Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Watching the watchers: A spy's guide to Berlin

By Jason Overdorf, for CNN
updated 2:26 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Once a secret military enclave, the Teufelsberg, or Devil's Mountain, a U.S. radar station and listening post, was staffed by 1,000 spies throughout the Cold War. Now it's been overrun by graffiti artists. Once a secret military enclave, the Teufelsberg, or Devil's Mountain, a U.S. radar station and listening post, was staffed by 1,000 spies throughout the Cold War. Now it's been overrun by graffiti artists.
City of spies: Devil's Mountain
The Stasi Museum
'Bureaucracy of evil'
Button camera
Berlin spy tunnel
Checkpoint Charlie
'Bridge of spies'
'Devil's Mountain' listening post
'Palace of Tears'
  • Berlin's past as an espionage hotspot has left the city with numerous spying-linked attractions
  • The Stasi Museum features relics of East Berlin's obsession with monitoring its own people
  • Other destinations include a tunnel dug to tap into communication lines, and an antenna tower

(CNN) -- At the former headquarters of the East German secret police, cheerful American and British tourists scan maps and chatter as they file into the blocky concrete building once known as "the House of One Thousand Eyes."

In its heyday, the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi, was the all-powerful shadow government of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Behind a grim concrete screen molded into eye-shaped portholes, true believer Erich Mielke created the world's first surveillance state -- operating a network of agents and informers so vast it encompassed every school, factory, apartment block and bar in the country, according to Anna Funder, the author of "Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall."

Mielke's grim bureaucracy wasn't the only game in town, I discovered on a do-it-yourself tour of "the spy's Berlin."

Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the unique position of West Berlin -- a walled outpost of freedom behind the Iron Curtain -- made the divided city the focus of Western and Soviet "tradecraft" for nearly 50 years, says Bernd Kostka, author of "Berlin: Capital of Spies."

"Only here in Berlin were the main protagonists of the Cold War living door to door," Kostka says.

Along with the House of One Thousand Eyes, now home to the Stasi Museum (Ruschestrasse 103, Haus 1, Berlin; +49 30 553 68 54), various sites around the city commemorate the capital's clandestine history -- even as revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency was until recently tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone prove that the tradition lives on.

MORE: Insider Guide: The best of Berlin

Noir intrigue

There's a wealth of experiences here for the espionage buff.

The Tranenpalast Museum is known as the \
The Tranenpalast Museum is known as the "Palace of Tears."

On a rainy night at Checkpoint Charlie (Friedrichstrasse 43-45, Kreuzberg, Berlin), the most famous crossing point between East and West Berlin, it's just possible to imagine the noir intrigue of John Le Carre's "The Spy who Came in from the Cold" -- however much a tourist destination it becomes on a sunny afternoon.

Watching the incomparable movie version starring Richard Burton helps.

Featured in that masterpiece as well as countless other films, the crossing's main historical importance stems from the infamous "Checkpoint Charlie standoff," when a 1961 confrontation between Soviet and American tanks nearly sparked World War III.

Outside the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahnhof (Reichstagufer 17, Berlin-Mitte; +49 30 46777790) -- another Le Carre locale -- the Tranenpalast, or Palace of Tears, captures the atmosphere of paranoia more vividly.

Named for the tearful goodbyes of separated families, this station was once the official crossing point for West Germans visiting relatives in the GDR. (Le Carre's "Sasha" recounts the story of a surrender to border guards here in "Absolute Friends.")

Along with smuggled contraband and artifacts from "behind the Wall," the museum showcases an incredible exhibition of video interviews and documentary footage -- as well as the original signs and apparatus for the checkpoint searches and interviews.

On the outskirts of town, the American side of the spy story is on display at the Allied Museum (Clayallee 135, Berlin; +49 30 8181990) in Zehlendorf -- which houses seven meters of a 420-meter-long Allied forces spy tunnel dug under the Wall to tap East German telephone lines in 1953. (A story fictionalized in Ian McEwan's "The Innocent" and the later movie starring Anthony Hopkins.)

One of the most celebrated missions of the early Cold War, the tunnel was the largest and most expensive intelligence operation in Europe in the 1950s.

But it's hard to say who benefited from it most, says "Capital of Spies" author Kostka.

Though the tunnel allowed the Allies to intercept some 400,000 Soviet army telephone calls and countless telegraph messages before it was discovered in 1956, the Russians knew about it from the beginning, Kostka explains.

They kept that knowledge hidden from Berlin to protect their own man in the British government, MI6 case officer and double agent George Blake.

The eastern portion of the tunnel, long thought to be lost, was discovered by a man chopping wood in 2012.

The office of former Stasi chief Erich Mielke.
The office of former Stasi chief Erich Mielke.

'Bridge of spies'

Near the tunnel's original location, the Glienicke Brucke, or Bridge of Spies, (Bundestrasse 1, Berlin) between Wannsee in the West and Potsdam in the East, is perhaps the most famous espionage landmark in the city.

The border crossing designated for the exchange of captured spies, it was here that a KGB agent caught spying for the Russians in New York was traded for downed U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers.

It's an attractive spot on the Havel River, but there's little more than a plaque to mark its significance, so it's best viewed today as a quick stop on a larger tour of Potsdam or other nearby sites.

At the Teufelsberg, or Devil's Mountain, a similar listening post -- this one an abandoned U.S. radar station and observation tower -- has been taken over by Berlin's ubiquitous graffiti artists.

A silent tour around the strange, white radomes -- weatherproof microwave antennae cases reminiscent of Disney's Epcot Center -- gives an eerie feeling in the age of the recent NSA disclosures from Edward Snowden.

Once a secretive military enclave, the full history of the complex won't be revealed until documents are declassified in 2022, but it's estimated more than 1,000 spies worked here throughout the Cold War, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as part of a surveillance network known as ECHELON.

For me, though, nothing captures the Cold War spy's world better than the hot and stuffy Stasi Museum, where the GDR spymaster's suite of offices and conference rooms have been preserved unchanged.

In these spartan chambers, banks of Bakelite telephones, steel desks and chunky typewriters evoke what renowned Nazi trial chronicler Hannah Arendt might have called "the bureaucracy of evil," had she written about East Germany rather than the Third Reich.

As the milky light reflects off the wood paneling, a shudder runs down my spine.

An award-winning journalist and travel writer, Jason Overdorf's byline has appeared in The Washington Post and The Atlantic Monthly. He's also the Berlin correspondent for GlobalPost.

CNN Travel series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The Y-40 Deep Joy, the world's deepest swimming pool at the Hotel Millepini Terme in Montegrotto Terme, Italy.
An Italian spa complex adds new depths to the hotel swimming pool concept with a 42-meter plunge chamber.
updated 8:36 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Whether spiraling up mountains or sky-scraping attractions, these stairs give new meaning to the phrase "watch your step".
updated 10:29 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Even during the harshest periods of the communist era, being Shanghainese had a special cachet in China.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Up the Inside Passage on a heritage tugboat, sport fishermen chase British Columbia's monster salmon.
updated 3:41 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
New York to London in three hours? The European aviation giant is joining the race to make it happen.
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Which cities provide the most memorable party times? A self-proclaimed "nightlife connoisseur" names his top 10.
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
Whether you're looking for a post-meeting pint or a wild night out, creativity is on the menu at these hot Hong Kong venues.
updated 6:28 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
An image showing the Istanbul district of Beyoglu where gentrification is changing the face of the neighborhood and leading the closure of many old shops and establishments.
Artists and migrants are moving out as a once-crumbling neighborhood goes upscale.
updated 1:02 AM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
They irrigate our farms, are an important means of transport and a source of eco-friendly power.