Berlin-Brandenburg’s Explosive Past

On December 15, 2008, several bombs were discovered hidden in a Parisian luxury department store. At this moment, it looks as though an Afghani extremist group placed them there. Fortunately, the bombs were found before they could do any damage. Other parts of Europe have problems with bombs too, but they often have nothing to do with terrorists, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word. The bombs were dropped by Allied planes during the Second World War.

Even the most just of wars can have long-term negative consequences for people born long after it is over. Many Europeans still have to deal with the problems caused by the thousands of bombs that still lie in the soil here, waiting to be discovered. Probably no area has more of them than Germany’s federal capital Berlin, and the surrounding state of Brandenburg. Recently, the State Parliament of Brandenburg was forced to suspend its proceedings while seven bombs, which had been discovered near the parliament building, were disarmed and removed. Along with the parliament, two primary schools, scientific research institutes, a swimming-hall, an old-age home and several hundred apartments were evacuated, some 3,000 people altogether.

Americans may find this an unusual event, but for those of us who live here, it’s a regular occurrence. Hardly a single day goes by without a bomb-evacuation taking place somewhere. (I myself have had to leave my apartment for several hours twice over the last five years.) The simple reason for this is that no other area in Europe was subject to such long-term saturation bombing as Berlin-Brandenburg was. Besides being the capital of the Third Reich, Berlin, together with its surrounding area of Brandenburg, had the highest concentration of command centers, intelligence centers, military bases, armaments works, research centers and war-related facilities in all of Germany. Nearly every fourth tank, every third artillery piece, and every single submarine battery was produced in or near Berlin. That’s why the Allies dropped some 48.000 tons of high-explosive and fire bombs on Berlin, killing around 18,000 civilians and destroying one-third of the city’s buildings.

Altogether some one million acres of land here are considered contaminated by unexploded munitions left over from the war, or by postwar military exercises. The city worst hit by this problem is Oranienburg, just north of Berlin. Oranienburg was not only the site of the notorious concentration camp Sachsenhausen, but also of the Heinkel bomber works. Since German reunification in 1990, more than 140 bombs have been discovered in the inner-city of Oranienburg. The last evacuation there took place on December 1, 2008, as 11,000 people had to leave their homes and places of work for several hours, while police experts defused a 2.5-ton bomb dropped by an American or a British bomber. Normally the bombs are defused where they are found, before being brought to special detonation areas in nearby forests, where they are exploded safely.

Oranienburg and Potsdam are both located in the former East Germany, which is no coincidence. Unlike the authorities in West Germany and West Berlin, the communist government never undertook a systematic search for bombs leftover from the Second World War. Sites where bombs could possibly still lie are determined by examining old aerial photographs taken by the American Army Air Force and the British Royal Air Force. Bombed areas were normally photographed after air-raids to determine how successful the attacks were. Craters show where the bombs exploded, small pinpoint-like marks suggest where the bombs sank into the ground without detonating.

The aerial photographs of Berlin were handed over to the government of West Berlin by the western Allies in the 1980s. Aerial photos of Brandenburg, located in the former East Germany, were not provided during the Cold War. The state of Brandenburg now has to purchase them for 16 Euros a piece. Since the mid-1990’s thousands of photos have been evaluated. But they appear to be well worth the price, considering the amazing fact that only a few people have been killed or seriously injured by the bombs since the intensified search for them began. This is a testimony to the skill of the police bomb experts. The head of the Potsdam bomb squad, a man named Manuel Kunzendorf, has single-handedly defused over 500 bombs and shells since 1990. In fact, the authorities have the problem so well under control, that the bombs are considered by locals not as a threat but a nuisance.

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