Teufelsberg back in 1985. Above photo by John Evans, all other photos by the author
Near Grunewald, a dense, leafy forest in Berlin’s west end, lies Teufelsberg, an artificial hill made from bombed-out World War II rubble whose name, in German, means "Devil's Mountain." At the top lies a former NSA listening station, which was run by British and American intelligence officers before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I joined a group of 25 to tour Teufelsberg over the weekend. Leading the pack was Christopher McLarren, a kind but discerning former intelligence officer with the US Army Security Agency who gives public tours of Teufelsberg on Sundays. In recent weeks, as stories about NSA surveillance continue to surface, there has been a 40 percent increase in tour attendees.
October also marked 50 years since construction first began on the NSA spy tower, an anniversary celebrated with the release of commemorative stamps designed by American author T.H.E. Hill, who once served at the field station.
The history of Teufelsberg is anything but dull. Underneath the hill, which is located in the former British sector of West Berlin, is the rubble of a Nazi military technical college that was never finished (the war got in the way). Construction started on the listening station in October 1963, and efforts to listen in on Warsaw Pact communications lasted throughout the Cold War.
After the fall of the Wall in 1989, German authorities took hold of Teufelsberg, and after going through a few different owners—including David Lynch, who had planned to build a meditation university—it's now privately owned. What remains of the listening station is stripped bare, washed in graffiti, and has the feel of an artist’s commune.
McLarren worked here from 1973-75 as a traffic analyst. Today, the Berlin-based American gives tours of the place, and peppers his tales with personal anecdotes and insider details that would appeal to any espionage enthusiast.
Despite its historic value, the future of Teufelsberg is uncertain. Ten years from now, it could become too dangerous to visit—though there is hope it will one day become a museum.
Clearly nostalgic, McLarren reminisces about the good old days. Times have changed since the American government paid for soldiers' cars to be shipped overseas and wild boar were a bigger danger than the Soviets. Here are some highlights from the tour, along with McLarren's narration:
Christopher McLarren stands at the entrance to Teufelsberg. Being a traffic analyst required him to listen to the signals received by the station. He says he knew little about the technical details of the operation: "In intelligence work, the basic rule is you only get the information you need to do your work—not anything else. That was true then, and that is true today.”
This is one of the smaller radomes at Teufelsberg, used to pick up radio signals. “What do we listen to? Any radio signal that went through the air—whether it was Morse code or short wave, we listened as much as we could to everything. Much of it was sent in clear text. In the 1960s and 1970s, they did not have the possibility to encode, send a message, decode, recode and send it back quickly.”
British and American workers would go through this building every day. McLarren recalls a high level of security by the US military police. “We were not the NSA. This was the army security agency. We sent our information to the army, defence intelligence agency, the CIA. Of course, they were connected somehow, but this was not directly the NSA. This was all military.”
The military police area still has one remaining painting, which reads ‘Assist, Protect, Defend,’ in yellow, green, black and brown. Today, it is surrounded by graffiti. “It’s not beautiful, but it’s all we have,” said McLarren.
The garbage throughout the Teufelsberg site is another mountain in itself, and has been cleaned up by dedicated volunteers. “When I started this [work giving tours] two and a half years ago, the entire mountain was covered like this," he said."
McLarren stands in his former office. He carries with him a photo of himself in the office, circa 1998. Today, it is covered in silver and blue graffiti and he hardly recognises it as the place he worked in in the 1970s. “The building was cool because you had to cool the machines and we sat in electrosmog and didn’t know what it was,” he remembers.
McLarren said there used to be a car park for 125 vehicles at Teufelsberg, and soldiers could have their cars sent from and back to America for free. Others would brave the surrounding forest and its wild boar on their bikes. “They learned you should not get in between the boar and its children. With all the injuries, we learned the wild boar were more dangerous to our soldiers than the Soviets.”
The station's antennas were inside these domes, on one of the higher levels of the building. “Why covered? Two reasons: Weather—we’re in Berlin, not Florida. Secondly, if East technicians could see the antennas, they could determine what frequencies we could listen to.”
A view of the radomes, facing northeast Berlin.
Inside one of the empty radomes is a bathtub filled with red paint.
Voices echo inside the tallest radome in Teufelsberg, which is the highest point in the city of Berlin. “The acoustics are very interesting, because we sometimes have musicians come and play for our guests. It’s like being in philharmonic hall,” said McLarren.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the soldiers working at Teufelsberg left soon after. Since then, plans to build a luxury hotel and a “peace university” have failed, and the future of the area remains uncertain.
The tallest listening tower from the lowest point.
With that, the tour ends; guests are welcome to find their own way back down. “At the moment, nothing will happen here because this is zoned forest; you cannot build here,” explained McLarren. “We don’t know what will happen here within the next ten years. We would like to have a small museum, maybe a café, but we have no idea if that will work. Some people see it as an artist colony, somewhere in that direction. But right now, there is no money and it’s still up in the air."