An American Who Defected to East Germany and Lived Happily Ever After

The interesting podcast Cold War Conversations interviews Victor Grossman. To call his life history exciting is a bit of an understatement. Born in 1928, he grew up in a hothouse of New York Jewish leftism in the 1930s and 1940s. Then attended Harvard, and after graduation went to work in a factory at the suggestion of the Communist Party. He was then drafted into the Army, and, faced with scrutiny over his leftist past, defected to East Germany in 1952.

And then he decided life was fine there, although he admits that he always wanted to return to the USA at some point, but didn’t want to face desertion charges, which were dropped only in 1994. Grossman got married and raised two children and became a journalist, writer and editor in East Germany. He is still very much alive, and blogs about German politics at Victor Grossman’s Berlin Bulletin.

I  recommend the interview, in which Grossman, a natural talker if there ever was one, talks about the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, East German movies, his 1,100-page FBI file, and many other things. And dances around some subjects quite elegantly.

‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life

Winter adé (g) is a 1988 East German documentary directed by Helke Misselwitz (Helke is a woman’s name) (g). It’s one of the most honest and fascinating and touching documentaries there is, and the beauty part is that it’s available online here (g) at the German Center for Political Education, of all places.* The title (Farewell, Winter) is also the title of a famous German children’s song.

What’s the film about, you ask? Well, it’s about random people who live in East Germany. Misselwitz starts at a railroad crossing in Planitz, where she was born in an ambulance in 1947. Even in 1987, the crossing bars were still operated by hand. Misselwitz, off-camera, asks the guy operating it to take his shirt off and show his tattoos, which he does.

That’s the basic approach: She travels through East Germany, meets people, begins chatting with them, forges a bond, and then turns on the camera. She asks them about their past, their relationships, their lives, their hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations. That’s all. There’s no real narrative arc. There’s no agenda. There are no political statements, although political subjects — especially the role of women — do come up. There’s only a few minutes of voice-over by Misselwitz: Most of what you hear are the subjects talking about themselves. There are a few meditative dialogue-free interludes exploring atmospheres: a dance in a village disco, induction into the East German Army, a row of televisions in a shop displaying state media coverage of an official reception by Erich Honecker.

What might sound like a self-indulgent, meandering exercise is actually gripping. Misselwitz mostly interviews women, and they come from all walks of life, from a marketing consultant (yes, East Germany had those) to a worker in a coal processing plant, to two young Goth/new wave girls who skip school and get sent to a juvenile reformatory, to the owner of a dance school and a doll hospital (two separate people), to a woman who runs a home for troubled children. Something about Misselwitz’s sympathetic, low-key approach gets these people to open up about intensely private matters. I was constantly surprised by how intimate the revelations were, since Germans tend to be very private people. The end credits thank the subjects for their “sincerity”.

Perhaps the most affecting portrait is of Christine, a 37-year-old woman who works in a coal plant. Her job is to walk through the plant and use a large hammer to bang on various chutes and ovens to dislodge coal dust and prevent blockages. Misselwitz follows her around, bangbangbang, through hallways and over catwalks and under rows of boxy metal chutes, all against a deafening wall of background noise.. It’s hypnotic. And after Christine does one tour of the factory, she only gets a few minutes before she has to do the same exact tour all over again. It might seem stultifying, but she seems to enjoy her work.

After her shift, Misselwitz follows Christine and her fellow women workers into the showers, where they wash the coal dust off their ordinary workers’ bodies. Later, at home, she talks about her life: finding herself in a troubled marriage in her late teens, the marriage didn’t last, now she’s a single mother. One child has a mental illness. She would like to find another partner, one who loves animals as much as she does. She seems a kind and thoughtful soul, you want her to find her way in life.

Another standout interview is with the two goth girls. Misselwitz meets them under a train overpass, and follows them to a house, presumably a squat, where they do up their hair in painfully 1980s frizzes and paint the walls with their hand-prints. This segment is on Youtube:

As if its discreet charm weren’t enough, Winter adé is also beautifully shot, in pristine, carefully-framed black and white. The sound mixing is also spot-on: we hear the train clattering or the factory booming or the music throbbing in the background, but the voices come through clearly.

This warm, funny, unpretentious slice-of-life from the latest stage of East Germany has hidden depths; it will stay with you long after you watch it. Continue reading “‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life”

An Englishwoman in 1980s Dresden

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Die Hacke'sche Höfe in Berlin, 1979.

Through her excellent Twitter feed (source of the above photo), which posts a picture from the former East Germany every day, I came across this 2014 interview with Paula Kirby, an Englishwoman who taught English in Dresden in the mid-1980s. (Yes, she had a Stasi file and has seen it, although the results were unspectacular.) I find her observations colorful and free of the tiresome polarization that this issue often provokes. They generally mesh with accounts I've heard from East Germans. A few excerpts:

[T]he GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!

Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them.  Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.

While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.

How do you think  your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

…I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.

The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.

Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.

However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification ­– a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics ­– what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat(‘Homeland’) taken away from them.

Alcohol and Socialism

From a display at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig:

Stasimuseum leipzig

Translation:

3. Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse occurs when alcohol consumption leads to a contradiction between socialist moral requirements and a socialist lifestyle, on the one hand, and actual behavior, on the other.

Since most of us now drink and live a life in contradiction to fundamental socialist principles, we are all alcoholics. I find that strangely reassuring.

Golden Rules for East German Teachers

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Courtesy of the DDR (East German) Museum Pirna, a plaque with guidance for teachers: 

Golden Rules for Teachers' Work

Make an Effort to Maintain Ideological Clarity!

Take Up a Firm Fundamental Position!

Be Optimistic!

Be Humble!

Be Balanced! Guard Against Cynicism!

Judge Your Work Realistically and Be Critical of Yourself!

Recognize Successes! Use Scolding Rarely!

Trust and Love Children!

Respect the Pupil! Give Him Responsibility! 

Convince, Don't Browbeat!

‘A Pretty Girl For Pleasure At a Place Convenient For You’

Doing a bit of tidying-up recently, I found a business card I got during a recent trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. I was minding my own business, waiting by the side of the street to be picked up by friends, when I watched a nice, but unspectacular late-model sedan park in a nearby parking lot. A guy dressed in a nice but unspectacular suit, perhaps mid-30s, well-groomed, emerged from the car carrying a briefcase. He spotted me and walked directly over.

He said, "Can I help you?" "No, I'm just waiting for a friend," I replied. Then he said "Well, in case you would like some company," and gave me a business card. I assumed it was his business card, and that he either wanted to buy me a drink to practice his English, or to do something more, er, Greek. Then he walked away. This was the card:

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Well, that was unexpected. At least my heterosexuality is confirmed, I thought. Not that I needed any confirmation, mind you. Just reassuring. 

I noticed that there's only one phone number, but the rates on the front and back of the card are different. This hardly speaks for the conscientiousness of Bulgarian pimps. Unless there's actually a difference between 'top models' and 'pretty girls for pleasure'.

The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. The guy who gave me the card looked like a mild-mannered accountant. I was waiting right in the middle of Sofia, not in some park where odd grunting sounds come from the bushes. Do Bulgarian pimps just hand out cards to ordinary Bulgarian men and tell them to give the cards to anyone who looks like a horny tourist? Or is this mere hospitality, like a tribal chieftain offering his wife to a traveler?

In any case, since I was staying with friends, I didn't enjoy the company of any pretty girls for pleasure. But t then again, the minute you exit a German train station, you see that you don't have to leave Germany to enjoy the company of Bulgarian prostitutes (g).

‘Rostock is a Beautiful City’

A brief slice of an educational English-learning TV show from the former East Germany. Unfortunately, it cuts off just before the good part, in which Muttonchop drops some Sweet Slabs of Socialist Science™ on the English reporter: 

German Word of the Week: Jubelperser

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On June 2, 1967, the Shah of Iran and his wife Farah paid a state visit to Berlin, West Germany. Wherever he went, there were demonstrations by Berliners against the hospitality being shown to the dashing autocrat. To shield him from these demonstrators, the Iranian regime arranged for a group of about 150 Iranians to accompany the Shah and cheer him on.

Since the people were Persian, and since they cheered and celebrated (jubeln in German) the Shah, they were called the Jubelperser (g) "Cheering-Persians". It's pronounced roughly YOU-bull-pair-zer. But these Jubelperser had a sinister side as well — some of them were members of the SAVAK secret police.

As the protests came to a head during the Shah's visit to the Berlin opera house, the Jubelperser took a break from cheering, whipped out clubs, sticks, and batons, and began beating nearby demonstrators. German police, who despised the student demonstrators, stood by and watched without doing a thing except possibly smirking.

Later that day, when the Berlin police violently dispersed the demonstrators, policeman Karl-Heinz Kurras (g) for reasons that remain unclear to this day, pulled out his gun and shot student demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg (g) to death. Kurras was never convicted of a crime for the shooting. In 2009 it was revealed that he had been an unofficial collaborator with the Stasi. The death of Ohnesorg on June 2, 1967 greatly accelerated the radicalization of parts of the German student movement — in fact, one terrorist group that operated during the 1970s was called the "June 2nd Movement".

Jubelperser has entered the German vocabulary to describe paid professional fans, or generally any crowd which displays unnatural or exaggerated enthusiasm. There doesn't have to be something a bit menacing about their display, but if there is, the term fits even better. Example of use in a sentence: "When a flightsuit-clad Angela Merkel ran awkwardly onstage to the sound of 'Rock You Like a Hurricane', the audience, mainly members of the Youth Wing of the Christian Democrat Party, dutifully cheered like Jubelperser."

‘My First Zonen-Gaby’: An Exegesis of Two Famous Rude German Jokes

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of racial stereotypes and East German hairstyles.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were cultural misunderstandings galore about whether the French satire magazine was an obnoxious racist rag. Some of the Charlie's satirical cartoons contained stereotypical depictions of black people and Muslims, which was enough for many non-French speakers to denounce the magazine. Those who spoke French and knew the French media landscape countered that the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo was left-wing. The use of rude caricatures — whether of blacks, Catholics, gays, or royalty — is simply par for the course in the rollicking, adolescent world of European satire. To those in the know, which includes me, there is no debate: the latter point of view is correct.

Here's another magazine cover that's sure to provoke controversy, this time in Germany. I will now explain the background to you before the controversy erupts. I happen to have learned a lot about Germany, even though I've lived here for over a decade.

The roots of this joke go back to November 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, talk of unification was in the air, and thousands of East Germans were traveling freely to West Germany for the first time. The West German satire magazine Titanic decided to weigh in with a cover. Titanic, you should know, follows the dictum (g) of Kurt Tucholsky: Was darf Satire? Alles. (What is satire alllowed to do? Everything.)

Here is their November 1989 cover:

Zonen gaby

The title reads: 'Zonen-Gaby (17) overjoyed (BRD) : My First Banana'. Let's unpack the cultural signifiers. First, the name. Gaby (short for Gabrielle) is a common name all over Germany, but was especially popular in the East. Zonen-Gaby refers to the fact that she comes from East Germany. Now, there is a whole code governing how one may refer to residents of the former German Democratic Republic. The most polite way is 'People from the New German Federal States'. Quite a mouthful. Then comes East Germans. By the time you get to Ossi, you're in the political-correctness danger zone. And that brings us to Zonies. Right-wing Germans, who never accepted the notion of East Germany as a legitimate, independent state, referred to East Germany as the 'Soviet Occupation Zone' to emphasize its temporary and non-democratic character.

'Zone-Gaby' is 17, and now residing in the BRD, the German initials for West Germany. She has several characteristics of people from the East, including the half-hearted perm and unisex denim jacket. East Germans were very much into these things. If you don't believe me, just look at the footage from the fall of the Wall. East German women were also delighted by geometric plastic earrings. There were lots of dangling red plastic triangles. Gaby has what looks like a peach-colored plastic wind-chime hanging from each ear. Also the teeth. Basic medical care in the State of Workers and Peasants was quite good, but there was neither the money nor the will to provide comrades with bourgeois fripperies like cosmetic dentistry.

And finally we come to the cucumber. Bananas were rare in East Germany, and one of the stereotypes of East Germans coming for a visit to the West (which was allowed under strict regulation) is that they ran to the nearest grocery store to devour exotic tropical fruits unavailable in the East. Poor Zonen-Gaby is evidently unfamiliar with bananas.

This is, without a doubt, the most famous Titanic cover in history, perhaps comparable to National Lampoon's 'If You Don't Buy this Magazine We'll Kill This Dog.' The number of people who found it grossly offensive was outnumbered only by the number who found it funny, which was only outnumbered by the people who found it both.

And now, 25 years later, Titanic has just outdone itself:

Refugee joe

Even if you're not German-Powered™, you can probably see where this is going. The more sensitive among you should click away now. I'll give you a few seconds.

OK, we're back. I will now continue to dissect the joke, solely in the name of cross-cultural understanding, and perhaps Science. Our old friend Zonen-Gaby is back, this time in the company of 'Refugee Joe.' The title reads: 'Refugee Joe (52 cm) overjoyed (asylum): My First Zonen-Gaby'. As we also see, Zonen-Gaby is (still) overjoyed at meeting her new friend. Her thought bubble reads 'Hee-hee — Banana Joe'! The black band promises 'Even more asylum critique in the magazine!'

The reference to 52cm should be self-explanatory. Although I should note for accuracy's sake that the current owner of the world's longest penis is an American (of course) and his glistening missile of sin is only 13.5 inches, or 34.2 cm long. Erect.

The Secret Strangelove Bunker for West Germany’s Government Betrayed by a Gay Messenger of Peace

Last week I paid a visit to the 'Regierungsbunker,' (Government Bunker), a massive underground complex located near Bonn (West German capital until reunification) which was intended to shelter surviving members of the West German government from a nuclear attack. The core of the bunker was a never-finished railway tunnel under the lush red wine region of the Ahr Valley. Starting in the early 1960s, the tunnel was secretly re-opened and massively expanded to provide space for 3000 people in a sprawling underground complex comprising 17 kilometers. As Wikipedia notes, "The main portals were sealed by manoeuvrable steel and concrete gates built by MAN, each weighing 25 tonnes. The bunker housed 897 offices and 936 dormitories and had 25,000 doors in total. It even had an underground hairdresser's salon." There were even kiosks selling beer and snacks during the frequent training exercises. The whole thing could be sealed off by massive blast doors and circular barriers which rolled into place in 10 seconds.

The whole fabulously expensive thing was shut down in 1997, after the head of government relocated to Berlin. Since no civilian use for it could be found, the interior was completely stripped and sealed at a cost of €16 million. A 203-meter stretch was, however, preserved as a museum, and opened in 2008. The preserved stretch features a command center, infirmary, decontamination rooms, television studio, communications centers, wargames exercise rooms, and lots more institutional-green Cold War frippery from the 1960s and 70s. You'll want to check times before you go — you can only visit as part of a guided tour, and some days only permit groups to visit, not individuals. But it's well worth a visit.

One thing the guides will cheerily inform you is that the whole zillion-Euro complex was a waste of time. First, because it wouldn't have worked (Wikipedia again): 

In 2008 it became publicly known that the shelter would have just about withstood the detonation of a 20 kiloton bomb, comparable to the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb. Secret surveys conducted as early as 1962 had found that 250-times more powerful weapons were to be expected and it had been made clear that the bunker would collapse if ever hit by a nuclear bomb. Despite this known fact, however, construction was continued for political reasons.

And second, because the Commies knew about it almost from the get-go. Enter Dieter Popp (g). Dieter is a leftist West German who offered himself to the East German military counterintelligence service and became an East German spy in the West, a group known by the deathless East German euphemism Messengers of Peace (Kundschafter des Friedens). He recruited a friend of his, Egon Steffer, in what espionage experts called "an extremely rare use of the Romeo tactic [male version of the honey trap] among homosexuals". Steffer obtained a position handling secret documents and, through Popp, passed them to East Germany. These documents included detailed information regarding the bunker's existence and characteristics. Popp was sentenced to a short prison term after reunification, but protested to the Federal Constitutional Court that it was impermissible to prosecute someone for spying for a former country that was now part of the country that was prosecuting him. The FCC held that was no problem. Popp is still alive, and helps run a Bonn-based organization of former Messengers of Peace which seeks to convince the public that they were just that.

Below a few pictures from the Bunker:

Regierungsbunker Broadcasting Equipment Regierungsbunker Chancellor Meeting Room Furniture 2Regierungsbunker Comm CenterRegierungsbunker Disinfection RoomsaRegierungsbunker Emergency Amputation KitRegierungsbunker List of Ship and Code NamesRegierungsbunker Map Markers for War ExercisesRegierungsbunker Master Control Panel Safety Door DiagramsRegierungsbunker NATO Code Names for CountriesRegierungsbunker Postnuclear Satirical Poster DetailRegierungsbunker Price List for Refreshments During War ExerciseRegierungsbunker Radiation SuitRegierungsbunker Safety Poster 'Protect Your Eyes'Regierungsbunker Steuer-ScheiberRegierungsbunker Stripped Train TunnelRegierungsbunker Tebetron-E