Berlin’s Suicide-Proof Nuclear Fallout Shelter
Anyone who grew up during the Cold War can recall the strangely placid, everyday terror that came along with the constant threat of global nuclear annihilation. Today, we fear that terrorists or a rogue state will get their hands on a nuclear device. This would not be the end of the world—humanity could survive a nuclear terror attack or two, devastating as these might be. Mutually assured destruction was a different kind of thing all together, and in some ways a more palatable fear. You didn’t have to be born-again to believe in Armageddon; everyone could see that it was right around the corner.
Berlin was a particularly surreal place to experience the Cold War. With Western and Soviet bloc forces literally staring each other in the face, the city was a tinderbox waiting to explode into World War III. The citizens of West Berlin understood that they were expendable: if the Soviets were to invade, the NATO plan was a strategic withdrawal, followed by the deployment of 23 tactical nuclear warheads. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt signed on to this plan, green-lighting the total obliteration of the German people in the name of containing Communism.
The city of West Berlin eventually built 23 nuclear bunkers, employing hundreds of scientists and researchers to design and construct these facilities. Paradoxically, these shelters only provided enough space to house less than one percent of the population. It was a placebo contingency plan, so the government could claim that they were doing something.
Today, at the Pankstrasse stop on the U-8 subway line in Berlin, you can venture into a fallout shelter that was built for about 3,000 people. Though technically still functional, it is doubtful that the facility would actually be usable in an emergency—the plumbing, for instance, has not been overhauled in 40 years. The practical function of the shelter is as a destination for tourists and history buffs.