Letter From Berlin

Hitler Slept Here

The too-secret history of the Third Reich’s most famous place.

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In early May German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder moves into a gleaming new office building with commanding views of Berlin. The last time this city had a new Chancellery, its most important offices were underground—Hitler’s bunker. After Hitler retreated into that structure, in January 1945, he never saw another sunrise or sunset. This is where he ate and slept, held his military briefings, where he married Eva Braun, and where he killed himself some five months later. The Bunker is still down there. But just try to find it.

The Bunker was built to last—and it has. In the late 1940s, the Russians obliterated Hitler’s above-ground office complex with explosives, but their detonations of the approximately 3,000-square-foot, heavily fortified complex extending 55 feet beneath it were not nearly so successful. Photos taken a decade later show the Bunker’s exit pillbox and observation tower a bit the worse for wear but still standing. They weren’t cleared away until much later. From 1961-1989, the site was screened from Western eyes by the Wall. As Brian Ladd observes in his influential The Ghosts of Berlin, because Marxist theory emphasized social and economic forces and de-emphasized “Great Man” theories of history, the communist German Democratic Republic government kept all information about the Bunker’s location and condition secret from East Germans. In the mid-1970s the GDR, concerned about would-be fugitives tunneling under the Wall, apparently did a classified extensive underground survey of the area that almost surely involved inspecting and perhaps further sealing off Hitler’s bunker. A former governor of the British sector of Berlin, Tony Le Tisier, wrote in his photographic history of the city in the 20th century, Berlin Then and Now, that in the mid-1980s when the GDR began work on apartments in the area, a construction engineer had no trouble marking Hitler’s bunker on the project map for a Dutch journalist. Indeed, the apartments’ layout indicates an effort to work their foundations around the Bunker area. Subsequent street work for the project meant demolishing part of the Bunker’s uppermost steel-reinforced concrete layer, which was done without fanfare.

Even after the Wall came down, reunited Berlin had little appetite for recognizing the site. But the Bunker has proven to be the Wiley Coyote of historical artifacts—despite all the TNT and steamrollers, it keeps coming back. In 1990, in preparation for a reunification celebration concert to be given by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame (featuring a performance of The Wall), workers clearing the former Hitler Chancellery area, which had become part of the booby-trapped East German “Death Strip,” stumbled upon a previously unknown part of the Bunker complex. It turned out to be the nearly 1,500-square-foot underground facility manned by the Chancellery’s elite SS drivers. (The discovery even tweaks repression on the linguistic level. The most common phrase in German for Hitler’s bunker is “der Führerbunker.” The German word for “driver” is “Fahrer.” Hence the SS facility quickly forced a discussion about what to do with “der Fahrerbunker.”) Scattered about inside were some helmets, a dagger, some engraved Chancellery silverware, a “God Is With Us” belt buckle, and a chair with a heart hand-carved out of its backrest. Over one doorway was the inscription: “There are plenty of people, few really good chaps.” What’s more, the SS drivers’ bunker had a feature crying out for investigation and preservation: Large color wall murals that were skillful and iconographically interesting, laced with classical allusions. Yet shortly after this bunker’s accidental discovery, despite the protests of the chief municipal archeologist, it was sealed up by the city.

Later, in the mid-’90s, several construction workers were killed when they inadvertently set off buried World War II munitions nearby, once again heightening local interest in what was still lurking in the Bunker area. When in May 1995 a political party formally proposed keeping the Bunker as a monument, Berlin’s regional parliament rejected the notion, choosing to plan government administrative buildings for the area instead.

The city also opted for reburial when in 1998 workers clearing the nearby site for the Holocaust Memorial uncovered Joseph Goebbels’ personal bunker, and again in 1999 when workers on a road extension project unexpectedly perforated more of the steel-reinforced roof that once protected Hitler. (When that happened, a Bunker survivor, a former SS sergeant still living in Berlin, told CNN the Bunker “should be left out in the open, for all the world to see.”) Now the road is completed, and construction in the area is proceeding on those administrative buildings. Even after they are finished, the spot probably directly over Hitler’s bunker would be left clear, but it’s reasonable to think that within five to 10 years, this little bit of the late unpleasantness will either be tidily landscaped, completely paved over, or built upon. But its walls and floor will remain virtually intact.

In Berlin, there is scant official mention of Hitler’s bunker. The now-gone Info Box, the visitors’-center-on-stilts that was Berlin’s leading tourist attraction in the 1990s, although providing a good view of the Bunker area if one knew where to look, didn’t breathe a word about the place. And the Hitler Chancellery intersection of Voss and Wilhelm streets, once the most powerful and evil corner on Earth, is now marked by a narrow 4-foot-high sign, which makes but one shin-level reference to the Bunker and issues no directions to it. Across the street, there’s another smaller, much easier to miss sign about Hitler’s Chancellery that has one picture of it but no mention of the Bunker. Both of these markers (like one around the corner marking Goebbels’ former headquarters and another not too far away in front of Eichmann’s) have an impermanent feel about them, promising nothing more enduring than your average stop sign.

Like the all-but-vanished Wall, Hitler’s bunker has rather quickly become a bit of a mystery. On a recent Friday afternoon, when pedestrians near the Voss/Wilhelm intersection were asked for directions to the Bunker, about half—all of them appearing under 25—had no idea. Some pointed in the general direction. Some—all appearing to be 60 or older—had a good- to very-good idea. Nobody seemed aware of either sign. A random survey of guidebooks shows they aren’t much help either. Neither Fodor’s Citypack Berlin, the excellent Berlin by Gordon McLachlan, the German-language GEO special edition on Berlin, nor the Dorling Kindersley Berlin guide make any mention of the Bunker. The Kleine Berlin Geschichte (“Little Berlin History”) says that Hitler killed himself in the Chancellery Bunker, but the adjacent photos and their captions don’t address its location, concentrating instead on city damage inflicted by the Allies. The Berlin offene Stadt (“Berlin Open City”) guide refers once to the underground Bunker complex, but the accompanying map of the Voss/Wilhelm area doesn’t indicate its whereabouts. Germany: The Rough Guide breezily misleads in saying that from the Info Box you could see the actual spot—but without mentioning that you would have never known that because it’s totally unmarked. Let’s Go Germany does far better, warning the reader about some mistaken locations and then stating that the “actual bunker site is now a playground,” which is wrong but only by a few hundred feet. The Lonely Planet map explicitly marks and labels a spot, but is off by at least a few hundred feet. The Anders Reisen (“Travel Differently”) Berlin guide does better still, noting that Hitler’s bunker was under the northeast edge of the Chancellery gardens and giving the best-guess directions to the approximate location. That’s better than the city’s signs, and among Berlin travel books virtually unique.

If you want more and better Bunker information, see Klaus Dieter Jurk. A Berliner in his early 40s, Jurk has made a hobby out of the Bunker. A first meeting with Jurk opens with an interesting flourish of his historical bona fides: He hands you Albert Speer’s metal Hotel Adlon card, of the sort the Reich power-elite hotel used for personalizing bills and other announcements sent out to members. It’s one of 200 such cards Jurk got in the mid-1990s from construction workers refurbishing the old hotel. And it was a construction worker who slipped Jurk a GDR government survey on which Hitler’s bunker is clearly marked. When yet another section of Hitler’s Chancellery bunker system (not Hitler’s private bunker) was discovered in 1992, Jurk cadged his way inside and became the first person to dive into the chilly ground water to explore the level below. Actually, Hitler’s bunker is a bit more than a hobby for Jurk. For 10 years, he has been hiring himself out as a walking tour guide around the old Hitler Chancellery area, and he still does that on weekends, but he now has a few employees who give the tours during the week while he attends to his coins, stamps, and artifacts business. He nevertheless retains the obsession-bordering enthusiasm of the amateur, writing and selling for a song little pamphlets about the Bunker and persistently getting articles about his finds and theories placed in the press. His discovery of the Speer hotel card stencil was written up in one of Germany’s best papers, the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung.

Jurk fears that someday there will be nothing to point to when a grandchild asks him, “Where in Berlin was the center of fascist power?” He dreams of reopening Hitler’s bunker and creating a record of what happened when in which of its rooms. But his proposal to write a book about the Bunker was rejected by the three big German publishing houses he approached. The whole topic, he says, is “taboo.” He points out that the Hitler Chancellery area is right in the middle of the hottest real estate market in town, where new government buildings, skyscrapers, and condos are already sprouting, with more planned. The powers that be, he says darkly, don’t want a reminder of Hitler there.

Berlin’s boosterism is sufficiently widespread that municipal and national officials find they can usually just ignore preservation pleas like Jurk’s. Indeed, the city’s archeological office never answered the phoned and faxed questions posed to it in connection with this piece. But when events force officials to justify the course of obliviation, they cite the fear that marking a Nazi site would produce a flash point, even a pilgrimage point for neo-Nazis. Yet although Berlin has quite a graffiti problem, the street plaques mentioned above dealing with Hitler’s Chancellery and Goebbels’ and Eichmann’s HQs are not defaced. And both the house on the Wannsee where the “Final Solution” conference was held as well as the torture chambers and cells in the basement of the Gestapo headquarters have been quite successfully turned into public exhibitions, with neither becoming a neo-Nazi magnet. Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing 55 years ago in his The Last Days of Hitler about Russia’s fears that truthful disclosure of Hitler’s suicide in the Bunker would stimulate his followers, asked the right question: “When has uncertainty about a true shrine prevented pilgrimages to a false one? … When has the suppression of the truth prevented the rise of a myth, if a myth is wanted?”

Another force surely acting on the obliviators is the deep-seated fear among Germans of doing anything that could even remotely be taken to stir up international fears of German recidivism. Thus it is that it’s far, far rarer to hear any comment whatsoever about Jews from a German than from a Frenchman or an American. And thus it is that the Holocaust Memorial is going up even though many Berliners will, if you get to know them well enough, carefully confess that they think it’s too big and too expensive.

If anybody thinks Germans haven’t tried hard to face up to their past, let them come to Berlin. Even without the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin includes some bracing reminders of the Reich’s victims—such as the Grunewald train station commemorating the wartime deportation from there of many of the city’s Jews, the former Reich execution chamber at Plötzensee, and the wall in Steglitz listing the names and addresses of deported Jews. And also some inspiring reminders of its resistors—such as the exhibit in the Bendlerblock building where the leaders of the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler were cornered and shot, and the monument on Rosenstrasse where in 1943, through an open street protest, non-Jewish women won the release of their Jewish and partially Jewish husbands from SS custody. However, there is much less in Berlin pointing unequivocally to the perpetrators. Despite important exceptions like the aforementioned Wannsee conference house (which is, in any case, far from the city center) and Gestapo headquarters, it still must be said that overall, Berlin’s World War II memorial landscape tends to suggest a tragedy that befell a resisting nation. Doing something with Hitler’s bunker, a place of pure perpetration, indeed the location people often conjure to help them wrap their minds around the concept of evil, could correct that.

But doing what? How do you publicly embody wickedness without appearing to salute it? This is a severe test of the concept of public memorialization that, for instance, the United States has never passed—or even taken. Where for instance, are the American monuments forcing us to contemplate the evils of slave-holding or the Indian wars? But the Germans are ahead of us here because unlike us, they don’t focus primarily on from-scratch monuments—they have been quite creative at making historical places into causes of reflection. The Wannsee conference house, the Gestapo HQ basement, and the Grunewald train station (which has the specifics of each death-camp shipment from Berlin imprinted in temporal order around the actual deportation platform) are successful examples. But perhaps the most important paradigm in Germany and in the world is the headquarters on Normannenstrasse of the former GDR state security service, the Stasi. When the Wall came down, many called for the hated building to be demolished. But instead, it was preserved and opened to the public. (And its intelligence files were made available to those who figure in them.) A tour of the Stasi building strikes a far more powerful blow for freedom than anything else that could have been done there. Why miss the opportunity to do at least as much with a far more evil place? Or minimally, why not put a detailed marker on the exact spot? (In 1999 someone put up a homemade sign, but it disappeared after a couple of days.) Some memory devices, like stamps or statues, do seem inherently adulatory, but the Stasi building leads the way in showing that not all are. In the attempt to wring truth from concrete, “Worship or Destroy” is a false choice.