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Berlin's Suicide-Proof Nuclear Fallout Shelters

The first 3,000 people to line up in an orderly fashion would be allowed to file in through a door and enter an air-locked decontamination chamber, under supervision of machine-gun-toting guards. A face behind a glass window would then instruct these...

by Al Burian
Mar 7 2013, 12:00am

Photos courtesy of Berlin Unterwelten

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. 

In the event of nuclear war, massive steel gates would close off the tunnel entrances as well as the pedestrian entryways to the station. The shelter itself comprises the U-Bahn platform, which would be converted into a vast dormitory, and a maze of tunnels located behind metal panels in the walls, containing bathrooms, a kitchen, storage areas, and a diesel-powered electric generator. The first 3,000 people to line up in an orderly fashion would be allowed to file in through a door and enter an air-locked decontamination chamber, under supervision of machine-gun-toting guards. A face behind a glass window would then instruct these lucky survivors to strip naked. After an ice-cold shower to decontaminate, the shivering, terrified masses are buzzed through the entrance. Upon entering the fallout shelter, each person would be issued a bright yellow polyester tracksuit.

A word about these apocalypse suits: fashion-wise, they are incredible. The Pankstrasse nuclear shelter was built in 1977, and these uniforms of the apocalypse look divinely futuristic. Still, the idea of 3,000 people locked in here, identically dressed in these fabulous, matching yellow outfits, living out their last days in miserable agony, is nightmarishly absurd.

The walls of the shelter are painted a light pastel green—this color was specifically chosen by psychologists for its calming, stress-reducing qualities. The paint on the walls is glow-in-the-dark, in case the power generator malfunctions. The phosphorescence lasts for two hours, in which time the generator can hopefully be fixed. But even in the best-case scenario, the air-filtration system in the bunker is only effective for a couple of weeks.

A nuclear shelter is an exercise in architectural cynicism. The facility is not actually designed to work. The infirmary is not equipped for any major surgeries or medical procedures. Mainly there are gynecological instruments and baby cribs. The designers learned from the German experience in World War II, when pregnant women subjected to conditions in the bomb shelters often went into premature labor. They calculated that the infirmary would be filled to capacity with birthing mothers and newborn babies. For those suffering other ailments, the infirmary does not have much to offer, aside from a supply of body bags.  

On the U-Bahn platform, thousands will crowd on top of each other in this final shantytown of civilization. The daily ration is one bowl of soup. Sleeping accommodations consist of bunk beds, assembled from light aluminum scaffolding. Even in the post-apocalypse, a class structure will be kept intact. Deep inside the walls of the station are relatively exclusive chambers that would be shared by about 40 people each. This is prime real estate. Despite the polyester uniforms theoretically leveling class boundaries, it doesn’t seem like it would take long for alphas to assert themselves.

The bathrooms are the most grotesque part of the entire structure. The couple of dozen toilets are grossly inadequate for the needs of 3,000 people, and flimsy curtains provide minimal privacy during the allotted 30 seconds of toilet time. Again, all of this is by calculated design. Faced with hopelessness and insurmountable catastrophe during World War II, many people locked themselves in bathrooms to commit suicide. Engineers in the 70s solved this problem by designing suicide-proof bathrooms, where there would always be a long line of people waiting behind you, and only a curtain separating you from the crowd. The bathroom mirrors are made of unbreakable polished metal, and there are no pipes or scaffolding sturdy enough to hang yourself on. If you’re lucky enough to survive Armageddon, you will have forfeited the right to die.