Photographers' Blog

A night in a bunker

October 24, 2013

Ilmenau, Germany

By Ina Fassbender

One Saturday morning I began to time travel for 16 hours to a place in eastern Germany, traveling to the time of the former DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), to the time of two countries and two armies. To the bunker museum at Rennsteighoehe, in the middle of the Thueringer forest. It is owned by the “Waldhotel Rennsteighoehe”, which offers a ‘reality event’ weekend, to sleep one night in a bunker built by the ministry for national security MfS, wear a NVA (Nationale Volksarmee or National People’s Army) uniform and be treated like a former DDR soldier for the night.

I arrived in the middle of the forest with 14 others taking part in this reality event. First, everybody had to choose trousers, jackets, belts and caps. A gas mask was essential. Then a man, who looked like a major, appeared with a frightening look in his eyes and scolded us with severe words, exhorting us to find the bunker some 30 kms (18 miles) away. So we walked with our luggage through the forest. We were happy to find the bunker after only 100 meters (yards). At a closed gate a man, who had the look of a former NVA officer, welcomed us with no warm words. Rather he gave commands like in former times.

GALLERY: INSIDE A GERMAN BUNKER

At that moment I remembered my first meeting with the NVA. I visited friends in Berlin in 1986 and had to use the 200 km (124 miles) transit motorway through the former DDR. At the customs inspection I waited for many hours; don’t do anything, stay calm, don’t smile, be serious. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, there was the moment NVA soldiers had to control me. I was in fear. They looked into my eyes, asked me where I wanted to go, how long would I stay there, what was the reason, was I smuggling something? They went away for 10 minutes with my pass. When they returned they uttered no words, inspected the car and my baggage inside and out. It took around 15 minutes and then I was on my way to Berlin. They found nothing.

Now there were 14 people who paid for this encounter. The officer opened the bunker and walked us to the dormitory. Everybody had to prepare their own small and uncomfortable bed. The women were then told to cut potatoes for a salad and the male soldiers had to stand guard at the entrance. One soldier had to prepare the barbecue. At that moment I was happy that the dinner was not an old soup but rather a specialty of the region, Thueringer Bartwurst.

The major and officers began to tell us stories about the bunker and its history. Marco, one of the dressed officers, was a NVA soldier when the Berlin wall came down in early November 1989 and he had to work as a soldier without days off until the middle of December.

It must have been strange for him, all these people celebrating the fall of the wall, including his family, and he had to ignore it. He said it was not easy for him. Some time later he decided that he would never be a soldier again. Later, his girlfriend asked him to be a guide at the Bunker-Museum, using all his knowledge of the period. Because he was so in love with her, he agreed and has been one of the uniformed guides at the event for more than 10 years. He is also the caretaker and concierge of the hotel.

He says sometimes older people who attend a night at the bunker still have the wall in their mind. All the memories return and some have only good memories of that time – negative memories are forgotten.

In my group there was a couple, the only ones from the former western part of Germany. Nearly all of the attendees received a voucher for this event as a birthday present from their partners or family members. Most of the male participants were NVA soldiers – there was no choice at that time, otherwise you had to go to prison or your family had to pay the consequences. Someone told me, almost every man aged over 40 was a soldier at the NVA. No one asked them if they wanted to be a soldier. They had to do it.

Hans-Georg Tiede, 65, who received the night as a birthday present from his two sons who were also taking part, was interested in historical things. After the visit he reflected on how much money was spent for these people to survive some days, week, or months? Perhaps they didn’t ask themselves this question.

In the evening we all had some beers together, some people enjoyed Vodka and women drank the typical eastern sparkling wine ‘Rotkaeppchen’. At midnight, people were tired and the snore concert started. Someone dreamed and spoke in Russian. Memories: good or bad, who knows?

After the morning exercised conducted by Andrea Friebe, who is a fitness coach in her real life, everybody was happy to sleep the next night in own beds. We ate breakfast and bid each other Auf Wiedersehen.

It was an interesting event to see how much has changed since that time even in the minds of the people.

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/