The Ahr Valley in Germany is a wonderland of greenery. Lush forests cover the hillocks, vineyards cling to the flanks of the hills, and the winding dales exude a quiet tranquility. This area is famous for its red wines and medicinal springs. But in the bowels of the hills between Arhweiler and Demau, about 25 kms south of Bonn, is the Government’s Cold War Museum. It was opened to the public on February 29, 2008.
A serpentine road leads up a hill to an unmarked door cut into the hillside. As one enters, the tourists are ushered into a hall where historical documents and photographs are on display. There is also a film show about the construction of this bunker. It was one of the best kept secrets for 30 years.
When Bonn was the capital of West Germany, it was in the frontline between NATO and the Soviet Block. The possibility of a nuclear war loomed large. The German government needed a protected emergency seat from where it could function in the event of such a crisis. They chose an abandoned railway tunnel 110 metres below ground level that was well camouflaged by vineyards and forests, and offered protection against any missile attacks.
During World War I, this tunnel was built for a railway line meant to transport goods to France. But it was never commissioned, and after the war, it had no economic significance. The abandoned tunnel served different purposes at different times. Between 1930-1939, it was used as a mushroom farm, so that Germany could stop importing mushrooms from France.
Towards the latter part of World War II it became an arms manufacturing unit. Important equipment required by the Armed Forces and launch pads for V2 rockets were manufactured here. Prisoners from Buchenwald Concentration Camp were brought here for forced labour. The place was called Camp Vineyard. At the end of the war, the tunnel was used as an air raid shelter.
Now the tunnel has been converted into a massive subterranean complex and named ‘Office Marienthal.’ It was a very ambitious project and the construction continued from 1960-1972. An additional 17.3 kms was blasted into the soft slate hills along the Ahr valley, bringing the total length to 19 kms.
The complex was divided into east and west sections connected by a 60 metre deep passage through the valley. The eastern part was partitioned into two, and the western part into three sections. Each of these parts had autonomous electricity, drinking water and fresh air. There were 897 offices, 936 dorms and five small hospitals, and could accommodate 3000 people.
The concrete lined tunnels had double floors, and could be hermetically sealed by manoeuverable steels doors and concrete gates which weighed 25 tonnes each. Before the doors closed, air horns in the walls would sound the alarm. Provisions of food, water, drinks and medicines were stocked for the 30-day survival of 3000 people.
There were multiple dorms with basic furniture for the occupants. Only the President and Chancellor had their own suites, which were also sparsely furnished. The temperature inside the bunker was maintained at 18 degrees C. There were 180 staff members who operated in three shifts, and had to maintain, repair and operate the bunker. However, there were no defence units inside. The cost of building the bunker was estimated at three billion DM. But because of the level of secrecy involved, there could be discrepancies in the figure quoted.
The bunker was first used in 1966, and every two years thereafter, by NATO which conducted exercises here. The staff were sealed in for 30 days. They had a mock Chancellor and President. Bills were passed by an emergency Parliament of 22 members. But most of the time, this was a holiday of sorts spent in the recreation rooms or the library. Chancellor Kohl is said to have visited the bunker just once, and stayed for as long as it took to guzzle a can of beer. The bunker was last used in 1987. The cost of maintaining the bunker was 20 million DM.
The bunker’s existence was a well guarded secret of the Federal Republic of Germany for 30 years. At surface level, the area was ringed off by barbed wire hidden under greenery. Military sentries who guarded the area did not know what they were guarding. Even the construction companies working on the bunker were changed every six months. The staff was sworn to secrecy, and couldn’t even breathe a word to their families.
A guarded secret
But after the end of the Cold War, it was no longer possible to keep the bunker’s existence a secret. Health inspectors barged in to inspect the place, and declared it a health hazard. They ordered several modifications and alterations to be made. But the government thought it would be a sheer waste of money. In the first place, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the seat of the government was shifted to Berlin. Secondly, though the bunker could protect the inmates against a 20-kilotonne bomb, (as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima) the bombs that were now produced were 250 times more powerful, and could rip into the bunker.
So it was decommissioned in 1997 at a cost of 16 million euros. The tunnels were cleared out and sealed except for 203 metres preserved for the opening of a Cold War Museum. The conversion took another 2.5 million euros.
This is an awesome construction. Small groups are taken through the museum by well informed guides. The massive doors and gates with their air locks can be sealed off in seconds. We are given a tour of the radiation decontamination rooms, the different control rooms, dispensaries, dentist’s clinic, operating theatres and conference rooms. Vast amounts of food, medicines, blood, IV fluids are stored in appropriate sections. The dorms have multi-tiered bunk beds. At every turn there are boards marked Lebensgefahr (danger).
Another nuclear bunker called the ‘Honicker Bunker’ has also been open to the public, at Prenden in erstwhile East Germany. It was supposed to be the best construction among the Warsaw Pact countries, but is much smaller than the Arhweiler bunker.
Walking through this relic of the Cold War is an unforgettable surreal experience. It brings to mind the Doomsday preachers who announced the end of the world, and made people abandon their homes and property and seek shelter in churches. This subterranean bunker has turned out to be a colossal waste of money. One wonders how the German government would have led the Federal Army from inside the bunker, if the men above ground were all affected by the nuclear attack.