There are days when the secrets of the Third Reich are especially nerve-wracking to Captain Andreas König. On these days, the telephone doesn't stop ringing. It could be one of König's guards calling to report that a patrol has just taken another treasure hunter into custody. Or someone is on the line who at first sounds perfectly reasonable, but then wants to discuss Hitler's supposed atom bomb with König, claiming it's buried under his feet.
This badgered officer is the commander of Ohrdruf, a military training ground in Thuringia that includes parts of an especially enchanted area: the Jonas Valley. Like virtually no other place in Germany, this wild canyon has ignited the fantasies of an international league of conspiracy theorists and treasure hunters. They believe that this magical place holds untold art treasures, the Amber Room, giant caverns filled with tanks ready for action - and the first German atom bomb, together with its powerful carrier rocket.
During the last few months of World War II, Hitler's followers did in fact have a complex network of underground passages and caverns built in the Jonas Valley. The complex was to be the Führer's last headquarters. Thousands of slave laborers from concentration camps were forced to excavate 25 tunnels into shell limestone cliffs. They also built a multi-story bunker which, packed with technology, was to serve as a communications center.
The highest-ranking Nazis intended to fight their last battle from this site. And virtually all of them - men like Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Heinrich Himmler - were seen in the vicinity during these final weeks, as the initial construction began on secret project "S III."
However, the final battle for this fortress of tunnels in the Jonas Valley took place without Hitler and his bodyguards. And the victorious allies made sure that the myth of this tunnel system could truly flourish. The US military combed through the valley in 1945, but Washington intends to keep its records under lock and key for a few more decades. The Soviet army, which took over the site from the Americans, immediately classified it as a restricted zone and then used it as a military training ground. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the site was taken over by the German armed forces.
For lack of hard information, present-day treasure hunters, excellently connected through the internet, are all the more enthusiastic in their use of historical sources and secretive contemporary witnesses. New books on the subject keep popping up, further fueling the flames of adventure. As a result, this tranquil valley has been turned into a virtual madhouse. Almost every weekend, amateur sleuths arrive in the region armed with metal detectors, satellite navigation equipment, and digging tools. All of this, of course, is illegal. Anyone caught in the restricted zone must pay a fine.
Captain König's files are stuffed with documents about the bunker craze. He calls his bundle of papers on the secrets of the valley "my X-file." In the beginning, König, who is in charge of the 12,000 acre site, tried to argue with the treasure hunters. When a few of them saw a reddish-orange cloud hovering over the valley and conjectured that someone was flying through the air with Hitler's secret planes, the commander soberly explained to them that the phenomenon had been caused by ground flare testing. "They were reflections in the sky," he said.
Unfortunately, none of the treasure hunters believes a word this poor man has to say, which is why König has given up trying to reason with every crackpot who crosses his path. For example, he won't even listen to an amateur researcher who claims to have located 480 to 520 combat tanks in underground caverns.
Diviners have already been there, a tornado researcher has circled over the site, and gamma and beta radiation levels have been measured. But nothing has been found.
Well, at least not by experts of the German armed forces. Because König is an open-minded man, he allowed a Hamburg reconnaissance firm onto the site. It claimed that aerial images showed the outlines of a giant rocket beneath the ground. The experts from Hamburg warned against a possible nuclear explosion, even though there was absolutely no evidence of the rocket.
Tourism companies have also discovered König's restricted military zone. It's almost become like the famous Area 51 in America, where fanatics repeatedly claim to have sighted strange airborne objects - just like in the Jonas Valley. A travel agency in Saxony has advertised two-day excursions into the Jonas Valley under a category it calls "Flying Saucers." The company offers its tour as being "accompanied by an insider." It hardly comes as a surprise that Commander König has already found a minibus filled with tourists on his site, which is heavily contaminated with ammunition. The curious tourists had simply driven around the barricades.
Sometimes König has been able to help, such as in the case of a young man who, during an illegal exploration tour, heard the sound of engines deep underground in an old tunnel. The man, completely distraught, risked paying the fine and informed the military. König was able to quickly identify the source of the noise, and it wasn't a surviving member of the Nazi elite taking his tank for an underground spin. It was simply an excavator in an adjacent gravel pit.
Of course, it's virtually impossible to reason with the self-proclaimed nuclear experts. One of them is Thomas Mehner, a member of the board of the directors of the so-called Jonas Valley Society and author of a book titled "The Secret of the German Atom Bomb." Mehner is convinced that it was the Germans and not the Americans who built the first atom bomb. And that it could still be lying dormant underground in Thuringia.
Mehner cleverly weaves his way through verifiable facts, only to pad them with a heavy dose of interpretation. For example, it is a proven fact that in the 1940s a team of nuclear researchers working with Kurt Diebner and Walther Gerlach maintained a research laboratory in the nearby town of Stadtilm, and that nuclear energy was the focus of their work.
In 1962, East German officials interviewed contemporary witness who claimed to have sighted atomic weapons tests on the training ground in March 1945. Cläre Werner, for example, a former administrator of the adjacent Veste Wachsenburg who is now deceased, assured officials that she had seen a glowing light, as bright "as hundreds of bolts of lightning," red inside and yellow on the outside, at approximately 9:30 p.m. on March 4, 1945. Werner went on to describe how a powerful squall had moved across the mountains. The next day, she said, she and others in the areas had had nosebleeds, headaches, and sensations of pressure in their ears. She also claimed that she had heard another loud noise on March 12th at 10:15 p.m.
No one has ever determined what exactly exploded there. To Mehner and others who propose similar theories, however, the indications serve as sufficient proof that Hitler was having his bomb built in the valley, and that leftover bombs could still be lying around today.
Both the military's counter-espionage service and the state security agency of the state of Thuringia gave seriously consideration to this theory. An investigator spent weeks pursuing every conceivable lead, but without results.
Even the East German political leadership was aware of the legends and had its state security agency poke around in the Jonas Valley. Stasi investigator Paul Enke, for example, spent his entire life searching for the Amber Room, and his work also took him to the Jonas Valley. Enke concluded that his intensive search through archives had yielded evidence of art treasures "that had been taken from East Prussia to Thuringia." The ruins of Hitler's last-ditch headquarters play a central role in Enke's writings.
Of course, the former Stasi officer, since deceased, found neither the costly wall hangings from Zarskoje Selo nor anything else that could be converted into cash. To this day, however, his suggestions have helped fuel the rush to explore these tunnels dug into shell limestone. In 1991, this prompted the Free State of Thuringia to have those entrances closed off that had not yet been dynamited by the SS and Allied forces. "Even drilling into the tunnels has produced nothing," assures Dieter Zeigert, author of a book about the Jonas Valley titled "Hitler's Last Refuge." Zeigert was the commander of the military training ground for five years, and is familiar with every tunnel and every bit of concrete protruding from the ground in the area. He does not believe that the complex still contains anything of interest.
But Germany's secrecy fanatics remain undeterred by Zeigert's assessment. Regular expeditions are organized on an internet web site called www.schatzsucher.de (www.treasurehunters.de). For some people, as little as two plastic rods, a pin and a piece of wire are enough to find world-class treasures. Put together, they make an acceptable divining rod, with which Martin Stade, author of the book "Amber Rooms in Thuringia and other Hollow Spaces," likes to guide history buffs through the Jonas Valley. Stade, who is of course an honorary board member of the Jonas Valley Society, apparently knows something no one else does.
On an inconspicuous parking lot in the valley, for example, Stade routinely casts his divining rod, because he believes that Hitler had UFO-like flying saucers developed in bunkers at this site. He's divined 174 of these objects beneath the ground.
Stade also believes that the Führer's telephone system inside the tunnel network is still connected to the public telephone system. In fact, he claims that it's buried deep in the archives of the German Reichspost, and that he found Hitler's number there. It's 03624-1200500.
Although the Führer's number is a working number, it's always busy.
Translated by Christopher Sultan