Reporter Daniel Estrin visits Germany’s most protected cultural site: “The Central Hiding Place” of the Federal Republic of Germany, also known as the Barbara tunnels. And it’s where the German government kept its most important cultural documents.
Read the Transcript
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to firstname.lastname@example.org. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
JEB SHARP: Germany isn’t just doing it’s best to safeguard its economy. Berlin is also working overtime to protect its cultural heritage. In the Black Forest sits the “Central Hiding Place of the Federal Republic of Germany.” The former mine shaft is better known as the Barbara Tunnels, named after St. Barbara, the patron saint of mines. It’s a place the public rarely sees. But reporter Daniel Estrin took a tour.
DANIEL ESTRIN: This story may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. In the 1970s, the German government created an underground archive to prepare for its worst nightmare. An atomic war that might wipe out the German civilization and any remnants of its history.
MARTIN LUCHTERHANDT: The vision of the next coming war will be an atomic war. That you are living on a totally damaged surface. There will be no civilization, and down in the earth you will find that documents where you can remind yourself of the things you had in times lost.
ESTRIN: That’s Dr. Martin Luchterhandt of the German National Archives. He says that after archives were bombed during World War II, this doomsday scenario didn’t seem so far-fetched. Now, Germany doesn’t anticipate mass destruction any time soon, but the government still keeps the archive up to date. A couple times a year, officials let journalists in to check it out.
ESTRIN: Julia Wiechers is my guide. She’s from Germany’s Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance. My translator and I meet her in a rustic village in southwest Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest. We drive into the mountains and arrive at a small vaulted opening with a metal gate. There’s no sign saying what this is. Why not?
JULIA WIECHERS: Why not?
WIECHERS: It’s not a secret what it is, but it’s not public, as well, so [INDISCERNIBLE] she will have to ask why there’s no sign.
ESTRIN: All that marks the spot is a plaque with a cryptic symbol. Three blue and white pentagons. The UN’s highest level of protection for a cultural site. No soldiers are allowed within a three kilometer radius, and no military planes are allowed to fly overhead. Security guard Bjoern Matzken leads the way. We walk down a dimly lit tunnel and arrive at a large red vault. He begins to open the lock. It’s a 13-number combination. How many people know the code?
BJOERN MATZKEN: Two.
ESTRIN: Two people. You and…
MATZKEN: My CEO.
ESTRIN: We step inside the inner sanctum of the…
ESTRIN: That means the Central Hiding Place of the Federal Republic of Germany. Its two chambers filled floor-to-ceiling with shiny metal barrels. Inside each barrel are thick rolls of microfilm with images of documents. 855 million images total, including Bach’s handwritten manuscripts, blueprints of the Cologne Cathedral, and Hitler’s certificate of appointment as Chancellor. This is all of the important documents of Germany, in two rooms.
MATZKEN: Not yet.
ESTRIN: It’s still a work in progress. Twice a year archivists copy more documents onto microfilm and bring them here for safekeeping.
WERMAN: Microfilm may seem old-school, but Wiechers says it can be preserved for up to 500 years. The idea here is to be extra prepared for catastrophe. But, and this may sound odd for Germany, there isn’t actually much order here.
LUCHTERHANDT: There is no order in the boxes. It’s just a chaotic system. We have the lists here in the office and in the storage you only have numbers.
ESTRIN: What if the list here is destroyed?
LUCHTERHANDT: Then the storage, you won’t find lots of things in the storage.
ESTRIN: Luchterhandt, the archivist, admits there are still some kinks to work out. Like, they’re working on putting an inventory list inside the tunnels. But he still believes in the importance of his work.
LUCHTERHANDT: We don’t know the concrete aim. You know it’s important to keep it, but its work without name.
ESTRIN: That’s the paradox of the Barbara Tunnels. You never know if anyone will actually ever need what’s inside them. But Luchternhandt hopes that at the very least, maybe 500 years from now, someone will be curious to take a peek. For The World, I’m Daniel Estrin, somewhere in the Black Forest of Germany.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at email@example.com.