I didn’t name my blog “in transit” just because I like to travel. It’s really (primarily!) because my life is always transitioning. Take the past month, for example, while I’ve transitioned into full-time job search and part-time transcription work. But this morning I looked up from re(re)(re)customizing my résumé and realized I never wrote about Berlin Underground!
While I was visiting my friends in Berlin (now with a blog of their own at Adventuring Pandas), we had dinner with Rob, once of the This Week in Germany podcast. When he found out I was undecided about my plans the next day, he recommended the Berlin-Underground Tour (which he’d featured on Episode 105, around the 10 minute mark), and Rob, I’m here to say thank you. I only wish I’d had time to take ALL of the tours they offer that day instead of just one!
Conclusion of the notes I took after the tour:
Great tour, great price, go go go!!!
If you happened to be paying attention to, well, anything you ever saw/read/heard related to World War 2, you know that Germany got bombed in the 1940s. A lot. It turns out, Hitler was preparing for war within just three months of his election in 1933. Preparing by building bunkers.
From one-man shelters on the sidewalks to underground rooms with bunkbeds, the populace was, in theory, all set for the duration.
The problem, of course, is breathing. Sure, the bunkers were reinforced concrete, but that’s not going to keep you alive if you run out of air.
So they took candles into the bunkers with them. A candle on the floor, a candle on the bench, and a candle on the wall around head-high. When the candle on the floor went out, everyone picked up their children and held them on their laps. When the candle on the bench went out, everyone put their kids on their shoulders and stood up. And when the candle on the wall went out, everyone left the bunker.
Whether the Allied bombs were still falling or not.
I was already wondering how any German civilians had actually survived the war, and then our tour guide told us 99% of the bunkers weren’t actually bombproof. They just happened to not sustain direct hits.
I’ll let you contemplate that for a moment.
So who were these civilians who managed to survive? In the ’20s, they were liberated women. They could vote, they could wear makeup and trousers, they could hold jobs. In other words, they were like me. But when the Nazis gained power with Hitler’s election, the new government reduced women to the role of baby-maker.
Bear four children, at least. Get a bronze cross and no need to pay back the newlywed loan from the government. Bear six children, and get a silver cross. Bear eight children, and get a gold cross. Bear ten, and Adolf Hitler himself would be the child’s godfather.
What compensation for losing one’s rights and freedom.
Mothers and their broods had designated rooms in the bunkers, but no matter how honored the woman was with her multiplicity of offspring, no one had much space. Rooms were painted in phosphorescent paint to retain and radiate light when the electricity failed, which helped reduce panic below ground. People would while away the raids by telling jokes in the dark humor typical of Berlin.
Optimist: I’m not afraid of the end of the war. I have an English dictionary.
Pessimist: Neither am I. I have a Russian one.
I’ve read a lot about World War 2, but standing in an actual bunker under Berlin made it all come alive. And as always, it got me thinking how easily one’s world can change. Smart women being told college is a waste of their fertile years. Looking to candles to track your oxygen levels. People being seen as “other” driven out and herded into camps like animals. Homes and businesses and whole cities flattened.
All because the citizens were afraid and angry and elected a destructive ideology to fix it.
When you leave the tour, you look back at the nondescript green door and then notice the sign above it. Translated from the German, it’s an excellent conclusion for this post:
They who don’t know the past
are condemned to repeat it.
– G. Santayana, 1863–1953
If You Go
- Tour Options: Berliner Unterwelten offers several tours. I chose Tour 1: Dark Worlds with the plan of eventually working my way through all of them on subsequent trips. Check out their 2016 brochure for full descriptions of all the tours.
- Admissions fee is €11 for most tours, except €14 for Tour M. If you buy your ticket 90 minutes (or 120 min for Tour M) beforehand, you can save a few euros, but you also risk the tour filling up first.
- Arrive by U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Die Bahn, or car. The ticket office is just outside the Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station, though, so it’s easily your best option.
- Language: If you don’t know German, you won’t understand the tour. JUST KIDDING! I took the English tour and was (as usual) blown away by the guide’s superior skills in English. There are Spanish-language tours, as well.