The Time Capsule

Hidden inside a mountain in the Black Forest are millions of German documents, poems and photographs copied onto 28,000 kilometers of microfilm − a massive cache of information intended to preserve the country’s culture for posterity. A rare visit to the Barbara Tunnels

OBERRIED, Germany − I was informed of the exact time and place of my appointment by email just a few days before making the trip. “At exactly 1300 hours, be in the parking lot next to City Hall in Oberried, near Freiburg, in Baden-Wuerttemburg state. We will pick you up from there and take you to the site, which is deep in the mountains.” The message was signed by Ursula Fuchs, from the Bonn-based Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance.

Getting to Oberried from Berlin is no simple task. The first stage involves a trip of six and a half hours on the fast train to Freiburg. Then the passenger has to take another train to an interim station, and from there catch the local bus that stops once an hour in this small town, population 2,800. But, at the sight of Oberried all the ordeals of the journey are instantly forgotten: The view is breathtaking. It’s hard to remain indifferent to the picturesque vistas which greet the visitor at every turn here: mountains, trees, flowering fields, streams and wood cabins as in days of yore.

The town’s one street winds through the mountains − a typical Black Forest landscape. There’s one pub, a cafe, a guesthouse, a general store, a church and a cemetery. The yard of every home is unique. Here is a shed in which there is a pair of well-groomed horses and a few cows. Chickens scurry about in another yard. A third has a well-tended garden and a stone statue depicting the crucified Christ gazing at the looming mountains. Most of all, the town exudes tranquillity and fresh, clean air. There are only a few people about. Maybe because of the fog and the ceaseless rain, which only heighten the atmosphere of mystery that shrouds the place.

At exactly 1 P.M. a white commercial vehicle pulls up. An elderly woman and a young man of Turkish origin − her chauffeur − step out. “You must be Mr. Aderet,” she says, obviously experienced in such meetings. “Come, sit in the backseat. We will go up into the mountains.” Ten minutes later, we stop in the middle of nowhere on a mountain that bears the distinctive name of Schauinsland ‏(literally, “look into the country”‏). “Private road, no entry,” says the sign that greets visitors. A walk of a few dozen meters across damp, muddy earth in pouring rain brings us to our destination: the Barbarastollen, or Barbara Tunnels, named for St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners.

The German government has maintained this bizarre, eccentric, frightening-looking and pretentious site since the 1970s. In the heart of it is a stupendous microfilm archive which purports to preserve copies of German cultural, historical, political and social assets from the past 1,500 years on endless reels of film. The raison d’etre for this site is no less weird than its appearance, which recalls a vast soft-drinks warehouse.

“The idea underlying the archive is the fear that all of Germany will be bombed,” explains Dr. Martin Luchterhandt, a senior figure at the National Archives in Berlin. “Cynical though it may sound, we are ensuring that the generations after a nuclear war will have reading materials. At least here, deep in the tunnels. We do not need this archive for our generation, but for those who will live here a few hundred years from now.” To which Ursula Fuchs, from the Federal Office, adds: “They will surely be interested in questions such as the way of life of the people here and how German history developed.”

There are 100 kilometers of subterranean tunnels in this mountainous region, created by zealous prospectors who looked for gold and lead in past centuries. Some of the tunnels are open to the public every day. But not the Barbara Tunnels. They are accessible only once a year to a group of 20 visitors who sign up in advance for a tour − with escort and supervision, of course. ‏(The next scheduled date is in October.‏)

The sealed red door

The site, explains Fuchs, is “relatively safe” for visitors, but she nevertheless asks all who enter to put on a protective helmet, “just to be on the safe side. I cannot promise that no stones will fall if there will be an earthquake,” she adds with a half-smile. A few minutes later, inside the tunnel, the lights suddenly go out and even the brave and experienced Fuchs gets a little uptight. “Hallo! Hallo! Turn on the lights, I am claustrophobic,” her voice echoes through the tunnels. For an instant, the thin air and low temperature threaten to turn the visit into a nightmare, but the lights quickly come on again and the tour continues.

At the entrance to the site, located somewhere in the heart of the mountains, is a heavy metal door. On the right side is a sign featuring three blue-and-white rhombuses: the United Nations logo for a specially protected site. Only two other sites in the world − the Vatican and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam − bear this symbol. All three enforce rigid rules: No military vehicles are permitted in the vicinity, uniformed soldiers must remain at least three kilometers away and planes are not allowed to fly over the sites. Until the reunification of Germany, even the mayor of the nearby city was not allowed to approach the site, nor did he know exactly what was inside.

What Germany, Holland and the Vatican have in common is that they are signatories to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. More than 100 other countries, including Israel, have also signed the convention, which was drawn up in the wake of the large-scale destruction of cultural assets in World War II.

Germany signed the accord in 1967. At the beginning of the 1970s, during the Cold War, the government decided to implement the convention in practice and protect the country’s cultural assets against a possible nuclear holocaust. The choice of the Barbara Tunnels was not accidental. There are virtually no potential military targets in the region, and the layers of rock of the mountain, out of which the tunnels have been hacked, will likely not be affected by an earthquake.

On the other side of the main gate, a dark, dank corridor 400 meters long has been carved into the mountainside. Security cameras hanging along its entire length alert local police and a private security force of suspicious movements. However, in the 34 years of the site’s existence, no one has yet tried to break into it.

At the far end of the corridor is a hermetically sealed, heavy red door. Only two people know the 13-digit code that opens it. The tremendous noise made as the door opens echoes loudly throughout the site. A room on the other side leads to two more doors, behind which lies the archive.

About 1,500 stainless-steel barrels are arranged along 100 meters of the floor and on shelves − together, almost one billion reels of microfilm with a total length of some 28,000 kilometers ‏(more than the distance from Israel to Melbourne and back‏). In contrast to other archives, the climatic conditions here are not artificially controlled. The archive’s location deep within a tunnel inside a mountain ensures a steady temperature of about 10 degrees centigrade, which is ideal for preserving the barrels and microfilm for at least 500 years, according to experts.

Asked why, in 2010, in the digital age, it is still necessary to preserve materials by means of outdated microfilm technology, Fuchs gives a decisive, unequivocal reply which allows for no further questions.

“I saved my master’s dissertation on a simple disc, such as used to exist,” she says. “Today, if I want to look again at what I wrote I have to go to a museum, because computer drives like that are no longer manufactured and it is impossible to obtain instruments to read the discs.” Conclusion: Digital methods are not ideal for storing important information. Information stored on a disc will survive for perhaps a decade but under no circumstances will it last for 500 years, like microfilm.

The German government has also come up with another, more appalling scenario. For the digital method to work, electrical power is needed, but after a global disaster or a nuclear war no one can guarantee that power will be available. That is when microfilm will come into its own: it is already possible to read the information preserved on its reels even with the unaided eye or with a simple magnifying glass. Without electricity. Without a computer. Without a DVD drive.

Faustian recollection

For most of the year the archive has no visitors. No one has any reason to enter and disturb the microfilm reels. Two or three times a year, German government trucks arrive and unload more barrels containing thousands more reels of microfilm for the benefit of future generations. The content of the filmed documents in the archive is decided by a special committee consisting of 16 archivists, representing the 16 German states. They meet once a year to decide what is worthy of inclusion and what will continue to await its turn. Materials 200 and more years old have priority.

After the decisions are made, the selected material is photocopied from the local archives of each state onto microfilm in 15 centers scattered across the country. Day after day, year after year, diligent archivists are engaged in this drudgery. The final destination of the microfilm − before Schauinsland − is Munich, where there is a company that specializes in packing all the materials in stainless-steel barrels during a controlled, sophisticated process. The German government spends three million euros a year on this project.

“It’s possible that the people who will live here in the future will treat our documents with the same astonishment as we show when we look at the cave drawings of Stone Age people,” says Lothar Porwich, who is in charge of the site on behalf of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance. Maybe. But it’s unlikely that any of those future citizens will be able even to find the isolated place. And even if they do, the route from the locked gate to the sealed barrels and to reading the microfilm inside them is long, complicated and difficult. Besides, most of the material stored there is fairly boring and will be of no concrete value to future generations, either.

When touring the site, one is reminded of the famous comment from Goethe’s “Faust”: “There is much that I know, but I want to know everything.” Reel upon reel of microfilmed legal deliberations and debates by local councils across Germany take up a considerable portion of this protected collection. There are also endless lists of names, though it is not always clear why they were chosen to be preserved for posterity. It’s doubtful that anyone will be interested in them 500 years from now, and even if someone actually seeks out this material, he will encounter serious problems locating what he’s after in the thousands of sealed barrels.

Such criticism leaves Fuchs unfazed. “The Americans sent their time capsules to the moon,” she says. “Germany is hiding them in a mountain. This is our ‘message in a bottle’ to the future.”

Still, certain barrels contain true treasures, among them manuscripts and letters of the country’s great poets and playwrights, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; music in Johann Sebastian Bach’s handwriting; and plans for the construction of the great Cologne Cathedral. By chance or not, the example that the representative of the German government chooses to show visitors is the writ of appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor. The signature of president Paul von Hindenburg is easily discernible now, as it will be for future generations.

What else is buried inside the mountain? The coronation certificate of King Otto I ‏(the Great‏), emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 936 C.E., and the entire estate of Nobel literature laureate Hermann Hesse ‏(1877-1962‏). The estate of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche ‏(1844-1900‏) is now being microfilmed for storage. The oldest document is from the sixth century; the newest is a program from the Bayreuth Festival of 1989. There is also a special section, instituted in 2004, of original works contributed by 50 recognized and important German artists, in case anyone in the future should take an interest in modern German art. No one other than the artists themselves has seen the works that were microfilmed and inserted in the barrels. They cannot be opened until the year 3504.

Cologne disaster

Anyone who is skeptical about the usefulness of the mountain archive or dares cast doubt on its necessity, is in for a crushing, real-time sort of reply. On March 3, 2009, the building housing the historical archive of the city of Cologne collapsed due to construction work, and 90 percent of the documents preserved in it were buried under dirt and rubble. According to estimates, the work of reconstruction and restoration will take many years. Fortunately, copies of millions of items from the Cologne archive were preserved on microfilm in the tunnels.

“There was a huge disaster in Cologne, but it also had a positive side − serving as a lesson for everyone who belittles the underground archive,” says Luchterhandt, at the Barbara Tunnels. “Since the Cologne disaster no one has spoken out against the microfilm project.”

The national archives of the United States and Britain are also copying documents on microfilm, in similar projects. But in contrast to Germany, the reels of microfilm there are stored in regular archives, not inside some isolated mountain. Only Switzerland has a project similar to the one in Germany, with a real soft drinks warehouse serving as storage site for microfilm.

“There is no comparison,” Fuchs scoffs, at the mention of Switzerland. “They maintain the proper climatic conditions by means of electricity and not naturally. Just think what will happen when they have a power outage,” she adds.

In the meantime, the Germans are not resting on their laurels. Top minds there are now working industriously to improve the old microfilm technology, which dates from the first third of the 19th century. A new and ambitious project, called “Color Film” might counteract one of the big drawbacks of microfilm: the fact that so far it exists only in black and white.