The US in Germany
JESSICA MANN zeigt uns eine ehemalige Abhorchstation Us-amerikanischer Spione – eine mit Graffiti überzogene Ruine auf einem Hügel in Berlin, die Erinnerungen an den Kalten Krieg wachruft.
Cold War history at Teufelsberg in Berlin
Berliners are surrounded by memories of the Cold War. In the city that spent decades at the epicenter of the geopolitical conflict, reminders are still around every corner. In recent years, however, Berlin’s Cold War history has increasingly seemed to blend into the background — into an ever-changing and progressively gentrifying urban landscape.
There are a few places in the city, however, where visitors to the German capital can still immerse themselves in the past. One of these places is the former US listening station at the top of Teufelsberg — far removed from the city’s shiny new shopping malls and hipster scene.
Located in the Grunewald Forest on the western edge of the city, Teufelsberg, which translates into English as “Devil’s Mountain,” is what is known as a Schuttberg in German — a man-made hill formed from the rubble of World War II. There are several of these mounds in Berlin, and Teufelsberg — at a height of nearly 400 feet (120 meters) — is the highest.
Deep in the bottom of the hill lie the foundations of a military technical college intended by the Nazis to be part of a larger university campus. This was never completed and, beginning in 1950, it served instead as the basis for Teufelsberg. Between 1950 and 1972, 26 million cubic meters of rubble were deposited on the site.
Thousands of trees and bushes were planted on Teufelsberg, too, turning the hill at the same time into a park complete with ski jumps and a restricted area used for military purposes. Even now, a visit to the hill makes its appeal clear — both from a recreational and a strategic perspective. The view from it across the city of Berlin is astounding. From parts of the listening station, you can see for miles. And, as it turns out, with all the right equipment in place, you can hear for miles, too.
Although Teufelsberg was technically in Berlin’s British sector, the US military
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was allowed to place antennae at the top of the hill in the late 1950s. By the 1960s, both the Brits and the Americans were carrying out plans to construct more permanent structures on Teufelsberg — including giant radomes, the globe-shaped hulls made of fabric that protect radar antennae — to continue monitoring Warsaw Pact military communications. The American intelligence operations would later be run by the US National Security Agency.
“But the West Berlin press always just referred to it as a radar station, not a listening station,” says Christopher Mclarren, who works as a tour guide at Teufelsberg. “Our relationship to West Berlin was a very good one.”
Mclarren worked at Field Station Berlin, as the station was called, from February 1973 to September 1975. He was a signals traffic analyst. Recorded signals were transcribed and their content examined in detail. Many of the soldiers had studied East European languages. “Put simply, our job was to figure out who was speaking, and what they were doing,” Mclarren says.
Beyond that, however, the soldiers were encouraged to keep an eye on each other during their round-the-clock shifts. Any signs that a colleague was dealing with unusual personal problems or — of even greater concern — had suddenly come into a large amount of money were to be reported. The worry was that such a development could mean that the person in question was taking orders from Soviet intelligence, the KGB.
One well-known Cold War spy did indeed work at Field Station Berlin. In the mid-1980s, the US soldier and signals-traffic analyst James Hall sold hundreds of military secrets to the Soviet Union while stationed in Berlin and Frankfurt. He was caught and, in 1989, he was sentenced to serve 40 years in a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Hall was released in 2011.
Another reality of daily life for the soldiers on Teufelsberg was the grim knowledge that, if West Berlin were to come under sudden attack, Field Station Berlin and all the information it contained would need to be destroyed. In all likelihood, there would have been no escape from destruction for any of the soldiers inside.
Despite their secretive workplace, however, the soldiers led surprisingly normal lives, working their shifts and taking the bus to and from the barracks or to other parts of West Berlin. Some even cycled home through the forest, braving the wild boar that still wander the Grunewald. Many of them look back fondly on their time in Berlin. Organizations of veterans who worked at Field Station Berlin have even arranged reunion trips back to the site.
“Every four to five years, they come back to Berlin,” says Mclarren. “But some of them still won’t answer too many questions about their time here. That’s just the mindset of people who’ve worked in intelligence agencies.”
Mclarren himself never thought he’d be back at Teufelsberg. After his stint
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at Field Station Berlin, he stayed in the city. But it wasn’t until his wife stumbled across the Teufelsberg website a few years ago that he returned to it.
“It had changed so much that I couldn’t help but feel deeply shocked,” he says about the dilapidated condition of the buildings themselves. “But I am very pleased that it is still there and that I get to tell my story about the kind of experience it was.”
Since 1992, when Field Station Berlin was closed, the fate of the site has been continually up in the air. In the early years, concepts for developing the site ranged from leisure parks and skiing centers to artists’ studios and solar power stations. None of these ideas came to fruition, however, and in 1996, the property was sold to the architectural consortium Gruhl & Partner.
Plans to build luxury apartments on the site eventually fell through as the result of complaints from neighbors and conservationists who opposed the construction plans. The only remaining evidence of the short-lived building boom on Teufelsberg is one model apartment, which — like the original structures and radomes — was vandalized over the following years, when the site was essentially abandoned.
To complicate matters further, the area returned to its pre-1930 land-use status following the unsuccessful construction plans, and was officially deemed woodland again and thus land where development was not allowed. Although Berlin has shown some interest in buying back the hill, the cash-strapped city is unable to afford it.
Today, Teufelsberg is covered with graffiti which decorate its nearly every surface. For the past few years, the owners have opened the site to artists — who have covered the buildings’ immense interiors with street art — as well as to visitors who pay to tour the area. Concerts have even been held within the radomes themselves, making use of their incredible acoustics. Teufelsberg has also gained attention as a film location for movies and television, including the recent American series Berlin Station.
The question of how best to keep the site’s Cold War memories alive, however, remains unanswered. Much of the official documentation surrounding Field Station Berlin will become declassified within the next several years.
“It would be nice to have a small museum, and there are various plans,” Mclarren says. “But there’s no power or running water, and you’re not allowed to build.”
Mclarren says he thinks that Teufelsberg will remain in limbo for some time yet, but while he understands the dilemma, he sees the downsides to the situation.
“People are very forgetful. A whole generation doesn’t even remember a split city,” he says. “It’s good to remember what can happen. The idea of war — real war — is so far out of our consciousness now. That can be a dangerous attitude.”
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A visit to the former signals intelligence station is a chance to learn about Cold War history, admire graffiti, and take in views of Berlin
Not spies, but fans of a snowy slope: there was a restricted military area on Teufelsberg, Berlin’s highest hill, as well as ski lifts, which can be seen in this photo dating from 1966