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Tunneling Through History

A tour of Berlin's underground.

10:05 AM, Dec 23, 2010 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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In last weekend's Washington Post, Robert Rigney tells us about his recent tour of Berlin below the surface. It's not exactly something the Office of Tourism likes to promote, but underground tours will give visitors and history buffs alike a view of the city rarely seen—from its tunnels to its bomb shelters and bunkers, most of which were buried by time and the Cold War.

According to [guide Dietmar Arnold], central Berlin is honeycombed with bunkers, particularly in the area of the former government quarter around the Brandenburg Gate. The largest bunker complexes were destroyed by the Allies during and after the war. One of the last to be excavated was the so-called "Fuhrerbunker" on Wilhelmstrasse, where Hitler spent his last days. It has been largely destroyed and sealed off from the public. According to Arnold, some 600 other bunker complexes still exist, though most are flooded and inaccessible.

Musty? Without doubt. Asbestos? Who knows. But the excursions do sound intriguing:

We reach a small concrete pillbox on the edge of the park. Arnold produces a key from his coat pocket and opens a heavy metal door. Flashlights ablaze, we descend a flight of concrete stairs into the unknown.

Left, right, left, we troop down a maze of narrow corridors. Arnold swings open a steel door, and we step across thresholds into low-ceilinged rooms that branch off into more corridors and more rooms, most empty, some furnished with cots, rickety tables and boxes.

Arnold opens another door and ushers us into a well-lit corridor at the foot of a broad set of stairs leading down into a spacious low-ceilinged hall. Suddenly a stream of people ascends the steps. "Zuruckbleiben!" - stand back! - barks a loudspeaker, and I realize that we are standing on a subway platform. The bunker, explains Arnold, was incorporated into the station in 1940 and was used as an air raid shelter during the bombing of Berlin.

On an earlier trip to the city, I walked along what is now Niederkirchnerstrasse. There I found one of the last intact segments of the Berlin Wall. Behind it was a massive excavation effort. In earlier times, the street was Prinz Albrecht Strasse and the ruins I was looking upon were what remained of SS-Gestapo headquarters. Across the street was the Finance Ministry, formerly belonging to the Luftwaffe. It's enough to make your head spin. Thank goodness there's a Starbucks only a few blocks away. (You think I'm joking?)

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