Friday, October 1, 2010


Berlin is not a hilly town. There are very few hills here at all, in spite of the fact that several of the suburbs are named after various notional mounds of dirt that you'd really need to be quite worked up to try to make a mountain out of. The area is well served by lakes and even fairly extensive forests, but hills really aren't a feature. The largest hill in the district, in fact, is artificial. It was built in the late forties after five years of aerial bombardment and several months of sustained artillery barrage had left approximately sixty million cubic metres of rubble lying around in Berlin, generally cluttering the place up and getting in the way of efforts to rebuild the city. So far, so WWII, you may be thinking, but the location of the hill is not a coincidence either. Faced with a decision about where to put all this rubble, the occupying Allied military commanders decided that they might as well make it useful. In the Western sector, in the area administered by the British, there stood a Nazi military college that Albert Speer had designed in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to demolish, even with the kind of ordnance the Royal Corps of Engineers had available to them in that part of Europe in the late forties. It was the kind of place where a range of terrible things had happened, and the general feeling was that it should be gotten rid of. Since it was so hard to demolish, and they had all this rubble all over everything, they came up with one of those elegant solutions that can only ever be carried out by organisations like armies of occupation, which are unencumbered by civil engineering regulations or the need to consult with residents: they decided to bury it. So they built a hill on top of the military college and called it Teufelsberg - the Devil's mountain.*

This would be worth a look in itself, I would imagine, if you were the sort of person who went out of their way to visit enormous rubbish heaps. I have my quirks, to be sure, but an abiding interest in piles of rubble has not hitherto been one of them. What I do have though is a serious weakness for abandoned Cold War-era military installations, particularly the sort where you get to climb through holes in barbed-wire fences and risk possible cross-cultural misunderstandings with bored security guards. Lucky for me then that the US National Security Agency in the seventies took advantage of the elevation provided by the artificial hill and put up one of the most aesthetically pleasing sorts of Cold War military installations there is - a radio listening post, which they used to spy on the radio transmissions of the DDR. Radio listening posts have such a strikingly attractive aspect partly because they tend to be situated in areas free of physical interference, which is to say the tops of hills, and partly because the best way to protect all the fantastically expensive receivers and knobs and dials and so on from the elements whilst still maintaining a decent signal quality is to construct buildings that resemble either giant golfballs, enormous fungi, or a space station, depending on your frame of reference.

Space Base Golfshroom.

Once the DDR shut up shop in the 90s, the NSA pulled the plug on the facility and went, I imagine, closer to people they actually wanted to listen to. They took all of their receivers and most of the knobs and dials with them, but they left the buildings, and they left the enormous mushroom/golfball/space station things on top of them. Since that time, the area has been largely ignored apart from an abortive attempt about ten years ago to turn the whole thing into an apartment complex. There's a couple of fences, but they're full of holes, and climbing through holes in fences around abandoned military installations is the height of entertainment for a lot of people. Apocryphal security guards with theoretical rabid dogs on hypothetical chains are said to roam freely in the grounds, but the day we where there I think they might have been spending time with their ideal families, because we were able to stalk our way in through the trees unmolested.

This is a little deer we surprised in the forest. He proved impossible
to catch, so we had to eat the lunch we'd brought from home.

The possibility of imaginary security guards makes the whole thing a lot more exciting, of course. It's pretty lucky that I used to train intensively in the pine forest behind my house for just this sort of mission, and it was even luckier that on the day we infiltrated the facility I was accompanied by my main training partner, who remembered all the signals and protocols that you have to use when you're busting into a highly secure US radar installation on top of an artificial hill in Germany with an indestructible Nazi military college buried underneath it like some sort of secret level. Our combined experience gave us a pretty serious bonus when it came to pulling off moves like avoiding imaginary security guards, and I can report that at no time were our ranks decimated by withering fire from camouflaged bunkers, nor were we caught by any deadfalls, tripwires, or gin traps. Not even imaginary ones.

Johnny Law is around here somewhere, I can feel it.

Once we'd had our fill of sneaking through the forest cover like some sort of elite Ewok commando strike force A-team from 'Nam, it was time to check out the primary mission objective: the domes themselves. As in the best sorts of computer games, we were working against the clock, because one member of our party had heroically elected to stay beside the hole in fence. She said it was because she didn't want to both break her neck and get German arrested in a single day, but I think actually she was Providing a Diversion and Covering our Escape Route, which are crucial and often overlooked roles in a mission and will still earn you lots of experience points. We were fortunate though to have Mr. Tim G. in the team, who is able to move pretty smartly when he needs to, and has a lot of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to being on the run from Johnny Law and keeping a unit moving efficiently in the field.

Wikisign - add your own hazard warnings.

The buildings that the radar domes sit on are really quite fun - they're huge abandoned concrete bunker type things, with lots of exciting-looking cables and broken glass and inscrutably twisted bits of metal lying about, all covered with the Graffiti that spreads in this city like mould in a fruit bowl. There were a few giddy minutes when were looking for a way up, and we were unable to find the official quite safe concrete stairs.

'How do you reckon we get up?'
'Do you reckon you can't get up maybe?'
'Nah you can definitely get up, I saw all this stuff on the internet.'
'And plus how did that guy get up there?'
'What guy?'
'Johnny Law?' You know who that was.
'Nah, that guy on the roof with the macbook. That's not Johnny Law, that's just some hipster writing a screenplay.'
'Oh, OK.'
'Maybe... do you think you have to climb up these ladder type things? On the outside of the pillars?'
'Yeah no, I'm definitely not going to do that.'
'Ah, yeah, I'm also not going to do that.' Naysayers.
'What if these really rusty-looking ladders are the only way up?'
'Then I'm going to probably just not go up.'
'It's only that last bit that looks hard, where you have to sort of reach -'
'I am not going to be climbing these ladders of which you speak. Nor are you. We're not climbing these ladders. They're not even proper ladders anyway, they're like reinforcing or something.'
'I'm not saying we should necessarily climb them, but like if these ladders are the only way up -'
'Stop calling them ladders!'
'Um, guys? I think these things here are the stairs?' T.G. often wanders off when people are having productive discussions, but he usually comes back with useful intel.
'Real stairs? Or fall seven stories and break your neck stairs?'

They're definitely not ladders. Don't climb them. Indiana Jones
would climb them perhaps, but he does lots of things you shouldn't do.

This is why real Ewok commandos mostly communicate with hand signals I think. As it turned out, the stairs were built to exacting US Army standards, and will probably still be there when you and I are stardust again. They were certainly adequate anyway for the task of conveying us safely to the best view of Berlin I've ever seen.

Berlin, with screenplay-writing hipster in foreground.

It really is a long way up.

Go on, look down. That's not a ladder either.

That's an open lift shaft. I'm not sure what motivated some vandal to prise open the
lift doors on everyfloor, but it certainly makes the whole experience a bit more vertiginous.

There are very few towns in the world where you can catch a train to a man-made hill and walk into an abandoned military base in broad daylight, but not get shot at, mugged, or blown up by landmines, and you can also drink the water and call a cop if your bike gets stolen. Third world levels of awesome and poorly-guarded ruins combined with first-world civil society and governance make for a pretty rocking playground. The view from up there in the radar domes is all the sweeter for the fact that you wouldn't even be able to get that high without all of this history going on underneath you, layers and layers of it piling like sediment and forming the foundations for the next outlandish structure somebody takes a notion to put up. From the top of the Teufelsberg you can see a communist TV tower, a fascist airport, a capitalist nuclear plant, and acres of forest teeming with enough wild boars to give Obelix a stomach ache next time he comes to visit the Visigoths. You can see the stadium where Jack Lovelock and Jesse Owens won their medals in 1936, and you're standing right under the flightpath of the C-47s that fed West Berlin for two years during the luftbr├╝cke. The last military casualty of the cold war was shot by DDR border guards somewhere on the plain to the north, and red squirrels run up and down the telephone lines that the CIA used to use to pass on propaganda to Radio Free Europe. These days it's a great place for hipsters to come to do their photography assignments, although I'm told it's considered a bit of an easy brief for obvious reasons.

Me, walking on history. Tim S snapped this shot.

If you ignore things like the piles of radioactive waste and the possiblity of
catastrophic failure, nuclear power stations are pretty cool.

*The video that the link in this paragraph takes you to is way better than most of the ones I link to, so go watch it.

1 comment:

  1. Yikes, that view down and the abandoned lift shaft are making my palms sweat...I reckon I'd choose to Provide a Diversion and Cover Your Escape Route too!