In the northern region of the Berlin Grunewald forest there is a tall hill built from the WWII remnants of the city of Berlin. The continuous bombings and subsequent cannon barrages left the landscape unrecognizable with the exception of an occasional landmark of the city. The ruble was removed through the harsh manual labor of the working women, die Trümmerfrauen. The hill of rubble became known as Teufelsberg (Devils Hill). It is aptly named yet the nomen comes from the area and not the connotations of the historical 380 feet high mass. T-Berg, or the Hill, as we called it, was the ideal site for a military post deep inside of East Germany, located in the British Sector of West Berlin, formally called Field Station Berlin (FSB).
I was stationed in West Berlin and assigned to FSB from 1981 until 1983. It was the most memorable time of my life. It marked the start of a continuing education in world events that shaped my view of international affairs. I am forever grateful for the experiences and friendships built during my days in Berlin. The building has a historical value but it has structurally decayed to the point of irrevocable ruin. Berlin has pondered the question of what to do with the structure far too long. It may be time to level the ruins and perhaps construct a small museum to the cold war and the allied efforts to keep West Berlin connected to West Germany like an island in a Soviet sea.
While visiting Berlin this September, I made time time to ride the U-Bahn (subway) and a bus to the edge of the Grunewald forest, where I walked to the base of Teufelsberg then up the hill just to see the remnants of my old duty assignment. It was a walk through revery and disappointment. The memories persist but the buildings do not.
I had spent the previous week as a part of a group sponsored by The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation. To qualify for the trip you had to have served in the U.S. military in Berlin. We were Cold War Warriors, nontraditional soldiers trained in diverse means of warfare meant to prevent mutual annihilation. The results were highly effective.
A tour of Teufelsberg was not on our group agenda. I decided that a trip to the old site was a must and made plans to go there on the Saturday after the sponsored tour. I was accompanied on my trip to the hill by Tanja, our very personable guide from the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation. She was new to the organization and wanted to see the site firsthand. Tanja had planned out the route we took to the hill that Saturday afternoon. We boarded the U-Bahn at Wittenbergpaltz U2 in the direction of Rhuleben, exiting at Theodor-Heuss Platz. From there we took the #49 bus in the direction of Heerstrasse/Nennhauser Damm, exiting at Flatowallee/Olympiastadion, and walked the rest of the way.
The walk through the Grunewald isolated us from the sounds of the city. I was reminded of the times that I would slip away into the wilderness where the city was occluded by the sights and sounds of nature. I learned then about a common bond between myself and many Germans through our mutual respect of the natural world.
According to Google, we had to walk a mere 2.1 KM in 1/2 hour. It had failed to divulge the 380 feet climb up the steep open side of the hill. I was familiar with the Hill but I was uncertain about the route to its base through the thick surrounding woods. We managed to find our way with the assistance from some local people who pointed us left at a juncture. When we reached the clearance at the base of the hill I saw the familiar outline of a geodesic dome looming above. For the first time in 35 years (nearly to the date) I would be revisiting the field station. I felt exhilarated with anticipation. But the walk up the hill helped quell that feeling.
When I worked at T-Berg we rode the trick (shift) bus along the hillside to the top. It is a very different thing to walk straight up the hill. After three or four resting stops we had reached the fenced area below the installation. Along the way, a runner had passed us with a dog following him at a slower pace. The man stopped to rest a long time at the top. The dog must have known the routine. The tired pooch rested further down the hill chewing on a stick retrieved from the surroundings. The runner heard us pondering which way we should go and pointed us toward the right along the fence line.
We found the entrance leading in through the old gate where we joined a line waiting to pay our twelve Euros entry fee and receive an obscured oval hand stamp. I think the stamp showed the three distinct domes that FSB was known for. Along the way I told Tanja that we were below the old mess hall. The area below the overhang was stuffed with old wooden doors and window frames and some mess hall equipment, including the stainless steel kitchen sink. Tanja seemed envious of the sink though I don’t think she had a use for it. Someone else must have been listening to us. Later, a woman approached me to ask some questions about having served at T-Berg. The questions were innocuous so I answered to the best of my ability.
We had time to wait before the next tour. I walked around examining the graffiti and large art works that blanketed the building exterior. Much of the exterior is damaged with large gaps in the structure. The geodesic domes have been devastated. The thick white rubbery plastic coated material of the domes is cut, tattered, and torn. The remaining surfaces bear the graffiti of countless amateur artists. The distinct markings of some repeated artists can be seen everywhere. A wolf character pops up frequently voicing remarks from the artist’s observations. Other artwork depicts scenes of a surreal nature.
The top of the hill appears to be an artists haven. To add to the discontinuity of the site a small shack offers beverages and some snacks. I bought a bottled water.
While studying the various art depictions, I overheard a man talking about when he was at FSB. I introduced myself and asked when he had been there, and if he was former military. He was a contractor who had installed a new electronics system in 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall came down and the the new system was decommissioned less than a year later. Nobody could have predicted the events of that period. During my stay in Berlin I had thought the Wall would outlast my lifetime. I was elated when I had heard the news of the break in the wall that November in 1989. It was a relaxation of the doomsday clock and the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Tanja had perched herself near the exit of the MP shack. I offered to show her around the entrance to a side hallway. Just inside and to the left we found “Jaws”. “Jaws” was a paper shredder to end all paper shredders. Massive reams of materials could be tossed toward the spinning drums at the heart of the machine where they would be sucked in by a vacuum generated by the inner workings of the machine, and shredded into a fluffy unrecognizable pulp then jettisoned into a baler. Rumor had it that the bales were sent to the East for disposal. I have my doubts about that. The machine was still there in tact without the drive motors. We could view into the massive heavy drums that had torn at the paper. The baler still had some fluff coating the interior. I considered taking a pinch but thought better of it given the age and possibility of contaminants in the paper remnants.
We checked out the entrance hallway. It dead ended at a makeshift plywood wall. On the opposite side of that wall was the main hallway leading from the MP station into the facility. I had walked that hallway, turned right, and rounded the corner to the so called “mech-shop” many times during my stay in Berlin. I did not get to walk those few steps or see the shop again, but I did get to see the main floors of the installation.
The upper floors were reached by the external emergency exit stairs. We joined a tour there. After being ushered up the steps we stood on the concrete floors that used to support the computer tile floors used to force air conditioning into the racks of electronic equipment. I used to walk the stairs by the elevator shaft repeatedly during a shift, or use the elevator to move equipment between the floors and the shop. The elevator shaft exists but the car no longer moves between the floors. The walls are decorated with massive murals ranging from cartoonish appearances to the more realistic styles. We were given an introduction to the art with little regard to the historical significance of the facility. I felt that I was the only one who knew what had transpired those many years ago inside the confines of FSB. The sunlight and the weather now freely stream in through the huge gaps in the outer walls. I tried to remember the various positions as they were but failed to see them clearly. It was a foreign landscape.
We walked up the steps by the elevator shaft to the next floor and on further to the roof. The two smaller domes stood in place like ruptured memorials along the roofline. The circular bases remained at the center of the domes. The wire raceways were in place. Nothing else remained to tell the true story under the tattered domes. The taller dome was inaccessible at the top of the central tower. The column was in obvious ruins, yet the upper dome seemed in decent shape. I imagine that it was a duplicate of the other two domes inside.
The rubberized rooftop offered a nice view of the Berlin skyline. We could look into the former East at the Fernsehturm (nick named Pope’s Revenge) of Alexanderplatz and see everything between, including the Tiergarten. It was a beautiful clear day perfect for surveying the area. We filled our senses with the open air before returning to the lower floors and examining the large scale art portrayed on the formerly stark functional walls.
The self guided tour was completed. We exited by the same stairway we had entered on. We completed a walk around the perimeter looking over the remaining art covering the disheveled metal siding. There were other things to look at such as a small dish antenna covered in a mosaic of mirrored tiles, bears carved from the trunks of trees, and a dump site filled with Siemans equipment racks.
It was a somber moment as we completed the informal tour of FSB. The skeletal remains of the past cannot tell the social story of Field Station Berlin. It was more than the assignment. It was more than the equipment. We were a tight knit community of individuals in the middle of one of the most important cities of Europe. I still stay in touch with some of those friends. Some of my closest friends from Berlin are no longer alive. I walked down the hill comparing my memories to the current retired state of FSB. I was grateful that I had been there and we had all made a difference. I was glad that Tanja had accompanied me so I could share the experience and some of the stories behind the buildings.
Since having written this blog Teufelsberg FSB has been given an official historical monument status. The announcement was made on November 2, 2018 by Berlin’s Senator of Culture Klaus Lederer. Read more about it here: https://www.thelocal.de/20181106/former-cold-war-listening-station-teufelsberg-given-protected-historical-status