Soon after the end of WWII it was realized that nuclear weapons could pose a real threat to the survival of the governmental chain of command. The US nuclear shots in Japan in August 1945 had demonstrated the destructive power of nuclear ordnance, which might wipe out the political brain of an entire nation in a moment, typically by hitting its capital city.
The Soviets carried out their first successful nuclear test in 1949, when Stalin was still in charge. Due to limitations of the range of aircraft at the time – when long-range missiles were yet to appear on the scene – an attack to the continental US was a remote threat, but things were very different for all countries in Western Europe. Thanks to the annexation of large parts of Eastern Europe and the establishment of puppet governments in many others further west, Stalin’s rule now extended well into central Europe. Bombers taking off from communist Poland, Czechoslovakia or the German Democratic Republic could easily target large cities of every neighbor nation, including Britain, France and of course Federal Germany.
To mitigate the risk of loosing control of the nation in case of a Soviet nuclear attack on the capital city Bonn, the first chancellor of the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, approved the plan for a nuclear-proof bunker in 1950 – the so-called ‘Regierungsbunker’. Essential governmental functions could be maintained and military operations coordinated from inside.
Albeit greatly reduced in size, the place is today open to the public and makes for an interesting witness of the Cold War. This brief chapter shows some photographs of this bunker, and some more from the German Museum of Contemporary History, a very nice and modern museum on post-WWII Germany, recently opened in the former federal capital Bonn.
Governmental Atomic Bunker – Regierungsbunker
The design of the bunker was completed in the 1950s, and was based on the extension and conversion of preexisting unfinished railway tunnels in the valley of river Ahr, some 10 miles south of Bonn. These tunnels had been built during WWI as part of a projected railway to help supplying the war front. Works were halted in 1918. Years later, the place was deemed ideal for a secret government bunker, since the distance from the capital city could be covered very quickly, but the facility was sufficiently far from the likely target of a nuclear attack, and hidden deep in the countryside for a more effective deception.
The approval for construction works on the bunker failed to come quickly though, and the project was put in practice in the early 1960s. By that time war technology had changed significantly, both in terms of the yield of nuclear warheads and range of strategic missiles. It is highly controversial whether this underground bunker would withstand more than the original design yield of 20 kilotons, which after the improvements of the 1950s was now on the lower end of the scale. Yet it was thought that a direct hit on the bunker was unlikely, so the design was deemed suitable for the task of protecting the head of the political and military hierarchies in case of an attack on nearby Bonn.
Anyway, the bunker was excavated extending the original tunnels into a complex of two sub-systems, with a total length of about 10 miles of reinforced concrete underground passages. The insulation and ventilation system was a major concern to avoid contamination in case of a nuclear attack. A complex system of tight doors forming airlocks with decontamination rooms was a substantial feature of the design, together with the emergency exit system.
It became operative in the mid-Sixties, and in case of an attack it could be fully autonomous for 30 days, sheltering about three thousands people. NATO training operations and simulations for crisis management were carried out regularly. The cost for running this extensive structure was enormous, and it was shut down in 1997, a few years after the USSR had dissolved and the capital of Federal Germany had moved to Berlin.
The bunker was dismantled, cleaned and a very small part – about 0.2 miles out of the original 10! – reopened as a museum.
Visiting is only possible on guided tours. After an explanatory video on the story, you are driven along the tunnels of the bunker. The most notable features are the super-thick tight doors. You meet the most impressive at the beginning of the tour. It is cylindrical, and it was operated by a dedicated hydraulic system, which could seal up the bunker in just seconds. The thickness and weight of these doors were designed to both withstand a blast and to insulate the bunker.
On the tour your are given a demonstration of the emergency alarm – with original lights and sounds – which announced that the doors would be shut soon.
Nearby you are shown the decontamination facilities, with showers and an adjoining medical room.
Most of the offices are gone today, but some have been reconstructed or refurbished. They are mainly related to the control of the many gates and systems necessary for bunker operation.
Artifacts on display from older times are really iconic from the Cold War, and include an anti-radiation suit and gear for measuring radiation levels.
Further on, you can see a reconstructed NATO situation room with original signs and maps. Note the names of many Forrestal and Nimitz-class carriers, true icons of the Cold War and all operative at the time (see this post US aircraft carriers). The borders of the USSR were very close to Central Europe!
There are many pictures of the original state rooms, intended for emergency parliament operations. Broadcasting facilities from the Cold War years are also displayed.
To the far end of the bunker it is possible to have a look on a dismantled part of the tunnels. Today the whole 10 miles network should look like that, empty and dark. There used to be an upper floor in the tunnels, but this was demolished except in the part now open to the public.
In the last part of the tour you move to the upper floor, where you are shown example bedrooms and a medical facility. A small exhibition about the bunker appearing in the news closes the experience.
All in all, notwithstanding the crowds, this is a primary relic of the Cold War in this part of Europe, extremely interesting for anybody with an interest in recent history and the confrontation between the two blocs.
Getting there and moving around
The bunker is a famous local attraction for Germans. You can find moderate (to big…) crowds of visitors at least in the warm season. The visit is tuned on German-speaking visitors, but you are provided a detailed paper guide in English on request, and this allows you to enjoy the visit if you can’t understand German. Furthermore, tours in different languages are available for groups by prior arrangement. Moving around in large groups can be a problem especially if you want to take pictures – the only decent examples I could take on the tour, lasting about 1 hour, are shown on this page. The location is Am Silberberg 0, 53474 Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. There is a small parking at the same level of the entrance. Visiting does not pose any physical difficulty. Full visiting information in English on this website.
German National Museum of Contemporary History – Haus der Geschichte, Bonn
When Nazi Germany capitulated, Europe had to face a scenario which had never been experienced before. Thousands of foreign soldiers were scattered over the former territory of the Third Reich, taking control after the collapse of the German government. They were from many nationalities, and diplomatic issues surfaced already in the first weeks following the end of the war, especially between the Soviets and the US-British-French occupation armies.
Furthermore, Germany had been for long under an inhumane ideological dictatorship, so a new form of democratic government had to be established from scratch – at least in the opinions of most western allies, while Stalin on the other hand was not in favor of that idea. To guarantee peace, normal rights to the population of Germany and to start the reconstruction of the many destroyed towns and cities, it was necessary to transfer power back to German politicians and to feed the economy, but as control was contended among the former USSR and western allies, there were no generally accepted formal procedures to manage such scenario.
The fact that for years there had been no place for political parties except Hitler’s NSDAP made things harder, for new political forces had to be formed from nothing, finding gifted elements not compromised with the Führer and his ranks, and capable of leading a nation in an extremely difficult social and economical condition.
Who these people were and what happened in the turmoil of the post-WWII years is the first topic of this modern museum. The irremediable divergences between the East and the West were especially visible in Germany, where the Cold War was not just a name, but caused the country to be split in two very different parts, with two enemy governments and a heavily guarded, impenetrable border dividing them (see this post). The years of the ‘two Germanies’ up to the collapse of communism in Europe and in the USSR is the second big topic of this museum.
Following a well designed route going up in a modern building built for the purpose, the fascinating history of Germany in the Cold War years is revealed through artifacts, flags, portraits, political propaganda items, official documents and much more. The museum is far from superficial, describing facts in good details and allowing to appreciate the complexity of diplomacy in this particular confrontation. You may come to understand how Germany was actually the front of a new type of war between the East and the West, which lasted for decades, strongly influenced international economy, changed the way of life of millions and had its victims on both sides.
Among the oldest artifacts on display there are multi-language leaflets distributed to the population soon after the German capitulation in WWII, decreeing the end of the Nazi rule, the abrogation of the entire system of laws, and the transfer of power to the occupying armies.
From the early Cold War period there are authentic autographed copies of the constitution of Federal Germany, an instrument of accession of Federal Germany to the NATO alliance, candidate flags for the newly created Federal Germany, original paintings and sculptures portraying Stalin, mugs celebrating the friendship between the communist party of Germany and the Soviet Union. Even a piece of Gary Powers’ downed Lockheed U-2 is part of the show (the greatest part is on display in Moscow, see this post).
The museum is also stacked with pictures and items of everyday life. It often hosts conferences and temporary exhibitions. All in all, a very interesting museum and a must-see for anybody with an interest in the Cold War and in the very special role of Germany in the second half of the 20th century.
Getting there and moving around
The museum is in the former governmental part of Bonn, which has been converted into a top-level executive area, with modern buildings hosting the headquarters of big companies, convention centers, opera theaters, museums and so on. The exact address is Willy-Brandt-Allee 14, 53113 Bonn, website with full information here. The museum is not big, but the duration of your visit may vary greatly depending on your level of interest, from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours. The museum was free when I visited. It is very popular among Germans. If you come by car, there is a big parking about 0.3 miles to the south, serving this museum, the local railway station and the art museum nearby.