Kindly contributed by Longitude Assistant Editor Ashley Bergman Carlin, recently returned from Central Europe. While traveling in Germany, she discovered an abandoned Cold War spy station taken over by a graffiti artist commune.
To get from downtown Berlin to Teufelsberg without a car, you take the 17-minute S-Bahn ride from Berlin Central Station to the Heerstrabe stop. Once there, you step onto the train platform and begin a 30-minute trek along a dirt path that meanders through an expanse of grass and up a hill. You might feel like you’re trespassing or heading into an abyss, but I promise, Teufelsberg waits for you.
A man-made hill, Teufelsberg, German for “Devil’s Mountain,” sits atop a never completed Nazi military technical college. Allied forces attempted to destroy the unfinished school with explosives but the building was so sturdy they covered it with rubble instead. The newly constructed hill served as a base for Field Station Berlin, an American listening station built in 1963 to spy on East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the 1990s-economic boom, investors bought the defunct listening station intending to build hotels and apartments, but the project was discarded due to lack of demand. Once again abandoned, the tower attracted street artists. The tower and the surrounding complex are now plastered in graffiti and the area unofficially belongs to an artist commune.
I visited Teufelsberg in February of 2017, making the trek in the pouring rain along the muddy path through Grunewald Forest. The further I ventured, the more uncertain I became that I’d ever find the tower and when I ran into a chain-link fence with signs warning against trespass, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get in. When finally I arrived at an opening in the fence, I found a man messing around the back of a beat-up pick-up truck, full of debris and rubble.
“Can I?” I asked, pointing beyond the fence line, and he grunted as he motioned me in. I walked along a paved road and found a shack full of Bohemian artists eating baguette sandwiches and smoking pot. After I paid an eight euro entrance fee, the artists instructed me to follow the cats, stenciled in yellow spray paint on the road. Along the way, every surface—walls, cars, buildings—broadcasted artful and thoughtful graffiti, such as an image of Uncle Sam riding a bomb alongside a note saying “Thank God it’s our bomb” and a surly cartoon dog proclaiming, “Luck had nothing to do with it. I am just great.” Though there was plenty to gape at outside, the real attraction was the tower itself, a multi-floored structure topped with a white dome.
There are six stories in the tower, each adorned with graffiti. The exterior walls, if there ever were any, are long gone, so outside light and rain poured in between the beams, adding a gray quality and a palpable unsettling, yet exciting, ambiance to the already foreboding feeling of entering a Cold War time capsule.
I explored every floor thoroughly to admire all the art before taking the stairs to the next level. To get to the very top, inside the dome, I ascended a pitch-black stairway, winding corners shrouded in complete darkness, each flight of stairs ending at the bottom of another flight of stairs, evoking a claustrophobic sensation until at last I reached the pinnacle—the dome, which shakes in the wind, only allows in a small amount of light through the accidental openings. I walked over to one gap to see the distant buildings of downtown Berlin and breathed in the rain, rejoicing in the well-earned completion of my journey.