The Devil's Mountain: From 1937 to Today

If one wanders through the northern part of Grunewald, they will come upon three white domes rising above the trees. Set on a hill overlooking the rest of Berlin, the domes are surrounded by two chain-link fences, which are scarred with cuts and repairs from people breaking in over the years. The cause of this seems clear: there is graffiti covering almost every plausible inch and some implausible inches. Named after a nearby lake, Teufelsberg, or “Devil’s Mountain”, has as much history as graffiti layers.

The foundation, literally and figuratively, of Teufelsberg began in 1937, before the outbreak of WWII, when Hitler was busy planning his empire. Berlin was to be the cultural center and capital of the world; as such, it needed a much larger university. Breaking a contract to not build in Grunewald, the Nazis began construction on the “Military Technical University” but stopped once the war started. Eight years later, the half-finished building was located in the center of West Berlin, leading the Allies to come up with an ironic solution. Why not take all of the rubble and debris leftover from the war, pile it on top of this unfinished Nazi project, cover it with earth, and call it a day?

The next question was what to use this new mound for. The first idea was to create a haven for West Berliners where they could get away from the fast-paced life of the city. Construction began on a sports center, complete with a ski jump, and a vineyard was planted, but it wasn’t long before the Americans came up with another possibility. Looking for a place to set up a top-secret military facility where they could spy on the Soviets, Teufelsberg, tucked safely away in enemy territory, surely seemed perfect. In 1963, the facility became operational.

Teufelsberg in 1974

Employing more than 1,000 American men and women, Teufelsberg was officially a translation center. In actuality, the three domes housed long-range radars that could pinpoint exactly where a broadcast was coming from while the employees worked on decoding the information. In addition to the two chain-link fences, there was an inner and an outer station with only certified personnel allowed into the inner station. On-site there were guard dogs, housed in their own separate building, and night guards to protect the top-secret information 24/7. All of the paper that wasn’t filed or sent (secretly) to either America or Britain was burned in two industrial-sized furnaces. Despite these precautions, for almost the entire two decades that the station was operational, there was a spy that passed on all the information received to the Soviets.

After the fall of the wall, when the station was no longer needed, the Americans ripped out all of their expensive equipment, leaving the plot of land to switch hands to the Berlin Senate.  Seeing no use for it, and not wanting to foot the bill for its costly upkeep, Teufelsberg was then sold to a private company who planned to build luxury suites and a hotel. This never happened for financial reasons, and since 2005 no more construction has taken place. One might think that that would be the end of Teufelsberg, but quite the contrary. Starting in 2011, Teufelsberg has taken part in “Tag des offenen Denkmals”, a European Heritage Day, which allows artists to showcase their talents in one of the largest graffiti galleries in Germany. And there may no longer be top-secret information stored there, but security is tight. Luckily there are also daily tours, easily booked online. And so it goes, from Nazis and espionage to a graffiti artist's wet dream - Teufelsberg is a representation of the messy, hidden history that is Berlin.

By Arlette Seiler-Fuller

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