Underground city tours always seemed to be a tourist come-on to me, but then I discovered Berlin Underground tours. Not a for-profit business, not a tour that drops you off in a gift shop, not a tour that starts in a bar and highlights raucous partying, this is the real deal in Berlin’s Underground.
In addition to getting up close and personal with eye-opening historical bunkers, tunnels and bomb shelters on these tours, you see and learn about these with the help of a guide who is (usually) a trained historian or perhaps a history geek. Some, like my guide, Katja (on the tour I took in early 2016 in German), had studied Berlin history at local university. She was extremely passionate, had actually talked personally to people who had experienced being in many of these Berlin Underground areas when she was a student and since, and just brimmed with details she was eager to share.
Tour 1 good starter tour
Since it was winter, the tours being offered were more limited than during high seasons, so I opted for the Tour 1 “Dark Worlds” (“Dunkle Welte”) at Gesundbrunnen, a good accessible basic tour if you have to choose just one. There are about 12 total Berlin Underground tours, but not all are offered year-round and not in all languages (click on the language flags to the right on the Guided Tours page to see what your choices are). Offerings depend on the season and the availability of guides for those languages (German, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, French and Danish, as of this writing).
On a dreary day in January, I waited outside the Berlin Gesundbrunnen station for the tour to start. Others slowly showed up for the midwinter tour on a day with sub-zero temperatures, wandering around inside or outside, eyeing what everybody thought was “the green door” mentioned in the description for this Berlin Underground tour. The attendees were a mix of young and old, residents and tourists, men and women. Then the prior tour exited: “How was it?” I asked a couple walking by. “Really super, two thumbs up,” the man said. “Really interesting.” Can’t wait, I thought.
Before long our guide, Katja, arrived, along with her “shepherd” assistant to make sure everybody stays on task and together. No dawdling in the underground. Or getting lost on purpose. We end up going down some stairs to THE Green Door, totally inconspicuous, which is not marked with anything that distinguishes it as a Berlin Underground tour entrance. However, it is quite securely padlocked shut, with a small sign above i with the famous quote from Spanish philosopher George Santayana, in German, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Underground tours reveal city’s secret underbelly
Berlin Underground tours show much of Berlin’s darker underbelly built by the Nazi regime and continued during the Cold War thereafter. On at least Tour 1 – and I would expect on all of them — you learn a lot about the life of everyday Berliners (and the more elite too) during WWII, what they went through and life in the subterranean air-raid shelters. But Tour 1 is more than just a walk through cold, stone tunnels with a guide reciting a memorized script. There are exhibits in various rooms, as well as artifacts – many of which are authentic – that demonstrate what a room was really like or how it was used. When the guide turns off the light in one room partway through, walkways pop into bright illumination from glow-in-the-dark stripes and markings – but don’t touch the walls since the residues you may get on your skin are not safe!
In a couple of rooms, participatns saw bunks that folded up against the walls (these were not used during the war, Katja pointed out), and low benches where residents would sit. Of note was the allowance of just one small suitcase per person, and it had to be “bunker-sized,” meaning it would fit right below you under the narrow bench. Most people, Katja noted, had these little bags pre-packed so you could just grab it and run to the shelter. She said you also then had to pull on many many layers of clothing since otherwise you couldn’t take it all in – and this even on sweltering summer days. Older folks, she said, would often just stay home and say, “Well, either I live, or I don’t.”
3,000 unexploded war bombs still exist
When it came to shelters, you had to get there fast or there would not be room and sometimes you just went there every night to feel a modicum of safety while sleeping. That occurred with the then 70 so-called “mother and child shelters,” where access was only allowed with a special ID for mothers with children.
One exhibit drew particular attention: Katja noted that many unexploded bombs are still buried around the city – they suspect it may be as many as 3,000! In the exhibit, you see one bomb that exploded in 1994 near Pettenkofer Street in Berlin. Another bomb was found prior to explosion as recently as October 2015 near the Jewish Museum, and 10,000 people had to be evacuated to safely defuse and remove it.
Berlin Underworlds Association nears 20th anniversary
Founded in 1997, the non-profit Berlin Underworlds Association (“Berliner Unterwelten e.V.) researches and documents underground structures in the Berlin metropolitan area, including structures stemming from the Cold War. In the process, the group attempts to make these open to public tours, seminars and exhibits. The idea for such an association came originally from Dietmar Arnold in the mid-90s when he was a student in Berlin of city and regional planning. Today, the association, which started with seven people, has nearly 500 members. And Arnold is still chairman of the board.
The association to this day finances its entire undertakings, including all research and documentation, from what it earns from tours and events – no sponsors and no government funding, per spokesman Holger Happel. The mission of the group is to preserve history authentically. The Berlin offices are at the Gesundbrunnen station where aptly named Tour 1 takes place.
Tours all year long
One tour or another in one language or many run nearly every day of the year, except during Christmas week. To see more details, go to Berlin Underground website’s Guided Tours page.
When we emerged from our “Dark World’s” tour to the bustle of the subway stations, it was somehow a bit shocking to be back in the real world after 90 minutes. We look forward to going back to experience more of these wonderfully factual and authentic underground tours in Berlin and what they teach you about history. Don’t miss one when you are there.
Find out more about Berlin Underground tours on its thorough website. (All images in this story, unless otherwise noted, are used by permission – © Berliner Unterwelten e.V.)