Public Works April 2011

Germany's Bomb Problem

Outside Berlin, a building boom hits a snag: unexploded ordnance.
Oliver Munday

Deep in a pine forest in the German state of Brandenburg, 30 miles south of Berlin, a team of explosives experts gathers around a large rusted cylinder half-buried in the earth. “You’re looking at a French-made, 220-millimeter artillery shell,” says Ralf Kirschnick, a German army veteran who served in Bosnia, Croatia, and Somalia in the 1990s. “The fuse is highly unstable,” he says calmly. “The slightest movement could set it off.”

Though Kirschnick retired from the military a decade ago, he hasn’t lost his appetite for conflict zones. These days, the rangy, balding 45-year-old works for the Kampfmittelbeseitigungsdienst (KMBD), or War Ordnance Disposal Service, a division of the Brandenburg state government focused on digging up and deactivating unexploded bombs, mines, and other World War II–era munitions. This morning, Kirschnick and his team are passing metal detectors over the soft ground outside Wünsdorf, an important site in one of the war’s last major battles. In late April 1945, the Red Army attacked remnants of the Wehrmacht’s Ninth Army and SS battalions, slaughtering tens of thousands of troops with tank, artillery, and small-arms fire before smashing through the German lines. Armaments abandoned in this part of the woods lay undisturbed until last autumn, when the local forestry department called in the KMBD to sweep the area for a new timber-harvesting project. Standing over a pit dug by his team, Kirschnick pointed out the morning’s finds: grenades, a rusted carbine with a gleaming brass-jacketed bullet still in the chamber, a tiny sidearm. The artillery shell, he says, must have been captured from the French army during the First World War and deployed during this desperate last stand near Berlin.

An average of about 2,000 tons of undetonated ordnance are recovered every year in Germany, reminders of a war that concluded before most Germans alive today were born. The explosives include artillery shells left over from battles on the eastern front, bombs that were dropped by British and American planes, and munitions from East German training facilities abandoned by the Russians after reunification. Uncovered thanks to a construction surge fueled by Germany’s strong economy and the continuing flow of capital to the formerly communist East, these long-buried explosives have caused a recent series of headline-making disruptions. In April 2009, a 220-pound Russian bomb was discovered next to the newly renovated Neues Museum in the heart of Berlin, shutting down the city center for hours and keeping Chancellor Angela Merkel out of her apartment until the defusing was complete. During a routine sweep before a dredging project to deepen the Nuthe River in Potsdam last October, a KMBD team uncovered a 550-pound bomb buried in almost two feet of silt. It was the eighth time in four years that unexploded World War II ordnance necessitated a major evacuation in Potsdam.

Presented by

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign correspondent based in Europe. He is a former Newsweek bureau chief in Africa and the Middle East and the author of three books.

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