Berlin’s Abandoned Places: Teufelsberg Tactics

Posted on August 21, 2013

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History

The Teufelsberg spy station is the crown jewel of Berlin’s abandoned places. It was originally built by the NSA during the Allied occupation of Germany to eavesdrop on Soviet and East German communications. Teufelsberg (literally “Devil’s Mountain”), is a man-made hill, built from houses that were blasted down to rubble in WWII. After the Wall was taken down, all of the equipment was removed, but the station remained. A real estate firm bought the facility, planning to convert it into an apartment complex (what were they thinking?), but stopped after realizing the project would be unprofitable due to a glut of apartments in Berlin. Urban explorers, graffiti artists, and mischief-makers have long been fascinated by the tower.

Not long ago, security at Teufelsberg was nonexistent. The surrounding fence was full of holes; all you had to do was pick a hole and stroll in. All of this has changed in the past year. Now, a local tour company controls the premises, and any would-be explorers are immediately apprehended and asked to pay 7 euro or more for a tour. A friend who recently visited the station warned me that its perimeter is patrolled by a thuggish security guard carrying wire cutters and fencing. Those caught cutting holes in the fence are forced to help patch it up and/or do pushups, then denied entry.  The friend also said that the tour only includes a climb up the main spy tower, completely omitting a network of tunnels that connects the various buildings.

My Teufelsberg Tour

While I would have loved to enter Teufelsberg like a true urban explorer, I had limited time in Berlin. Lining up with 30 other tourists, I coughed up €15 for a tour. Pretty soon, I discovered that I was one of only three English speakers on the tour, and that it would be conducted entirely in German. Our guide promised to answer individual questions in English, but said that we would have to take the initiative.

As our guide began a lecture on the history of Teufelsberg, I chatted with a couple of construction workers. I asked one whether any squatters still lived on the site, and he scoffed and said they’d been kicked out ages ago. “No one sleeps here anymore except for the guards,” he said. I asked why there were guards on site. “When you go upstairs, you’ll understand. People like to come and party, of course. Dirty hippies!”

Once inside the station, the group moved slowly through a hallway as our guide delivered a long and incomprehensible explanation.  I migrated toward the back of the group, taking pictures all the while. A young man with an orange vest was assigned to monitor the rear, but he didn’t stop me from wandering off. I continued through the hall, eventually discovering a flight of stairs.  As I weighed whether or not to walk up the stairs, I was joined by a short-haired older woman who seemed similarly bored by the tour. She explained that she was Polish and, like me, didn’t understand a word of German. We went up together.

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The stairs led us to a wide cement roof that was topped with two large canvas domes. In the foreground was the roof of a neighboring building, painted with a mural of a congenial cat. My companion — who proved to be terrified of heights — distinctly said,”Oh shit.” Turning around, we realized that the staircase continued up into Teufelsberg’s tallest tower, so we went back inside and continued upward. On the second floor from the top, I peered around the corner and saw a guard sitting in a chair. Horrified, I motioned to the Polish woman to get back inside the staircase. We continued to the uppermost level, where a similar incident happened; I popped my head out of the stairwell, only to discover a man’s legs. We crept back down the stairs and waited until the rest of the tour rejoined us.

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Thirty minutes later, I was back at the highest floor of the tower. It felt like a temple for anarchists, artists, and revolutionaries, one that carried the traces of all the people who had come and painted and danced and loved each other there. In a large, graffiti-style fresco that spanning the circumference of the dome, a hooded, skeletal apparition faced a young man with downcast eyes. The two figures stretched their hands out to one another; their index fingers, not quite touching, were bound to each other with barbed wire. I wondered what the figures represented. Death and life? Slave and oppressor? Old Berlin and new Berlin?

The tour group returned back to the roof, but again I slipped away from the guard (who was smoking a cigarette and speaking to his friends). I went down the stairs and began exploring the area we had come from in the hopes of finding a tunnel. Near our original entrance, I found a flight of stairs that seemed to lead to an underground passageway. Unfortunately, it was covered with about six inches of water.

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I walked outside and discovered that I was on the other side of the building.  I noticed a couple of young workers sitting and having lunch, but they seemed unconcerned by my presence. There was a large heap of white siding on the ground; I wondered what it was being used for. I walked up to the workers and asked them where the entrance was; they told me that it was around the building, to the right. As I made my way back to the entrance, I discovered another underground tunnel, wandered through the first floor of another building, and peered through some underbrush at what looked like the beginnings of another tower.

Recommendation

All of which goes to say that you can explore Teufelsberg as much as you like, provided that you pay for the tour and sneak away later. If you are fortunate enough to look German, you might even be mistaken for a worker. Wear jeans and bring a headlamp. Tell me when you’ve found the tunnels!

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