Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What to Do with Hitler's Submarine Bunker?

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Spiegel
By Michael Fröhlingsdorf
April 16, 2008


The submarine bunker is gigantic -- and expensive. A World War II-era military facility is slowly succumbing to the elements, and nobody seems willing to pay for its upkeep. In fact, the German armed forces has offered it up for sale.

By far the largest object in the rather odd real estate catalogue carries the number 220039 on the Web site of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr. It is nestled about midway down the long list of property bargains, part of the Bundeswehr's project of shutting down hundreds of unneeded facilities. One can make offers on storage tanks, training camps, barracks and former weapons depots.

But number 220039 is different. The "Materiel Depot Wilhelmshaven -- TE Bremen" is a dark gray cement colossus -- 426 meters (1,398 feet) long, 97 meters wide and 25 meters high. The ceilings are up to 7 meters thick. Indeed, the structure is so cavernous that even an institution as large as the German armed forces is only able to occupy a third of it. The rest lies empty -- as it has since the end of World War II.

The structure is left over from one of the most megalomaniacal projects of Adolf Hitler's Nazi dictatorship: the submarine bunker named "Valentin." Some 12,000 prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates and forced laborers constructed the bomb-proof submarine factory from 1943 to 1945. An estimated 4,000 of the slave workers didn't survive to see the project's completion.

Excesses of the Nazis

Now the military wants to get rid of the site, and the current search for a buyer has become Exhibit A in an absurd dispute between the state of Bremen and the federal government in Berlin. For months, the two sides have quarrelled over whose budget should pay for expensive maintenance work and upkeep.

But all sides agree that the landmark should be saved. It is a unique memorial to both Nazi inhumanity and the technocratic future envisioned by Hitler's dictatorship.

Since the mid-1960s, the bunker has been used by the German military as cheap storage. Nowadays, though, the facility is spooky in its emptiness. Just six soldiers and 24 civilians are responsible for guarding the mostly empty space. The only life comes from the 10,000 annual visitors who file through its echoing halls.

But such limited use is hardly efficient. Each year, the facility costs taxpayers an estimated €700,000 ($1.1 million) to €800,000. "And that is only for the most necessary of expenses," says Wolfgang zu Putlitz, who is in charge of the facility.

The results are clear to all: Unused parts of the bunker are crumbling and can no longer be visited. Signs warn that bits of the ceiling may fall. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung says he is aware of the bunker's "unique importance." But, he goes on, the German military is not in the business of maintaining historical monuments.

Waiting for a Buyer

The Finance Ministry, which is normally responsible for federally owned properties, likewise denies authority. The bunker, says Ministry deputy Karl Diller, still belongs to the military after all. And in any case, he adds, it should be Bremen's responsibility -- states, he points out, have jurisdiction for cultural sites like memorials.

Bremen, though, is not exactly swimming in extra money. The city(which has the status of a state) has no desire to cough up for the World War II facility. "The bunker belongs to the federal government," says Bremen Mayor Jens Böhrnsen, "and for financial and ethical reasons it should not be sold."

The mayor says his city-state would have no problem contributing to the development of a concept for the memorial site. But Bremen, he says, simply can't afford the site's restoration and maintenance.

The only possible savior for the site is Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann. He is, as it happens, also head of Bremen's Christian Democratic Union party and is currently in negotiations with all German states to create a nationwide framework for sites of commemoration. But Valentin has so far not been made a talking point.

On Tuesday, Mayor Böhrnsen visited the bunker together with his cabinet in order to raise awareness of the site's deteriorating condition and provide symbolic support for its conversion into a memorial site. But so far, no one has come forward with the money. And article number 220039 continues to wait for a buyer.


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