East Germany's Forgotten Bunkers New Research Sheds Light on Soviet Plans for World War III
German historians are divided over the significance of a massive Communist-era bunker in the former East Germany. Was it to be used as a command post in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe? Researchers now believe Europe was closer to the nuclear abyss than was previously believed.
Riding in fully enclosed trucks, a military construction crew under the command of the East German National People's Army was driven to a remote woodlot near Kossa in the state of Saxony, which at the time was part of communist East Germany. They were not supposed to hear anything, see anything or say anything. They were only here to work.
First, the soldiers put up 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) of steel fencing and ran 6,000 volts of electricity through it. The men dug deep holes with excavators and poured concrete walls. Then the underground facility was fitted with electronic systems.
The secret fortress was completed in 1979. Located in the middle of a heath, the installation consisted of six separate bunkers that cannot be seen from the air, spread over an area of 75 hectares (185 acres), and built with blast-resistant steel doors and decontamination showers.
Anyone interested in touring the premises today would be well advised to wear rubber boots. The road passes through thick pine forests and ends at a gate.
Olaf Strahlendorff, who is the director of the Kossa Military Museum, steps out of a camouflage-painted hut to greet the visitors. "Hi," he says. "This is where the Russians planned to conduct World War III."
Passing through gas-proof airlocks, the man descends a narrow staircase, walking past protective suits and rusty dosimeters. The air is heavy with the smell of musty plywood. Military trucks with satellite dishes are parked inside 40 meter (130 feet) long underground structures known as "vehicle tubes."
Until recently, the official line was that this unusual facility served as a shelter for the territorial command of the third military district of the National People's Army, which would have had some 90,000 troops under its command at a time of war.
Direct Lines to Moscow
But a number of historians now suspect that it served a different purpose. Torsten Diedrich, for instance, of the Potsdam-based Military History Research Institute, attributes a far greater role to the bunker -- which the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, in a perhaps shortsighted move, sold to a taxidermist in South Africa in 1993. "Kossa was a command bunker for the Warsaw Pact," Diedrich says.
In the event of military hostilities, 350 officers and non-commissioned officers, along with a complete telecommunications team of 250 specialists, could have reported for duty in this prison-like stronghold, where they would have commanded an army of millions as it headed toward Western Europe.
Even today, there are telephones sitting in the dust of the bunker. Subterranean antenna arrays extend under the forest floor. The bunker had direct lines to Moscow. Using tropospheric radio stations, they would have been able to send messages even through large atomic flashes.
But would that have been enough for the final battle? Some experts remain skeptical. "I think it's a bit too small for a frontline command center," says Bundeswehr historian Heiner Bröckermann.
Behind the controversy lies a fundamental problem. Although Hollywood films often portray gruff Soviet marshals with their fingers poised atop a red button, no contemporary historian can say with any degree of certainty where the command posts for a nuclear war would have been located.
When the Soviets withdrew from the former East Germany, they left behind a large number of gutted defensive structures and contaminated military training grounds, but no one knows exactly what purpose these facilities served.
What is clear, however, is that in the event of a war, East German leader Erich Honecker would have taken refuge in Prenden, near Berlin, where the Politburo had set up a vast fortified bunker with a full kitchen and a bath. But what purpose were the other 1,200 bunkers in the GDR designed to serve?
These days treasure hunters armed with metal detectors occasionally poke around in the musty subterranean chambers. Some of the structures have collapsed or filled with water. Others have been turned into museums.