Berlin is a very flat city. It was built on a sandy plain of forests and swamps. But towering outside Berlin in the Grunerwald forest is Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, a 120m manmade hill built from the rubble of World War 2. To understand how it got there, and its subsequent role as a US spy station in the Cold War, you need to understand some of Berlin’s uniquely messed-up history.
The Story of Teufelsberg and the US Spy Station
Berlin was the epicentre of two world wars. It got off without a scratch in the first, but as Americans, British and French approached from the west and the Soviets from the east in 1945, it was clear that this would not be the case the second time round.
Generally, most locals preferred to be invaded by the Americans. Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship was known to be brutal and ruthless, and those whom had endured the brutality and ruthlessness of Nazi governance saw the Soviets as merely the other side of the same coin. The Eastern front was marked by aggressive resistance and utter destruction, and the Battle for Berlin was no exception. It was a bitter fight to the death, street by street.
By the end of the war, Berlin lay in ruin. It took over 20 years to clean up, and the scars of the war are still visible today more than 70 years later. In East Berlin, the rubble was swept up and transported out into the surrounding areas, but West Berlin, becoming an island encircled by East Germany during the Cold War, had nowhere to put its debris except inside West Berlin itself.
Out in the Grunerwald forest, the renowned Nazi architect Albert Speer had been constructing a secret military college, and its walls were so solid that efforts to demolish it had failed. Burying it with rubble would kill two birds with one stone. And so Teufelsberg, a devil’s mountain of the rubble and debris of old Berlin, rose up over the forest to overlook the city.
But Berlin’s unique history did not end with its wartime destruction. From the 1950s to the 1980s it became the flashpoint of the Cold War between NATO countries and the Soviet Union, a struggle marked by intense distrust, intimidation, military competition and spying. In the 1960s, the USA built Field Station Berlin on top of Teufelsberg.
With its massive phallic radomes and office blocks, the US spy station listened in on the East’s military traffic for decades and was rumoured to be part of ECHELON, the US’s global intelligence-gathering network. When the Wall fell in 1990, the field station was abandoned and has since fallen into disrepair.
How do you get there?
Arriving at Berlin Grunerwald station, you emerge into the forest itself after crossing the road. Despite a few signs here and there in the forest, it’s not immediately obvious which way you need to go to get to Teufelsberg; there are tracks going every which way.
We found the easiest thing to do was to simply put our phone GPS on use that to walk to towards the hill as marked on Google Maps. Be sure to preload the terrain if you don’t have a local SIM card.
Be careful if you are going to Teufelsberg in winter or in bad weather, as I imagine getting lost in the forest could be catastrophic. At other times there are plenty of people walking around who you could ask if necessary.
We approached the hillside via a network of small tracks, though on our way out we realised there was a decent road heading down the hill from the front gate. On the side of this road in the bushes we came across a naked man standing on a log. A second man was taking photos of him. Anywhere else in the world this would be a little odd, but this is Berlin.
The roadway is easy to miss if you don’t know where you’re going, which we didn’t. But you can’t really go wrong if you just head up the hill by any path.
What’s it like?
Once at the front gate of the spy station, you pay €7 to a man for admission. I have no idea whether this person is a tenant or a squatter or what, but €7 avoids confrontation. He also had a selection of drinks for sale.
I had heard that people received tours or escorts in the past, but there didn’t seem to be any of that, we just went as we pleased. I asked another squatter guy if he minded me flying the drone around, they said it was no problem. They were all pretty nice really.
The spy station itself resembles a soaring cock and balls. This is appropriate given that the Cold War was a multi trillion-dollar exercise in macho chest-beating.
The lower levels of the main building, and indeed the entire site, are chock-full of street art, much of it really good. You could spend hours and hours looking at all the art, and indeed we spent a few.
The space frame radomes are nowdays tattered and clinging to fabric which flaps in the breeze. To get to the uppermost radome, you have to ascend a concrete staircase which goes up maybe 5 or 6 floors. There are no windows, no power, and the staircase is completely dark- really, really pitch black. You can get out your mobile phone for a light but it’s quite fun trying to overcome the darkness. In that inky black you get really disoriented quickly. Even carefully counting steps I managed to walk face first into a wall! It’s obviously not a great idea for anyone who is claustrophobic, disabled or prone to tripping on dark staircases.
The upper radome is great because it’s still enclosed and in decent condition and the audio is really trippy inside. If you whisper on one edge a friend can hear you on the other edge, and if you stand in the focus of the dome you can hear every other sound from everybody else inside the dome. Tres cool.
The whole site is in various stages of decay with weeds, broken glass, fall hazards, and I’m guessing full of asbestos. If you’re afraid you might stub your toe it’s maybe not your kind of place. Likewise, it’s probably not the best place to bring the kids for a run around if they are accident prone. They’d love it though.
Teufelsee Lake is closeby, full of nudists, and good for a swim in the summer.
Something else you shouldn’t miss is Platform 17 at Berlin Grunerwald station. It is the site from which trains departed during the war carrying Jews bound for ghettoes and extermination camps in the east. The track and platform has been preserved and turned into a memorial to the victims of these criminal acts.
I hope you like my vlog of the day at Teufelsberg spy station above. If you like videos like this, go ahead and subscribe to my YouTube Channel.