The bunker was originally intended to provide shelter for 3,500 people, but in the end over 12,000 crowded inside during the bombing raids in the final phase of the war. That meant people had to stand tightly packed like sardines – five people per square metre, with temperatures rising to up to 60 degrees Celsius, as the air ventilation systems were totally overstretched. Needless to say, sanitation was also as good as non-existent. It must have been pure hell. Yet it was still deemed better than being blown to smithereens outside the bunker during the ever intensifying Allied air raids.
The bunker did get hit by bombs, and one large one created a crack in the structure. But apart from that and a few minor scars on the outside of the concrete it survived the war relatively unscathed.
After the war, following the Berlin
blockade and the Berlin airlift (cf. Tempelhof
), the bunker was used as a government storage facility
, namely as part of the city's “Senatsreserve
” or 'senate's reserve': stocks of emergency food supplies (in particular tinned fish) held here in case another such crisis should arise.
The stocks had to be replaced regularly, and the old stocks were sold off cheaply to the populace of Berlin just before they passed their use-by date. This was called “Umwälzung” (roughly: 'turnover') and provided for some legendary dishes such as a stew made from tinned beef and green beans (called “Moppelkotze” …).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the subsequent end of the Cold War
, keeping such emergency food stocks was deemed no longer necessary and the system discontinued. One historical irony in this was that about a quarter of the former emergency reserves were donated to the Soviet Union
, i.e. the former enemy that had initiated the need for this system in the first place. But at the beginning of the 1990s, the USSR
was ailing and heading towards its own dissolution, so the donation was made partly as an act of humanitarian aid and perhaps also as a sign of gratitude for the role the Soviets under Gorbachev had played in making the reunification of Germany
, and Berlin
In the mid 1990s part of the bunker was turned into a privately run “Gruselkabinett” (a kind of 'chamber of horrors' attraction including actors scaring visitors with all manner of pranks and scary masks and stuff). Later, the proprietor added an exhibition specifically about the bunker and its history.
When I first visited the place, this was still in operation. It had its quirky attractions and certainly some very dark elements (especially a section about the Führerbunker) though it was also rather amateurish in its design, certainly very idiosyncratic. I must say that, despite its shortcomings in terms of modern museum design, I quite liked it for its often surprising and quirky elements. But it was not to last.
Eventually the bunker was taken over by the Berlin Story
company, and the old exhibition was replaced by a completely new one that also largely replaced the shop's own exhibition at their headquarters on Unter den Linden. Hardly anything of the previous bunker exhibition was incorporated into the new one.
The “Gruselkabinett” ('chamber of horrors') was at first kept running in parallel of the now much more sober and contemporary museum (see below) but this coexistence was also deemed perhaps just a little too inappropriate for such a historic site and given the nature of the museum in the same building. Indeed, on the tours of the other, empty parts of the bunker you could often hear the screams of visitors to the “Gruselkabinett” – transmitted through the air ventilation system. It certainly made for some juxtaposition!
So in October 2016, the “Gruselkabinett” closed. Part of the reason for this may also have been purely economical. The visitor numbers had been dropping for a while anyway – partly due to the high-profile competition by the new branch of the 'Dungeons
' chain that had opened its Berlin
branch near Alexanderplatz. The old 'chamber of horrors' props have been put into storage, and the parts of the bunker that it used to be housed in may be turned into yet more exhibition space for the museum and/or be incorporated into the bunker tours on offer. What exactly will happen with this remains to be seen.
The text below describes the bunker and museum as I found them on my visit in August 2016. The old text
about my visit in 2010, before all these massive changes, has meanwhile been relegated to the “lost places
” section – that way you can at least still read my impressions of its previous incarnation.
The newer Hitler exhibition, also curated by the Berlin Story outfit, opened its doors on 27 May 2017, and in June 2018 I finally had a chance to go and see it. My report is inserted below as well.
The Berlin Story and Hitler exhibitions are run by a private company and have not been publicly funded in any way. But in particular the Hitler exhibition is done in a highly professional way and is pretty much state of the art nonetheless.
What there is to see:
At the ruined section of the former Anhalter station's front portal façade there isn't really anything else to see but just that. No commodification, no information centre or anything like that (in contrast to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche
), so you need a lot of imagination to picture the original station or the post-WWII
In its current restored state, the old station portal is just an oddly clean and shiny fragment. Even the statues at the top are no longer originals but replicas (the old originals are now in the Museum of Technology
). On its own, it's not a particularly impressive site …
Near the ruins stands an information panel commemorating the deportation of Jews, namely to Theresienstadt
, also from this station (although most deportation trains departed from platform 17
of Grunewald station). So at least some of the dark history prior to the bombing of the station is given some reference here.
The more important attraction for the dark tourist lies just round the corner – in fact the bunker at Anhalter station is already visible from behind the station ruins. It's a massive grey concrete block.
Follow the signs to 'Berlin Story Bunker' and you eventually come to a gate between modern buildings that takes you to the front of the bunker. Note the graffito “Wer Bunker baut, wirft Bomben” ('those who build bunkers also throw bombs') – it's a relic from the peace movement, painted onto the bunker by activists during the Cold War
Up the steps or the ramp you can reach the entrance to the bunker museum. Bunker tours start (or used to start - see below) at a meeting point outside the bunker by some open-air information panels. When I was there in August 2016, I was lucky to arrive just as a tour was about to start and I was able to join it without having booked online in advance.
It began at a different door to the museum entrance, a heavy steel blast door, and the group took a lift up to the top floor. The rooms in this part were largely empty, except for a few relics such as old suitcases and a couple of wooden benches. These benches, it was quickly pointed out, though, are a little misleading, as at the height of the bunker's use as an air-raid shelter there were so many people crammed in here that nobody would have been able to sit down in such comfort (see background
The guide had a little portable projector on him and used it to show images on the bare walls of the bunker to liven things up and illustrate the narration. This included pictures of people outside the bunker, period propaganda posters, images of the destruction caused by the bombing raids, as well as eyewitness reports recorded many years after the war. It was all very illuminating and well presented.
UPDATE: since the opening of the Hitler exhibition (see below), those bunker tours seem to have ceased to exist. Now there are only guided tours through the exhibition(s). Whether tours of the parts of the bunker outside the exhibition space will resume at some point I don't know. It would be a good thing, though.
The Berlin Story Museum
inside the bunker is primarily about the history of Berlin
as such, with an emphasis on modern (20th century) history, but not so much about this bunker in particular (though it does have some elements devoted to it).
The exhibition is very modern and very visual, with large installations of objects, with mock-ups and original artefacts. And a decent amount of audio-visual media, without overdoing it. Labels/texts are in German and English, and you can also use an audio-guide, which is available in a choice of ten languages.
The exhibition quickly goes from imperial Prussian times to the turn of the century, with some special emphasis given to the crammed and basic living conditions in Berlin's working-class tenement houses in the late 19th century.
Following a rather lighter note on the “roaring 20s”, when Berlin
was one of the world's foremost cultural centres in the world, we then head towards the darkest days, beginning with the rise of Nazism
. Covered are aspects such as the book burning on Bebelplatz
and the grand plans of the Nazi architects for turning Berlin into “Germania
” as an OTT Reich's capital full of intimidation architecture (most of which was fortunately never realized – but cf. Tempelhof
[UPDATE: some of these elements may have been moved into the new Hitler exhibition, actually. When I went in June 2018 I didn't go for a repeat visit of the Berlin Story museum, so I can't be sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Hitler part had taken over some of these aspects, rather than having them in both exhibitions.]
WWII is mainly represented through the effects it had on Berlin. One of the largest installations of the museum shows a landscape of debris and emergency messages – and also serves as a celebration of the city's “Trümmerfrauen”, literally 'rubble women', i.e. those female citizens whose job it primarily was to clear away all the bombing debris from the ruined city.
There is one section about the Anhalter station and the bunker the museum is housed in. On display are objects found inside the bunker as well as aerial photos of the district that show the gradual disappearance of the station.
The representation of the post-war history of Berlin naturally takes separate paths. Following a section about the Berlin airlift
(see again under Tempelhof
) side rooms branch off following both West
Berlin's as well as East
histories during the Cold War
The East Berlin part has sections about the rigorous border
controls, the Berlin Wall
, the Stasi
, including an original door from Hohenschönhausen
prison, and everyday life in this alleged socialist
society (see also Life in the GDR Museum
). The peaceful revolution of 1989
and the subsequent reunification of Germany are obviously the crowning points of this part.
The West Berlin
half has sections about the “Wirtschaftswunder
” ('economic miracle') of the 1950s, JFK
's visit to Berlin in 1963, the student revolt
of the late 1960s and how immigration
of “Gastarbeiter” ('guest workers'), in particular from Turkey
, came to characterize whole districts of Berlin
, especially Kreuzberg.
One aspect of the history of divided Berlin in which this bunker played a particular role was its use as a storage facility for emergency food supplies
(the 'Senate's reserve – see under background
) and this is represented by the display of some of the tins of fish that used to be piled high in here.
Overall, I found the museum very entertaining as well as educational – and even though I was already pretty well informed about its subject matter it kept me engrossed throughout. So I can highly recommend it.
Since May 2017, the largest space of the bunker, spread over three of the bunker's five floors, has been given to an all-new exhibition called “Hitler – wie konnte es geschehen?”
– how could it happen?'). This now incorporates the model of the Führerbunker and the reconstructions of Hitler's study in it, which previously was accessible as a stand-alone exhibit on guided tours.
At the desk in front of the entrance where you pay for your ticket you are also encouraged to use an audio guide (for a small extra fee). They are available in German and English. The German is narrated by the museum's founder himself, and interspersed with personal biographical anecdotes and observations, which is an added bonus. The translation of this into English is narrated by a native speaker, though, and is of good quality. The audio guide, however, is not indispensable – you can get almost all the relevant information from the written texts in the exhibition alone.
The text panels and labels in the exhibition are bilingual too, and the English translations
are generally fine, though there are occasional mistakes, such as the translation of “kritische Geister” as 'critical ghosts' (instead of 'critical minds'), which really is quite a major howler. The translations also follow the German in using the present tense when referring to historical chronology. In German this is a stylistic element typical for such a genre, but it does not work in the same way in English. I've encountered this in quite a few museums in Germany
by now, though, so at least this one is in good company.
The exhibition is subdivided into 38 sections, organized mostly chronologically, but also thematically. There's way too much to go through in detail, so I can only give a rough overview and pick out the odd special exhibit.
The intro section
is a bit surprising, as it turns the chronology on its head, as it were, as it is about Hitler after his death … – or rather about various conspiracy theories
that claim Hitler
did not commit suicide on 30 April 1945 but somehow got away and fled to South America (like so many other Nazis
indeed did) or went into hiding in obscure places. All these wacky “theories” are thoroughly debunked in this section, with just a little too much zeal perhaps, but that seems to have been deemed necessary. As if clearing away a potential obstacle right from the start.
(In its Blog, the museum has documented a few cases of alarming ignorance on the part of some visitors, not just schoolkids but even their teachers, so they are aware of the fact that you cannot take anything for granted in terms of visitors' previous knowledge.)
The first proper museum section provides some pre-context, namely that of Imperial Germany
and its military society, where war was seen as positive and more or less automatically equated with victory and greatness.
The next three sections are about Hitler's youth and family background. The best bit here I found the story of how his father acquired the surname Hitler – he was born Alois Schicklgruber, but later adopted his stepfather's name Hiedler, which somehow got corrupted to Hitler. Just image if Adolf had had the old surname and the Nazis' rallying cry would have been “Heil Schicklgruber!”
Hitler's failed ambitions as an artist are documented too, and a few stunning examples of his paintings (copies I presume) are on display, including a hilariously kitsch-laden scene of a bellowing stag – the ultimate German cliché. Some of his paintings of architecture, however, aren't actually all that bad. He was clearly better at depicting inanimate scenes.
Next is Hitler's participation in WW1
as a simple soldier, on the German side, even though he had been born Austrian (but such minor details were readily overlooked in the recruitment of cannon fodder in WW1
) and how he became a Nazi and anti-Semite in the wake of the defeat in the Great War.
Hitler's rise to power within the Nazi party (NSDAP
) and what role allies like Joseph Goebbels played in it, is the next larger section in the exhibition, culminating in the actual seizing of power by Hitler in Germany as Reich Chancellor in 1933.
What followed was the increasing Nazification
of society, suppression of the freedom of the press, and repression
, communists, the disabled and other “undesirables” according to Nazi ideology. Two lowlights of this development are especially highlighted: the book burning
in 1933 and the nationwide pogroms
against Jews of 9 November 1938.
An interesting aside here is the coverage of Nazi sympathizers outside Germany
, such as in Great Britain
and the USA
. Also the various reactions and non-reactions by foreign policymakers in other parts of the world (including Stalin
and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Inevitably the following sections relate to war preparations
in Nazi Germany and the eventual outbreak of World War Two
. This ends the first part of the exhibition and you have to move on one floor downstairs.
In this second part of the exhibition the very grimmest topics are brought up – and here it gets really quite graphic.
It starts with the pogroms
in the east, and the setting up of ghettos
. Some especially gruesome images are from pogroms in Lithuania
, e.g. naked Jewish women being beaten in the streets … I was somewhat surprised that, given this level of graphic depictions, there seemed to be no age restrictions for visitors ... or at least if there were any they were not enforced, as there were several families with small children in the exhibition when I visited it (June 2018).
The next section doesn't get any easier, as this is about the Holocaust
, especially the "Final Solution
" and the death camps
. The question as to how much the Allies knew about all this is given some special attention too, in particular why the Allies did not bomb Auschwitz
or at least the railway lines leading there, even though they had explicitly been informed about what was going on there. Ultimately the answers to this remain open ...
In a side room two particular war episodes are picked out especially: the Einsatzgruppen massacre of Babi Yar
and the Battle of Stalingrad
(see under Volgograd
), the great turning point for the Third Reich
's war effort.
The remainder of this part of the exhibition chronicles the home front, the retreat of the German Armies on all fronts and the eventual downfall. Special side sections are about the Battle of Berlin
and about Hitler
hiding in his HQ bunkers
The latter also serves as the prelude to the exhibition's third and final section, again one floor further downstairs: the “Dokumentation Führerbunker”. This had previously been a stand-alone exhibition, which, before the larger Hitler exhibition was opened, could only be visited on guided tours. Now it's been integrated into the wider context, the need for guided tours accompanying it seems to have been deemed no longer necessary.
The first striking element here is a faithful life-size reconstruction of Hitler's study inside the bunker, based on photos taken by the Allies when they discovered the place. This includes the sofa on which Hitler committed suicide (photos of the blood stains on it accompany this part).
The construction of the bunker underneath the Reich Chancellery is documented too and there is a detailed scale model of the Führerbunker showing how the interior was organized. Hitler's day-to-day life is covered, as is, of course, the end of it, his and Eva Braun's suicides on 30 April 1945. A side room is about the subsequent suicides of Joseph and Magda Goebbels and the preceding poisoning of their six children.
And with all those dark and sobering impressions you exit the exhibition and re-emerge at the Anhalter bunker's rather large museum shop, where you can also purchase a dedicated exhibition catalogue.
All in all
it has to be said that the Berlin Story bunker has meanwhile established itself as one of the foremost dark-tourism attractions is Berlin
, and that's saying something! The Berlin Story exhibition was already good, but with the new additional “Hitler – how could it happen?” exhibition, incorporating the Führerbunker Documentation, they've closed a massive gap. It's the world's first comprehensive museum coverage of all the aspects of this difficult subject matter and the curators have done an admirable job with it. Unmissable.
The station ruins are freely accessible at all times, but the bunker museum charges an entrance fee and the same applies to the guided bunker tours.
Admission to just the Berlin Story Museum costs 6 EUR, including the (optional) audio-guide (available in ten languages).
Note that photography possibly also no longer allowed in the Berlin Story section (the rules published on the website are bit unclear in that latter regard ... when I went it was still possible)!