Spy games

In from the Cold

Shame the new owners aren't listening.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Teufelsberg hill – made from World War II rubble – is Berlin’s highest spot and a desirable location in the forested West of the city. But the site is subject to planning restrictions, and may not offer good value for money.

  • Facts


    • The buildings were used by the U.S. to spy on East German and Soviet communications until 1990.
    • The site has not been developed since and is currently fenced off.
    • The owners value it at €15 million ($19 million), the city of Berlin at €3 million.
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For 18 years, none of the many ideas to develop the abandoned Cold War spy tower on top of the Teufelsberg – a hill made from some of Berlin’s World War II rubble – has been successful. At 120 meters, or about 395 feet, it is the highest elevation in Berlin and literally means “devil’s mountain.”

Originally, a group of investors purchased the site and planned to build luxury apartments and a hotel on it. But the money never arrived, and nothing came of the project. Subsequent plans, including a “peace university” proposed by the Maharishi Foundation, a U.S. group dedicated to a form of transcendental meditation, have been rejected by local officials.

But now politicians from both the Berlin Senate and local district of Grünewald want to buy the property and put an end to the decay, Der Tagesspiegel has learned. They want to turn the site into a tourist destination that commemorates Cold War history. Ideas under consideration include a spy museum and café with an observation deck.

The site represents a mix of adventure playground, waste dump and apocalyptic film backdrop.

The city’s minister for urban development and mayor-in-waiting, Michael Müller, is among those pushing to buy the property.

Years after it was last used, the former Teufelsberg “listening post” – where U.S. and British intelligence eavesdropped on radio communications from the former East Germany – is still fenced off. The landmark ruins rise above Berlin, a tower and adjacent building, both topped with distinctive ball-shaped domes.

Today it is a mix of an adventure playground, waste dump and apocalyptic film backdrop. Artists are among the few regular visitors, and the domed tower can be visited only on guided tours offered by a local company. But that doesn’t stop the curious visitors from slipping through holes in the fence. Over the years, vandals have left damage and graffiti.

At a roundtable discussion closed to the public, Mr. Müller called the former cloak-and-dagger facility an “outstanding site.” A spokeswoman for the urban development office said that there is “political support” to buy back the property, but noted that the current owners had burdened it with millions in outstanding loans.

“Fantastical, pie-in-the-sky ideas have proven to be unrealistic.”

Daniel Buchholz, Berlin City Parliament

The Teufelsberg roundtable group has met four times now. Participants have included residents of the district of Grünewald, investors, preservationists, conservationists, local politicians and the councillor for construction issues in the adjacent Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district, Marc Schulte.

The head of the city’s monument protection authority, Jörg Haspel, said the former spy station is an important testimony to Cold War history. Up until now, however, it is not been officially listed as an historic monument.

The latest proposals are “by far the most sensible solution,” said Daniel Buchholz, a member of the Berlin government who is in charge of urban planning. He said that they have support from the urban-development study committee of the ruling Social Democratic delegation in the Berlin City Parliament. “Fantastical, pie-in-the-sky ideas have proven to be unrealistic,” he said.

The current owners paid 5.2 million deutsche marks in 1996 for the 4.7-hectare tract (about 11 acres), worth about €10 million ($12.7 million) at current rates. They want €15 million today, but Mr. Buchholz said it’s probably worth less than €3 million. The reason is that in 2005 the Berlin city government declared the area a preserved forest. Since then, new buildings have been prohibited.

Two architects and co-owners of the property, Hartmut Gruhl and Hanfried Schütte, see little chance of a sale to the Berlin government. The prices are too far apart, said Mr. Gruhl. But the parties have similar ideas for the property. In addition to a café and museum, he imagines spaces for scholars as well as for entrepreneurs to set up new businesses.

Planners hope to present their ideas to the local council and Senate before Christmas in the form of a book – about the past, present and future of Teufelsberg.


This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: cay.dobberke@tagesspiegel.de

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