By Melissa L. Barnes
This evening, we attended a tour entitled “Berlin from Below: Dark Worlds.” Berliner Unterwelten offers five tours, and “Dark Worlds” showcases an underground museum of a civilian air raid shelter under a modern-day train station. We were not allowed to take pictures during the tour, because the tour company does not own the copyrights for the artifacts and does not own the complete rights to the air raid shelter. The tour company also does not receive government funding, so they rely solely on private funding, donations, and guided tour income.
This particular shelter was completed in 1942, and became a museum in 1999. The shelter has four levels, with a total of forty-eight rooms. Our tour guide also talked with us about the difference between civilian air raid shelters and bunkers. Bunkers were solely for military/defense use and were expensive to construct, because they use more steel—thicker walls and roofs—than civilian shelters and have a more chess board-like, square architecture. Generally, bunkers held about 200 people, while the civilian shelter we were in was designed to hold 1,300 people. Bunkers were designed to look like houses or simple buildings in order to distract and confuse countries that were attacking Germany from the air. Germany was not allowed to have an air force due to the Treaty of Versailles, so this was a well-known weakness utilized by the opposition.
Before 1941, there were no civilian air raid shelters, because the Nazi regime did not want to convey that there was any potential harm for civilians to worry about and, secretly, civilians were thought of as collateral damage during wartime. However, in 1941, it was clear that Berlin would be under continuous attack, and German citizens would be less cooperative if they were not given a “safe space” during the air raids. Before the civilian air raid shelters were constructed, the Nazi regime tested many different architectural designs: first with animals, then with people imprisoned in concentration camps. To this day, no one knows how many trials the Nazis completed before they were satisfied with the design of the air raid shelters.
The walls of the shelters were different lengths, each floor was built at a slope, and every door is facing a wall. If a bomb were dropped into the shelter the shockwaves of the explosion would destroy the whole shelter – whatever was left after the initial destruction of the bomb. The shelter was built in such a way, then, that the shockwave would not reach people two rooms away from the epicenter. Additionally, if any chemical weapons were dropped into the civilian shelter, the toxic gas used was usually heavier than air, so the chemical would float down into the lower areas of the shelter, saving the people in the higher levels. This especially illustrates Hitler’s belief that civilians are collateral damage.
In each room, there is a room number and occupancy limit painted on a wall. However, when an air attack happened, civilians obviously did not care about the occupancy limit and tried to get into the shelter no matter what. The shelter is very spacious and each room looked like it could definitely hold more than the limit; but, ventilation for fresh air was only installed in nine of the forty-eight rooms. Hence, many people died from suffocation, because each room was sealed with thick doors. So, if there were too many people than the Nazi’s calculated air for, then the air would not reach everyone. At the end of the air raid, firefighters and police officers were sure to tell surviving civilians, “Remember, the Fürher has just saved you!”
Once the war was over, most men were dead, injured, elderly, or too young, so the women were expected to rebuild entire cities by hand. During this time period, unlike times before and during the war, women were not considered too weak to do a man’s job, but were expected to do so in order to provide for their children. They had to use their imaginations to build things from the remains of the war. For instance, they used bomb shells to make stoves, soldiers’ helmets to make pots and drainers/strainers for cooking, and rubber from tires to make shoes and insulation during harsh winters.
Speaking of the “end” of the war, forensic pathologists estimate that the war will not truly be over until all human remains are found and identified. Along these lines, there are still 3,000 live bombs within Germany’s soil that could be accidentally detonated. The detonators on the bombs have a life of 100 years, so they will remain live for about 30 more years. For these reasons, the government requires that police and forensic specialists examine all sites where new buildings will be constructed in order to ensure that no live bombs are near the area. We learned how important this is when our guide discussed the case of September 15, 1994, when a construction worker detonated an underground WWII bomb. This accident left 3 people dead and 17 people injured.
Throughout this tour, I was trying to imagine myself as a civilian whose daily routine included a trip to an air raid shelter about four times a day. This was challenging, because I also thought about some civilians’ cooperation and support of the war, racism, and genocide. Given the content of our course, I also wondered about the role of Black women after the war, especially whether or not they were expected to perform the same duties as other women—what happened to them during these times? We have learned during our seminars throughout this course that some, but by no means all, Black people were spared from murder and/or concentration camps. If Black people were still present in Germany, were they allowed to enter the civilian air raid shelters? Throughout this class, we have also discussed the importance of multiple perspectives of history, and I feel that popular narratives of the WWII period are dominated by the White civilian perspective, even if we are talking about the victims of WWII.
This fall, Melissa will be starting her final year as a student at Colorado College, double-majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and Psychology. This fall, she is planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology.