Teufelsberg: Berlin’s North Face

A walking excursion to one of Berlin’s most mysterious landmarks…

Image by Owen McGuire

Considering it’s a city with lots of neighbourhoods named after hills (Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Schöneberg and so on), Berlin is a challengingly flat place. You can walk for miles and miles without rising so much as an inch above the median above-sea-level altitude. Nor would the more notable inclines in the city’s topography—the gradual north-easterly rise along Prenzlauer Allee, for instance—trouble an eighty-a-day fashionista in six-inch Manolo heels. The Kreuzberg itself, meanwhile, rises to the dizzy, Himalayan heights of 66 metres.

From a walker’s point of view, Berlin’s absence of steep ascents, high ground, vantage points and succeeding declines might suggest the reason why the postwar authorities built Teufelsberg, an artificial hill to the west of the city, right in the thick of the Grunewald. But it wasn’t, of course. In the reconstruction period after World War Two, Teufelsberg was constructed from pulverised rubble created by the Allied bombing raids and the Red Army offensive—12 million cubic metres of brick-dust, equivalent to 400,000 apartments, according to one popular internet encyclopaedia.

There are a range of myths attached to the 115-metre-high Teufelsberg and the strikingly macabre, disused listening station at its summit. David Lynch, it is said, once tried to buy the complex; underneath the rubble lies one of Albert Speer’s projects—a Nazi military college, apparently. Whatever the truth, with a mythology and name like that (it means Devil’s Mountain), visiting or simply looking upon Teufelsberg is enough to conjure those powerful and uniquely Berlinisch resonances of secrecy, eavesdropping and threat, division and trauma. Even in blazing hot sunshine.

One sweltering day recently, I strolled into the Grunewald, from the Pichelsberg S-bahn station south east, up and then down Teufelsberg, returning to the rail network at Grunewald S-Bahn. Wandering through the woods, the immense central tower of the station, topped off with its antenna dome, formed a beckoning but fugitive presence—visible briefly though the boughs in fractured sunlight, but only to disappear again. Eventually we located a steep, well-worn path leading to the summit.

At last, a hill: as we climbed, soreness grew in the calves and Achilles tendons, accompanied by that familiar stressful rise in the heart rate which, when huffing away in the heat, causes the mind to fill with swear words as pace after pace seems to bring the end no nearer. Eventually we summitted, only to discover three layers of iron fencework preventing entry. We circumvented the complex furtively, before finding a gap in the ring.

Image by Owen McGuire

Of course, the listening station is one of those places you should go to that you shouldn’t really go to; upon entering, however, we discovered we were far from alone. Other knots of amateur psycho-geographers poked about the crumbling, faded architecture of Cold War military surveillance. In the dome at the top of the tower, a pair of artists were doing something artistic with video cameras; meanwhile a gang of teenagers showed up with an idea wise beyond their years: they were carrying a crate of Oettinger beer.

The listening station is by no means a pretty place. Its massive, empty and often wall-less storeys summon anxiety along with questions. It is an absence as much as a presence: what things have happened here, what was known? So too is it dangerous: there are big drops, missing floor tiles, shattered asbestos plates, broken glass, and threatening tagliatelles of sharp wiring, rusted ironwork and reinforced concrete in its gloomy, suspicious corners.

Some possible future uses for the listening station could be: a paintballing venue (it’s like being inside a gigantic 3D video game), fantasy ‘un-wellness’ spa resort for oddballs, or a film location for Hollywood producers with preconceived ideas about what European rave parties are like. Today, though, Teufelsberg seems popular with graffiti artists, urban explorers and others with a yen for the aesthetics of decline, or a frisson of the spooky.

Two secondary antenna domes squat enigmatically on the roof while above the shredded fabric skins of the tower whip in the wind like the sails of a ghostly pirate ship. Teufelsberg’s true delight, though, is its 360º panorama across the Berlin hinterlands. You can see the Olympic stadium, planes entering and exiting Tegel, the endless deep-green canopy of the Grunewald, the TV tower at Potsdam along with an assortment of power stations, chimneys, high-rise blocks, spires and other civil-engineering protuberances, as far as the eye can see.

Staring west, it makes sense to consider Teufelsberg as a kind of anti-tourist destination: an ersatz-rural reply to the dominating Fernsehturm TV tower spiked into Alexanderplatz, which forms the stroke-of-midnight fulcrum in Berlin’s more usual panoramae. Its intrigue today is as a looking station—a lofty destination for those seeking a alternative perspective on the alternative city.

Image by Owen McGuire

And then, underfoot on the descent, you notice in the pathways etched into the slopes and woodland, protruding bricks and broken masonry, remnants of other buried histories. What unrecorded agonies and shocks lie in those stones?

Naturally, we didn’t mention any of this to the young Canadian dancer we met on the final leg westwards across Teufelsberg’s lower secondary peak and back into the Grunewald (the whole walk was only about four miles, by the way). She was looking for a directions, after completing the day’s nannying duties. Which way was the S-Bahn back to reality? Not up that way, we said. We accompanied her back to Hackescher Markt, bade her farewell, and disappeared once again into the horizontal anonymity of flat, flat Berlin.

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