Yet the blind, desperate faith in miracle weapons, rammed home by Nazi propaganda, was so great that construction continued until April 6, 1945, just weeks before the end of the war.
Not a single submarine was ever built there.