Postcard from the Edge of a Bunker

In one of my favouite films, The Andromeda Strain, there is a scene where a slightly wacky scientist is being driven to the huge top secret, massively underground laboratory in the middle of nowhere by a no-nonsense marine. As they drive along a tiny, meandering dirt track to the innocuous looking shack that houses the clandestine entrance the scientist says “but no big dumper or cement truck ever drove down here”, to which the marine says “that’s because it was built to look like that.”

I never thought I would experience that scene in real life, but driving through the 4 streets that make up the tiny village, née hamlet, of Prenden 30 km north of Berlin, and being pointed down a half cobbled dirt track in to the woods, that scene suddenly became very authentic in more ways than one. Firstly, I was sitting next to an ex-marine, secondly some people say I am slightly wacky, thirdly we were on our way to a huge (formerly) top secret, massively underground construction with a very clandestine entrance and lastly, (we subsequently found out) the road we were following had been intentionally rebuilt to look like a meandering farm track. However, the illusion dissolved as my colleague and I arrived and circled, trying to find a space in the tiny car park.

The construction we were visiting was Objekt 17/5001 – or as it is better known the Honecker Bunker. Erich Honecker probably wasn’t the dream child you would wish for. A murky past of communism, spying and politics, he rose through the political ranks in Germany and 1971 he became head of the East German “government”. During his regime, the DDR wasn’t exactly winning any awards for “most popular country to live in” from its people or from the West and a nuclear attack was a real possibility.

So what does a cuddly dictator leader do? Right, builds himself a great big nuclear-attack-proof bunker close to his political power base. Thus in 1971 huge barracks were constructed to protect a large “field” and in 1976 the soldiers moved in and started digging – after burrowing solidly for 2 years, they had a pit large enough to build Objekt 17/5001, which “opened” in 1983.

The bunker itself is huge concrete block, 66 meters long, 48 meters wide and 17 meters high. It contains about 300 rooms spread over 3 floors and above it floats a protective umbrella of concrete 3.75 meters thick, designed to absorb the impact of the initial detonation. The main entrance is down a 200m long corridor, angled at various strategic points to prevent attack and reduce the blast shockwave. It had the original 1980s linoleum and it was our first taste of the fixtures and fittings.

There are 3 tours offered round the bunker – the “Standard” tour – 2 hour walk about in safe, lit areas. The “History” tour, 4 hours incorporating a 2 hour lecture and then the standard tour. And the “Tough Guy Tour” – after signing-your-life-away waiver (literally), 4 hours of uncompromising go anywhere you please and do anything you want tour – bring old clothes, gloves, knee pads, flashlight and a spare set of batteries. No prizes for guessing which tour I chose.

So with my fellow 7 other “tough guys” we set off and rounding the corner of the entrance corridor we caught the first sight of the blast doors – a big one to bring in equipment and a smaller personnel entrance. Here we started to see the incredible engineering and thought that went in to the construction. The doors have an amazing closing mechanism and even today are so well balanced, that they closed with a light push. They have aluminum panels at the touch points to the frame, which were designed to melt but not fuse so they could be re-opened to a very different world. Entering the personnel entrance, you had to follow a green stripe (peace time) or a red stripe (war time) which took you through 5 de-contamination rooms, each monitored and carefully controlled.

Once we made it in to the main part of the bunker its scale and the engineering prowess really came in to being. Each main room (e.g. communication center, control rooms, Honecker’s house, Stasi offices) were designed to move independently within the structure. Think of them as metal containers, suspended from the ceiling by huge steel cables kept taught by enormous springs. When the bomb hit, they could wobble in 40cm in any direction, dampening the blast impact. In our tour we climbed scary 10 meter high ladders and could walk around on top of these floating rooms, marveling at their construction and jumping up and down to make them wobble.

Once the doors were closed, the bunker was designed to be totally self sufficient for 14 days, and every critical system in the bunker was planned with a 2 or 3 fold backup, so, for example, if one of the compressed air tanks exploded, the room containing it would be sealed so the oxygen could not escape. Five huge diesel machines were fitted, 3 needed to run the bunker, 1 being repaired, 1 as a backup – with a vast array of diesel tanks feeding them. On our tour, if you wanted to climb around inside a diesel tank (now dry) you could. So naturally, I did.

Engineering prowess was everywhere. The bunker has been badly looted, but in the remnants of the communication room (the looters were mostly after copper cables), the entry points of cables linking this bunker to others were clearly visible. These cables were enclosed a lead pipe and the air pressure in the pipe kept at a constant rate. If the pipe was punctured (by an eavesdropping 3rd party) the pipe pressure would drop and trigger an alarm. Innovations like this littered the bunker.

Our guide was so enthusiastic, we stayed for almost 5 hours, looking at every nook and cranny – from the blast cap to the cellars. Sadly, the bunker is only open for three months, until the end of October 2008, it will then be blasted shut. Permanently. Reasons for these draconian measures are a little vague, it seems it is not an object that the government really wants to promote – it is also not something cheap to maintain. However, it is definitely worth a visit, and you certainly need to spend a lot of time to appreciate it – certainly more than Honecker did. His one-time 15 minute visit did not do it justice, but a five hour tough-guy will start to.

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