16 Hours in the Life of a Soldier from East Germany's National People's Army
*This article was originally posted on Gate 37 and was written by Adam Bennett.*
Hidden deep within the forest of Thuringia about an hour’s drive outside the quaint German medieval city of Erfurt, the Waldhotel Reinsteighöehe hotel conceals an amazing secret: A fully equipped Cold War nuclear bunker.
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Reinsteighöehe bunker was run by the Stasi, the East German Secret Police force and was predominately occupied by a selection of conscripts from the National People’s Army (NVA), whose doctrine and structure was strongly influenced by the Soviet Union.
Under 6ft of reinforced steel and concrete and at around half the size of a football field, 30 state security troops were stationed to carry out security and bunker maintenance round the clock ensuring it was fully operational if or when a nuclear attack occurred.
The bunker’s primary purpose was to act as a command centre for East Germany’s military elite in the wake of a nuclear attack. If Mutually Assured Destruction had broken down and the West carried out an attack on the East, the bunker would have been a hive of activity, ensuring that Soviet Communism within East Germany prevailed.
Under the command of Major Gerhard Lange, leader of the Suhl district and administrator for State Security, the garrison would have remained on constant high alert to protect the bunker from attack. With the civilian population either dead or slowing dying from a nuclear winter, inside the bunker NVA soldiers would have had 8 hours rest in a warm bunk bed and then dined on pea, bean or cabbage soup.
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was always militarily and politically dependent on the Soviet Union. It was the role of the Russian Liaison Officers to communicate with Moscow, in particular, Vladimir Putin, now President of Russia, at his KGB post in Dresden. District officials used the bunker to perform executive duties and up to 130 people including secretaries and typists all had crucial roles to play.
As darkness descends through the mouldy grey sky, along with 8 other men and women I am taking part in a 16-hour reality experience as a soldier of the National East German People’s Army (NVA). We are standing rigidly upright to attention outside the Waldhotel Reinsteighöehe, each wearing original NVA uniforms complete with gas masks. Thomas Krüger has adopted the rank of Comrade Major, joined by Ronny and other NVA officers. Barking instructions in stern German, it appears that it is time for us to march into the forest to the bunker.
Despite rising from the ground like a concrete wave covered in badly kept grass, the bunker is easy to overlook unless you are looking for it. Entering through the front gates and walking into the bunker’s numerous rooms and workstations, I can almost hear the sounds of computers whirring, phones ringing and the click-clacking of typewriter keys as secretaries keep records of key events.
As we gather in a room at the end of a long corridor there is a blackboard cartogram on the wall where attacks and bomb explosions would have been mapped. Through a small door, there is a narrow corridor with bunk beds cramped together along the right-hand side. It is here I am given my first task. Preparing my bed for the evening.
Thankfully, it soon became apparent that this was not to be a tough experience. Whilst fumbling with the sheets and pillowcases, a fellow soldier hands me a generous ration of eggnog. Following a cheery “prost” and with a spring in my step, thanks mostly to the eggnog, we band of merry brothers are led back down to the front gate for guard duty.
Wearing an armband for protection, instead of a Kalashnikov rifle, I am instructed to march up and down. “Make sure the wrong people don’t get in and the good ones do!” Major Krüger exclaims in thick German.
After 45 minutes of ‘demanding’ guard work, I was fed and watered, devouring local Thuringia bratwurst and plenty of beer. The BBQ gave me the ideal opportunity to find out what the other would-be soldiers in my squad thought of the experience. “Without knowing its important history, the bunker is nothing more than a rusty hole in the ground,” said one participant.
Another explained, “We have come here to celebrate my friend’s 50th birthday as we thought it would be a bit of fun. We’re having a great time and it’s really fascinating to see how our country has changed over the past few decades since the Berlin Wall fell.”
Major Krüger has operated the bunker reality experiences since 2007. Costing €109 per person depending on the group size, many choose to attend as a way to learn about life before reunification. He explained, “I find that it is good working in the bunker and I also go to events concerning its history. It’s very enjoyable here.”
After everyone had enjoyed their meal it was time for a tour of the bunker. This began with gas mask drills. “Imagine there is an attack, you have less than 20 seconds to put your mask on.” Said Ronny, another NVA Officer. He checked his watch and loudly counted down in German, it was then when my pulse began racing.
Scrambling for my gas mask, in the dark damp bunker corridor and attempting to get it over my head was difficult enough without the added pressure of a time limit and an audience watching with bated breath. “Schnell! Schnell!” shouted Ronny, making the experience even more realistic. For a moment, it felt like this one task would confirm life or death. Thankfully I managed to get the mask on in the final seconds.
Ronny later explained “There are 60 volunteers of the museum with 10 people working at a time to uphold the history of the bunker and keep it maintained and restored. We believe that it is important to acknowledge that this isn’t a museum of death, but a living museum.”
As I continue through the bunker, navigating my way through pre-lock decontamination areas, command rooms and the bunker’s belly, I discover vast machinery designed to ensure that there is enough electricity from the generators to supply clean air for those trapped in the bunker for what could become months.
If the generators had broken down, personnel would have been required to ride a bicycle to provide electricity, turning the bunker into a fitness centre. Ten minutes hard peddling would provide air for one hour. And should the bike break down, a hand operated crank existed so that, in theory, electricity was always available.
Within the inner sanctum lies the ‘situation room’. The biggest and most intriguing room of the bunker, complete with a Karl Marx table runner, original newspapers and other artefacts. It was from here that bunker life would have been organized and from where the District Government would have made crucial decisions.
At the head of the table lies a bust of Russian secret agent Dr Richard Sorge. A top Soviet spy during WWII, Sorge was a celebrated martyr in Socialist states, often referred to as a “peace scout”. He was a journalist for the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung in Japan and acted as a spy for Josef Stalin. Before the end of the war, Dr Richard Sorge was betrayed by his Japanese mistress and was arrested by the Tokyo secret police. He was interrogated, tortured and sentenced to death and in November 1944 was publicly executed in Tokyo.
At the end of our tour, we pass by an open weapons cabinet where Soviet Kalashnikov rifles, Makarov pistols and hand grenades had been stored. In a time of tense political anxiety, it was crucial for those inside the bunker to be able to protect themselves either from the enemy or, more likely, from those dying outside trying to escape the harsh nuclear winter that follows a blast.
Major Krüger explains “The doors to the weapon cabinet were stolen after the Wall fell in 1989 at which time the bunker was partially plundered. We have since located these doors, which were found in a neighbouring village, and reinstated them.”
The next morning, at the break of dawn, I was rudely awoken by the air raid siren. “You cannot be sleeping all the time, you must go to the show” explained the Officer responsible for my early rising. I was subsequently ordered to do morning exercises involving squats, running on the spot and press ups, which for someone who prefers a pint and a good book over physical exercise, was particularly gruelling.
On the march back to the hotel, we are all eagerly anticipating the hotel’s breakfast buffet and a well-deserved shower. Whilst my 16 hours as an NVA conscript was undoubtedly nowhere near as demanding as it would have been for those during the Cold War, I have never been more appreciative of my civilian status.
This article was originally posted in October 2014.