Over the Wires

The corridor that leads to the old incinerator is cold and the floor holds a thin film of water. There is a pile of scrap metal — including several dismantled children’s bikes — in the centre of the gangway. The walls are mouldy and the dim light strains the eyes.

Inside, the assortment of pipes that make up the mechanism are rusted brown and decorated with graffiti. The primary conveyor belt is missing. The tubes rise upwards and collect at the largest silo, emerging from the back as one and disappearing again into the wall.

This machine was once used for the thermochemical incineration of classified documents detailing Soviet communications. Only in 1986, when this device malfunctioned in the nearby ‘sister complex’ (causing an explosion that injured 34 people and sent shrapnel 300 feet into the air) was it revealed that this was an NSA wiretapping field station run with the illegal connivance of the Federal Republic of Germany. That incinerator was, in effect, one of the first NSA whistleblowers.

I had been trying to visit this abandoned site in Berlin since a cineaste friend had told me there was a listening tower on top of World War II rubble, and that David Lynch had once tried to convert it into a transcendental meditation centre (to be known as the Tower of Invincibility). It’s a matryoshka doll of German history. But, my friend said, it’s also patrolled meticulously by large men with crew-cuts who secure the damaged parts of the patchwork fence. He’d once heard about a group of students who had cut through the mesh to explore the listening towers, but returned to find they’d already been sealed back in. It is high security for a supposedly forgotten compound. 

In 1937, before it was either a mountain or a station, rumours circulated about a confidential construction project on a plot in the middle of the Grunewald in West Berlin. The most frequently repeated rumour came from a local paper, alleging that the government would be testing submarines in the nearby lake, Teufelsee. Later that year, Adolf Hitler revealed his plan for the construction of Berlin Technical University’s ‘Faculty of Defense Technology’. He said, as he laid the foundation stone in front of reporters, that this state-funded military academy would be the key to his plans for a thousand year Reich. 

But by 1944, funds had been slowly drawn out of projects like the faculty, and construction eventually stalled with only the shell of the building in place; its intimidating stone walls standing tall, but empty. When the war finally ended, Berlin had run out of space to deposit its rubble and it was decided that the faculty’s skeleton would provide the ideal resting place for the city’s obliterated apartment blocks. Over the next 22 years, 7000 tons of debris were deposited on top of the site, every day. By 1972, they had shifted 26 million cubic metres of rubble, or the complete contents of some 400,000 homes. Almost a third of Berlin was reduced to a pile of rubble 115 metres high.

Today, it seems none of the tracks negotiating the Grunewald lead directly through the dense greenery to the top of the man-made mountain. Rather, the broken tiles, mouldy fabrics, smashed concrete blocks, glass, crockery and miscellaneous litter at the mountain’s base provide bearings. The frequent parties that take place here can explain away some of this debris, but extruding from the thin layer of soil that covers the mountain are the tangible remains of a broken city.

Ascending the hill towards the compound, the view is dominated by the largest radome; a giant, ragged golf ball precariously balanced on its tee. Wrapped around the complex is a heavy-duty fence, which on closer inspection is made of up hundreds of smaller balustrades tied together using barbed wire and sprinkled with ‘EINTRITT VERBOTEN’ signs. Three men in high-visibility jackets guard the gate, which slides open almost comically slowly. It seems the current occupiers are keen on keeping with the local traditions of secrecy.

Geographically, the base was in an astonishing position at the height of the Cold War. West of the centre, just past the district of Charlottenberg and in the shadow of the Olympic stadium, the site even has a view over the Berlin Wall. It was well behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, and with barely a bump in the road between Berlin and Moscow, ‘America’s big ear [could] reach into Russian phones’ as Andreas Juettemann put in his book, Berlin Teufelsberg: Outpost in the Middle of Enemy Territory.

Juettemann, who gives private tours around the field station, is one of the leading authorities on Teufelsberg. He recalls being told about an operation that intercepted Stasi transmissions, covered up their orders and issued their own to enemy pilots. This was a commonly executed tactic, and contributed to the base being awarded several Travis Trophies — a prize given to the most successful wiretappers worldwide. 

As a radar station, Teufelsberg’s motto was: ‘In God we trust, all others we monitor’. A slogan that has sharpened with time, and now seems all too relevant. There is a great sense, on entering the compound, of being inside a relic. It is a building that belongs in history, but is also oddly contemporary. After all, the NSA is replicating these functions — albeit on a new enemy and with significant technological advances — as a matter of course. 

Following the explosion of the incinerator, it was revealed that NSA Field Station Berlin belonged to a global wiretapping network called Echelon that sought to listen in on, control and manipulate all political and military communication of the Soviets. Its findings were sent directly to Forte Meade for processing and storage, and will remain there, classified, until 2022. I tried, on many occasions to contact some of the agents who worked there. They were mostly unresponsive, except one, Tom Rae, who told me a story about a prank the officers played on a new lieutenant. Getting back to him, I asked some questions of my own, but he went cold. It seems that many of the old operational planning staff are not, presently, keen to discuss their time in Berlin.

Now the field station looks like it’s barely leaning together.

In 1999, when the Hamburg based developers Gruhl and Partner bought the land for 5.2million DM, they received planning permission to turn it into luxury apartments.

But many people were dissatisfied with the low sale price, expressing concerns about its legality. Demonstrations took place, the decision was stalled, (Gruhl hit financial instability) and eventually construction halted entirely. By 2004 the permission for building work expired and the plot returned to being protected forest. The developers, who couldn’t afford surveillance of their own, were left with little choice but to lease it to security company to stop copper thieves, vandals or squatters destroying it altogether. By this time, Teufelsberg was already a mess.

Wandering around the complex, it seems that now, much like the university that is buried below, it’s just a shell. In the old cafeteria, even the floor has been gutted of anything remotely valuable, leaving only open sockets and fire alarms that were too well secured to steal. The people who live there spend most of their time cleaning up.

‘This whole situation behind the fence is like a stage, with everybody taking their roles’, says the heavily-bearded German graffiti artist. He’s wearing a brown leather medieval-style cape, hood drawn round tightly. He has just introduced himself as the Grand Master Caminos. Next to him, sitting on the only other furniture in the former communications office, is a man dressed in full army colours (boots, beret, khakis, badges) and another man with a small camera strapped over his face, his wispy facial hair protruding from the sides. 

Likely in his 40s, the experienced graffiti artist has a greying beard that makes him look significantly older. His title, he says, comes from his expertise in style writing (graffiti art that makes use of words), but it’s ‘not really real’. He had been asked by Shalmon, the man with the camera strapped to his face and the current tenant, to move from his home in Munich and join the Teufelsberg collective at the field station. They will set the place up as an interactive exhibition space, but there are a backlog of people wanting to make use of this site.

In 2007 David Lynch and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi undertook a European tour of lectures with the umbrella title, ‘Meditation, Creativity, Peace’, the aim of which was to establish peace promoting universities in major European cities, teaching transcendental meditation. 

Raja Emanuel, the German figurehead of the Maharishi, sat with Lynch in the Presidential Suite of the Adlon Hotel the night before his Berlin talk, and they made plans for Teufelsberg to become the ‘capital for world peace’. The next day the filmmaker laid the foundation stone for the university, and at the press conference, the Raja explained his use of the term ‘invincibility’: ‘The idea that every nation should have an invincible will of unity and freedom.’

However, his choice of language was interpreted as being too reminiscent of Hitler’s own rhetoric and Lynch’s laying of a foundation stone for a new university was perceived a completely different light. The pair were heckled off the stage and their plans refused. But, the Raja says, Teufelsberg should still be the site for the university not least because ‘it’s a place that breaks with the tradition of wars’.

Since then, Teufelsberg has been home to a variety of artists, (officially the lease does not permit anyone to live there, so this co-operative is masquerading as 24-hour security) but for many of them it has proved too uncertain or too inhospitable. There is no electricity, water, toilets or gas and the Grand Master admits they are ‘harsh conditions’. They’re also fighting off government officials who have their own plans for the site. So far the collective haven’t come into any difficulty, because, as the graffiti artist says: ‘People in Germany are glad when you’re doing something productive, so they’re mostly having both eyes closed.’

Shalmon is a documentary maker, he says while panning his face around. He’s making a piece now that he might show at European Heritage Day. They are having an exhibition at the beginning of September, with plans to put on theatre around the fence and install a museum of historical photography in one of the rooms. They might even erect a sign outside that says ‘Macht Arbeit Frei’ (Make Work Free, rather than the sign above Auschwitz, which meant Work Makes You Free), and separate the women and children from the men. There are 15 artists in total, incorporating as many parts of the compound and as much of Teufelsberg’s history into their work as possible. But he is keen for me to stress that they are looking for more.

Before I leave, I ask if I can wander around the grounds for a while and the soldier, Benny, says he’ll take me. He leads the way through a seemingly bespoke hole in the brickwork, into a dark corridor that smells strongly of weed and up the seven flights of stairs to the tallest radome, where the view is far past the eastern side of Berlin. On the way I ask if he was ever in the military. He tells me that, actually, he’s an electrician and only wears the uniform to keep up appearances. Once he chased a group of people around the compound for over an hour because they’d broken in and couldn’t get out. They only ran when they saw the uniform, he says.