BERLIN — Other countries may have hurricanes, blizzards or flooding that regularly shut down major transport hubs. Germany, meanwhile, is still dealing with the legacy of a war the country launched itself: thousands of unexploded bombs, hidden beneath one of Europe’s busiest cities in a nation now at peace.
Germany’s main railway station in Berlin was forced to shut down on Friday in preparation for the defusing of one such a bomb, as authorities evacuated parts of the capital’s city center.
Up to 50,000 bombs were dropped onto Berlin by the Allied forces in an effort to destroy the city and about a fifth of them are believed to have never detonated, becoming a problem for future generations instead.
Berlin may have turned into a hipster’s paradise with cheap cafes and quiet parks since World War II, but the discovery of deadly war remnants keeps reminding people here of the rubble this city was built on. Usually, the bombs are discovered at construction sites and a fraction of them are still live and could explode.
In a perverse case of symmetry, the other European country most affected by this problem was Germany’s opponent in the war, Britain, whose capital city London was on the receiving end of thousands of German bombs earlier in the war and hundreds of them constitute a real risk.
Researchers have only recently started to delve into historical documents to track down areas that were disproportionately bombed in an effort to warn construction companies which zones are high risk. But amid the lack of a coordinated cross-European initiative, such projects remain limited in scope, and have so far only covered London, while no similar projects are known to exist in Berlin, even though their absence may eventually cost lives.
One construction worker died in the city of Euskirchen six years ago when he dug into a World War II explosive without noticing it. Two years earlier, in June 2010, three bomb disposal workers were killed when a bomb they were trying to defuse in the German city of Göttingen suddenly exploded.
That’s why German authorities cleared all buildings within a 2,600 feet radius from the site where the Berlin bomb was found on Friday. Ministries, embassies, a hospital and the city’s bustling main station have been emptied and planes flying into or out of the city have changed their routes to avoid the airspace above the bomb site.
Having your flight rerouted because of a World War II era bomb isn’t unique to Germany, however. After a German bomb was discovered at London’s King George V Dock near the central City Airport in February, the terminal had to be closed for an entire day. The bomb was eventually recovered from the bottom of the Thames river and detonated at a secure location off the coast of England, as defusing it would have been too risky.
Officials estimate that more than 50 million more WWII bombs, detonators and shells still lie on the bottom of the Baltic and North Seas where nobody will likely ever bother to remove them.
Even though hundreds of fishermen have been injured after pulling up shells or detonators from the ground, European authorities still lack a coordinated plan to tackle the threat.
While the bomb that is being defused in Berlin on Friday was dropped with the intent to cause destruction, the weapons that now cover the bottom of European waters were mostly deliberately dumped there during or after the war. At the time, it appeared to be the safest solution to both the Allied forces and the Nazis. Some 70 years later, however, the lethal explosives keep washing up on Europe’s beaches or are being pulled into fishing boats. Some of those shells may still contain deadly nerve agents.
One chemical, phosphorus, regularly washes up on the German island of Rügen, where tourists or amber collectors have accidentally picked up pieces of the toxic mineral in recent years. The chemical substance that caused some of the most horrifying injuries during the Vietnam War can make a victim’s skin melt away. Even briefly touching the substance can cause severe organ damage.
Both on land and in the sea, the delayed impact of Europe’s World War II legacy may not have reached its peak, yet. As shells are rusting away in the North and Baltic Seas, toxic chemicals may begin to leak near popular beaches.
On land, rising rents across Germany and in particular in cities like Berlin are encouraging real estate managers to construct taller buildings or expand projects to areas that were especially targeted during the air bombardments. Both trends will force construction workers to dig in depths or areas that were so far avoided — for a good reason.