Beneath the city is a treasure trove of history and stories of escape during the days of a divided Berlin.
By Zac Steger
Over the past 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the face of Berlin has changed dramatically. From Prenzlauerberg to Potsdamer Platz, change has been the only constant in what is arguably Europe’s most exciting city. What hasn’t changed much since that time, or in fact since the end of World War II, can be found underground.
To explore this subterranean world, I traveled to the city’s north side Gesundbrunnen station, where just outside lies the ticket center for Berliner Unterwelten.
Berliner Unterwelten stems from a group of individuals who shared a common interest in exploring Berlin’s vast underworld. In 1997, they began tours under the city, increasing the frequency and number of tours along the way. Their explorations deal with World War II and Cold War themes, but “Tour M—Under the Berlin Wall” seemed particularly appropriate as we recently marked both the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall and subsequent reunification in October 2014.
I gathered with a group and our guide as we entered a small white building on Badstraße, stepping down into the narrow corridor leading to air raid shelters to view some diagrams and props. Not surprisingly it was cool and slightly damp; a place where your imagination could run wild.
From the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961 until 1982, 72 tunnels were built under the city. Initially subways and sewers were used for escapes, but the East German Stasi, the secret police, caught on quickly. Rail lines were set up to electrocute, bars were put across sewer lines and triggers installed to alert the border guards of escape attempts.
Most tunnels were used only once, as risk of getting caught rose dramatically after the first passage. All in all over 300 people successfully escaped East Berlin by going under the city.
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