Cold war listening station, dead drop, urban exploration and re-development
The first and only spy I ever met introduced himself as Richard – my flight mate on a trans-Atlantic in 2010. Richard spoke excellent German, although with a strong old East-German accent. Being retired, he came back to Berlin every year to go cycling in the countryside. When I asked him what job he used to do in Berlin, his reply was: spying, of course! At the end of the 60s, intelligence agencies had their eyes on top graduates like him, and when he was approached because of his knack for languages and breaking codes, he signed up with the NSA. To avoid the Vietnam conflict, he learned Russian and German and ended up in the divided, cold-war Berlin, Germany. I was getting excited – having explored the remains of the NSA field station atop the hill of Teufelsberg, I asked Richard if he had ever been up there when it was still active. Why, yes, he had worked there for years! he told me.
Teufelsberg (literally: devil’s mountain) is an artificial hill consisting of heaped up WWII rubble, with Albert Speer’s never completed “Wehrtechnische Fakultät” buried underneath. In their search for good vantage points and clear signals, mobile allied listening units found it to be nearly ideal, and one of the NSA’s largest listening stations was built on “The Hill.”
Because it was actually in the British sector, the station was shared between British and American intelligence agencies. My new-found friend didn’t mention how closely the allies collaborated, but auxiliary services such as power, heating, cafeteria and waste disposal were shared. The Americans had their ears pointed East to listen in on the Eastern block, but they were also tapping into wireless communication systems in West Berlin. Rumors have it that there was a network of tunnels or at least one big excavation dug into the hill for escape and other purposes. When I pressed him about it, Richard wouldn’t confirm anything of the sort. Switching to English, he joked “If I told you, I’d have to kill you!”
But he went on to describe how the station was not only equipped with then state of the art technology in the form of antennae, satellite dishes, radio and signal reception equipment, but also shredders and incinerators for the destruction of confidential and sensitive documents. And lest geeky agents like him forgot about the enemy over all these toys, the DEFCON indicator served as constant reminder that it was a live scenario, not just fun and games.
All that technology is gone, though; after the Berlin wall fell, the facility was re-purposed for civil air traffic control for a while. What remained of the abandoned equipment has since then been stripped, vandalized, or destroyed. Today the station is in ruins and potentially dangerous. Any explorer should tread carefully, watch out for holes in the floor and stay away from the open elevator shaft. Those afraid of heights should avoid climbing the towers at all: the radio-transparent canvas (made of similar material as the cover of the radomes) shielding the tower sides has largely been vandalized and removed, and the torn and shredded remains are flapping eerily in the wind. Guardrails are often missing, and any fall is most likely fatal.
Nonetheless, the climb is rewarding: the dome on top is still intact, and due to the structure’s size and shape, an eerie yet beautiful echo can be experienced. People have been known to go up there to sing or play music to maximize the effect. A window cut into the West side of the dome’s cover is the perfect spot to catch the sun setting over Grunewald. The platform below offers a 360 panorama of Berlin and the forest.
At least for a while, there were official (and unofficial) guided tours available; when I asked Richard if he had ever been back to his old post, he declined. The cold war is over, he said, and seeing his former workplace in its sorry state was not going to stir any nostalgic feelings in him. He preferred his bicycle explorations around Berlin to re-visiting that particular piece of history upon Teufelsberg.
Berlin has many opportunities for urban exploration – what makes the abandoned listening station one of the most popular destinations is the allure of the cold-war spy game feel the place has on those of us who are not retired NSA agents. Upon approach, the structure looks alien and otherworldly. Wild boar roam the hill and the Grunewald forest, so sticking to paths and roads is advised. Due to numerous holes in the chain link fences, entering the compound is fairly easy. It’s private property, but trespass is a favorite Berlin pastime, and the many curious visitors and even picnickers on warm summer days seem to enjoy something they feel entitled to.
In September 2011, a German artist installed a USB dead drop on Teufelsberg. As part of an anonymous, offline, peer-to-peer file-sharing network in public space, a USB dead drop is a flash drive embedded into any publicly accessible wall, building, curb or likewise. Anyone with a USB device is welcome to read the drive’s contents – a modern version of the dead drops spies used to exchange information without having to meet in person. According to the artist, the drive on Teufelsberg contains confidential files from the cold war era.
Re-development in Berlin can be a touchy subject, and the hill’s future remains muddled: the investor who originally bought the site from the Berlin senate went bankrupt over exploding building costs and resistance from environmentalists. Film-maker David Lynch added to the Teufelsberg pipe dreams with plans to buy the site and erect a “Vedic Peace University.” Another proposal which has yet to be made public once again mentions luxury apartments, a hotel with conference center and a spy museum. As the protests for conserving the former Tempelhof airfield as a public park have shown, the general public is opposed to progress re-shaping the cityscape. The average Berliner feels strongly for the few remaining historic derelict sites.
This article was first published in May 2012 on Untapped Cities.
Please note that the state of the site has since then further deteriorated, and an official website has been created for the Teufelsberg field station.