Sixty-nine years ago today, on January 16, 1945, Adolf Hitler moved into what would prove to be his final residence and headquarters, the “Führerbunker” under the Chancellery Garden in Berlin, where he would eventually shoot himself on April 30. This article is not the story of what happened there in the final days of World War II. That story has been told and retold many times. This is about the Führerbunker itself, what happened to it after the war and its curious place in history.
Of all the places where World War II was fought–Omaha Beach, Pearl Harbor, Mt. Suribachi, the Cabinet War Rooms, downtown Hiroshima–the Führerbunker seems to have the most fascination for people. The story of the last days of the Third Reich, where the bunker is the main setting (if not a character in its own right), has been chronicled in many books and portrayed in numerous movies, not just the German film Downfall but also movies made in 1981 (The Bunker) and 1973 (Hitler: The Last Ten Days). Wikipedia has a whole category titled “Final Occupants of the Führerhbunker by Date of Departure.” Yet the bunker itself, as a physical space and a historical artifact, has been almost forgotten, and remembered only reluctantly in the last decade.
Soviet troops captured the Führerbunker on May 2, 1945, at which time only five people remained inside. Everyone else had either run away (like Bormann, Speer, and Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary), committed suicide (like Hitler, Eva Braun, and Goebbels) or been murdered (like Goebbels’ six children, whose bodies were still there). The place was also trashed, filled with burnt documents and other junk. After securing material of intelligence value–including the scorched remains of Hitler himself–the Soviets shut the place down and left it. It was partially flooded when the first U.S. troops to examine the place finally got a look at it. It must be remembered that all of Berlin was a huge mess after the fighting ended, with no social services working and most buildings in ruins. Nobody really cared much about a dank hole, filled with garbage and brackish water, that lay under the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin.
This is what the site of the Führerbunker looked like in 2005, before there was even a plaque there to note its existence.
In the years following the war the Soviets tried to destroy most landmarks of the Nazi era. In 1947 they tried to blow up what was left of the bunker, but succeeded only in collapsing a few of its walls. There wasn’t much construction going on in this part of Berlin, especially after 1961, when the Berlin Wall was constructed only a few yards away. Nevertheless, certain parts of what had once been the Führerbunker complex were occasionally uncovered by construction crews. Usually what they uncovered was destroyed or filled in. This was how things remained until 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. There was absolutely no attempt made to preserve the structure for posterity or mine whatever historical secrets might still be contained in it.
The reason for this was pretty simple: neither the Communist regime of East Germany nor the Western/capitalist government of West Germany (Berlin was split, remember) wanted the bunker to become a shrine or some other area of focus for Neo-Nazis. This attitude continued even after German unification in 1990. Because the remains of the Führerbunker were underground, they couldn’t be seen, and there wasn’t even a plaque or marker noting the presence of the place until 2005. After the Wall came down the site was occupied by a Chinese restaurant and a parking lot. Can you imagine, casually eating your General Tso’s Chicken and pot stickers on the spot where Hitler killed himself, and not knowing it?
In recent years the German government, always a bit uneasy about facing its Nazi past, has become a little more open about where the Führerbunker is and what happened there. Since 2006 there’s been an information placard there and surviving Germans who were there in 1945 have been invited to the site. Maybe, now nearly 70 years on, enough time has passed that reckoning with the realities of the Nazi era is more a rational and historical experience than an emotional and visceral one. Neo-Nazism undoubtedly still exists, and by some accounts is on the rise both in Europe and the United States, but it may be that the advantages of historical remembrance of sites like the Führerbunker is beginning to outweigh the dangers of it becoming a focal point for hateful ideology and destructive politics.
I predict that in the next 20 years or so, there will be some attempt to restore the Führerbunker and open parts of it to the public, to the extent that’s feasible. I think that can be done without “glorifying” Nazism or Hitler, and anything that increases our collective understanding of the trauma of World War II is, in my view, a positive thing.