There’s something grimly poetic about Teufelsberg- the Devil’s Mountain.
On the maps it just looks like a great big park at the edge of the Grunewald district. When you arrive there’s nothing there to indicate that the new forest covers the ruins of a former Nazi military academy – now buried under a mound of rubble and crowned with a US spy station.
What is now Teufelsberg started out as the site of the ‘Wehrtechnische Fakultät’ – a military academy designed by Albert Speer to train the next generation of German army officers. Demolishing the structure proved to be such a daunting task for the Allies in the aftermath of World War II that they simply buried it under the rubble of the bombed-out city. Approximately 12 million cubic meters of debris were trucked out into Grunewald Garden until the mound was 115 meters high.
You can find these ‘Trümmerbergs’ (rubble mountains) on the outskirts of most major German cities. If you know what you’re looking at they become an immense physical reminder of recent history.
As the cold war heated up the American NSA used the high ground on Teufelsberg to set up a permanent ‘signal intercept station’ in the late 60s which they then expanded over the following decades. This facility was widely assumed to be part of the ECHELON ground station network of which there are sister stations still operating in Pine Gap in Australia’s Northern Territory and at Geraldton in Western Australia.
From atop Teufelsberg America’s National Security Agency could monitor all manner of satellite, radio and microwave signals from the Warsaw pact countries and try to crack military codes. In an interview with Abandoned Berlin a former employee at the facility discussed working for years with the understanding that if World War III kicked off he would probably never know;
“We were keenly aware the Soviets and the East Germans considered T-Berg a prime, first shot target and could have readily obliterated us. Berlin was, after all, within very easy striking distance of several Soviet tank, artillery, and rocket divisions. Teufelsberg would have literally been vaporized within less than a second after the command to fire was given and that command would have been one of the first.”
By definition the worst spies are the most famous ones so the only prominent employee of Teufelsberg who shows up in searches about the facility is James Hall III who worked at Teufelsberg between 1982 and 1985. Hall was arrested in 1988 and charged with supplying hundreds of classified documents to the KGB in return for cash while working at the station. He is still serving out the remainder of his 40 year sentence.
Over the last twenty years the need for stations like Teufelsberg has diminished as most data and voice communications have migrated to fiber optic networks. Antennas and domes are very retro. Recent revelations like those by Edward Snowden have shown that the NSA now taps into internet exchanges and siphons data from software companies and internet service providers in order to collect intelligence. To avoid contravening restrictions on domestic surveillance, organisations like the NSA and Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate often enter into agreements with friendly foreign powers to keep tabs on one another’s citizens under the auspices of ‘intelligence sharing’.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the station was decommissioned. US forces removed most of the sensitive equipment and electronics and demolished a few buildings but left the majority of the station intact. It was bought up by private investors shortly afterwards but property prices in Berlin fell sharply in the 90s and the plan to turn the station into an apartment complex fell through. Since then it has been pulled apart by vandals and scrappers and, more recently, has been converted into an artist space of sorts with hundreds of square meters of graffiti murals and large-scale stencil art.
When we arrived we’d been forewarned about thuggish security guards demanding money for informal ‘tours’ of the station so we turned up in the very early hours of the morning to look for a quiet way in. Despite the years of neglect it’s still a formidable base with a double perimeter fence topped with barbed wire and patched up by the new leaseholders to prevent unauthorised entry. Luckily they weren’t guarding the main gate so, after a clumsy bit of gymnastics, we were inside and walking up past the guard booth towards the main complex just as the sun was rising in front of us.
We stayed out of sight by keeping indoors. Much of the interior is tomb-like with heavy-duty doors that look like bank vaults and plenty of steel gates, bullet-proof glass and grilles to restrict access to the various parts of the facility. We found the barracks for the Military Police that guarded the station and their coat-of-arms was still visible on one of the walls. Skirting around the foot of the main tower we took the central staircase up six or seven floors of big empty rooms that seemed ideally suited to exhibit big murals and stencils. There were some absolutely superb pieces of artwork in the lower levels but coming out onto the roof of the building was undoubtedly the highlight. The early morning sun made the forest below us glow and, through the holes in the radomes, you could look out east to the city and north to the Olympic Stadium and the nearby power station. Teufelsberg’s main tower is cylindrical and partially covered by remnants of the radio-transparent fabric that was used to conceal antennas and instruments at each level.
We ventured further up the tower and reached the largest intact radome at the top. Once inside, the acoustics of the dome became immediately apparent. Standing in the middle of the room the slightest sounds were amplified and the echoes bounced back and forth for more than five or six seconds. If you were even slightly off-centre you could whisper and get an unshakable sense that someone else was parroting your voice back to you in one ear or the other. A doorway sized opening in the dome gave us a dizzying view to the foot of the tower and the beautiful Grunewald forest that is gradually reclaiming the station grounds.
As we jumped back over the main gate and returned to the forest I was still buzzing with excitement- at having avoided security but also having had the opportunity to stand ontop of so many layers of recent history. It’s certainly dark history but it’s also somehow bittersweet considering that the country is no longer divided, the spy station is a gallery and the mountain is now home mainly to birds and bats and wild boar.
Some photos of the station before it was ransacked (including pictures of T-Berg’s epic military/industrial document shredder) can be found here and an interview with one of the previous employees is featured on Abandoned Berlin.