Bunker of former East German leaders open to public

PRENDEN, Germany Fri Aug 1, 2008 2:27pm EDT

1 of 4. An engine room inside the so-called 'Honecker Bunker' is pictured in Prenden some 50 kilometres north of the German capital Berlin, August 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz

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PRENDEN, Germany (Reuters) - Visitors flocked to the once top-secret bunker of Erich Honecker and other leaders of former East Germany as it opened to the public on Friday, almost 19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The huge underground complex, northeast of Berlin, close to where Honecker and the former ruling elite of communist East Germany used to live, will be open for three months and then closed off for good.

It was built between 1978 and 1983 at the height of the Cold War as a shelter and command centre for the East German National Defence Council in case of nuclear attack.

Honecker visited the bunker only once, for 15 minutes.

"Contemporary witnesses told us that Honecker was more or less frightened or shocked when he walked through here," said Sebastian Tenschert, one of the founders of the Berlin Bunker Network, which helped make the facility accessible.

The complex covers an area slightly smaller than a soccer pitch and used up 85,000 tonnes of concrete in its construction.

The standard two-hour guided tour of the three-storey bunker takes visitors through heavy steel doors and gloomy, musty hallways past some 300 rooms.

The wallpaper is peeling. Typewriters, bunk beds, chairs and shower curtains are covered in a white mould.

"OSTALGIE"

The tours are being booked up quickly, said Tenschert.

The interest in Honecker's bunker is the latest example of "Ostalgie" -- a nostalgia for the former east. In May last year a communist-style hotel, or "Ostel", opened in Berlin with pictures of Honecker on the walls.

Among the first to visit the bunker was Falko Schewe, a technician who helped maintain it from 1987 to 1991. Only his close family knew what he did for a living, he said.

Wolfgang Schubert, a member of the former East German government who helped plan the bunker, said it was clear the facility had been unknown in western Germany.

West Germany also had an underground nuclear bunker near Bonn, reserved for the political elite, that was unknown at least to the public until after the Cold War ended.

After the Wall came down, the armed forces of the newly united Germany took control of the Prenden bunker.

It was closed in 1993 and declared a historical building, but intruders repeatedly broke in to hunt for communist-era souvenirs. In October the bunker will be sealed with a concrete cap intended to make it fully secure.

(Additional reporting by Inke Kappeler; writing by Eva Kuehnen; editing by Andrew Roche)

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