If 99 luftballons was not just a song…

I’ve grown up listening to Nena’s 99 luftballoons but it wasn’t till I came to Berlin that I realised it was such a meaningful song that represented the paranoia of that time. Although it sounds ridiculous now that something as innocent as 99 balloons in the air could cause confusion and start a nuclear war but at a certain time, for certain people and a certain place, it wasn’t a matter of ’if’ nuclear war would happen but a question of ‚’when’ it would happen. And preparing for that possibility was a necessity – not just a precautionary measure.

Nowhere was that possibility more evident and clear than the strategically important yet equally dangerous Berlin. Strategic because as Valdimir I. Lenin put it, ‚’’whoever controlled Berlin, controlled Germany and whoever controlled Germany controlled Europe’’. Dangerous because its strategic importance made all sides eye it.

And so the government on both sides built bunkers to appease the Berliners of the time so that everytime they passed by them on their way to work, they would feel some sort of consolation that if World War 3 were to break, they knew where to run to.

In 1999, an organisation called Berliner Unterwelten Association decided to open up these underground bunkers to the public and through its informative guides told the stories of how these bunkers operated and even exposed the failings of each.

Fast forward to 2012, I’m in Berlin and decide to take their tour through Berlin’s subterranean architechture and see the West Berlin bunkers for myself. Why? Well I’m no histroy buff but it seemed intriguing to see the provisions made during the ‚’hot phase’ of the war and to actually go down underneath the now rubble free streets adorned with slick cafes at every corner and the thumping clubs of Berlin.

I’ve been fascinated with underground tunnels since I saw the Australian horror film‚’’The Tunnel’’ last year about a journalist, camera man and sound technician who set out to uncover what’s underneath Sydney’s underground network of abandoned railway tunnels after homeless people who had been using those tunnels as shelter start disappearing. Long story short, there is something absolutely vicious down there and ends up killing one of them and making another one disappear forever. And although the Berliner Unterwelten promised me from start to finish that all the tours are completely safe, deep inside I was hoping for something freakishly supernatural to happen.

But even if nothing strange happened, just walking through those neon lit creepy stairways leading up to Bunker A which offered protection from radioactive fallout as well as from biological and chemical warfare, was reminescent of a horrible haunted house. Even worse was the possibility that the bunker could only accomodate the first 1318 people who reached it and the doors would be shut for the rest of the city. So if a mother got in and her child was number 1319, the child would be left out to basically die. Considering I run like a girl, its safe to assume I wouldn’t have found a place here if the alarms had ever gone off.

Even if I did find space, the bunker was only equipped to handle people for a maximum of 10 hours. It also had no generator so if the power station was hit, the ventilaltion system would be manually handled. It also had no isolated water supply or storage of food.

The best this bunker could do was ‚’’bridge time’’ until something else was figured out. And to this day, nothing was ever figured out. So if you’re wondering why did the government even bother with spending money building this bunker?

Well, for nothing more than good PR.

Our next stop was a bunker at Pankstrasse station, and after the failings of the first bunker I was happy to know that at this multipurpose bunker you’d probably have better chances of survival. The best thing was that the entire station was itself a bunker that could house 3339 people with beds, food and water for 14 days.

As my tour group stood in the kitchen and opened the cabinets to see the thousands of food bowls and cannisters of pea soup perserved from the time for the people in the bunkers, and pretended to eat with small plastic spoons that were designed in a way that you wouldn’t use them to cut your wrists, this dread and heaviness fell upon us. I didn’t get to see any monsters but imagining the possibility of chemical warfare waging above your head and having just a few hours to survive was scary enough for me.

When the tour guide announced that we were at the end of our tour, I was pretty glad because the paranoia of 99 luftballon had taken over me and the claustrophobia was making me want to run out immediately.

And now each time I pass by Gesundbrunnen or Pankstrasse station, I’m happy that 99 luftballons is just a song and not Germany’s reality.

All images are “Berliner Unterwelten e.V./Holger Happel”

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