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.

As the work performed by the KMBD and other bomb-disposal units grows more prominent, it is also growing more dangerous. In the past, most unexploded armaments could be successfully defused and taken to disposal facilities. But as the munitions age and the fuses grow more brittle, the risk of uncontrolled detonations has increased. Last June, a bomb-disposal team in the central German town of Göttingen attempted to cut through the acid fuse of a 1,100-pound bomb discovered during the construction of a sports arena. The bomb exploded, killing three members of the disposal team and critically injuring six more.

Nowhere is the ordnance-cleanup effort more fraught than in Oranienburg, a city just north of Berlin. Once the site of a wartime aircraft plant, an SS arms depot, a railway junction for trains to the eastern front, and a research facility for Hitler’s atomic-bomb program, the town was flattened by 10,000 Allied bombs dropped in 1944 and 1945, according to the KMBD. Almost all of these bombs were equipped with delayed-action detonators. “The Americans and British wanted to make as much difficulty as possible for people trying to clean up and to reconstruct the industry there,” Wilfried Krämer, the director of the KMBD, told me. “The fuses would detonate at all different times.” Indeed, some have yet to go off. Using aerial maps from the British and American military archives, the KMBD has pinpointed and defused 159 unexploded bombs in Oranienburg since 1991. Krämer estimates that another 350 to 400 unexploded bombs still lie buried in the city. “We will be working for another generation,” he says.

In the forest outside Wünsdorf, Kirschnick and the KMBD sappers make a decision: the 220-millimeter French shell is too volatile to be moved, and will have to be blown up where it lies. One man gingerly attaches a Russian-made hand grenade to the shell, then strings a 50-foot-long cable to a radio-controlled detonator. Kirschnick and I climb into a truck and bounce down a muddy forest road to an observation point 1,800 feet away, beyond the kill radius. There, the operation leader, Klaus Schulze, pushes two triggers on the black radio box in his hands. Ten seconds later, the forest resounds with an explosion that shakes the ground and sends me rocking backward. “That’s 170 pounds of TNT going off,” Schulze explains. “It creates a minor earthquake.” Upon returning to the site, we find a six-foot-deep crater surrounded by blackened pine trees. Twisted shards of metal litter the ground. Kirschnick inspects the crater, and pronounces the bomb “totally destroyed.” After selecting a piece of shrapnel to serve as a souvenir of the job, he strides back into the forest to continue his search.