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Bunkering Down

By Alex Manby

Bunker: Building for the End Times

Bradley Garrett, Allen Lane, 2020

Cryptic Concrete: A Subterranean Journey into Cold War Germany

Ian Klinke, Wiley, 2018

Cold war bunkers weren’t built for children. Aged 11, I spent a night at Kelvedon Hatch ‘Secret’ Nuclear Bunker in Brentwood for a youth club Christmas sleepover. We ate in the staff canteen, sang carols among the teleprinters of the operations room, and ended the night by playing hide-and-seek across the bunker’s lower floors. I still remember squeezing myself into a field hospital bed designed for victims of radiation sickness. A friend hid in a cardboard coffin; another in a body bag. I can’t recall who won.

Sunk 38 metres below the Essex countryside, Kelvedon Hatch served a number of roles during the Cold War—most significantly as one of 11 Regional Government Headquarters responsible for ensuring continuity of government in the event of a Soviet strike. The bunker contained the necessary facilities for 600 people to survive, self-contained, for up to three months: food was to be provided from 24-hour canteen, whilst staff would rotate in eight-hour rest shifts between metal hot-beds. Military personnel, scientists, and government officials would be expected to coordinate those left outside using a network of telephone lines and broadcasts, ready for an eventual return to the surface. Cyanide was stored in the bunker’s ‘strong room’, to be used if the world being prepared for was deemed uninhabitable.

Fortunately, Kelvedon Hatch was never needed for its intended purpose. The site was decommissioned in 1993 and the land returned to its original owners. Today the bunker is a tourist destination, part of a network of similar sites across the UK dedicated to bringing the Cold War alive. After taking in all three floors, visitors can don a military uniform and gas mask, grab a sandwich at the onsite cafe, and end with a trip to the gift shop, where military memorabilia is sold alongside children’s toys, mugs, and Himalayan salt lamps. Alongside tours, the site is available for ‘role play’, ‘paranormal events’, and ‘nuclear experience days’, where corporate groups can bond through ‘nuclear high ropes’, ‘nuclear races’ and even a ‘nuclear escape room’.

There is a danger, writes Ian Klinke in Cryptic Concrete: A Subterranean Journey into Cold War Germany, that in presenting sites like Kelvedon Hatch as “kitsch” or “quaint”, the heritage industry risks erasing the real and symbolic violence that such sites embody. He might not approve of their use for children’s sleepovers, but how else should we understand the subterranean spaces of the Cold War? For Klinke, the answer lies in the German geopolitical cannon and the legacies of the Second World War.

Klinke’s account of how an ‘obsessive politics of life and earth’ came to dominate German official thinking for half a century begins with the idea of Lebensraum. With its origins in the natural sciences as shorthand for an animal’s habitat, Lebensraum—or ‘living space’—was adopted by geographer Friderich Ratzel in 1897 to describe a state’s biological imperative to expand amidst the pressures of a competitive interstate system. By framing the German state as an organism fighting for survival, Nazi leaders legitimated the ‘conquest’ of living space in Eastern Europe and the ‘extermination of unwanted populations’ across the Third Reich. Cryptic Concrete argues that something of this politics survived after 1945 and was materialised in the subterranean spaces of the West German Cold War bunker. Amidst escalating nuclear tensions, defence planners became preoccupied with the ‘vertical dimension of living space’ and moved to secure the state’s sovereignty underground. Bunkers thus came to represent the intrinsic connection between the nation and its territorial soil and the bio- and geo-political idea that a state—and, in particular, its leaders—should be able to survive autarkically at all costs.

Klinke illustrates this relationship with a tour of the Regierungsbunker (‘government bunker’) located in Marienthal near Bonn. Built on the site of a former concentration camp, the Regierungsbunker was commissioned in 1972 to provide space for 3,000 people to ‘endure the nation’s darkest hour’ buried deep in German soil. Despite being run by the Federal Office for Civil Defence, Klinke is clear that the bunker was only ever designed for sheltering bureaucratic elites. Protection of the population, meanwhile, was ‘nothing more than a fig leaf for the shelter of naked sovereign power, it’s bureaucratic staff, its typewriters and its filing cabinets’. Whilst a mass public bunker building program was considered, it was rejected on grounds of cost: funds were instead directed towards warning systems and subsidies to encourage citizens to build their own bunkers. Here the German geopolitical obsession with survival and extinction was taken to its sinister conclusion: in the event of a nuclear strike, the West German state would survive in the Lebensraum of the bunker, whilst those outside would be exterminated.

Cryptic Concrete is a very German story. Beyond incidental comparisons with the United States, Klinke acknowledges that his account doesn’t exceed the spatial and temporal confines of the West German Cold War state. For this, and for a broader appraisal of the contemporary significance of the bunker, one can turn to Bunker: Building for the End Times by Bradley Garrett. An urban-explorer-cum-geography-academic, Garrett is an absorbing writer who, despite ‘saturating himself in disaster’, imbues a sombre subject with enough levity to be both engaging and prescient. Picking up where Klinke leaves off, Garrett extends the historical narrative of Cryptic Concrete to reveal how the bunker has escaped the Cold War to become the defining architectural space of our times. Far from being a Cold War curiosity, governments never really stopped building bunkers. Citing data from the US Department of Defence, Garrett suggests there are as many 100,000 major underground military installations globally, including substantial bunker networks in Europe, the United States, and Russia. These figures are staggering, not least because they continue to rise, as new bunkers are constructed by the governments of Israel, India, China and South Korea.

But the state’s importance to Garrett’s story lies more in its absence than in its presence. Skimming over the Cold War history related by Klinke, Garrett begins by ‘imagining the bunker filled with paying clients’ rather than government bureaucrats. In a journey spanning 300 pages and four continents, his narrative shows how bunkers are increasingly built by a range of corporations, religious communities and private individuals. In the US, 1% of the population now self-identify as ‘preppers’: people preparing for disaster, including the end of the world. Today’s bunkers are not built in anticipation of a singular nuclear event, but in response to a generalised sense of dread arising from a diverse variety of threats, ranging from climate change, natural disasters and pandemics, to interplanetary collisions, pole shifts and divine reckonings. While the genesis of many of these anxieties can be found in the conspiracy theories of prepper online forums, others are rooted in the very real experiences of living with everyday uncertainty, including wildfires, earthquakes and civil unrest. In such circumstances, the only thing that is truly known about the future is that it is unknown, and the range of unknowns is growing. Indeed, reading Bunker after weeks in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s hard to disagree with Garrett that lots of prepper culture just represents ‘good sense’.

The story of how we got here is a familiar one. While Garrett traces a fascination with the subterranean as far back as the Hittities in 1200 BCE, his narrative really begins in the 1960s when, as the nuclear threat grew and states such as Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland began mass civilian bunker construction programmes, the United Kingdom, the US and Canada abandoned their obligations to protect their citizens, preferring instead to secure the safety of state elites. As in West Germany, the US government encouraged citizens to build their own bunkers, though these were couched in the language of American consumer capitalism rather than in geo- and biopolitical registers. Garrett explores the contemporary social political legacies of the state’s very public decision to abandon its citizens, a move which fostered a ‘deep sense of alienation’ amongst swathes of the population. Fast forward 60 years, and this continued disillusionment with the state is evident in Garrett’s myriad encounters with doomsday preppers, who, ‘aware of the government’s willingness to abandon them’ and ‘mindful that the threats have multiplied’, have chosen to take matters into their own hands.

The bunkers of the 21st century are as diverse as their occupants. As well as the private underground developments of the super-rich, Garrett visits repurposed missile silos, backyard bunkers, religions communes, and homesteads, where ‘prepsteaders’ attempt to build a self-sufficient future free from global trade networks. With so much heterogeneity, then, what do all of these bunkers have in common? Certainly, they all articulate a shared temporality: in preparing for an existential future, preppers take control of an anxious present. Through disaster the bunker also becomes a space of hope, offering the opportunity for rebirth and to build a better future. The paradox of the bunker, however, is that in preparing for the end of the world, preppers risk bringing the scenarios they fear into being: during the Cold War, the more secure government officials felt in their bunkers, the more likely they were to launch a nuclear strike. Similarly, recent bunker construction risks hastening environmental destruction, while reinforcing the very class inequalities which many fear will contribute to the ultimate decline of the social order.

The most novel and striking parts of Bunker are those dealing with the economics of prepping. Garrett reveals the existence of a vast array of ‘dread merchants,’ ‘disaster capitalists’ and ‘doomsday realtors’, who together underpin an expansive doomsday capitalism predicated on selling certainty in the face of catastrophe. This is supported by a sophisticated media operation of telemarketers, right-wing talk show hosts and conspiratorial YouTube videos, where audiences are encouraged to prep and hosts sell the products needed to do so. Alongside specialist stores selling long-life food cans and installing backyard bunkers, Garrett reveals a murky world of scammers and grifters, whose overblown bunker sales pitches belie the fact that their businesses remain ‘speculative’ and their clients ‘elusive’. More dangerous are the tech-entrepreneurs, financial elites and political opportunists like Jacob-Rees-Mogg and Steve Bannon, who, driven by techno-libertarian philosophy, see crisis as a desirable means of consolidating wealth and power.

The state is not immune to this shadow economy’s relentless march into the mainstream. Garrett details how American federal funds are used to purchase mobile bunkers from civilian suppliers; armoured army vehicles are upgraded and sold back to the military at an inflated price. As the ‘hardened architecture’ of the bunker permeates the infrastructure of our day-to-day lives, the US state is also engaged in ‘school hardening’ projects, purchasing everything from bulletproof whiteboards to classroom panic rooms, in the process closing a loop on decades of NRA lobbying. In this respect the bunker is as much a metaphorical space as an architectural one, a materialisation of our contemporary ‘anxieties and insecurities’ and a ‘reflection of the way we see the world and each other’.

In The Simpsons episode ‘Bart’s Comet’, Bart inadvertently identifies a comet hurtling toward Springfield. Faced with certain annihilation, the townsfolk try all they can to avert disaster. With the help of Professor Frink, Mayor Quimby launches a missile at the comet, hoping to explode it mid-flight. Gathered for the launch, the family watch in horror as the rocket misses and destroys the only bridge out of Springfield, making driving away impossible. ‘We don’t have a prayer’, screams Reverend Lovejoy, as Springfield is given just six hours to live. ‘This is the whole reason we have elected officials’, reassures Homer; the scene cuts to Washington where Congress rejects a bill to save the town. Abandoned by government, science and organised religion, Springfield’s residents turn to the earth for salvation, and congregate in the Flanders’ backyard bunker. With space limited, the town debates who should be left to die. A consensus is reached: a left-handed shopkeeper won’t be needed in a post-apocalyptic world and Ned Flanders is left outside to face his fate.

When the residents of Springfield eventually abandon the bunker to face annihilation together, they learn that the comet is in fact harmless, destroyed by a layer of pollution covering the town. The catastrophes of today, however, are far from harmless, and Garrett is unequivocal: as adaptation dethrones mitigation as the dominant mode of planetary crisis management, prepping will be an inevitable necessity. What is clear, though, is that societies’ attempts to hunker down must not replicate the injustices and inequalities that permeate the concrete of past bunkers. If, as Garrett suggests, crisis marks an opportunity for rebirth, then together we must forge a future where no one is left outside.

Art by Beth James


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