Students in my class on the US, Italy and the Cold War traveled to the outskirts of Rome today to a small peaceful hill town, Sant’Oreste. It is the site of the Soratte Bunker, envisioned by Mussolini as an underground city built into Monte Soratte to house up to 1000 people in the event of an attack on Rome during World War II–it later served as the command post for the German occupation army. There are some 14 kilometers of massive reinforced tunnels, most of which survive to this day. The bunker included workshops, communications centers, dining and residential halls, a hospital, a movie theater, and provided a host of other services. During the Cold War, NATO asked its member states to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear attack, and the Soratte Bunker was fortified and re-purposed to protect up to 100 people against thermonuclear attack or attacks using chemical and/or biological weapons. The Italian Prime Minister, members of the Italian cabinet, and a host of others would have sought shelter there in the event of an attack. The peace and beauty of the small towns and hills surrounding the bunker are strangely incongruent with the dark purposes of the structure itself.
The students in my class were all born years after the Cold War ended. They were toddlers when terrorists flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in 2001.
It is hard for them to understand or even visualize the reality of the Cold War, which has also been called the Age of Anxiety. As you can see in the photo above, the entrance to the complex is framed with the the words “percorso della memoria”–literally translated as the path of memory. For Europeans living especially during the 1960s and 1970s, the threat of a nuclear attack was very real. They were within easy reach of the intermediate-range missiles that had been developed by both the US and its adversary, the USSR. The volunteers who are working to preserve the Bunker and make it more accessible to students and the public see it as a visible reminder of the threat of nuclear annihilation that was a dark shadow on the landscape for decades–this was, after all, the era of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). For more photos of the bunker, click here.
The renewed tensions with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs, wars in the Middle East, and tensions in the Ukraine, coupled with the specter of devastating climate change have recently advanced the doomsday clock by 2 and a half minutes. Ironically, technological advances have rendered the bunker and similar structures obsolete. The new neutron bombs do not destroy physical structures; they only wreak havoc on organic life…plants, animals, and humans. That, perhaps, was the most devastating scenario the students had to consider.
The passion and commitment of our guide. who is also the architect in charge of the entire project, was unmistakable. Every person needs to walk on the path of memory, if only to prevent history from repeating itself.
Thanks for tuning in. Go Friars!