Was WWIII close?

New claims are made about Soviet readiness for a third big war

Michael Urban/AFP/Getty Images

In the late ’70s, in the throes of the Cold War, a series of secret underground bunkers were built in the former East Germany, the front line of what, at the time, seemed like an impending nuclear showdown. Many of the estimated 1,200 bunkers scattered across the former German Democratic Republic were built from scratch by East German or Soviet crews; others were former Nazi shelters, repurposed for a possible Third World War. But the recent debate about the significance of one such bunker, buried deep in the expansive wooded heather of Kossa, shows that, nearly 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell, the question of how close to the brink we really were remains.

Until recently, the Kossa bunker, which consists of 75 subterranean hectares, was widely accepted as an intended refuge for part of the East German army. But according to Olaf Strahlendorff, director of the Kossa Military Museum, which has been operational since 2002, it was much more significant. As he tells visitors, “This is where the Russians planned to conduct World War III.” Potsdam Military History Research Institute historian Torsten Diedrich, too, attributes a greater purpose, telling Der Spiegel, “Kossa was a command bunker of the Warsaw Pact.”

But to others, the suggestion that Kossa was anything more than a field bunker is unfounded. According to Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard Project for Cold War Studies, the location of the main Warsaw Pact bunkers “are well known, and they aren’t this one.” Despite the sophistication of Kossa’s communications equipment, Kramer says this site was “certainly not some strategic command centre that’s overseeing the entire war.” Likewise, Holger Herwig, Canada Research Chair in Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says that unlike the Soviet bunkers in the GDR, which were destroyed in the early ’90s, those built by the East Germans remained intact, and their purpose well-documented. “There’s no secret about what Kossa was for,” he says.

The same can’t be said about more salient Cold War mysteries. Though the GDR archives, opened in the early ’90s, provided the broad strokes of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact strategy for a Third World War, old Soviet archives remain closed and Soviet war plans have never been released. According to Ben Fischer, former chief historian for the CIA, the West, which relied primarily on technical intelligence collection methods such as satellites, was forced to draw conclusions accordingly. The result, he says, “is a sort of Swiss cheese. You have solid pieces and big holes.”

But more information is trickling out. As Kramer observed in a paper published earlier this year, Warsaw Pact training exercises that are now available in Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance confirm that, by the late ’80s, the Soviet military was under significant political pressure and was pursuing a defensive strategy. And recently declassified CIA documents reveal that, during the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the U.S. believed that the Soviets “had no desire to provoke conflict with NATO,” says Kramer. All of which suggests that, despite the temptation “to make things out to have been more dangerous than they were,” says Kramer, the Soviets never came close to launching a Third World War—whether from a bunker in Moscow, or one in Kossa.

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