Marienthal government bunker
A part of a formerly huge underground nuclear bunker at Ahrweiler and Marienthal near Bonn that was to serve as the emergency seat of the Federal Government of West Germany
had the Cold War turned hot. Since then most of the bunker has been gutted and sealed, but a sizeable stretch has been preserved and turned into a very impressive memorial site. One of the best Cold War
relics in the whole of Western Europe!
The tunnels, now devoid of their intended function, at first lay derelict until it was decided in the mid 1930s to start mushroom farming inside them, partly as a way to create jobs (one of the "perks" promised by the Nazi Party
that got them elected in 1933) as well as to make Germany
less reliant on imports from France
. The project was a great economic success. At its peak it was the country's largest single supplier of the prized delicacy.
Then came WWII
and everything changed yet again. The tunnels suddenly became attractive for altogether different purposes, namely when the German arms manufacturing industry sought to move to underground locations from 1943 due to the increased Allied bombing campaign. After the Peenemünde
rocket plant was badly damaged by Allied air raids, production of the infamous V1 and V2
missiles was moved to underground sites such as those at Mittelbau-Dora
. As of 1944 the tunnels at Marienthal/Ahrweiler were used for the building of mobile missile launch pads. As so often, most of the hard work was done by forced labourers from the concentration camps
(especially from Buchenwald
). Operations ceased in December 1944. During the final stages of the war, the locals sought refuge from the Allied bombing raids in some of the tunnels. After WWII, the tunnels were partly destroyed by the French occupying forces and again lay derelict for years.
Even before West Germany joined NATO
in 1955, at a time the Cold War
was gaining momentum with ever increasing nuclear testing
by the two superpowers, there was increasing pressure to come up with a contingency plan for times of crisis or even war and to find a place where the West German government could go into safe underground hiding. Suddenly the tunnels near Ahrweiler/Marienthal became an asset again: deep and secure inside a mountain, and easily reachable from the Federal capital and regular seat of government in Bonn, just 30 minutes away. Ideal.
After a survey concluded that the location would serve the purpose well, the tunnels were transformed into a gigantic nuclear bunker system. From the early 1960s, work proceeded to provide working and living space for as many as 3000 people, including the entire Federal government, as well as other crucial institutions (such as the Federal Constitutional Court). Such concentration was unique – in other countries the equivalent bunker systems were more fragmented and spread out.
The official name of the bunker was accordingly "Ausweichsitz der Verfassungsorgane des Bundes im Krisen- und Verteidigungsfall zur Wahrung von deren Funktionstüchtigkeit" .. this mouthful roughly translates as: 'emergency seat of the constitutional bodies of the FRG
in case of crisis or war in order to ensure their ability to continue functioning'. Right …
To provide the necessary room for dorms, canteens, meeting rooms, etc., as well as for all the required technology and storage space, several side tunnels were dug as well. In the end the whole tunnel complex reached a length of over 10 miles (17 km)!
The construction of the government bunker was of course top secret – as was the running of the completed system. The locals obviously suspected things. It was impossible to keep a site of such proportions totally secret. Moreover, as it turned out after the end of the Cold War, the "enemy" in the East had always been quite well informed about every step of the project, such was the efficiency of the spy networks of the time. However, it can be argued that it wasn't entirely against the West's interests to let the East know about the bunker. In a way it formed part of the overall politics of deterrence. They should be aware that the West was prepared …
Many of the workers and service personnel lived in the nearby towns and villages but they were not allowed to talk about their work. Still, everybody knew something important and defence-related must have been going on, but it was not openly spoken about. As my host at the little Ahrweiler pension that I stayed in reported: when she asked as a child what they were "doing up there", the response was "they ride their bicycles". And indeed that was actually the case, as bicycles were the main means of individual transport within the miles and miles of tunnels.
The bunker system consisted of two halves, based around the Kuxberg tunnel and the Trotzenberg tunnel. Each was further subdivided into a total of five sections that could function independently of each other. An extra tunnel to connect the two halves was built deep under the little village of Marienthal that sat in the valley between the two main sections and served as the logistical base during construction (and gave the bunker its name). The two halves had two main entrances each, i.e. four in total. These were all fortified and could be sealed by means of massive blast door systems.
The first section went operational in 1965, and the entire system was finished in 1971. NATO
exercises were held in the bunker on a regular basis, right up to the end of the Cold War
. Of course the bunker was never used "for real", but some of the exercises apparently got close enough to the real thing that some of the participants were not entirely sure whether it really was just training or whether actual war had broken out.
The bunker was equipped to keep its 3000 inhabitants (not just the politicians but all the secretarial staff and service personnel) alive and functioning in a completely self-contained system for up to 30 days. At this point you too will probably immediately ask: and what about day 31 and beyond? Well, the answers given on the tour of the bunker were not altogether satisfactory. It was argued that the bunker was more intended for times of crisis rather than actual war. It was also claimed that had a full-on nuclear war broken out the bunker would not have been bombproof anyway. Allegedly it was only built with the yield of early atomic bombs like the Hiroshima
one in mind, but could not have withstood the high-yield H-bombs of the 1960s and 70s.
Frankly, I find that a bit hard to believe. The yield of the bombs tested in the 1950s, i.e. before work on the bunker even commenced, was already reaching multiples of those early bombs. After all, the largest bomb ever tested by the USA
was Castle Bravo at 15 megatons, detonated in Bikini
in March 1954! So either the bunker was inadequate from the start or it was assumed that it was secluded enough to escape a direct hit by such a mega-yield bomb; or it was assumed that only smaller warheads were likely to be used. (Indeed, battle plans from the Warsaw Pact
disclosed later confirm exactly this.) It may also be quite simply the case that no plans at all were made beyond 30 days. Maybe because it wasn't logistically feasible to equip the bunker for longer periods of continuous use. Or maybe it was simply assumed that a crisis had to be over within 30 days, or if not, i.e. if total nuclear Armageddon had indeed come, there wouldn't have been anything left to govern in any case …
Whatever the reasoning may or may not have been, the bunker was maintained and kept operational even after the end of the Cold War. Further investments were even made to upgrade the communications and ventilation systems in the 1990s. In 1997, however, it was decided to give the bunker up after all. For one thing, the government was moving from Bonn to Berlin
as the new capital of reunified Germany
. Furthermore, the challenges of world politics and national security had completely changed anyway, so that the horrendous costs for maintaining such an antagonistic bunker system became unjustifiable.
The decommissioned bunker couldn't simply be abandoned, though. Toxic building materials could have seeped into the ground water after years of decay, so it was decided to completely gut the tunnels. That of course also cost an awful lot of money and took five years to accomplish. Meanwhile a local citizens' group campaigned for preserving at least a small part of the bunker as a memorial, and fortunately these efforts were eventually successful.
It is only the first 203 metres of the tunnel west of the entrance at Ahrweiler that was saved, however. That's just a bit over 1 per cent of the entire length of the former system. The rest of the tunnels are completely stripped bare and sealed and remain inaccessible, though a short stretch can be viewed from a platform at the end of the memorial part (see below). To make up for the shortness of today's accessible stretch, various installations that had previously been much deeper inside the system were preserved too and moved into the museum part. Thus you get a fairly good impression of what the bunker was like.
The "Dokumentationsstätte Regierungsbunker" ('documentation centre government bunker') was inaugurated in 2008 and proved a great success almost instantly. Visitor numbers exceeded initially expected figures several times over within the first year alone. The site is now one of the prime tourist attractions in the whole area.
From a point of view of dark tourism in particular it is a very special treat. Even though only a small part of the original bunker can be seen, it is still the largest Cold War
relic of its type commodified for tourism that there is in the whole of Western Europe (but for the East see Harnekop
, or the bunkers in Russia
). Compared to its equivalents in the USA (Greenbrier
) or Great Britain
, Kelvedon Hatch
or Scotland's bunker
), the bunker memorial of Marienthal has a much more authentic and dramatic feel.
If you have any interest in such sites, this one is not to be missed. The catch is: it does not cater particularly well to foreign visitors (yet). You can only visit the bunker by guided tour and these are regularly only conducted in German (nice and clear German, however, thanks to the local dialect not being as extreme as more southern ones). Tours in English can
be arranged but are costly, unless you come as a group – see details
below. Alternatively join a German group and just use the English-language brochure available at reception. Even if you can't understand the narration, it's still very cool indeed simply to see the bunker and get the atmosphere.
What there is to see: Of the former Ahrweiler entrance to the bunker system only the massive concrete main protection wall remains, around it the new documentation centre has been built, with its distinctive facade of rusty metal. The reception area is on the left and here you sign up and pay for the guided tours (compulsory – no individual unguided visits are possible!).
If your German comprehension isn't really up to it, and you haven't pre-arranged a special English-language tour (see under access
), then you could pick up the English-language brochure that is available from the little stall with books and info material. You will probably be pointed towards it anyway, if you enquire in English … The brochure appears to be more or less what the English tour narration would be, so it should help you follow the tour and provide essential information. The English isn't especially good, full of German interference and other faults and quirks, but it will be sufficient for you to get the gist. It's certainly worth the few euros on top of the admission fee, also because it sports some very good photos, historical plans and other such extras.
Before the tour as such starts you can have a look around the small museum-like parts within the new documentation centre. On display are photos showing the various uses of the tunnels and the construction of the government bunker, as well as a large chart plotting the whole bunker system. Amongst the few artefacts on display are gas masks and helmets from the Nazi
era as well as some of the signs prohibiting access to the site from the Cold War
Just before the tour starts, an introductory film is shown, then the group sets off into the bunker itself.
The first stop is at the massive outer blast doors. Constructed by a company experienced in sluice gates, their design bears some similarities to such systems. The doors weigh 25 tons each and could be closed by a powerful hydraulic mechanism within seconds. By means of the red emergency handle operated by manpower it would have taken up to an hour.
Next comes the decontamination section. There's a shower room in which anyone who had been contaminated with radiation would have had to strip down (clothes would be destroyed) and endure an icy shower before being allowed inside the bunker – regardless of whether they were presidents, chancellors or high court judges. At the far end is a small window for observation (to ensure everybody showered thoroughly enough!), complete with a little improvised windscreen wiper (fashioned, allegedly, from a VW Beetle car). Just imagine the humiliation this would have meant to such big shots!
Through another set of blast doors, the inner parts of the bunker are reached. Rooms to the side of the main corridor contain communications equipment, mainly of by now completely redundant types such as teleprinters (does anyone remember them?). Other rooms functions' include that of spare parts storage, labs or fire-fighter stations complete with scary-looking asbestos
suits at the ready.
The most impressive room is the command centre – originally located much deeper in the bunker system but moved here for the museum. It's thus no longer operational but quite a sight to behold nonetheless. It looks like something from a cheap 1960s sci-fi film. On closer inspection you can see the control panels for all the blast doors and hydraulic sealing mechanism, as well as communication stations between the various sections of the former bunker.
Deeper into the tunnels still, there's an exhibition room with photos of parts no longer in situ as well as some artefacts such as little trucks that used to cart personnel or material around. There's also a bizarre and chunky "explosion-proof" telephone! On one wall is a cabinet with loads of "fridge magnet"-like signs and symbols that were apparently used in the final NATO
exercise conducted in this bunker.
There are some quite normal-looking offices (bureaucracy was certainly not to be abandoned here!) as well as a simple TV studio. From here, the head of government would have had to address the people in the event of a war or crisis (saying exactly what was neither disclosed or even asked). Outside, in a niche to the side of the main corridor stands a regular phone booth … allegedly it was possible to phone the outside world from here but the line was tapped.
The Federal President's private room is next – and looks almost shockingly basic. Still, at least the president would have had a private room with an en-suite bathroom. Only the Federal Chancellor would have "enjoyed" a similar privilege. Everyone else would have slept in shared dorms in bunk beds so basic that even a youth hostel would have looked like luxury accommodation in comparison.
Next to the president's room mock-up is a set of furniture from the meeting room of the inner circle of the government. The style is so 70s it almost hurts the eyes: bright red cubic armchairs and on a side table a lamp with an orange lampshade … ouch.
The chair from the bunker's own hairdressers that is also on display features a similarly eyesore colour of lilac. Hang on … hairdressers?!? Indeed, they thought of everything, and that included the need for the president, chancellor or whoever to look neat, tidy and authoritative on the emergency TV images transmitted to the population above ground. If these poor people hadn't already been incinerated in a nuclear holocaust and were still alive but shut out while their government had their secure little rabbit hole, what would they have made of this? You have to wonder to what degree all this was really thought through.
Possibly the most dramatic bit comes right at the end of the preserved part of the bunker. Through a metal gate you can peek into the void of the next 200 yards or so of totally gutted tunnel. It's only partly illuminated. You can see a doorway to another side tunnel, but in the far distance in the gloom beyond you can barely make out the seal blocking the tunnel off from the rest of the system. It is an eerie sight to behold.
On the way back, the tour proceeds through the upstairs parts (the tunnels were subdivided into two levels to make for more floor space), with a small kitchen, dentist's surgery and a hospital ward. It all looks quite creepy too – not least the emergency amputation gear that sits on one of the cabinets in the operation theatre …
Also to be seen is the reconstructed single bedroom for the Federal Chancellor (together with a photo of the original). Again, at least a single room, but very basic indeed. Incidentally, none of the FRG
's actual chancellors or presidents ever slept in their rooms.
The rest of the upstairs corridor is lined with dorm rooms, pitifully basic bunk-bed affairs with hardly any storage space and just one poxy little table. The feeble attempts of lightening things up a little by putting photo prints of sights such as Neuschwanstein Castle (cf. Munich
) on the wall achieve only the opposite, if anything. It looks truly depressing. It's hard to imagine that all those high-flying government members and civil servants would really have voluntarily put up with all this … while their families were left outside to fend for themselves. And would it have helped much that the bunker also had a cinema in which, according to a schedule hanging on one of the doors, "uplifting" movies such as "Life of Brian" were shown?
After a glance into the communal washrooms the tour gets to a final little museum room, which is about the various NATO
exercises that took place in the bunker. In one of the glass display cabinets it's interesting to see that they even had their own wine supplies – from the State's own vineyards at the Marienthal estate and with bottles featuring labels with the Federal Republic's eagle insignia on them.
Finally the group is escorted back to the entrance. By the way, in addition to the main tour guide there are always two others trailing the group to make sure no stragglers get lost in the labyrinthine corridors or are left behind after the tour …
So, is it worth it? Oh, but of course. I found it extremely cool. And I'm sure anybody with a penchant for Cold War
relics will get the same impression. Claustrophobia sufferers perhaps less so. But they probably wouldn't be interested in the first place. The tour is also highly educational, not just in terms of the technology involved (though vintage tech geeks will love this too) but especially with regard to the whole mindset of governance and bureaucracy in the Cold War era. Much of it is just baffling. The tour also has elements of time travel, including bygone interior design phases … But most of all it's just the whole subterranean atmosphere that is so fascinating.
in the Ahr valley, just north of the small town of Ahrweiler, in the Eifel region, some 15 miles (25 km) south of Bonn, in the west of Germany
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: hidden in the mountains, but these days not too tricky to find; not expensive for what you get, as long as you don't need an English-speaking guide.
To get there, you can in theory make do with public transport. There are regional train connections from nearby Bonn and Remagen (check vrsinfo.de/englisch/the-vrs/vrs-about-us.html). Get out at the Ahrweiler Markt stop and then walk: either use the scenic Rotweinwanderweg (red wine hiking trail) through the hills and vineyards, or first proceed to the southern end of Ahrweiler and past the Römervilla (see combinations
), then up the winding road and paths to the site itself. It's fairly well signposted ("Dokumentationsstätte Regierungsbunker").
If you have a car you can drive right up to the site's own car park (free), just steps from the entrance. But since you have to pass through a short but narrow tunnel en route and navigate sharp hairpin bends, this is only suitable for regular passenger cars. Larger vehicles (camper vans etc.) have to park down in the valley.
Directions: from the motorway A61 south of Bonn take the A573 branch to Bad Neuenahr and exit for Ahrweiler, then proceed on the B267 just past Ahrweiler and take the exit at the large Römervilla museum. It's signposted. Don't make the mistake I first made and get confused by the signs that are only for hikers. From the turn-off at the Römervilla keep going straight on the Am Silberberg road, proceed through the tunnel, then take the sharp bend of the road and it'll take you straight to the car park.
Visits are by guided tour only. It's advisable to get there early, as places on tours can fill up quickly so that you may have to wait around for the start of a later tour.
Opening/tour times: Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, as well as on public holidays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last guided tour starts at 4:30 p.m.). No regular tours between November and March! (But group tours can be arranged by appointment.)
Costs: the regular tours in German cost 9 EUR (various concessions apply); an extra 2.50 EUR is charged for a permission for photography. No tripods and no video recording allowed.
If you can get by with a German-language tour, possibly aided by the English-language brochure you can pick up at the reception desk for a few euros (see above), then this is really excellent value for what you get to see.
If you want to stay overnight near the bunker, then Ahrweiler offers quite a range of pensions and hotels, some at excellent value too. Furthermore the little town boasts some pretty good restaurants and wine taverns, so it could be a really pleasant base for a couple of nights.
Time required: Tours nominally take ca. 80-90 minutes – but it's not uncommon for tours to overrun. The tour I was on was at least ten minutes longer. English-language tours, however, may be shorter.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Another entrance gate to the bunker can be found in the village that actually gave the whole complex its name: Marienthal. This used to be the command centre for the security personnel that guarded access to the government bunker – because of that and also due to a certain visual similarity this is known as "the Tower". The entrance to the bunker at this end is permanently sealed these days, but the gatehouse/bunker itself can still be seen. It's found just to the north-east of the village's former monastery and present winery. For co-ordinates see under location
The remaining two entrances to the western half of the whole complex can also be seen, but are much less visually dramatic. The same goes for the various ventilation intakes, external storage tanks and escape hatches that can be found dotted around the forest that covers the hills above the bunker.
There's yet another ex-tunnel nearby that is worth a look, however. This is the Silberbergtunnel
to the east of the government bunker. It was also supposed to be part of the train line that never was and served as an air-raid shelter for the local population during the latter stages of WWII
. The tunnel itself was blown up by the French occupying forces after the war, but a small section at its eastern entrance and the original portal can still be seen. This has been turned into a small memorial site in its own right. There are a couple of memorial plaques and an information panel (in German), and through a metal grating gate you can peek in to see a reconstruction of the kind of little huts the locals lived in during the times they took shelter in here. They even had an improvised postal service in here, as the letterbox attached to the hut indicates!
To the east of the Silberberg you can see the huge pillars that were built for a railway bridge across the Adenbach valley to connect with the Silberberg tunnel. The bridge was never finished as the railway never actually got this far before the plans were scrapped. Today the forlorn and functionless pillars are used by a local mountain climbing club. You can see them as you hike up into the vineyards and the forest from Ahrweiler. The Silberbergtunnel is just off the "Rotweinwanderweg" or 'Red Wine Hiking Trail' and signposted. (For co-ordinates see under location above.)
In addition to the Federal government's former bunker in Marienthal/Ahrweiler there are a few further Cold War
-era bunkers in the (relative) vicinity, including that of the regional government of North-Rhine Westphalia, which these days can also be visited. It's just south of a little place called Urft. There are even organized combination tours of the two bunkers on certain pre-arranged dates (by bus, as a whole-day package including lunch, called "Eiffel-Bunker-Tour"). All this is probably more for real bunker enthusiasts/specialists and will most likely presuppose a good knowledge of German. Check ausweichsitz-nrw.de for details – the site (in German only) also has information about yet further bunkers in the wider area that can be visited (albeit usually only at certain times).
Other than bunkers, there's also the former West German capital city of Bonn, which is only some 20-30 minutes' drive away from Ahrweiler (45-60 minutes by train) and boasts one of the best modern history museums that I know of: the stupendously excellent Haus der Geschichte
. Not to be missed when in the area! And from Bonn it isn't far to Cologne
Real Cold War
and bunker enthusiasts who also want to see the Eastern equivalent, where the GDR
government would have holed up in the event of a crisis or even a Third World War
, should head for Harnekop
For yet more sites in locations much further afield see under Germany
Combinations with non-dark destinations: A major local attraction that is at the same time a new as well as an ancient sight, is the Römervilla at the bottom of the hillside below the ex-government bunker entrance, right by the main road. It was in fact during upgrading work on that road that these remains of the once opulent home of a wealthy Roman's estate from the 2nd to 3rd century AD were discovered – as recently as 1980 (hence it's both ancient and fairly new). There are now even combination tickets available (at both sites' ticket counters), these cost 10 EUR, i.e. you save 3 EUR compared to buying tickets individually. The Römervilla, like the bunker, is only open seasonally, between March and mid November, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Mondays.
The Ahr valley in general is quite a pretty part of Germany. Ahrweiler itself fulfils the cliché of quaint half-timbered towns (with mediaeval walls to boot) quite well and the scenery is lush and popular with hikers. The German Red Wine Hiking Trail (deutscher Rotweinwanderweg) goes past Ahrweiler and actually straight over the hills that the old bunker is in, and passes through many vineyards.
Somewhat unusually for Germany, this valley is primarily known for red wine (while the majority of wine produced in Germany is white), more unusually still is the fact that it is mainly the burgundy grapes that are cultivated here, especially what is called here "Spätburgunder". A rare local speciality is the oenologically much more demanding Frühburgunder grape variety. The relevant wines can be excellent.
Not much further away, some of Germany
's most famed tourist areas can be found, especially along the Rhine and Moselle (which merge at the old town of Koblenz). Those who prefer cities won't have it far to Bonn and Cologne
- Marienthal 01 - entrance and new visitor centre
- Marienthal 02 - plan of the whole tunnel system
- Marienthal 03 - use of the tunnels in the Nazi era
- Marienthal 04 - building the bunker
- Marienthal 05 - main blast door
- Marienthal 06 - emergency manual locking mechanism with handle
- Marienthal 07 - corridor
- Marienthal 08 - another gate
- Marienthal 09 - decontamination shower room
- Marienthal 10 - from the other side
- Marienthal 11 - observation window with wiper
- Marienthal 12 - lab
- Marienthal 13 - communication technology of the time
- Marienthal 14 - main command console
- Marienthal 15 - blast door and sealing operating console
- Marienthal 16 - grim prospects
- Marienthal 17 - yet another blast door
- Marienthal 18 - going deeper in
- Marienthal 19 - former means of transport within the bunker
- Marienthal 20 - explosion-proof telephone
- Marienthal 21 - bureaucracy had to go on
- Marienthal 22 - TV studio
- Marienthal 23 - room for the president
- Marienthal 24 - room for the chancellor
- Marienthal 25 - dorm room for ordinary ranks
- Marienthal 26 - not much to pack
- Marienthal 27 - 1970s furniture
- Marienthal 28 - chair from the barber shop in the bunker
- Marienthal 29 - kitchen
- Marienthal 30 - dental surgery
- Marienthal 31 - bunker hospital
- Marienthal 32 - amputation gear just in case
- Marienthal 33 - natural sedatives were provided too
- Marienthal 34 - as far as the museum goes today
- Marienthal 35 - no light at the end of the sealed tunnel
- Marienthal 36 - only the first 200 yards or so have been preserved
- Marienthal 37 - Ahrweiler seen from the Silberberg vineyards
- Marienthal 38 - unfinished railway bridge pillars
- Marienthal 39 - what could have been
- Marienthal 40 - Silberbergtunnel entrance
- Marienthal 41 - where civilians sought refuge during WWII bombing raids
- Marienthal 42 - Ahrweiler with wall
- Marienthal 43 - one of the old town gates
- Marienthal 44 - half-timbered houses and wine
- Marienthal 45 - Ahrweiler by night