A sunny autumn weekend is ideal for a motorcycle ride. My destination is the Teufelsberg. At 120 m, it is the highest mountain in Berlin, and until today, I hadn’t climbed it. The trail leads across the highway into Grunewald. Even from here, you can see the former US listening station.
From war debris to a mountain range
The ascent begins close to Heerstraße S-Bahn station. I leave my motorcycle in a car park. From there, I betake the path that leads upward. After only a few metres, I am startled by a para glider who is coming in for a landing. He has jumped from the nearby Drachenberg. The debris that was piled up after the Second World War even allow the exercise of real mountain sports. Teufelsberg and Drachenberg – two mountains that actually aren’t. Before 1945, this was all flat. After the war, 26 million cubic metres of rubble were piled up. This corresponds almost exactly to the volume of ten Cheops pyramids. Below the Teufelsberg, under the masses of rubble, there are buried also the ruins of the former Military Faculty of the university. This had been the first at least partially completed building for “Germania”, Hitler’s world capital. A small mountain range (by Berlin standards) has since grown out of the rubble. It was once even used for winter sports – there used to be a ski slope, a ski jump, and a ski lift. However, this had to be dismantled in 1972 in order to accommodate the ambitious plans of the American allies.
The largest listening station during the Cold War
Because West Berlin was completely surrounded by the Soviet zone of influence, the mountain was naturally predestined for espionage purposes. And so was born the largest listening station, constructed by the Americans during the Cold War. To learn more about this, I join the two-hour-long historical tour of the guide Martin Schaffert. Because vandalism had gotten out of hand, the decaying system was fenced off and can now only be explored on a guided tour. Before starting the tour, all visitors must sign a disclaimer. At first, the € 15 (the one-hour tour would have cost € 7) seems a bit steep. But the financial investment quickly turns out to be more than worth it.
From here, you could hear Brezhnev brushing his teeth
The tour group stands where once only NSA agents had been allowed. Up to 1500 people are said to have worked here. Day after day, many did nothing else but listen to telephone conversations and press the record button as they saw fit. According to Schaffert, the agents were even able to hear Brezhnev brushing his teeth. The amount of information collected on paper was so large, that two gigantic shredding systems (or “document disintegration systems” as the Americans called them) were operated. The culled mountains of paper were cut up, pulped, and pressed into cubes, which were then burned in the on-site heating system. You can still read the safety instruction on the paper shredder: “Safety Instructions: 1. Always read safety instructions first”. Except for the “document disintegration system”, there is hardly anything left of the technical equipment. I am therefore all the more grateful for the explanation of my guide. With his help and a bit of imagination, I have a good impression of the time of the Cold War.
Graffiti gallery and lookout tower
We continue to the upper floors. This was to be the site of luxury apartments. However, these plans fell through during the Berlin real estate crisis of the late nineties. In order to depict the size of the apartments, head-high walls had been brought in. These have since found a new raison d’être: they have become a Hall of Fame of the Berlin graffiti scene. Even today, only legally commissioned graffiti is allowed. The smell of spray paint still lingers in the air. The real highlight is two floors above. I have been looking forward to this. From all levels, the large interception tower provides a breath-taking view of the landscape. To the east, you can see Berlin’s city centre in the distance. To the west is an endless sea of lush green forests and lakes. The water of the Wannsee and the river Havel glistens in the sunlight. If it weren’t for the brick-red Grunewaldturm, I could swear I was in Finland. If I had a lounge chair, I wouldn’t move from this spot.
Radome and sound sensation
Our Teufelsberg Guide signals that it’s time to go on. There is still another highlight to be seen. The walk-in dome is a one-of-a-kind acoustic experience. It had been built as a weatherproof cover for parabolic antennas, but it is now an exhilarating sound spectacle. Every sound – every step and every word – echoes a thousand times from the many small hexagons. With the metal barrels and other objects that have been placed here for producing sounds, you could create a concert reminiscent of the music of “Einstürzende Neubauten” (N.B. a famous avant-garde industrial music band from Berlin). After this final highlight, the two-hour tour has unfortunately come to an end, and it’s time to head towards the exit. My head is now swimming, and I’ll be reliving this experience for days to come. Adieu Teufelsberg. I’ll be back.