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Berlin's state secretary for Urban Development, Ephraim Gothe, is supporting a bid to redevelop Teufelsberg, West Berlin's former Cold War listening station. Teufelsberg, or Devil's Mountain, is topped by a radar dome of a former US NSA-run listening station.
Berlin's state secretary for Urban Development, Ephraim Gothe, is supporting a bid to redevelop Teufelsberg, West Berlin's former Cold War listening station. Teufelsberg, or Devil's Mountain, is topped by a radar dome of a former US NSA-run listening station. Patrick Stollarz/Getty Images
There are few things young Berliners like better than abandoned buildings.
The city might boast world-renowned museums, but many prefer their history uncurated. As the evenings warm up, those in the know are flocking to the deserted sanitarium in Beelitz, or the old Spreewald fairground.
The undisputed king of the ghostowns is Teufelsberg – West Berlin's Cold War listening station. After the fall of the Wall, operations started winding down, and the hilltop complex descended into abandonment after redevelopment plans fell through. Cluttered with broken glass and torn, flapping tarpaulin, the graffited remains have become such a hit in recent years that one seasoned adventurer now charges for tours.
This is all set to change. Following a hilltop meeting among the ruins, Berlin's state secretary for Urban Development, Ephraim Gothe, announced his support for a redevelopment project that will transform the derelict site into a luxury complex. The final proposal won't be public until the summer, but it's said to involve a hotel, a conference center, and a museum.
The news may be met with chagrin among armies of urban explorers, but it will be welcomed by the Field Station Berlin Veterans Group, which has lobbied since the 1990's for the preservation of the site as a historical artifact.
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Two visitors take in the view from the main tower of Teufelsberg.
Two visitors take in the view from the main tower of Teufelsberg. John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
"It's a unique site," Bill Kouns says, "and we want people to know about the effect it had on this small piece of history."
I met Kouns, a former Teufelsberg agent, in the weeks before the plans were announced. Unlike the tourists lured by the eeriness of the site, Kouns is angry that the station has been allowed to decay.
"It's a shambles. It's an eyesore, and it's dangerous."
Kouns's commitment to the cause is clear. He arrives for the interview armed with a large, green folder. Almost overflowing, it's a painstakingly curated archive of newspaper articles, documents, and photos from his time working in the station.
It opens with a letter.
"Dear SP4 Kouns, on behalf of the Commander, staff, and members of Field Station Berlin, I welcome you to Berlin, the outpost of freedom."
It's a punchy opener and a vivid reminder of the daunting prospect that faced new recruits. More than 177 miles behind the Iron Curtain, the tiny island of West Berlin was surrounded on all sides by 250,000 Russian troops. Up on "The Hill," as the veterans call Teufelsberg, the station personnel were more exposed than most.
"We knew that if there was going to be a military conflict, the Russians would have had their sights on the Hill. Within minutes, it would have been blown to smithereens." And yet, he says, "you get used to it. You just don't think about it."
Of course, they had other things to occupy their attention. The Teufelsberg mission is still shrouded in secrecy, but it's generally agreed that the station was part of the ECHELON network that listened in to the Eastern Bloc. Kouns is reluctant to divulge any details, but he does concede that "it was a live mission. It wasn't practice. It was a live operation."
It all seems very dramatic – the Russians at the gate, the secret networks – yet the more Kouns talks, the more his experiences seem to diverge from the smoke-and-mirrors world conjured by cold war thrillers.
Their work might have been top-secret, he says, but it could also be plain dull. Sometimes they would "do push-ups on the floor to stay awake." It wasn't always sophisticated; as they took the bus up to their hilltop offices, new recruits would titter at the phallic-looking trio of towers, two bulbous stumps flanking the taller listening tower rising between them.
Strangest, though, is the way he talks of the enemy. Like the original ostalgie tourists, the Field Station personnel seem to have developed a curious fascination for their Soviet opponents.
Under the terms of shared military rule, Allied troops were allowed to visit East Berlin on the condition that they went in uniform. As he reminisces about his experiences, it seems more like a tourist excursion than a trip behind enemy lines.
"We just went to see what it was like," Kouns remembers "It was almost a make-believe world, all watchtowers and barbed wire."
While other soldiers would use their privileged exchange rate to buy whatever they could ("so-called plundering their shops", he says regretfully), he and his colleagues would bring back historical souvenirs.
"We'd get flags," he says, "or a poster of Gorbachev."
With Karl Marx memorabilia in their rooms, the staff of the Hill were scorned by the brawnier infantrymen.
"Oh, we were wimps to them," he says with a smile. "When they jogged around our barracks, they'd sing songs to make fun of us. They said we weren't real soldiers because we didn't use guns and had long hair."
It's a world away from John Le Carre, and all the more interesting for it. As we finish up interview, I feel myself coming round to Kouns's way of thinking. It's hard not to regret the passing of abandoned Teufelsberg, but it is easy to see why the veterans feel their experiences are worthy of official preservation.
For those who have run out of derelict buildings to explore, the museum on the Hill might just be worth a visit.