A taboo-busting reminder of Adolf Hitler’s life has popped up in Germany’s capital with the opening of a new exhibit -- a replica of the Nazi dictator’s bunker.
The “Berlin Story Bunker” re-creates a section of Hitler’s 3,000-square-foot underground living space near the end of World War II. It includes copies of furniture, a portrait of Frederick the Great, Hitler’s favorite Prussian leader, a small desk that holds a miniature brass statue of Hitler’s dog Blondi and an iron oxygen bottle with a mask.
The original custom-made “Fuehrerbunker” built in 1944 about a mile away was encased in a 13-foot-thick concrete shell and buried 30 feet underground. It was designed to keep Hitler safe from bombings by Allied Air Forces and Soviet artillery pummeling Berlin late in World War II. It’s also where he committed suicide in 1945 after finally accepting that his Nazi Germany was about to lose the war.
The bunker was partly destroyed after the war ended in 1945, closed off to the public in the no-man’s land east of the Berlin Wall in Communist East Germany before ultimately being sealed in the early 1990s in the aftermath of German reunification. Authorities did not want the location turning into a shrine for neo-Nazis.
Bristling at criticism that they might be glorifying Hitler and the infamous hole in the ground where his newlywed bride, Eva Braun, poisoned herself before he shot himself on April 30, 1945, the creators of the Fuehrerbunker replica insist that it is designed to be educational.
“A lot of people have a difficult-to-define fascination with Hitler and his bunker,” Enno Lenze, one of the organizers of the privately funded exhibit, said in an interview after a recent tour. “It’s a peculiar combination of voyeurism, a curiosity about separating the facts from fiction where Hitler killed himself, and a genuine interest in the history of what it felt like where the Third Reich essentially ended.”
Although Germans have meticulously studied the causes, horrors and aftermath of the Nazi regime, precious few seemed to have any particular interest in knowing precisely where the reviled Hitler’s bunker was located. Yet local officials say many foreign tourists have been curious about where the bunker and the Berlin Wall were. The disappointment was palpable for many that there was no monument, no memorial and nothing to mark the spot where the Third Reich ended until a small plaque was put up in 2006.
Over the last 25 years, a growing number of small representative sections of the Berlin Wall — which was almost entirely torn down in haste in 1989 and 1990 — were rebuilt for tourists. It seemed to be a question of time before something about the bunker was added to the city’s list of tourist attractions.
“There are so many tourists coming to Berlin who want to know more about what was going on here during the war,” said Wieland Giebel, who is also part of the Historiale organization that created and operates the exhibit, which opened Oct. 28. “One of the most-asked questions we get is: Where was Hitler’s bunker?” He added that the idea was to give people a sense of what the bunker was like during those final days of the Nazi regime.
Officials from other state-backed exhibits on the Nazi era in Berlin’s museum-filled landscape, such as the nearby Topography of Terror that explores the Gestapo’s history and Nazi crimes, have dismissed the Fuehrerbunker exhibit as sensationalism. Some Jewish leaders in Berlin and historians have expressed reservations about any attempt to make Hitler, seen by many as the incarnation of evil, appear in a normal light.
The 2004 film “Downfall” sparked controversy in Germany about Hitler’s final days because at times it portrayed him doing everyday activities such as eating spaghetti and showing kindness to his secretary and dog.
“On the one hand, the new exhibit brings this aspect of history to people who might not otherwise get to experience it,” Arnd Bauerkaempfer, a historian at Berlin’s Free University, said in an interview. “But on the other hand the danger is that this suggests a fake authenticity and there is also a danger that it personalizes the history of Hitler in his bunker.”
Bauerkaempfer said the exhibit reflected a yearning among the latest generation of postwar Germans to view the Hitler era with some detachment as a part of the country’s overall history rather than a part of their own lives.
“To a certain degree it’s a good thing that German society is able to look at the Nazi era with fewer inhibitions than earlier generations had,” he said. ”But the truth is that Hitler is never, ever going to be just a normal part of German history.”
In 2008, a German man angrily pushed his way past security guards to tear off the head of a waxwork figure of Hitler on the opening day of the exhibit at Berlin’s Madame Tussauds museum. The wax head was later repaired and restored but then the figure was kept behind a security glass. The controversy filled Berlin newspaper headlines for weeks.
To deter right-wing extremists or Nazi sympathizers from causing disruptions at the new Fuehrerbunker, visitors are required to take part in a 90-minute guided tour of the dingy premises with its suffocating and bleak feel. Any extremists will be denied entry or summarily kicked off the premises, Lenze said, and their 12-euro ($15) entrance fee donated to charities for victims of right-wing violence.
Nevertheless, some Germans harbor the same fears that long prevented Germany from marking the bunker’s original location: that the Fuehrerbunker replica will become a destination for pilgrimages.
“There are always a lot of fears in Germany that doing an exhibit like this will get you painted as a far-right supporter,” said Lenze, 34, who was often puzzled about a reticence among fellow Germans to touch the subject. “People start to panic when it involves Hitler. It’s sometimes hard to understand. We’ve got to stop panicking and have enough faith to look into all these aspects. I think it’s important to look at the end of Hitler to help understand how it all happened and how democracy got shunted aside.”
“This should help set the record straight,” Lenze said. “No, the ceilings weren’t made from marble. No, there wasn’t a secret escape tunnel to the airport. No, he didn’t flee to Argentina ... His death in this bunker was effectively the end of World War II in Europe.”