One fascinating museum in Berlin is the “Berlin Story” Museum on the Ku’damm. It traces Berlin’s history back to the 1200s, sketching out how the city became one of the most open and tolerant cities in Europe — a rather ironic distinction given the reputation it has for being the capital of Nazi Germany. But even the Nazis never really had Berlin under their control until the war started and they could impose martial law. It’s a fascinating story, and the descent into the Nazi era is symbolized by climbing down four flights of stairs into a cellar with a dark atmosphere as we follow the Nazi seizure of power.
That quickly morphs into the Cold War and the divided city, looking at everyday life in each “side” of Berlin as well as politics and culture. This includes stories of how East German agents managed to sneak into the West, whether through a secret “hole” in the wall or a hidden entrance to the Friedrichstrasse train station. A highlight is a tour of of one of the four remaining bunkers designed to protect Berliners in case of nuclear war.
During the Cold War Berliners knew that they’d be at risk if war broke out. Recognizing that neither side would likely bomb the city directly, they worried primarily about fallout and radiation. They decided to set up a series of bunkers to house as much of the population as possible for two weeks, betting (hoping) that after the initial launch people would find a way to quickly end the war. Almost all of those bunkers have been decommissioned, only four remain.
When I first visited Germany NATO was divided by the decision to modernize NATO’s nuclear force — installing Cruise and Pershing II intermediate range missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet introduction of the SS-20 in the late seventies. This led to the rise of the Green party in Germany and a massive peace movement with protests sometimes in the hundreds of thousands against the missile plan.
Although supported by the German government, the modernization was opposed by average Germans across the political spectrum. The reason was obvious. In the US the Reagan Administration was talking about a “winnable” nuclear war, one that could be limited to the European continent. US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger stated the US was no longer in a post-war era but a “pre-war era.”
The rationale for this was to make extended deterrence credible. In order to provide a nuclear deterrent against a Soviet attack on Western Europe the Soviets had to believe the US would actually escalate to a nuclear war to defend Europe. Since a nuclear war meant the destruction of the entire planet, the rational US response would have been to let Europe go. As Charles DeGaulle asked, would the US sacrifice Chicago for Paris?
To convince the Soviets that was not the case the US had to act as though it believed a war could be both won and limited in scope. Even in the US almost nobody believed that was the case. But it was a bluff the Soviets couldn’t call since if they were wrong, it would lead to their destruction. So under this Damocles sword the Cold War balance of power was maintained.
The problem with that is if you were European it seemed the US was saying “we can limit the nuclear holocaust to Europe” and come out on top. The Germans saw Ronald Reagan as an anti-Communist Cowboy who wanted to destroy the Soviets and feared that the US could drag them into a war that would assure the destruction of Germany. The crisis could have torn apart NATO, had not Gorbachev come to power in 1985 and then negotiate with Ronald Reagan a removal of both the SS-20s and the new NATO missiles with the 1987 INF Treaty.
The bunker we visited was below ground and the first 3600 to arrive after the war broke out would be admitted. They’d each have a bunk and would eat dry food, barely enough to survive. Water was stored, but there would also be a pump. Air filters would keep the air breathable, but would be less than 1/20th as fresh as air in a modern office building. It would be damp and stale — but would sustain life.
The lack of privacy would be immense, there would be no showers, little water for personal hygiene, and toilets had curtains instead of doors to prevent people from seeking refuge in the toilet — a bit of space all alone. There would only be 8 people who “worked” there, they would rely on self-governance. Any medical help would be provided voluntarily by doctors who happened to be among the 3600 admitted. They’d have minimal medical supplies on hand — the most plentiful drug would be valium.
Their fear was that if people got aggressive and panicked it would be over — mass hysteria could lead to violence and horror. They even had tasks, some unnecessary, to try to provide a sense of community. Although it wasn’t necessary to pump up water from the well, people would be assigned to do that — or if someone was starting to panic, that activity might give them a release. The goal would be to strive for a sense of community to trump fear and panic.
After two weeks the supplies would be gone and they’d be forced to leave the bunker, hoping that radiation levels had gone down and that those on top would have a plan to save the population.
Leaving the bunker and breathing the fresh, open, tolerant atmosphere of Berlin today, it’s easy to forget how different things were before 1989. It was a divided city and travel from West Berlin to anywhere else was difficult — though the city compensated with lots of immense parks to give its population an escape. To keep West Berlin populated required incentives, including the fact that males in West Berlin could avoid mandatory conscription.
The Berlin story is one that meanders from Prussian militarism, enlightenment rationality, the interwar Cabaret scene and the post-war division. The Berlin Story museum is worth a visit – it captures the essence of that story with fun and informative displays. The bunker tour reminds us that during the Cold War West Berlin was the front line – a piece of the West 300 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain.