Our intrepid travel writer Josh Ferry Woodard takes time out during a trip to Berlin to explore the imposing Devil's Mountain (or Teufelsberg), a man-made hill that plays host to one of the US National Security Agency (NSA)'s largest listening posts. 

A city synonymous with street art and secrecy

graffiti in Berlin
Street art in Berlin. Image via Josh Ferry Woodard

You can find street art pretty much everywhere in Berlin. On the metro, beside the river Spree, on the Berlin Wall, even out in the forest.

Teufelsberg, ‘Devil’s Mountain’ in German, is an abandoned NSA spy station just 30 minutes out of the city centre in Grunewald Forest.

Over the years it has served many purposes: Nazi college, ski jump, espionage unit, Lynchian yoga school, etc. And like any other site of significance in Berlin, Teufelsberg has been treated to a pastel coat of paint from the city’s industrious street artists.

In addition to street art, Berlin is also a city synonymous with secrecy. The Gestapo secret police brought terror to the streets during Hitler’s reign and just a few years later the Soviets assembled a complex network of informers in East Berlin known as the Stasi.

Read more: An insider’s guide to a weekend in Berlin

 

Street art is an expression of freedom

Devil's Mountain
The view from Devil's Mountain. Image via Josh Ferry Woodard

Street art flourished in Berlin from the late 1970s onward. The area surrounding the Berlin Wall on the Western side, previously undesirable and resembling a WWII rubble site, was largely unmonitored by the West Berlin government.

Immigrants, anti-capitalists and anarchist punks seized the opportunity and moved in to set up squats and artist communities.

 

 

"Some artists criticise the commodification of the scene but others believe it helps to bring street art to a wider audience"

 

 

By the end of the 1980s, when the Wall fell, the area was covered in colourful bubbly letters, ironic slogans and political satire. The street art scene continued to evolve following reunification, with Eastern artists and their powerful representations of newly found freedom taking centre stage.

These days street art is ubiquitous in Berlin. It is used to market the city to tourists and there are many organisations offering tours of the most prominent sites. Some artists criticise the commodification of the scene but others believe it helps to bring street art to a wider audience.

 

Espionage and paranoia

espionage
Image via Wired

In order to fully appreciate the expression of freedom in Berlin today, it is necessary to understand the level of scrutiny that East Germans were previously put under in their everyday lives.

The Stasi’s network of informers was so vast that dissenters were reluctant to discuss radical ideas even with their closest friends or family members. The fear of being reported was profound.

Films such as The Lives of Others, where a Stasi officer spies on an East German playwright, begin to convey the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia.

The TV show Deutschland 83, where a young East German officer is sent undercover in the West to obtain military intelligence, show just how high the stakes were during the Cold War. And the Spy Museum in Potsdamer Platz, featuring real-life spy gadgets and surveillance paraphernalia, helps to bring the gloom of espionage to life.

 

A chequered past

devil's mountain
One of Devil's Mountain's radomes. Image via Josh Ferry Woodard

During the Cold War, the Stasi wasn’t the only organisation spying on the German capital. In 1961 the NSA built the sophisticated Teufelsberg listening station at the top of Devil’s Mountain, the highest point in the city, to eavesdrop on the Eastern Bloc.

Devil’s Mountain is actually a manmade hill. It was formed from around 75 million cubic metres of rubble from a Nazi technical college that was too sturdy to demolish.

The tor was initially used as a ski jump, with capacity for 5,000 spectators, but it seems the US preferred not to have so many civilians knocking about near their spy station and the alpine centre was closed in 1969.

 

 

"A warped pale blue Spongebob Squarepants stood beside an angry purple gorilla with a six-pack and a flaming banana"

 

 

For decades the beautiful radomes were used to protect antennae and accentuate their signal, as NSA workers listened in on East Berlin. But when the Wall fell in 1989 the station was closed and a group of investors bought the area with plans to build hotels and apartments.

However, these construction plans never got off the ground and neither did David Lynch’s attempt to build an ‘invincible university’ for the practice of ‘transcendental meditation’ in 2007.

One of Lynch’s advocates mistakenly used language evocative of Adolf Hitler’s visions during a public lecture and the project was swiftly canned.

 

Devil’s Mountain: the artist community

street art on the radome

These days the abandoned Teufelsberg spy station is home to an artist community who look after (and decorate) the storied structure. They also offer tours of the complex.

It was an eerily quiet, stiflingly hot, day when I visited Teufelsberg. The dry pine forest had no signs, so I headed uphill until the iconic white domes peeped out above the canopy.

After paying the seven Euro entrance fee I entered the site to find bath tubs, upcycled pallet benches, fire pits and all kinds of junky miscellanea scattered around the floor.

Corrugated metal structures towered above dilapidated concrete blocks, holding up the white triangular patterned radome globes. Almost every surface, boarded up window or object was emblazoned with variegated, imaginative street art.

 

Read more: 11 Cheeky but genius works of street art

 

A warped pale blue Spongebob Squarepants stood beside an angry purple gorilla with a six-pack and a flaming banana on a 40-foot wall; a robotic bear waved its hand peacefully amid a colourful psychedelic scene on a car with its insides splayed across the bonnet; a black and white mouse with a speech bubble read: “Who left the bag of idiots open?”

I climbed a staircase and found artists at work on a new piece with stencils and spray cans. I continued my ascent of the plinth and reached one of the radomes. Standing in the centre of the dome I was afforded stupendous views of the city through the cracks in the fasciae.

My final treat was to stand in the highest dome, where a faceless man in a white suit was painted with arms stretching the length of the circumference, as two artists used bits of rubble to create music. The xylophonic beats echoed endlessly off the curvature of the spherical ceiling.

 

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Feature image via Doenerkind

 

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