A bomb crater in Munich in the rain

I was in Munich this weekend. It rained the whole time, and I spent a lot of time cooped up with J. in a non-childproof holiday flat playing endless and increasingly half-assed rounds of “baby cats” (Mommy, stop that! Baby cats don’t read a book!)  while the rest of the group of relatives we’d come there to meet did things a four-year-old couldn’t participate in, like visit Dachau. I did, however, make it out to see a bomb crater.

Last Monday workers at a construction site in Schwabing, a densely populated central district of Munich, found an unexploded 550-pound US bomb from the Second World War. Tuesday night, after clearing the surrounding area and failing to defuse the bomb, authorities detonated it in a controlled explosion that sent a big fireball (pictured above) up into the night sky. Germany is still full of unexploded ordnance from allied raids during the war, which surprised me when I moved here: I’d previously thought of unexploded ordnance as a (primarily rural) problem of poorer, more recently war-torn places like Cambodia and Bosnia. But in fact estimates of the total number of undetected bombs beneath German cities run in the tens of thousands, according to Spiegel. These bombs often turn up at construction sites; I was once evacuated from the area around Ostbahnhof in Berlin after construction workers discovered a bomb there. Most bombs are successfully defused after they’re found, but the one in Schwabing had a complicated and rusty chemical detonator, Spiegel says; hence the blast. When we arrived in Munich a few days later, the resulting Bombenkrater was splashed across the front pages of all the newspapers and had become a local attraction.

The Bombenkrater wasn’t hard to find: it was right by the Münchner Freiheit subway station, and a crowd of curious onlookers and police officers was milling around on the cobblestone street in front of it, which was closed to traffic. Passing bicyclists had stopped to take pictures with their phones; a tour group had parked their Segways there. Perhaps because of the word crater, or perhaps because my formative experience of seeing a man-made crater was Ground Zero in Manhattan, I expected the Bombenkrater to be much deeper than it was. It wasn’t so much the hole that showed it to be something other than a normal construction site, but the shattered glass and scorch marks on the surrounding buildings, and the straw and sandbags.

Before the detonation the firefighters had packed sandbags and bales of hay around the bomb to dampen the blast. The sandbags now looked like a sort of roofless blackened igloo, and the hay had flown everywhere. There were bits of charred hay caught on nearby balconies and windowsills, and on the sign of the Fitness First gym across the street.

The atmosphere at the bomb crater was oddly jovial. People were gathered around the police and firefighters, who seemed to be enjoying regaling them with the story of the explosion (in which, by the way, nobody had been hurt). It was one of the more gregarious scenes of strangers chatting with each other that I’ve seen in Germany. A lot of the nearby businesses had put up handmade signs thanking the police and firefighters.

This was far from the first bomb crater in Munich, and is unlikely to be the last. Some 2,500 unexploded bombs are believed to still lie beneath the city. Last year a German detonation expert told Spiegel, “unexploded bombs are becoming more dangerous by the day through material fatigue as a result of ageing and through erosion of safety elements in the trigger mechanisms.” So in the future situations like the one in Schwabing  — that a bomb in a densely populated area can’t be defused but has to be detonated instead — will probably become more frequent.

This is a problem not just for Munich or Germany, but for much of Europe: a WWII bomb was unearthed in the center of Warsaw the same day as the explosion in Schwabing, and the next day the discovery of a 70-year-old bomb shut down a terminal at Schipol airport in Amsterdam. Given how far beyond the war Europe seems to have come in so many ways, it’s awfully strange that its legacy continues to lurk explosively below the European surface in such a literal, tangible sense — and that the passage of time, as it relegates the war to an ever more distant past, is also making the bombs it left behind ever more dangerous.

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