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GERMAN HISTORY

Inside Germany’s secret Cold War cash bunker

For many years, the residents of the leafy town of Cochem in the German Rhineland went about their daily business with no idea they were living on a gold mine.

An underground passage in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. 
A photo taken on February 8th, 2022 shows an underground passage in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. From 1964 to 1988, up to 15 billion marks were stored in the top-secret facility to protect Germany from a national economic crisis in the event of hyperinflation caused by the Cold War. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

During the Cold War, the German central bank stashed away almost 15 billion marks’ worth of an emergency currency in a 1,500-square-metre nuclear bunker beneath the town.

A closely guarded state secret, the currency was codenamed “BBK II” and intended for use if Germany was the target of an attack on its monetary system.

After the Cold War, the bunker passed into the hands of a regional cooperative bank and then a real estate fund. In 2016, it was bought by German couple Manfred and Petra Reuter, who turned it into a museum.

A staircase with a secret exit in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Today, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stoking fears of nuclear conflict, interest in the bunker is growing again.

“Many people we know have pointed out that we have a safe bunker and asked whether there would be room for them in case of an emergency,” said Petra Reuter.

On tours of the bunker, “questions are naturally asked about the current situation”, which feels like “a leap back in time 60 years”, she said. “The fears are the same.”

Inside, behind a heavy iron door, long corridors lead to decontamination chambers and offices equipped with typewriters and rotary phones.

Petra Reuter, owner of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum, walks through the working room in the former vault of the museum in Cochem, western Germany on February 8th, 2022. Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

The main room consists of 12 cages where, for almost 25 years, some 18,300 boxes containing millions of 10, 20, 50 and 100 mark banknotes were stored up to the ceiling.

Hundreds of trucks
On the front, the banknotes were almost identical to the real deutschmarks in circulation at the time, but on the back they were very different.

Starting in 1964, the notes were delivered to the bunker by hundreds of trucks over a period of about 10 years, with no one suspecting a thing — not even the East German Stasi secret police.

The bunker was accessed via a secret passage from what was ostensibly a training and development centre for Bundesbank employees in a residential area of the town.

Cochem, located about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, was chosen because it was such a long way from the Iron Curtain.

“The citizens of the community were astonished to discover this treasure, which had been hidden for so long near their homes,” said Wolfgang Lambertz, the former mayor of the town, which has around 5,000 inhabitants.

This picture shows a working room with decoding devices in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Along with the 15 billion marks stored in the bunker, just under 11 billion marks’ worth of the alternative currency was also stored in the vaults of the central bank in Frankfurt.

Altogether, this added up to around 25 billion marks — roughly equivalent to the total amount of cash circulating in the German economy in 1963.

Facsimiles of former banknotes of the substitute currency are pictured in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany on February 8th, 2022. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Operation Bernhard
Perhaps an extreme measure to ward off a merely hypothetical attack, but the German authorities had been guided by lessons from history.

During World War II, the Nazis had launched “Operation Bernhard”, in which prisoners in concentration camps were forced to manufacture counterfeit pounds with the aim of flooding England with them.

“The most plausible explanation was probably the fear that counterfeit money would be smuggled through the Iron Curtain in order to damage the West German economy,” according to Bernd Kaltenhaueser, president of the Bundesbank’s regional office for Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland.

This shows a picture of the original and substitute 100 Mark notes in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany.  (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

But creating a backup currency today “would no longer make sense because there is less counterfeit money in circulation and there are fewer cash payments”, according to Kaltenhaueser.

In the 1980s, with the Cold War winding down and technology evolving, it was decided that the replacement currency no longer met Germany’s security standards.

By 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, all of the notes had been taken out of the bunker, shredded and burned.

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MONEY

Germany reaches agreement on Bürgergeld – with a couple of catches

Members of Germany’s traffic light coalition government and the opposition Christian Democratic Union party have reached an agreement in the dispute over plans for a new citizens‘ income. There will be tougher sanctions against benefit recipients and fewer discretionary assets.

Germany reaches agreement on Bürgergeld - with a couple of catches

Last week, the German government’s plans to reform unemployment benefits with its new “Bürgergeld”, or citizens’ income, proposals were blocked in the Bundesrat.

The legislation was held up mostly by members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) which had been strongly opposed to the proposals for a six-month Vertrauenszeit (trust period) in which benefits claimants would not incur sanctions, as well as to the amount of assets recipients would be able to hold on to.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Will Germany’s controversial Bürgergeld still come into force?

On Tuesday, politicians from the traffic light coalition parties and the CDU/CSU reached a compromise on the proposed reforms which means that some of the key measures will be scrapped.

No trust period

The CDU/CSU was able to push through its demand for more sanctions for recipients and the six-month trust period will now be scrapped completely.

Instead, it will be possible to enforce benefit sanctions from the first day of an unemployment benefits claim if recipients don’t apply for a job, or fail to turn up for appointments at the job centre, for example.

The CDU and CSU also demanded that unemployment benefits recipients be allowed to keep less of their own assets when they receive state benefits. The original plan had been for assets worth up to €60,000 to be protected for the first two years, but the compromise reached has knocked this down to €40,000 for one year – during which time benefits recipients will not have to use up their savings.

Following the announcement of the agreement, Green Party later Britta Haßelmann said “I regret it very much”. According to Haßelmann, the trust period was the core of the reform designed to stop people from having to take up “just any job”.

READ ALSO: Bürgergeld: What to know about Germany’s unemployment benefits shake-up

Other traffic light colleagues were more optimistic, however. Katja Mast from the SDP spoke of a “workable compromise in the spirit of the matter,” while FDP Parliamentary Secretary Johannes Vogel said that it had succeeded in “making a good law even better”.

CDU/CSU leader Friedrich Merz, meanwhile, sees the compromise as a great success for his party, though he also praised the willingness of the parties in the government to reach an agreement.

“The coalition was very quick and – to my surprise – very largely willing to make compromises here,” Merz said. 

What happens next?

Tomorrow, the Mediation Committee of the Bundestag and Bundesrat will meet to discuss the proposals. If the agreement is confirmed, the welfare reform could clear the final hurdle when it is voted on Bundesrat again at the end of the week. According to the federal government’s plans, if it’s approved, Bürgergeld will come into force in January and replace the current Hartz IV system. 

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