From 1934 on, the city planners and architects of the Third Reich were building large representative structures, wherein the extent of the underground levels surpassed all previous buildings. A typical example can be seen in the extension of the Reich bank with its three underground floors and the largest safe in Germany. Also the Tempelhof airport, then the biggest building in the world, has in addition to an underground train connection, over 4.3 kilometres of traversable supply canals wherein the entire infrastructure of the building is housed.
In order to prepare Berlin for the 1936 Olympic Games, construction began in 1934 on north-south tunnel of the S-Bahn. For this large project, the new rulers were able to make use of plans from the 1920s. The project was also used successfully for propaganda purposes, in that with one stroke thousands of workers were able to be employed, who dug the trench more or less by hand. Slogans like: “we thank the Fuehrer that are building here” were hung above the construction site.
Yet the project was overshadowed by the worst tragedy in the history of underground construction in Berlin. On the 20th of August 1935, just south of the Brandenburg Gate directly in front of the American embassy, a 14 metre deep, 50 metre long section of the trench collapsed. Dozens of workers were buried under the falling wooden scaffolding and planks. Of these, 19 were found dead. An investigation revealed that insufficient support for the trench walls was the cause. Yet the immense pressure to finish in time for the Olympic Games as well as last minute planning changes related to the redevelopment of Berlin were also to blame. Even the funeral service was rushed, so that only 17 of the 19 dead could be laid down. Although the families of the victims were compensated, the promise to engrave their names on the walls of the Potsdamer Platz station was not kept. Yet despite the effort, the north-south line was not ready for the Olympic Games. The Potsdamer Platz S-Bahn station opened on the 15th of April 1939 and the line was completely operational about six months later.
hThe planning for the redevelopment of Berlin into the Reich capital “Germania” began in 1938 under the direction of the chief architect, Albert Speer. The centrepiece of this project was a north-south axis leading to a “Great hall”. It was to become the largest building in the world at 300 metres tall with space for 180,000 people. Hitler’s victory arch was to stand about four metres south of this, which would have had a volume nine times that of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Addressing this megalomaniacal architectural style, Albert Speer’s father, who saw the model for “Germania” in 1939, said to his son: “you guys have gone completely nuts”. In 1940 most of the building projects were temporarily stopped, and at the end of 1941 they were considered “not vital to the war effort” and put on ice. Yet detailed plans were put to paper until 1943. Only small sections of the Germania plans were realized, including the tunnels for the so called “axis cross” (Achsenkreuz) and the “house of tourism” (Haus des Fremdenverkehrs) near Potsdamer Platz, the ruins of which were pulled down in 1962.
Air-raid shelters and bunkers played an important role in the strategic planning of the Nazis long before the war. From 1935 on, all new buildings had to be built with air-raid shelters. However, early on the ceilings were not very thick. The German attack on Poland on the 1st of September 1939 – the trigger for the war – was followed by the first heavy air-raids on Berlin. As a result, in November 1940 the “bunker building programme for the Reich capital” was announced. Within this framework, around 1,000 bunkers and shelters were constructed. Every ministry and embassy was equipped with a bunker.
Despite enormous expenditure and overcrowding (often 3-4 times intended capacity), there was only enough space in bunkers for about 25 per cent of the population. The majority of the city’s inhabitants sought shelter from the raids in insufficiently protected cellars, trenches or “public air-raid shelters” that were set up in various parts of Berlin. As Hitler committed suicide in his infamous bunker on the 30th of April 1945, he left behind millions of war dead and a city reduced to ruins.
On the 9th of March 1945 a principle order was issued regarding the defence of Berlin, in which it was stated that the battle for the city must be fought with all available means, including “the use of the U-Bahn and the canalization above and below ground”. Yet the preparations for the final battle were inadequate, making any hope of victory forlorn. Rubble was piled up at the important street intersections as “anti-tank obstacles”, whereby the gaps were to be closed at the last minute by destroyed street trams and trucks. In the U-Bahn tunnels provisional barricades were built using sandbags and wooden boxes. The underground stations of the U and S-Bahn became giant camps, full of civilians, of which many were injured. Additionally, they served as bases for the last defenders. Many of the bunkers were converted into command centres, where munitions and food was stored.
From the 30th of April on, a tragedy played out in the S-Bahn tunnel. The SS ordered the evacuation of the above ground bunker at Anhalter station as the fighting approached. Thousands of old people, women and children were sent through a tunnel that was connected to the bunker, toward Friedrichstrasse and Stettiner station. The tunnels were for the most part in the hands of the defenders and were used to transport munitions and reinforcements. It was therefore all the more strange that on the morning of the 2nd of May 1945 – after almost all the fighting had come to an end – that the SS detonated explosives in the S-Bahn tunnel under the Landwehr canal. The water flooded the entire underground transport network in the centre of town. Luckily there were barely any civilians still in the tunnel and only a few drowned. Whether this was an example of senseless destruction based upon the “scorched earth” principle or an unfortunate coincidence is not known – the reason for the explosion will remain a mystery.