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Photo courtesy of Berliner Unterwelten e.V./Holger Happel
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Photo courtesy of Berliner Unterwelten e.V./Holger Happel
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Photo by Marta Domínguez
Berlin’s official plan for disaster
High up in a government building on Klosterstraße, in the Katastrophenschutz office, six people are planning for the end of the world. Or at least, the end of Berlin. “We do everything from first aid courses to apocalypse scenarios,” says former police officer Dirk Würger, director of Berlin’s disaster response department since 2006. As part of the Department of Internal Affairs, the Katastrophenschutz coordinates with the fire and police departments, hospitals, volunteer organisations and organisations like public transport operator BVG to make sure Berlin’s prepared for every possible eventuality. As Würger says, “We’re like the spider in the middle of a web.”
Every two years, his team runs a large-scale disaster simulation exercise. Past scenarios have included a flu pandemic, a terrorist ‘dirty bomb’ and, most recently, a hacker attack on the city’s security and financial systems. Other worries on the list: nuclear radiation, biological contamination along the lines of last year’s E. coli outbreak and blackouts (for which Würger admits the city is mostly unprepared – but others are working on it). Floods and other natural disasters aren’t on Berlin’s radar. “Maybe heavy rain…”
If – when – disaster strikes, Frank Henkel (Senator of Internal Affairs) will sound the civil protection alarm. Würger’s team will then set up a ‘command centre’, distributing information to the public and directing representatives from each branch of the emergency response system. On the ground, Berlin’s 16,000 police officers, 4000 firefighters and 5800 volunteers will come to the rescue. So might your car: “We have the authority to change private cars into ambulances.” They can also call in personnel and equipment from Brandenburg. If the threat spreads beyond Berlin’s borders, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, located in Bonn, takes the reins.
And if things get really bad? As recently as five years ago, Berliners could also take to bunkers to wait out an apocalyptic crisis, but the city abandoned their use in 2007 (see below). “Maybe it was a step backwards,” Würger admits. But now, for better or worse, there’s always the army. In August of this year, Germany’s Supreme Court legalized the deployment of armed troops inside the country in the case of “damage of catastrophic dimensions”, overturning a law put in place after World War II that prevented Germany from deploying its military on its own soil. The ruling’s qualifiers – “as a last resort”; “in exceptional circumstances” – weren’t enough to quell dissenters such as Süddeutsche Zeitung columnist Heribert Pranti, who darkly commented, “We all know how this ends.”
For his part, Würger’s not terribly concerned. “We haven’t had this level of catastrophe since the War.” His own personal greatest challenge came during the 2006 World Cup in Berlin, when the city feared potential terrorist attacks on the Olympiastadion. But after ensuring that a solid emergency plan was in place, he says, “We could lean back and watch football.”
Know your bunkers
Bunkers are not just tourist attractions or art collectors’ high-end galleries. During the Cold War, Berliners would have had the option of hunkering down for the nuclear winter in one of them. If they were lucky enough to get in, that is. Together, the 24 publicly listed bunkers can’t hold more than about one percent of the city’s populaton. And they’re not in great shape these days, having received no new updates, security or safety checks for the last five years (see above). Still, as a last resort, they may be your only hope of survival. We visited three.
Pankstraße U-Bahnhof (U8), Wedding
Behind the unsightly brown tiles and retro bubble-font signage of this seemingly ordinary station lies a (formerly) state-of-the-art atomic fallout bunker with the capacity to shelter 3339 civilians for up to 14 days. The bunker was built as part of the station in 1977, when Cold War paranoia still ran high. If required, the station’s street entrances and train tunnels can be completely closed off by lead-lined concrete doors and the walls rolled out to unveil row-upon-row of bunk beds. The station still has a stockpile of body bags for the corpses of the perished. There are two airlocks, as well as two ‘emergency’ airlocks. (Apparently, a nuclear war isn’t emergency enough in itself...)
Blochplatz Bunker, Badstraße, Wedding
Blochplatz is a below-ground, off-street shelter with history. Formerly used during World War II, it was rudimentarily ‘converted’ for the Cold War era in the early 1980s. The fatal flaw of Blochplatz as a bomb shelter is that it’s not actually bomb-proof, with a non-reinforced ceiling that is a mere 80cm thick. Instead, its primary function is to provide an airtight place of shelter from nuclear fallout. But unlike Pankstraße and Siemensdamm, Blochplatz has no diesel generators. If Berlin’s power grid shut down, the bunker wouldn’t be able to power the air filtration systems, and those inside would have to laboriously operate the generators by hand 24 hours a day to ensure civilians did not suffocate. The heat from the sweaty, overexerted workers would create an inside room temperature of almost 40 degrees (as well as some very unpleasant smells). Furthermore, Blochplatz can only support 1318 citizens for up to 48 hours before it becomes uninhabitable. You might want to consider it your ‘Plan B’...
Siemensdamm U-Bahnhof (U7), Charlottenburg
Built after Pankstraße in 1980, the Siemensdamm bunker is another example of Cold War architecture incorporating nuclear fallout protection into a subway station. Siemensdamm has the capacity to hold up to 4500 people in the event of an emergency, with cots for infants and beds for the infirm. Unlike Pankstraße, which has the benefit of being part of Berlin Unterwelten tours, Siemensdamm’s interior is not so well maintained. But in its heyday, it would have been the primary civilian shelter in the city in terms of size and facilities.
So how would one get into these exclusive hideouts? During the Cold War, the rules were first-come, first-serve. As a 1961 German civil defence brochure says, Jeder hat eine Chance. Everybody has a chance!
Take a bunker tour with Berlin Unterwelten, €10/€8 reduced/E6 kids, Brunnenstr. 105, Wedding, U-Bhf Gesundbrunnen, www.berliner-unterwelten.de
Shrooming to survive
In times of financial hardship – or post-apocalyptic food shortage – starving Berliners may have to rely on nature for survival. Mushrooms are an easily harvestable source of nutrition, but in a typical year there are around 70 different species in the Berlin region alone… each of which has 10-12 variants, some of which are deadly poisonous whilst others are edible. In short, inexperienced gatherers could be risking their life in a game of mushroom roulette.
Whether you’re interested in foraging as a survivalist precaution or simply as a natural extension of the recent DIY craze, start out with the Grüne Liga’s Pilzwanderungen (mushroom hikes) around Wandlitzsee, led by Elisabeth Westphal (photo). As a nutritionist, member of the German Society for Mycology and author of the book Wildkräuter – which helps readers identify edible and medicinal plants – Westphal’s 40 years of expertise on the subject ensure that her hikes are fully booked every time.
The mix of participants includes many parents and their children, seemingly hoping to reconnect with traditional ‘old world’ foraging skills. Westphal begins the tour with a basic outline of the different types of fungi and their edibility. From there, you wander through Wandlitzsee forest, gathering specimens that Westphal individually examines and confirms as safe or inedible.
The vast majority of Pilze gathered are discarded as poisonous. The woods are filled with deadly doppelgängers, including the Pantherpilz (just 50g is a lethal dose), which is almost identical to the edible Grauer Wulstling. The difference between toxicity and edibility often lies in details so minute that even Westphal has to consult her guidebook to be sure. For those hoping to enjoy a little psychotropic relief from the stress of survivalism, Westphal remains tight-lipped, although rumour has it amongst the drug-taking community that the aforementioned Pantherpilz can induce hallucinations in very small doses – try this at your own risk.
By the end of the hike, everyone’s baskets are filled with fantastic-looking fungi, with colours ranging from neon yellow to purple... more than enough to justify the €5 tour price. Some are so bizarre-looking you can’t help but wonder whether that Pilzpfanne you’re about to make will be your last. But with Westphal’s keen eye and thorough inspections, you can assume that you’re in safe hands.
For information about upcoming hikes, walks and other activities, as well as booking information, contact details and directions, go to www.grueneliga-berlin.de