x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

If the Cold War had turned hot?

In the chilling days of nuclear stand-off, West Germany prepared for the worst, building a giant bunker where its government would go if World War III broke out. Now open to the public, a new generation can feel its dread.

In the chilling days of nuclear stand-off, West Germany prepared for the worst, building a giant bunker where its government would go if World War III broke out. Now open to the public, a new generation can feel its dread. AHRWEILER, GERMANY // Deep beneath the terraced vineyards of the picturesque Ahr Valley lies a gargantuan concrete relic of an era when the world lived in constant fear of a nuclear confrontation - an underground city built to house the West German government in the event of a world war.

The bunker, near the former capital, Bonn, was 17.3 kilometres long and designed to house up to 3,000 officials, including the chancellor, president, members of parliament and top judges for up to four weeks. Built in a disused railway tunnel at the height of the Cold War between 1960 and 1972, it was fitted with 25-tonne sliding doors, nuclear decontamination showers, 897 offices, 936 spartan dormitories, a hairdressing salon, hospitals, canteens and a television studio for solemn addresses to the nation.

"It was kept in a constant state of readiness," Paul Gross, a technician who spent 36 years maintaining the doors and air vents, said in an interview. "It was meant to be top secret, but the East Germans knew about it. They had spies here while it was being built. "People coming here would have been forbidden to bring their wives and children. It could not have survived a direct hit because nuclear missiles can tear craters up to 500 metres deep, and the bunker at its deepest was 120m below the surface."

Today, only a 203m stretch remains intact and has been turned into a museum that has attracted more than 150,000 people since it opened in 2008. Historians say Germany was too quick to dismantle the bunker after the fall of communism, just as it was too thorough in tearing down the Berlin Wall, and that valuable legacies of the Cold War have been lost as a result. "Everyone just wanted to get rid of everything, the border, the Wall, the watchtowers. But now, 20 years on, people are realising how important it is to preserve all this for generations to come," Heike Hollunder, the museum's director, said. "It's a shame that this historical awareness came too late."

When Berlin marks the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Wall on Monday, the focus will be on memories of the night that changed the world, when ecstatic Berliners fell into each other's arms and celebrated freedom and unity. But the other aspect of the Cold War, that ever-present dread of the apocalypse that haunted the world right up until 1989, must not be forgotten either, historians say.

"This place makes the Cold War tangible. Memories of that era are fading and children of course find it hard to fathom," Jörg Diester, an author of a book on the bunker, said. "The school groups that come here learn by seeing the sheer size of this bunker how very seriously the nuclear threat was taken at the time." The bunker was West Germany's biggest and most expensive construction project, and successive governments used all their bureaucratic skills to conceal the costs in the budget. The project, code-named "Rose Garden", was declared top secret, but the Warsaw Pact knew about it, along with virtually everyone in the Ahr Valley.

That lack of secrecy was partly intended. For although the ostensible purpose of the bunker was to keep the organs of state functioning in a nuclear conflict, its true value lay in the message it sent to the East: that West Germany was prepared for the worst and ready to see it through if necessary. "It was part of the nuclear deterrent," Mr Diester said. Even though the bunker was furnished with the most advanced technology available at the time, with air vents that could be closed in milliseconds and blast-proof doors that slammed shut in 10 seconds, the government knew the site would be of little practical use if the Cold War turned hot.

For one, even if it withstood a nuclear war, there would have been nothing left to govern. Germany was the front line and would have been among the first countries wiped out. About 300 to 1,000 missiles would have rained down on West and East Germany, leaving fewer than 3,000 survivors, according to estimates at the time. "The bunker was devised so that it could remain sealed off for up to 30 days, but no one thought about what would happen on day 31," said Kajo Meyer, a tour guide.

Intriguingly, the East German government's nuclear bunker north of Berlin was more luxurious, with wood-panelled walls for the leader. Britain's bunker, code-named "Burlington" and located in Wiltshire in western England, could house 4,000 people for up to three months. After 1989, the German government deemed the bunker redundant and shut it down, although it briefly considered reopening it after the September 11 attacks.

By 2006, most of it had been stripped bare with the same Teutonic thoroughness that had gone into building and maintaining it, prompting speculation that the government did not want the public to know how elaborately West German leaders had prepared for their own survival. "I almost got tears in my eyes when I saw how radically everything was torn out after we had looked after it so carefully," said Mr Gross, the engineer who was part of a team of 140 technicians and cleaners who worked in the bunker. Most of the tunnel is now sealed off and only bats can enter it through specially drilled holes.

But even the short stretch remaining is enough to convey claustrophobia and a sense of doom. The bare concrete walls are painted green - which is supposed to have a soothing effect - and covered in red-letter instructions that all begin with the word "Achtung". Huge pipes run along the ceiling, and a circular steel door thunders shut to the alarming sound of an echoing klaxon that evokes the final scenes of a James Bond film. A communal shower room for people contaminated with radioactivity is fitted with a window for doctors to monitor them. The window even has a hand-operated wiper.

Every two years until 1989, 2,000 ministry officials and military top brass would be locked up here for exercises lasting up to two weeks to conduct Nato war games and practise governing the country in a crisis. The most common scenario was a Soviet intervention in Yugoslavia that escalated into war. Acting out make-believe crises in this artificial world of steel and neon light took its toll, Mr Diester said. "Alcohol consumption was very high and there was an ample supply of Valium on hand. No one ever tried staying here for 30 days. People would lose their sense of night and day and get confused. The exercises were so realistic that some participants ended up thinking this was the real thing."

There were rumours of wild, beer-fuelled parties. The participants of one exercise even held a beauty contest and chose a "Miss Bunker". The ban on spouses and children would presumably have led some officials to refuse to enter the bunker in a real emergency. This orderly subterranean world in which everything was kept spotless would have inevitably descended into chaos if the nightmare had ever become true.

"People would have had nervous breakdowns; there would have been long queues at the entrances with contaminated people wondering if the steel doors had slammed shut yet inside," Mrs Hollunder said. "War is chaos and can't be planned." It is unlikely that the West German chancellor would have seen the inside of it in an emergency. Historians claim there were contingency plans to fly the government to Orlando, Florida, leaving the people to their fate.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae