One of the best things I did on my first visit to Berlin was take a tour with Berliner Unterwelten: the Berlin Underworlds Association.
For over 15 years, the company has been running tours beneath the city, opening up access to air raid shelters, bunkers, fortresses, and escape tunnels. My parents took a tour with them a couple of years ago and have raved about it ever since, so experiencing it first-hand was right at the top of my list of things to do in Berlin.
I planned to jump on tour M, which takes you beneath the Berlin Wall and through the escape tunnels dug by East Berliners fleeing to the West during the Cold War.
Well, something really frustrating about this tour company is that they don’t let you book tickets in advance; you can only buy them on the same day as you want to take the tour. I rocked up a couple of hours before my chosen tour was leaving, assuming that would be early enough, but nope! They were all sold out.
I was gutted, especially as it was my last day in Berlin, so I couldn’t put it off for another day.
Fortunately, there was a different tour — Tour 1; the Dark Worlds Tour — leaving in half an hour, and it did still have tickets available. I knew nothing about it, but bought one anyway.
Here’s what it had in store for me:
Everyday hundreds of people walk past a green door in the Gesundbrunnen underground railway station, unaware that within lies a subterranean labyrinth full of history just waiting to be experienced.
Berlin was the nerve centre of the Third Reich and therefore one of the main targets for allied bombing during WWII. On this tour our expert guides will lead you in exploring one of the few remaining bunkers, as it was left after the war. There you will learn more about the life of the average Berlin citizen during the air-raids that destroyed up to 80% of the city’s centre. Travelling through the twisting passages and rooms, you will also see countless artefacts from the war that have been buried for decades.
There were around twenty people taking the tour with me, and sadly, photography was not permitted, so I can’t show you any photos of what the bunker looked like.
But suffice to say, it was eerie and depressing, the rooms were cramped, the air was thick, damp, and heavy, and though I don’t normally get claustrophobic, I felt suffocated as we descended into the shelter.
And the entrance is just how it was described above: you enter the subway station, make a turn, and there’s a huge, heavy door that marks the entrance to the shelter. If you hadn’t taken one of these tours, you’d have no idea what was behind it.
Over the next hour, I gained a fascinating insight into the lives of Berlin citizens during the air raids of the second World War, from observing the composting toilets that were used by everyone, to huddling in the tiny, cramped rooms that were for mothers and children.
Many of the rooms were painted in toxic phosphorescent paint — which we were warned not to touch multiple times — so that whenever the power was cut, the rooms would illuminate in an eerie shade of green. This glow can still be seen clearly today whenever the lights are turned off.
Which, yes, did make me feel pretty nervous.
One of the stories that stuck most with me was when our guide described how they’d monitor the levels of oxygen in the room.
With so many people crammed into such a small space, and with oxygen rising to the ceiling and carbon dioxide sinking, candles would be used to figure out how much longer civilians could remain in safety.
First, they’d place a candle on the floor. As soon as it flickered out, they’d place another one on a wooden bench and bring the children up onto their laps. When that flame was extinguished, there was one final candle that would be held at waist height, while everyone stood on the benches.
And when that candle went out? Everyone would have to leave, even if there was a full-on air raid taking place outside the door. Their choice was to either suffocate or take the risk of being bombed above ground.
And given what’s currently going on in the world, our tour guide drew many parallels between Hitler and a certain presidential candidate that she clearly despised. Somebody asked how Hitler could have been democratically elected, and the answer was startlingly familiar: by creating a sense of fear among German citizens; by telling them that Germany’s problems had all been caused by the Jews; and by claiming that he could make Germany great again.
As a British person, I have to say the tour was full of valuable insights. I guess during history lessons in school, it was always just us being taught that *the Germans* were the enemy. I’d never really stopped to consider the experiences of German civilians at the time. Having their experiences brought to life and learning about how terrifying this would have been to them was, well, awful. I came away feeling that it had been so important for me to go on this tour to gain this new outlook into what civilians went through at this time.
Speaking of being British…
Towards the end of the tour, we stopped in a tiny room and huddled up close together on small benches.
“And as the British dropped these bombs,” the tour guide started, before pausing. “Do we have anyone British here by the way?”
I stared straight down at my feet.
That was kind of an awkward question to ask, and as everyone else remained silent, I wasn’t going to be the lone Brit to be shamed by the group. I didn’t know what the guide was going to say about my Britishness, but I was certain it wasn’t going to be positive.
I kept my lips firmly closed.
“No British people? Okay. Well, let’s find out where you’re all from then.”
My eyes widened and she began going around in a circle, pointing at people one-by-one and asking where they had come from.
“Holland,” a couple called out.
“Israel,” said someone else.
“Shit,” I whispered to myself.
What was I going to say? I couldn’t just come out and say that I was British after deliberately remaining silent! But what else was I going to say? I have a British accent! I can’t do any other accents. My accents are terrible. The Worst.
Where the hell should I say I’m from?
The guide was closing in on me now; there were only two people ahead of me and they were both American, which meant I definitely couldn’t say I was from anywhere in North America. I’d be found out immediately.
Where hadn’t anyone said they were from? What accent can I do?
I was still racking my brains to think of a country when the guide’s finger landed on me.
I looked up.
She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
“Where are you from?”
“New Zealand,” I blurted out.
Except, I tried to do a New Zealand accent at the time and kind of squeaked out, “Noo Zulund” and then turned crimson red.
“New Zealand!” somebody exclaimed. “You’ve come from the other side of the world.”
I nodded and smiled, running through Dave’s geographical history in my head.
I’ll tell them I grew up in Ashburton, but lived in Christchurch for a few years. That my accent isn’t strong because I lived in the U.K. for three years. Oh god, please don’t ask me any questions. Please don’t make me say anything else in my terrible, terrible accent.
“Which island?” somebody asked.
“South Island,” I whispered in my New Zealand accent that was starting to sound strangely like an Indian one.
I then had to spend the rest of the tour avoiding eye contact and making sure I didn’t accidentally say anything or draw attention to myself, in case it led to me having to open my mouth.
And that was how I took a tour of a Berlin air raid shelter as a New Zealander.
Aside from that mishap, I loved this tour. It was fascinating, well-run, and I was captivated by our guide’s stories the entire time. Given that it’s just €11 for a 90-minute tour, it’s well-worth the money and I highly recommend it.
Any downsides? The tour was kind of boring at the end. Once we finished the World War II segment, we moved on to learning about the subway’s use in more recent times, such as keeping beer cold, and how the station was part of a pneumatic postal system. It felt that these sections had been shoved on to the end to lengthen the tour, and I didn’t pay all that much attention to them.
And not just because I was practicing my New Zealand accent in my head.
If you do decide to check out one of the underground tours of Berlin, don’t do what I did, and make sure to head to the ticket office in the morning to ensure you get a spot on the tour you want. You can see a full list of what tours they offer and their times here.
This was one of the best tours I’ve ever taken, and I’m looking forward to trying out a second one when I return to Berlin in the spring. Because I will be returning in the spring: that’s how much I loved Berlin! I really want to show Dave around one of my new favourite cities, but not in winter.