Abhörstation // Spy Station // Berlin
Abhörstation is an abandoned cold war spy station that sits idly atop the rubble mound of Teufelsberg like the surrendered crown of a reign long ago. For 20+ years it served as the NSA’s intelligence gathering headquarters, a pinnacle both literally and symbolically of Berlin’s divided postwar reality. Today, it gleams and billows from above; perfectly in tact yet hypnotically weathered, buzzing with ghostly echoes of a different Berlin.
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: July, 2014
Berlin, oh sweet, weird, wacky Berlin. It is a city oozing a certain hermetic authenticity with a brand of straightforwardness that is so distinctly, unapologetically German. And yet, alongside this directness, Berlin radiates a convoluted coyness and refusal for obviousness that is so uniquely, categorically, Berlin. If you’ve been here, you know the paradox I speak of—the transparent, face-value presentation of urban self, which nonetheless requires one to patiently and humbly peel away layers to access Berlin at its core. Only once it is exposed do the enigmas come to life and the secrets emerge from the shadows of the conspicuous.
Far and away, my favorite overt Berlin secret is Teufelsberg. Translated literally as “Devil's Mountain,” it is a hill reaching more than 120 meters above sea level, making it the tallest point within city limits (hence, the overt bit). This massive mound was made gradually over the twenty years the city was cleared and rebuilt from an estimated 12 million cubic meters of World War II rubble heaped together in the northern end of the Grunewald forest in what was then called West Berlin. Although strange, this origin is by no means unique—apparently there are many similar man-made debris mounds throughout Germany and other war-torn cities in Europe. The enigma lies in what is buried underneath the hill: the never completed Nazi military-technical college called Wehrtechnische Fakultät, designed by Albert Speer. The Allies attempted to demolish the school using explosives, but it proved so sturdy that covering it with ruin and rubble (and grass) turned out to be far easier. But perhaps even weirder still, is what sits on top of Teufelsberg: a massive abandoned American NSA spy station from the cold war.
Known today as “Abhörstation,” it was known colloquially by the many American soldiers who worked there during the cold war simply as “The Hill.” A gargantuan complex by relative spy station standards—in fact, it was one of the biggest intelligence collection stations in the western world—The Hill provided what was deemed the best vantage point for listening in on Soviet, East German, and other Warsaw Pact nations’ military traffic. The NSA began permanent construction of this facility in 1963, and it continued to operate until it lost its raison d'être with the fall of East Germany and the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s.
Counter to any natural assumption of what a vital spy station might look like, Abhörstation certainly cannot be considered discreet. The complex consists still today of three huge bulbous globes, two “radomes” perched atop 3-story buildings, and another atop a 6-story phallic shaped tower. During operation each radome globe contained massive 12-meter satellite dishes and the most sophisticated spy technology for the time, enabling the western powers to intercept satellite signals, radio waves, microwave links and other transmissions, before interpreting and analyzing their findings.
By 1992, Abhörstation had been entirely abandoned, left to the “wildschwein,” or wild pigs, that supposedly inhabit the surrounding forest. Despite a variety of attempts to take over the place in the years which followed—among them, plans for luxury apartments as well as an impassioned proposal by filmmaker David Lynch in 2008 to purchases and coopt the space—the 11+ acre site has remained unchanged, its gates locked and its perimeters secured by an intimidating tangle of barbed wire fence. It is, however, possible to visit for an hour under supervision of plainclothes guards; and for graffiti artists, Abhörstation has become a de facto playground and blank canvas.
I had only one hour to devour this enchanting ghostly behemoth, but what a magical hour it was. With the ziggurats still fit for running around and afternoon sun gleaming through the shorn canvas of the radome globes, I could easily conjure visions of the station during the height of its cold war glory. I found myself entranced by a sort of vague, lived-in ambiance that vibrates through the sprawl of abandonment. Audible echoes of a trapped past bounced off the giant geodesic interiors, buzzing through me as I explored floor after floor of dark corridors, graffiti facades and breathtaking vistas of thick Berlin umbrage. How perfectly strange was this feeling of observing the observers some three decades later, spying on the original spies! It was pure meta magic.