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Friday, January 9, 1998 Published at 11:19 GMT

image: [ BBC analyst Chris Bowlby ] Berlin gives up its dark secrets

Chris Bowlby

Berlin can claim, without much fear of contradiction, to be the most rebuilt city in Europe, if not the world. It's been the capital of Prussian imperialism, Nazi tyranny, and East Berlin was the capital of Communist dictatorship. Now many millions are being spent making it a showcase for reunited German democracy. It's the latest facelift for a place that's been radically reconstructed several times this century alone. But while the architects do their best to give the surface of Berlin an optimistic gloss, the city's traumatic past is still evident underground. Chris Bowlby has been seeking out those trying to preserve this subterranean history which many others would rather forget.

Dietmar Arnold's proudest possession is a large and exotic bunch of keys, his passport to the Berlin underworld. I met him one evening at the entrance to one of the city's underground stations. He led me through a series of passageways, as if we were going to catch a train. Then, as we turned a corner, he stopped outside some heavy locked metal doors, glanced furtively around to check we were alone, then whipped out that impressive bunch of historic metalwork. Within seconds we were through, the door slammed behind us, and Dietmar's torch led the way into a concrete labyrinth extending way down below the station itself.

This bunker complex, he told me, was typical of the layers of German history you can find preserved under the fast changing surface. It was first dug as an emergency job creation project during the world economic crisis of the late 1920s, as the Weimar republic struggled to prevent mass unemployment breeding political extremism. When that struggle failed, and the Nazis took over, Hitler's favourite architect Albert Speer converted the complex into a giant air raid shelter. As we moved around the different levels, Dietmar showed me the tiny rooms where Berliners had cowered during the war, trying to escape air raids and, finally, the rape and brutality that accompanied Soviet invasion. In one room fluorescent safety signs from the 1940s still glowed eerily. A clammy atmosphere and dripping walls of another room were a reminder of the catastrophic flooding here at the end of the war. Many sheltering deep under Berlin were swept to watery deaths in the darkness.

After the war this complex was under the territory of the communist German Democratic Republic, the GDR. And another layer of history was added when the GDR government tried to convert it into a nuclear shelter, complete with special access for VIP limousines. The politburo's own air conditioning filter spluttered arthritically into life when we flicked the switch, still waiting to protect the leaders of the workers and peasants' state from Western imperialist assault.

Dietmar has an extensive knowledge of underground sites from all kinds of periods he's listed and photographed for a book called Dark Worlds. There are relics of early industries like weaving and brewing, huge gothic foundations for imperial statues of the Kaisers. He's found tunnels used for daring bank robberies, for desperate escape attempts under the Berlin Wall, and for eavesdropping when Berlin was the capital of Cold War espionage.

To judge from one or two anxious conversations he was having with a fellow explorer, the Cold War isn't entirely over down here. It appears that his western team of enthusiasts, which has founded a company to try to publicise its discoveries, has an eastern rival made up of former GDR secret police and border guards. The Easterners have specialist knowledge gleaned from the years they patrolled underground looking for escapees or politically unreliable sewer rats. Dietmar seemed rattled by the idea that he might bump into these spectres of an old regime as he continued tramping through the Berlin labyrinth.

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