Where the spies are

Berlin is once again a capital of international espionage and, mirroring of its Cold War heyday, a proxy battleground between Washington and Moscow. So perhaps those inconspicuous office buildings around the city aren't just offices after all...

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Last year, Edward Snowden’s NSA files revealed that America was listening in on German citizens’ phone calls, right up to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then in June, two German intelligence workers were accused of spying for the US, in part to keep an eye on Russia. Berlin is once again a capital of international espionage and, in an uncanny mirroring of its Cold War heyday, a proxy battleground between Washington and Moscow. These revelations have turned a spotlight on the Hauptstadt’s cast of intelligence agents and imbued some otherwise mundane office buildings with an aura of intrigue…

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Bendlerblock, Stauffenbergstr. 13-14, Mitte

Today a group of conspirators planting bombs to overthrow the government would be labelled a terrorist cell, but when said group targeted Adolf Hitler, they were rightfully heralded as heroes. Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg led the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate the Nazi leader from this 1914 neo-classical edifice, then the Wehrmacht headquarters. Hours after their plot failed, he and fellow conspirators were executed in the building’s inner courtyard. Today, the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, or German Resistance Memorial Centre, commemorates Von Stauffenberg and other Germans who actively opposed the Nazi regime out of conscience. But this memorial to violent subversion shares Bendlerblock with one of modern Germany’s largest bureaucracies, the Federal Ministry of Defence and, specifically, the office of accused spy Leonid K. Investigators say the 37-year old bureaucrat passed secrets to American agents and, on July 9, raided Leonid’s Bendlerblock office and Potsdam home. Der Spiegel reports that, like Stauffenberg, Leonid K. is of aristocratic birth, but his motivation for betraying his country – conscience or money? – is still a mystery.

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The American Embassy, Pariser Platz 2, Mitte

When it opened in July 2008, the worst that German critics could say about the new embassy was that it was ugly. The building had a tortured birth. California-based architects Moore Ruble Yudell got design credit, but their unofficial partner was Osama bin Laden. The 1998 African embassy bombings and September 11, 2001 attacks forced ever-stronger security measures. Even the Holocaust Memorial across the street was squeezed to make room for a buffer zone. But the new embassy’s too-public location – a stone’s throw from the Reichstag, Kanzleramt and other embassies – made it perfect for high-tech eavesdropping. Last year, amid the uproar over news that the NSA tapped Angela Merkel’s phone, Der Spiegel magazine outed the building as a secret listening post. Its windowless penthouse, they contend, hides the super-sensitive antennae of the Special Collection Service (SCS), an elite agency run jointly by the NSA and CIA. These accusations have made the American Embassy more than just ugly – it’s turned into a symbol of paranoia and distrust.

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The Bundesnachrichtendienst, Schwartzkopffstr., Mitte

Construction began on the enormous new home for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s version of the CIA or MI6, way back in 2006. When it opens in 2017 – three years behind schedule and €1.5 billion over budget – Berlin will become home to the highest concentration of German spies, 4000 agents and support staff. The city can also expect a boom in private companies and start-ups specialising in surveillance and high-tech gadgetry. The anticipated influx of well-paid bureaucrats is already transforming this quiet corner of Mitte. Across Chausseestraße from the BND, a plot of land once divided by the Berlin Wall is morphing into The Garden, a complex of 214 luxury condos. Sales prices: €3500-5000 per square metre, above the city average of €3000.

Why relocate the BND’s spies from Pullach, in suburban Bavaria, to the Hauptstadt? Berlin needs the money – the agency’s 2014 budget was €550 billion. And it allows for more secure, non-digital communication between the BND and Angela Merkel’s office. Hand-delivered, typewritten messages? Or maybe tin cans with really long strings?

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The Russian Embassy, Unter den Linden 63-65, Mitte

Why is the US really spying on Germany? According to some experts, to keep up with the Russians. Washington suspects the German intelligence agencies are already riddled with Russian spies. Ironically, America’s BND mole Markus R. was discovered only because he got greedy and also offered his services to the Russian Embassy in Berlin. When it opened in 1951, the then-Soviet Embassy broke a lot of rules: it’s set back from Unter den Linden and taller than its neighbours. Stalin demanded a symbol of dominance over a conquered enemy and a model for future development in the capital (see Karl-Marx-Allee). Stalin fan and ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin has kept the Cold War-era Russian-German spy machine at full throttle. A Marburg couple convicted of espionage in July 2013 had been relaying EU and NATO secrets to Moscow nonstop since the Reagan era. The US complains that ex-GDR comrade Merkel has been too soft on Putin: Markus R. offered his secrets to both the US and Russia. Both accepted, but only the US was punished – the CIA’s Berlin station chief, posted at the US Embassy, was expelled in July.

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Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Kasernengelände Am Treptower Park, Treptow

The two Germans caught spying for the US were uncovered by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV. Its Berlin headquarters sits just west of the Treptower Park S-Bahn station, a high-tech office building nestled between 19th-century brick army barracks. Like the FBI in the US, the BfV keeps tabs on internal threats to the nation’s security. But critics say the agency’s title, literally ‘Protection of the Constitution’, smacks of Orwellian doublespeak as its agents are regularly caught breaking laws while exercising their duties. The BfV’s dodgy reputation dates back to its founding in 1950 when the Allies staffed the new agency with ex-members of the Gestapo, the Nazis’ secret police, but cases of illegal wiretapping and secret closed trials continue to this day. Critics allege the agency is preoccupied with left-wing threats – half the members of Die Linke party in the Bundestag were found to be under surveillance – while turning a blind eye to right-wing extremists. A neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), carried out a terror campaign against immigrants from 2000 to 2006 undetected because the BfV’s agents blamed the 10 murders on organised crime. Whether this was due to incompetence or complicity, as its critics accuse, will never be known since a BfV manager shredded dozens of key documents. Last year, Cem Özdemir, Chairman of the Green Party, said the BfV’s institutionalised xenophobia makes it unable to combat right-wing extremism and called for the agency to be dismantled.

Where the spies were

Glienicke Brücke (Wannsee/ Potsdam)

First termed the “Bridge of Unity” because it linked West Berlin with Potsdam in the East, it earned the sexier title “Bridge of Spies” after hosting a series of high profile East-West agent exchanges.

NSA listening post (Teufelsberg, Grunewald)

The US National Security Agency picked this man-made hill, West Berlin’s highest point, to eavesdrop on Soviet military communications. Today it’s a picturesque ruin.

Cafe Adler (Friedrichstr. 206, Mitte)

Where East met West. A hub of journalists, diplomats and spies loved for its ornate glass ceiling and view to Checkpoint Charlie across the street. It closed in 2008.

Former US Embassy to East Germany (Neustädtische Kirchstr. 4-5, Mitte)

From 1974-1990, this 19th-century palace two blocks from Unter den Linden was officially an island of Yankee soil and, no doubt, a nest of Cold War spies.

Café Moskau (Karl-Marx-Allee 34, Mitte)

Soviet bloc VIPs flocked to this icon of 1960s chic for the best Russian food in town. Across the street was East Berlin’s premier hotel, the Berolina, today a lowly Bürgeramt.

Stasi headquarters (Ruschestr. 103, Lichtenberg)

East Germany’s dreaded secret police operated from this not-so-secret Lichtenberg compound. It’s now a museum run by Stasi survivors.

Originally published in issue #130, September 2014.