Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
One of the most historically resonant sites in Germany’s capital has been left in ruins.
This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.
If Germany’s capital were a more rationally run place, you might expect tour buses to fill the streets around Berlin’s Teufelsberg. In a city full of mementos of 20th century history, this artificial hill on the city’s western edge is perhaps the most bizarre. Created soon after World War II, the city’s highest hill is made up of the wreck of a Nazi military academy that has been covered with rubble from wartime bombardment, then later capped by a now derelict American spy station. As if all this wasn’t gothic enough, locals have given the hill a name straight out of the Brothers Grimm: Teufelsberg means Devil’s Mountain.
For decades, the hill has functioned almost literally as a dumpster for the city’s painful historic remnants. Its freight of memory and uncanny atmosphere should be attracting the legions of tourists who hunt down remnants of the Berlin Wall. Instead, it lies empty and largely off limits, having been sold off to private investors in 1996 for a preposterously cheap price of just 2.6 million Deutschmarks, or around $1.84 million. Now it seems Teufelsberg could be stuck in this Purgatory indefinitely. The investors who bought the site (and then failed to develop it) won’t sell it back to the city for anything south of €50 million ($52.8 million). As broke as ever, Berlin can’t afford to buy it back. This means it can’t become a museum, an arts venue, a sporting site, or any of the other facilities suitable for this location’s huge potential.
Instead, the overall effect of the complex right now looks a bit like an obsolete NASA facility cross-bred with Daphne Du Maurier’s Manderley. Weeds and briars are starting to weave ropes around the structure as if they’re trying to drag it beneath the surface of the hill, while the listening post’s mushroom domes are now tattered skeletons. Out of mind (if not out of sight), Teufelsberg’s current outcast state belies its history as one of the most pregnant symbols of Berlin’s complex postwar recovery.
It’s certainly a strange history. The hill first started to rise immediately after the war, when much of Berlin lay in ruins. Before reconstruction could begin, all that rubble needed to be recycled or removed (work that was largely performed by women). Across Germany, cities assembled rubble hills to stow bombing debris (including several smaller ones elsewhere in Berlin, east and west), but West Berlin faced a particular quandary. Surrounded by East German territory, it couldn’t remove the rubble from the city. Instead it dumped it on top of an existing building on the edge of the Grunewald, a huge forest within city limits, largely felled for firewood during the postwar years.
The city’s chosen dumping grounds was a planned Nazi military training college, where construction had started as part of Albert Speer’s incomplete project to refashion Berlin as Germania, a monumental (and probably unrealizable) plan for a new capital representing Nazi ideals. The academy’s raw hulk proved too sturdy to demolish easily, so the city instead covered it in debris. A planned monument to Nazi ideology thus became appropriately entombed in the remnants of buildings ruined by the ideology itself.
Debris dumping around the site continued until 1972, after 26 million cubic meters of rubble had accumulated. It’s not surprising that with this huge tonnage, Teufelsberg eventually reached over 120 meters (394 feet) tall, making it a veritable mountain in Berlin’s flattish terrain. This eminence made it as good a site as any to set up a listening post for the U.S. National Security Agency. While the hill’s slopes were populated by a ski jump, parkland and even a vineyard, the current building at its crest was completed in 1964 to listen in to nearby Russian and East German communications. Once again yoked into the service of heavy-handed historic symbolism, the hill thus became an embodiment of Cold War intrigue in a city that, to the rest of the world, personified the tensions of those years.
Since being decommissioned in 1991, the station has largely fallen into ruin. It has been used as an occasional photoshoot backdrop, proposed as the site of a hotel, luxury apartments and even a “University of Esoterics.” So far, however, the only creatures to have truly profited from the Teufelsberg’s post-Cold War dereliction are the numerous boar that now live wild on its slopes. You can visit the place by guided tour, and many people have at some point sneaked in by night. This is a pretty risky thing to do, given that there are no guard rails on the buildings’ upper floors, that some masonry may be lose, and that, somewhere in the complex, there is a vacant elevator shaft.
What’s surprising about this situation is that re-purposing obsolete buildings is usually Berlin’s strength. The national parliament is a former ruin, the city’s largest contemporary art museum is in a former railway station, and its best known nightclub is in an old power plant. Against this backdrop of ingenuity, the failure do anything with the Teufelsberg site is, along with Berlin’s ongoing airport fiasco, a sign that the city may still be struggling to get its act together. As the capital of what’s arguably Europe’s most powerful nation, this slapdash attitude belies Germany’s reputation for efficiency and pragmatism in a way that could make the local authorities squirm.
Still, as part of a city whose reputation for creative chaos is somewhat hackneyed but not undeserved, the overgrown site’s disrepair isn’t entirely negative. Berlin’s old warehouses may be undergoing conversion to apartments, its cracking facades plastered over and its occupied houses (often inaccurately referred to as squats) being cleared and rented. But with even historically significant spots like the Teufelsberg showing weeds growing up through the cracks, it can feel reassuring to know that the city’s transformation to sparkling, antiseptic new German showcase is ongoing, not complete.