The Fichtebunker in Kreuzberg. How a gas holder made it through World War II.

As promised in my previous update, I will write today about a WWII bunker which is visitable more easily than the Hochbunker Heckeshorn. Close-by the Volkspark Hasenheide, the Fichtebunker can be found in Berlin’s most celebrated district; Kreuzberg.

The Fichtebunker (Berlin-Kreuzberg, October 2013. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser)

Since 1874, the bunker has an interesting pre-history. It was one of the four gas holders which were build at the Fichtestraße in the 1870s and the 1880s. So to speak, it required a certain optimism to build a densely populated neighbourhood in the direct surrounding of ±140.000m³ gas. Anyway, these four gas holders were particularly used for the increasing number of street lights which ran on natural gas. For this reason, the newest gas holder was nearly twice the size of the oldest. The brick walls which these four gas holders had, were not really necessary; they were erected as an expression of decoration. Many of the other 43 gas holders which Berlin counted some decades later, did not have these walls. To be fair with you, I am not too familiar with the technical details of such gas holders. The more I am interested by the idea that the gas driven society required other handicrafts, such as ‘gas smellers’. They had to stick tubes nearby the pipelines, smelling if there were gas leaks under the surface of the street.

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A bunch of decades later, the gas era of came to a slow end. The gas holders at the Fichtestraße were closed in 1922 – after most of Berlin’s street lights were fed by electricity. It wasn’t before August 1940 when the Nazi regime saw the empty buildings as useful. Then, Albert Speer -the chief of Berlin’s urban planning- was given command to rebuild the second oldest gas holder as a bunker. Of course, he was backed up by forced help of French PoW’s (Prisoners of War) and Italian construction workers. With a height of 22 meters and a cross-cut of 56 meters, six floors with 120 rooms each would be constructed in the second oldest gas holder. The walls were fortified with 1,80 meter reinforced concrete, the roof was even 3,20 meter thick. The chamber in the core of the bunker was filled up by a machine to up pump air and blow it around. After 390 toilets were installed and 30 rooms were furnished as kitchens, cloakrooms and hospitals, the Fichtebunker was made to host 6.500 women and children. After the Fliegeralarm (air raid alarm) warned them, they had to make their way by one of the five entrances. As one can expect of a Nazi employer, the foreign forced labourers -who did all the construction work- were excluded from the bunker’s safety.

Apparently, the former gas holder was anything but explosive. At the same time, up to 30.000 people found shelter in the Fichtebunker when air raids became a daily treat in the last year of the war. A visitor had to share a square meter with three others and all their luggage. Even the police took advantage of the concrete umbrella: some important prisoners were kept in the Fichtebunker‘s cellar. Therewith, the police prevented attempts to escape during the chaos which came with air raids. In contrast to the three surrounding gas holders, the Fichtebunker made it through the war rather undamaged. In 1951, its three brothers were deconstructed with the help of dynamite.

After the war, the Fichtebunker served as a short stay for the ones whose houses were bombed or who were forced to leave the territories in Eastern Europe. So to speak, it was an asylum for homeless people in the days that being so was kind off normal. All of them, around the 1300 daily in the summer of 1945, were involuntarily deloused by chemicals. The prison cells were initially filled with Nazi’s, later by juvenile delinquents. Slowly but steadily, people found places to work and live – while the socially weakest ended up staying in the Fichtebunker.

In 1963, a few years after the Berlin Wall was erected, one feared another blockade in which West-Berlin would be separated from the Western World. Hundreds of storages were stuffed in case of a crisis. As you may guess, the Fichtebunker was one. After saving up tens of thousands cubic meters of gas and lodging another tens of thousands of people, it wasn’t much extra to stock 7000 tons of -mostly- tinned sardines, apple sauce and French beans. After the Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end, the storage was sent to the former enemy: Soviet Russia.

Therewith, the Fichtebunker became useless. Because of the thick walls, a huge investment had to be made before it can be exploited – for example as a hostel. It turns out that Kreuzberg’s tourists are supposed to see something of the city, which is made impossible. This happens all in despite that the machine to circulate the air inside the bunker still works – as demonstrated during a tour of the Berliner Unterwelten, the tour company I spoke highly about in the previous post as well. Thursdays at 6pm, that Tour will be in English. At least one other dream became reality: a real estate which completed twelve luxury houses on top of the 3,20 meter thick roof in 2010. A dream for the lucky few turned out to be the nightmare of the direct neighbourhood: they feared for gentrification and -vainly- protested.

All together – I think of the Fichtebunker as a surprising history in an area which is so much alive nowadays. But, to be honest, there are a couple of things which didn’t get clear to me. Berlin is known for having half of the gas lights in the world – over 40.000. So, how did the gas holders at the Fichtestraße really become that redundant by the 1920s already? And why didn’t the Nazi’s reconstruct the Fichtestraße’s way bigger newest gas holder as a bunker? …I guess that blogging about history always evokes new questions.

The Fichtebunker (Berlin-Kreuzberg, October 2013. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser)

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2 thoughts on “The Fichtebunker in Kreuzberg. How a gas holder made it through World War II.

  1. I believe the lights ran off of natural gas, dude, not gasoline. That’s what they were storing in the bunker, when it was used for “gas” storage :)

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