Germany opens huge new spy HQ in Berlin

Inside Germany's new spy HQ

In the heart of Berlin

Decorated with steel palm trees, the new BND headquarters sits right where the Berlin Wall used to bisect the city. The move signals a major symbolic change for Germany, no longer shying away from taking a prominent role on the global stage.

Inside Germany's new spy HQ

Palatial grounds

The limestone and aluminum-fronted complex covers 10 hectares (25 acres) and cost €1.1 billion ($1.25 billion). It is one of the world's largest secret service bases.

Inside Germany's new spy HQ

The thing

A huge monolith called "The Thing" (Das Ding) adorns the central courtyard of the new headquarters. The work was created by the Düsseldorf-based artist Stefan Sous, whose massive sculptures can be found in public squares thoughout Germany.

Inside Germany's new spy HQ

A glimpse inside

There are plans to open a visitors center at the new BND headquarters. This marks a massive shift for a populace that has long been suspicious of intelligence agencies, with memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi still alive. "A healthy distrust is helpful, but being overly suspicious is a hindrance," Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the opening.

Inside Germany's new spy HQ

Keeping tabs on time

The clock in the situation room shows the time in New York, London, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. The building itself, however, did not open on time. A series of delays, mishaps and cost overruns. The inauguration in February 2019 came more than 12 years after construction began.

Inside Germany's new spy HQ

The situation room

Around 4,000 of the BND's 6,500 secret service agents work in the huge new building. Merkel stressed that Germany "needs a strong and efficient foreign intelligence service more than ever." International terrorism, global organized crime structures, as well as cybersecurity and nuclear proliferation are among the challenges the BND is looking to target.

At the official opening, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed Germany's need for a "strong, efficient foreign intelligence agency." Hidden in the countryside for decades, the BND has finally arrived in the heart of Berlin.

It cost over €1 billion ($1.13 billion) to build. It will house around 4,000 secret agents. It covers an area the size of 36 soccer pitches. The new headquarters of the German Intelligence Agency (BND) has completed its move from Pullach, on the outskirts of Munich, to the center of Berlin, close to the former Wall. 

History | 30.06.2018

The idea of a secret service is traditionally viewed critically in Germany, evoking memories of the Gestapo or the Stasi. A huge new building in the beating heart of Berlin carries huge significance — a bold statement of Germany's renewed confidence in its global role. So how did the intelligence agency make its move from the provinces to the capital?

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A grand vision

In 1996, Hansjörg Geiger was well ahead of his time. Although the Cold War between East and West had been over for a number of years, it was still tangible at BND headquarters: "Accomodation for civil servants" read a sign in front of an old Nazi settlement in Pullach. Was this where the new BND president was supposed to work? Preposterous, Geiger thought. For 40 years — the agency was established in 1956 — Germany's foreign intelligence agency had been obfuscating its name.

Geiger recognized the need for concealment, but this  went too far. He promptly had the sign removed. From then on, everyone who approached the imposing complex in the Isar valley would know who really resided there: the German Intelligence Agency. Even flower boxes suddenly appeared: The odd dash of color couldn't do any harm in this gloomy environment. The newly-appointed BND chief quickly gained a good reputation. Even the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily, tradionally wary of secret services, praised Geiger as "competent, accurate and refreshingly outspoken."

Inconspicuous: The former BND headquarters in Pullach

'A large, constitutional agency working in Germany'

Geiger, a doctor of law, was hardly concerned with his own image — he wanted theof the agency to change. His message to the 6,000 employees: "You don't need to be ashamed of what you do." The agency, which is controlled by the chancellery, should be perceived by the public for it really was, Geiger told DW: "A large, constitutional agency working in Germany."

The new man at the top quite literally opened the agency's doors, even inviting journalists to take part in a BND briefing. Germany had never before experienced such a degree of transparency with respect to its secret services. The opening of the Stasi files after the fall of the Berlin Wall remains an outlier because its aim was to contribute to the reappraisal of the East German dictatorship and its notorious secret police. In the early 1990s, Geiger made an important contribution in this area too, holding a key post in the commission which investigated the activities of the Stasi. He worked under Joachim Gauck, who would become German president in 2012.

'Not stewing in its own juice'

As BND head, he then broke another taboo. Just after assuming the post, he publicly made a case for "the BND to be moved to the seat of the government." In 1996, that meant Bonn (Germany's capital from 1949), but of course he had Berlin in mind. The decision to eventually move parliament and government had been taken in 1991. Geographical proximity to those in power would lead to improved collaboration between the BND and policymakers, Geiger believed. The agency could address the government's needs, rather than "stewing in its own juice."

'Competent, outspoken': Former BND chief Hansjörg Geiger

Seven years would pass before concrete plans materialized. In 2003, Geiger was serving as deputy Justice Minister. The Islamist terror attacks on September 11, 2001 had convinced even the remaining skeptics that the time had come to take the BND headquarters to Berlin. The move from Pullach to the capital, however, turned out to be a never-ending story of delay after delay, due to safety concerns and construction mishaps.

Inauguration streamed live

There were plenty of parallels with Berlin's unfinished airport and Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall — two other German signature projects which saw schedules and costs spiraling out of control. But on February 8 Chancellor Angela Merkel eventually inaugurated the BND's new Berlin headquarters. And in the spirit of its former president, the agency opened its doors to the public, on a virtual level at least: Those who wished to do so could listen to Merkel's words as they were streamed live.

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Out of the shadows, into the light: An interior view of the new BND headquarters

Geiger is deeply convinced that, after its arrival in Berlin, the BND will be "taken more seriously." In the capital, it will be able to "respond immediately and quickly" to current issues. For Geiger, the BND is a "service provider," directly embedded in the government's decision-making process. The description also appeals to the current agency head, Bruno Kahl, and Armin Schuster, chairman of the intelligence agency oversight committee in parliament (PKGr).

BKA, BfV make do with Berlin branches

Speaking to DW, Schuster, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats, also uses terms like "customer" and "heart chamber," referring to the federal government and the BND's presence in the government district. This sort of proximity, he estimates, will be "very fruitful" for both sides. Schuster also believes that it will lead to better cooperation with parliament.

Armin Schuster (CDU) predicts better cooperation with the Bundestag

Schuster would have preferred the country's other key intelligence agencies to follow the BND's example of moving to Berlin, but such deliberations have thus far failed to find majorities in Germany's federal state system. So for the time being the Federal Criminal Police Agency (BKA) and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany's domestic intelligence agency, BfV) have settled for mere branches located in the capital. This state of affairs is something Schuster, an experienced politician and a former police officer, can come to terms with: BKA and BfV may not have central offices in the government district, but each at least has a "strong arm" there.

'Accomodation for Civil Servants' — gone for good

Their headquarters will continue to be located in Wiesbaden and Cologne respectively – each some 600 kilometers (373 miles) away. Despite the distance, he didn't see disadvantages, said Schuster. The BND, however, would certainly benefit from breathing Berlin air: "Moving to the center of town will lead to mental change, too," he said. So the days when the BND was, officially, an "Accomodation for Civil Servants" in Pullach, south of Munich, are gone for good.

12 spy films set in Germany

Tom Hanks among spies in Berlin

Many parts of Steven Spielberg's movie were shot in and around Berlin. It re-enacts the first of a series of spy swaps that took place on Glienicke Bridge, which became known as the "Bridge of Spies," hence the title of the film. Spielberg isn't the first filmmaker to portray secret agents in Germany. Here are more examples.

12 spy films set in Germany

'5 Fingers'

The film "5 Fingers" (1952), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is about a famous secret agent during World War II who worked for the Nazis - widely known by his code name, Cicero. Although other spy movies were filmed on location, this one was mainly shot in the studio.

12 spy films set in Germany

'Spy for Germany'

This West German thriller, originally titled "Spion für Deutschland" (1956), also depicts the actions of a German secret agent during World War II. Starring Martin Held and Nadja Tiller, it was filmed both in Berlin and the US.

12 spy films set in Germany

'The Dirty Game'

Werner Klinger, who directed "Spy for Germany," was also among the four filmmakers who helmed this 1965 anthology spy film. It is made up of stories directed by a German, a French, an Italian, and a British filmmaker. Shot in Berlin, it starred Henry Fonda and Robert Ryan.

12 spy films set in Germany

'Torn Curtain'

Alfred Hitchcock filmed his spy thriller "Torn Curtain" in the studio in 1966. However, some scenes were shot on location in Berlin. Camera crews filmed in the German capital and sent their footage to Hollywood so Hitchcock could use the material in his movie. The cast included German actors Wolfgang Kieling and Hansjörg Felmy, along with US stars Julie Andrews and Paul Newman.

12 spy films set in Germany

James Bond in Berlin: 'Octopussy'

A large part of the 13th movie of the most popular secret agent in film history, James Bond, was shot in Berlin in 1983. Agent 007, depicted by Roger Moore, is seen at Checkpoint Charlie, in front of the Berlin Wall, and does a chase scene on the AVUS highway. Bond's love scenes were filmed in the studio, though.

12 spy films set in Germany

'The Innocent'

In 1993, John Schlesinger filmed on location in Berlin. "The Innocent" is based on the Cold War "Operation Gold," where CIA and MI6 agents built a tunnel under the Russian sector of Berlin. Anthony Hopkins, Isabella Rossellini and Campbell Scott star in the film.

12 spy films set in Germany

'Mission: Impossible III'

For the third film in the "Mission: Impossible" series, director J.J Abrams and star Tom Cruise initially planned to film in the German Reichstag. But the German government didn't allow them to shoot in the building - a council decided it should not be used in commercial films. The crew had to build sets in Babelsberg Studio, just outside Berlin.

12 spy films set in Germany

'The Good German'

"The Good German" (2006) by Steven Soderbergh also demonstrates how studio sets can replace actual locations. The story is set in post-war Berlin, but was filmed in Los Angeles. However, Soderbergh built in archive material of the actual war-torn city in his gloomy film shot in black-and-white.

12 spy films set in Germany

'Spy Game'

This 2001 spy thriller starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt is set in Berlin, but it wasn't shot in Germany either. Locations in Budapest were used to reproduce the German capital. This can actually be noticed in some scenes: Some elements in the background do not exist in Berlin.

12 spy films set in Germany

'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

Currently in theaters, the secret agent comedy "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." contains many scenes set in Berlin in the 1960s. Henry Cavill depicts an American secret agent competing with a Russian spy. The film beautifully recreates the atmosphere of divided Berlin - yet everything was done by computer.

12 spy films set in Germany

'Homeland'

The fifth season of the popular TV series "Homeland" was shot in Berlin, too. Agent Carrie Mathison is no longer working for the CIA and is hired by a German private security firm. Filming was also done in Babelsberg Studios and in Brandenburg.

12 spy films set in Germany

On location: Glienicke Bridge

Steven Spielberg filmed his spy movie on location in Berlin. After all, the legendary and mysterious Glienicke Bridge also inspired the title of his film, "Bridge of Spies." Sometimes the actual location simply beats all studio sets and digital reproductions.

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