article-imageThe Honecker Bunker (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

Buried under sand and rubble in a nondescript forest north of Berlin lies a massive Cold War treasure with its secrets sealed shut, locked up and destined to stay hidden forevermore.

Bunker 17/5001 was the most sophisticated facility of its kind among members of the Warsaw Pact outside the Soviet Union. It was built some 24 meters (79 feet) underground to harbor East German leaders and top military staff even in the event of nuclear annihilation.

At a time when the maxim was, “Whoever shoots first, dies second,” the threat of catastrophe was very real and tension was understandably high. The Cold War adversaries were eying each other suspiciously over the precipice, and Berlin, divided between the superpowers, was on the battlefront in the line of fire.

East Germany’s top brass had plans drawn up for what was to become known colloquially as the Honecker Bunker, after the country’s leader Erich Honecker. 

It was to be built near the motorway, making it easily accessible from Berlin. Honecker would have shared the facility with other members of his National Defense Council (Nationaler Verteidigungsrat der DDR, or NVR). If necessary, the bunker could have operated entirely independent of the outside world to keep some 400 people alive for up to two weeks. After that, they’d have to take their chances.

article-imageThe three-story administration building (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

article-imageInside the dilapidated gym (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

Panorama of the Honecker during construction (courtesy Bunker 5001)

Construction began in 1978 and was completed just five years later. It was an astounding achievement considering its scale and the secrecy needed to ensure its security. More than 85,000 tons of reinforced concrete was used to construct the three-story facility, which has a ground floor area of 48.9 by 66.3 meters. Altogether it had (and still has) a usable floor area of just over 7,750 square meters. It’s covered by a 4.2-meter thick protective shield of reinforced concrete. That’s now covered by another six meters of sand. The structure itself is two meters below the protective shield. Its outer walls are 1.65 meters thick. The bottom plate is 2.4 meters thick. Concrete, reinforced concrete, and all covered with 8 mm steel plates to neutralize the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear weapon.

Inside, its suspended ceilings are 60 cm thick while the fortified structure’s ceiling is 70 cm thick. The protective shield extends up to 20 meters beyond the outer walls. Even if it took a direct hit from a conventional weapon, a layer of sand beneath would have cushioned the impact and theoretically saved the structure below.

In short, it was designed to withstand atomic, chemical, and biological weapons in the event the Cold War escalated to boiling point. It was deemed capable of surviving an atomic bomb 80 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima, at a range of 750 meters. (Any closer and there would have been trouble, but missiles were not as accurate at the time as they are now.)

article-imageWhat’s left of the ancillary canteen (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

article-imageSentry post at the entrance to the grounds (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

article-imageBunker infrastructure (courtesy Bunker 5001)

Soviet model absorption filter (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

Of course the impact in such an event would be tremendous, but the bunker was designed to handle massive aftershocks. The floors, or platforms, were suspended on steel cables, allowing for earth movements of up to 40 cm. All pipes to the outer walls were flexible to withstand shock. Huge steel containers were attached to the ceiling with nitrogen-filled shock absorbers and cables to provide ballast from the protective outer shell. These would have reduced a g-force acceleration of 15 to a maximum 1 g in the facility’s work and technical rooms. The largest of these containers, 25 meters wide by 25 meters wide (625m2) and eight meters tall, weighs at least 500 tons and takes up two stories. 

Bunker 5001’s all-important control center was in one of these containers on the bottom level, its emotionless grey panels adorned by a dizzying array of switches, knobs, levers, and buttons connected by colorful lines. This was the facility’s nerve center, from where all its technical operations and conditions necessary for life were monitored and controlled. The bunker had its own waterworks, could generate its own power, and had dedicated air conditioning system, making fully autonomous in terms of water, power, and air.

article-imageThe Control Center (courtesy Bunker 5001)

Bunker door (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

Decontamination chamber (courtesy Bunker 5001)

The bunker operated under higher air pressure than outside, and would have been sealed hermetically within fractions of a second by automated systems in the event of an acute threat. Air sucked into the facility went through several filters to ensure none of it was contaminated. Upon entering the facility in the event of a strike, messengers, engineers, or NVR members would have been ushered into a decontamination chamber, where their protective suits could be cleansed of radioactive and chemical warfare particles.

In the worst-case scenario they would have had two weeks — there was enough food, water, and diesel for 14 days — before facing an uncertain future. It was presumed by then that radioactive contamination would have subsided sufficiently for survivors to emerge from the bunker with protective clothing and gas masks. Armored vehicles were waiting in the adjoining garages to whisk NVR members to the nearest airfield, from where they’d fly somewhere more palatable, presuming it existed at all.

Thankfully it never came to that, or you probably wouldn’t be reading these words. The bunker lost its raison d’être when the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the end of the Cold War. The reunified Germany’s army — the Bundeswehr — took over the facility, but decided it was no longer viable, partly because it was no longer secret. The bunker closed in April of 1993.

article-imageHannes Hensel at the Honecker Bunker

Among the early explorers to rediscover the Honecker Bunker around 2002 was Hannes Hensel. With the help of fellow enthusiasts he set up the “Bunker 5001” project and documented the entire facility through photographs for an online 3D tour.

Hensel also co-wrote a book on the Honecker Bunker with Juergen Freitag, who was deputy commander for technical building work at the facility, and project members conducted tours of the site before all entrances to the bunker were “permanently” sealed shut in 2008. 

Now the “Bunker 5001” project is focused on reopening the Honecker Bunker as a museum. It hopes to raise enough money — initially around €1.5 million ($2 million) — to secure the bunker and associated surrounding buildings for guests. More than 20,000 visitors came to see it in just the three months it was given protected status in 2003, reflecting the huge interest there is in the facility.

“We want to give people the chance to look at things in a neutral way, to explain what happened, provide information and show where it comes from,” Hensel told Atlas Obscura.

article-imageCollapsing walls (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

Unwillingness to deal with an uncomfortable recent past is one hurdle Bunker 5001 has had to face. Not everyone appreciates when history is raked up and old wounds are poked again.

“Some people who came (between August and October 2008) were angry with what had happened before. But it provided a way for them to confront it. They could let go,” Hensel said. “Visiting sites like this gives people a greater understanding of the past. It helps discussion on the future. The feedback from the tours was very positive. Everyone gains something positive from it.”

Honecker himself only ever visited “his” bunker once. Evidently he didn’t feel comfortable with the thoughts of needing to use it some day.

“I realized that he probably did the same tour as we were giving in 2008,” Hensel laughed. “I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, what are the things to see.’ It would have been the same for Honecker’s visit.”

For now, nobody can visit. But if the Bunker 5001 project gets its way, you will one day be able to again follow in Honecker’s footsteps and discover the secrets of this hidden place buried in the forest.

Ciarán Fahey explores the stunning ruins of Germany’s capital at Abandoned Berlin, where you can discover more of these derelict wonders.