30 kilometres south of Bonn: How the government bunker in Ahrweiler came about

30 kilometres south of Bonn : How the government bunker in Ahrweiler came about

In the Ahr Valley, visitors can travel back to the Cold War. The remains of the former government bunker are hidden among the vineyards. Today, they are a museum. Two former engineers and an ex-secretary tell of the former construction of the bizarre underworld.

Exactly 60 years ago, the Federal Ministry of the Interior gave the go-ahead for one of West Germany’s most secret buildings. In an “express communication” on 1 April 1959, it gave instructions for the development of two unused railway tunnels. The federal government bunker was built until 1971 in the Ahr Valley in Rhineland-Palatinate, around 30 kilometres south of the former capital Bonn. 17 kilometres of tunnel were used.

What do eye witnesses say today? Former mining engineer Reiner van Briel (82) from Korschenbroich in North Rhine-Westphalia remembers: “I wasn’t even allowed to tell my wife anything about the bunker construction.” For him, as a young engineer, the construction of the secret underworld with experts from afar was great training.

Former mechanical engineer Heinz Eickhoff (86) from Bochum still raves today about the bunker’s pressure locks, which can be closed in fractions of a second and which he once helped to develop as an employee of the Bochum ironworks. Nothing of this sort existed before. The former bunker construction secretary, Lore Berthel (77), from Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, meanwhile is flicking through an album with historical bunker photos – she still clearly remembers her fear of being kidnapped in the Ahr valley. Luckily there were enough guards. As a young woman, she gained interesting insights into secret matters.

At the time, one of the most bizarre buildings of the former Federal Republic of Germany in the middle of the Ahr valley red wine paradise featured 897 offices and 936 dormitories as well as five commercial kitchens and canteens. There were also bug-proof conference rooms, workshops and wells. The complex was divided into five independent sections that can be separated from one another in an emergency. Comfort was lacking: only camp beds were provided, even for the highest representatives of the state. The “alternative seat of the federation’s constitutional organs” at Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler was intended to protect 3000 officials from a Third World War with nuclear weapons.

Total construction costs of more than three billion Euros

Costs were not an issue. According to the expert Jörg Diester, author of several books about the bunker, one of the most expensive construction sites in West Germany at the time incurred, in today’s prices, costs of more than three billion Euros. “It was a money printing machine for construction companies.” The costs were not made public at the time; even the Bundestag was left out in the cold. “So far, the West has kept a lot secret, including, for example, the Nato exercises in the bunker,” says Diester. East German documents accessible today help further: “The Stasi tried to place spies during the bunker construction. It knew a lot.”

The regular Nato exercises in the tunnel system under the vineyards continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 3000 people each spent two weeks testing bunker life during a fictitious Third World War, with a fake Chancellor, a pretend Federal President and an emergency parliament.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the federal government tried in vain to sell its unusual underworld. The bunker was finally gutted for environmental reasons – only 200 metres of tunnel remain as a museum, with bedrooms, the office of the Federal President, an assembly room, TV studio and decontamination rooms for showering contaminated people with acid additives.

(Original text: Jen Albes, dpa. Translation: kc)