How Many Tons of World War II Munitions Are Found in Germany Each Year?

To this day Germany is a graveyard for unexploded bombs, with an average of 2,000 tons of buried munitions discovered annually.
A police officer takes a look at the wreckage of an excavator and a crater caused by an explosion of a suspected World War II bomb. The driver of the excavator was killed. (Reuters/Ina Fassbender )

World War II ended nearly seven decades ago, but it is not fully behind us. Thousands of tons of munitions lie beneath Germany's soil, unexploded and undiscovered.

In Brandenburg (the state surrounding Berlin) alone, construction workers, bomb locator squads, and others find an average of 631 tons of unexploded munitions per year. Nationwide, the figure reaches 2,000 tons annually. According to Spiegel Online, "Barely a week goes by without a city street or motorway being cordoned off or even evacuated in Germany due to an unexploded bomb being discovered."

And many more remain. Estimates put the total load of unexploded munitions at somewhere between five and 15 percent of the total dropped, or between 95,000 tons and 285,000 tons.  “We’ll have enough work to keep us busy for the next 100 to 120 years,” the proprietor of a bomb disposal outfit told The New York Times in 2006

To make matters more complicated, the work of defusing and disposal is becoming more dangerous and difficult as the bombs degrade. "In the last few years we’ve found that the detonators we take out of such bombs are increasingly brittle," Hans-Jürgen Weise told Spiegel Online in 2008. "Recently we’ve had three extracted detonators go off with a pissssh sound while they were being transported away, all it took was a bit of vibration. One day such bombs will be so sensitive that no one will be able to handle them. We may have to stop defusing them as soon as next year."

Fortunately, though the munitions are commons, deaths are rare. In 2010, three bomb disposal experts were killed when the bomb exploded before the team even began its work. In 2006, a highway worker was killed when he accidentally cut into a bomb beneath the autobahn southeast of Frankfurt. Before that, no one had died from a World War II bomb in Germany since 1994

But today, sadly, World War II took another life. For nearly 70 years, a bomb lay hidden beneath the soil of Euskirchen, in western Germany. Today, it exploded, killing the excavator's operator and injuring 13 others, two critically, CNN reports.

One day there will be a final casualty of World War II, but chances are that we are not there yet. This war will claim the lives of those born years after it ended, its physical remnants surviving far longer than its combatants, another reminder that the present is forever an accretion of the past.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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