Germany: Touring Berlin's underworlds

Planet Berlin: Berlin Underworlds

Labyrinthine underground

Escape tunnels, war and nuclear bunkers: Dietmar Arnold's life mission has been to map the subterranean world that has been growing under the surface of Berlin for centuries. It all started with the Humboldt bunker, built on the order of Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. Arnold uncovered it 30 years ago, but his idea was initially eyed with skepticism.

Planet Berlin: Berlin Underworlds

Preserving the past

This reticence has long since changed. Arnold was given the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin for his registered association, Berlin Unterwelten ("Underworld"), a tour company founded in 1997. Its goals are the exploration of the underground aspects of Berlin's urban planning history, as well as the documentation and preservation of the underground sites that are central to the local history.

Planet Berlin: Berlin Underworlds

Theme of the day

Berlin's underworlds are opened up to the public through guided tours that are often based on historical themes. These include the Cold War, or Berlin's formerly flourishing industrial culture.

Planet Berlin: Berlin Underworlds

Brewing pioneers

While many of the underground sites have a military origin, the city's breweries were pioneers of the Berlin underground from the mid-19th century on. As proof, Berlin Underworlds tour participants can descend into the subterranean recesses of the former Kindl brewery in Neukölln.

Dietmar Arnold has long been fascinated by Berlin's underground sewer network. After discovering a filled-in war bunker 30 years ago, Arnold has since been offering tours to hidden places in Berlin’s underworld.

Dietmar Arnold serves as first chairperson of Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworld Association), a registered association founded in 1997. Berliner Unterwelten owns the building of the former Oswald Berliner Brewery – an interesting location, to say the least. There guests can not only visit the building's old vaulted basements, they also have the chance to traverse a remarkable length of restored tunnel which once served as an escape route from the GDR, running underneath the Berlin Wall.

The association offers eleven different programs, including a tour of the AEG tunnel, Berlin's first attempt at building a subway line – directly beneath the offices of Deutsche Welle. "Our goal is to show people the history of the city at authentic locations," says Dietmar Arnold, whose work is finally receiving the official recognition it deserves; in October 2018 he was awarded the Order of Merit for the State of Berlin. But he reserves his pride for another achievement: In one of his expeditions through the city's underground tunnels, he unearthed thousands of files on forced laborers.

Thanks to the work of Arnold and his organization, some of the victims of war who were unable to document their imprisonment in Germany at the time finally received some long-overdue compensation for the horrors they were forced to endure. Sometimes it's the little victories that make the difference.

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Nazi underground

For Dietmar Arnold, the whole story began with the Humboldt bunker. Following the Second World War, the structure was slated for demolition. When that proved impossible, the bunker was simply filled in with 1.4 million cubic meters of rubble. Thirty years ago, Berlin native Dietmar Arnold and his colleagues cleared out part of that original bunker and made it accessible to the public. "Back then, people thought of us as concrete lovers – that's if they were being generous,” recalls Dietmar Arnold, who studied city and regional planning at Berlin's Technical University.

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"Others were sure we were Nazis.” But the underground researchers were not primarily interested in the military aspects of the structures. They were entranced by the brilliant sewer system and the unfinished subway tunnel – both of which were at least as fascinating as the city planning strategies of the National Socialists. The latter part of that history is now documented in the association's 'Mythos Germania' exhibition, which can be seen at Gesundbrunnen underground station.

Author: Lutz Göllner

Brunnenstr. 105
13355 Berlin-Mitte

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