The Cold War surveillance station at the Teufelsberg in Berlin

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„The historical guided tour for the cold war surveillance station Teufelsberg will start at approximately 1 pm sharp“, roars the guy at the ticket counter at 12.58 – maybe he thinks himself funny. Around 70 people have gathered for the tour of the Teufelsberg spy installations left from the Cold War area in the southwestern part of Berlin. Fifteen minutes later, the ticket seller is still commanding visitors to sign their names and addresses into a list. Several people comment on his rudeness and the bad vibes he is emitting, so we are glad as the actual guide arrives.

R, the guide, has a grey ponytail and a pleasant and suitably strong voice. He has been involved with the Teufelsberg for three years and found a lot of interesting details. And then, because of the “many interesting things to discover with him”, he proceeds to wish us a fantastic guided tour. Working as tour guides ourselves, we consider this bad style.

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Remnants of the cold war

The Teufelsberg („devil’s mountain“) is an about 120 m high hill made of rubble from war destructions. In the Cold War period, when British and US troops occupied West Berlin, and West Berlin itself was a West German island within communist East Germany, the Teufelsberg was used by their intelligence offices as a surveillance station, in order to monitor and to intercept messages within the Eastern Bloc as far as Moscow, to spy on air movements and to send out confusing signals. Several high towers bore special equipment to listen in to far-away radio waves.

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The whole station was a high-security operation; no Germans were allowed to work there, and the British and American officers were, for example, not allowed to take those Berlin underground trains that famously passed through (underground) areas of East Berlin. Electrical lines and computer cables within the buildings were laid in special vacuum-sealed tubes with under-pressure in order to detect any tampering with the cables – after all, this may have been one of the first places to be connected to the newly developed Internet.

After the cold war

When the Cold War ended and Germany was unified, the installations became disused and deteriorated. Later, a number of ever more dubious projects moved in, trying to utilise the science-fiction-like setting for art events or alternative living models (the only problem being that officially the whole area is forest and under natural protection, making all housing or accommodation projects impossible from the start).

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Our guide R talks a lot about the current use and the graffiti art that is prevelent everywhere. The previous administrator had placed additional beton walls in the large halls in order to create more wall space and to attract graffiti artists from all over the world. The concept itself is somewhat interesting, as are some of the graffitis, but it’s not quite what we expect from a historical tour. That is why we leave the group at one point and climb the surveillance tower on our own. The staircase is pitch dark for stretches, but in the semi-circular dome on top there are fantastic acoustics, an amazing view and some youths drinking cheap sparkling wine.

Is the surveillance station Teufelsberg worth a visit?

Altogether the surveillance station makes for an interesting outing from Berlin. The setting is definitely weird, but we would advise against the so-called historical tour: a normal entrance ticket which allows you to stroll on your own and climb the tower is definitely enough.

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