01 Dec Teufelsberg: Where NSA Spies Meet Street Art
“Did you hear that?” I’m whispering even though there are only five of us, shivering in the autumn chill.
We’re climbing an abandoned listening station atop Teufelsberg – German for Devil’s Mountain. Shrouded in mist and dark forest, the place can send shivers down your spine regardless of the weather.
And there’s good reason why. Before it became the graffitied abandoned palace in all these photos, Teufelsberg was home to Nazi soldiers, ski jumpers and NSA spies. Here’s the story of how it came into being…
Teufelsberg wasn’t always a mountain. During World War II it was just a clearing in Grunewald forest intended to become the site of a Nazi military academy, although its building never finished.
The victorious Allies tried to demolish its foundations but – much like the hatred that fuelled the Nazi agenda – it was so sturdy that it withstood all their attempts. Instead it was covered by seventy-five million cubic metres of rubble left behind by the war.
These debris mountains, known as Schuttberg to locals, are nothing new. Most large German cities have at least one, minus the unfinished Nazi college buried underneath. But as you’ve probably guessed the story doesn’t end there.
A decade after the war, Teufelsberg entered a short period of light and fun. Ski jumper and architect Heini Klopfer designed a 24 metre (79 ft) ski jump on the hill. It was later joined by a larger one which offered space for five thousand viewers.
But by 1969 all the ski jumping stopped, the ski jumps were closed down and gradually removed. Why? I’ll get to that shortly.
Teufelsberg next chapter began in the early 60s with the Cold War in full swing. After scouting for the perfect place to set up their listening station, American soldiers finally found Teufelsberg. The location, the signal strength, even the name all made it the perfect base.
Over the years Teufelsberg became one of the West’s largest and most important spying stations. You can find out more about it here and here, or even read a whole book by T. H. E. Hill who used to work there.
T. H. E. Hill is not his real name – the troops called the station ‘the Hill’ among themselves. Their unofficial motto was: “In God we trust, all others we monitor.” With all the NSA spying revelations of the past few years it sounds like nothing much has changed…
As the Cold War wound to a close, the listening stations on top of Teufelsberg lost their purpose and fell into disrepair.
For years the area was home to nothing but Grunewald’s tall trees and the wild boar that roam under their canopies – Grunie Pigs as the Americans once called them.
But as you can no doubt tell from all the photos in this post, it didn’t stop there. After a short stint as an air traffic control centre, the site was sold to two German developers for 5.2 million Deutschmark in 1996.
They planned to build apartments, a hotel and restaurant on the mountaintop, but had to abandon the project after running out of funds.
David Lynch – the surrealist filmmaker who gave us cult classics like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man or Mulholland Drive – had a different plan. In 2008 he tried to convert the site into a New Age school, focusing on yoga and transcendental meditation.
His plans fell through as well, possibly because of the connotations of building what he calls an Invincible University on top of a Nazi academy.
Instead, Teufelsberg became the graffiti heaven you can see in these photos. Street artists from all over the world come to decorate its walls, many of their works based on the station’s fascinating history.
Although getting in is fairly straightforward – you can just pay €7 for a tour – there’s still a cloud of danger hanging in the air. Don’t miss a chance to climb inside the highest dome, a place where shadows dance on the walls and words echo in the darkness for what feels like eternity.
Teufelsberg is the perfect escape from Berlin, especially during the week as on weekends it can get quite crowded. Some of the staircases are pitch black so bring a torch, comfortable shoes and a sense of adventure.
Before I let you go, let’s look at a few photos of my favourite pieces of art…
Have you ever heard of Teufelsberg? Would you visit it on your next trip to Berlin? Are there any other abandoned buildings I should check out?
Disclaimer: My trip to Germany was made possible by the German National Tourism Bureau and iAmbassador. Many thanks to my #streetartgermany team: Gloria from The Blog Abroad, Kash from Budget Traveller, Peter from Travel Unmasked and Mark from Trademark Pictures. Check out their blogs, they’re amazing!