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Behind the scenes of Germany's BND

November 5, 2019

Ever since Germany's BND foreign intelligence service completed its move to Berlin, the agency has tried to promote an image of openness rather than secrecy. An interactive exhibition is now open to visitors.

Looking down on the floor of a new exhibit at BND HQ in Berlin
Image: photothek.net

There was a time when no one was supposed to know Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, even existed. In the initial years after the Second World War, the game of hide-and-seek sometimes took on grotesque forms. The German secret service agency responsible for foreign countries used the name "civil servants' accommodation." At the time, BND offices were hidden away in the town of Pullach, south of Munich. Today the agency resides in central Berlin.

Not a bad location for a government agency that works in secret and is supposed to guarantee Germany's security. In order to increase public acceptance of an agency that is no stranger to glitches and scandals, the BND has changed tack. Locating its new extensive, architecturally somewhat drab-looking headquarters in the heart of the German capital was a clear statement, and the exhibition that opened at the visitor center on Tuesday even more so.

The monolith 'Das Ding' sits at BND HQ
The BND's new Berlin headquarters features the monolith artwork 'Das Ding' by Stefan SousImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The center has been open since early 2019 and is considered to be unique in the world, a fact that the BND, which is controlled by the German chancellor's office, is proud of. The word "secret service" is not a word the BND's approximately 6,500 employees like to hear. The agency wants to come across as transparent. Situated near Berlin's world-famous Natural History Museum, the BND has tried for a museum-like touch of its own by opening an exhibition, a kind of "hands-on" secret service.

Read more:Edward Snowden: Germany a 'primary example' of NSA surveillance cooperation

James Bond-style 1970's charm

Featuring more than 120 exhibits, it attracts visitors with an interactive, multimedia, ultra-modern approach. The highlight is a two-story, 72-square-meter LED wall that makes the room look like a planetarium. The bluish, shimmering, three-dimensional panorama with its brightly illuminated dots and lines is designed to spark people's imagination. Does that make the BND a 21st century high-tech company financed by taxpayers' money? In a way, yes.

Visitors can't buy drones or microphones to secretly listen in on their neighbors, but they can get a close look at classics from the world of espionage. Some items look like they are straight from a 1970s James Bond movie, including a regular-looking shoe with a detachable heel that has a built-in hollow hiding space.

The BND'x exhibit at its Berlin HQ
The exhibit features a nod to the silver screen with a poster from the film 'Spy Today, Die Tomorrow'Image: photothek.net

Bright spotlights highlight the cliche image of the stereotypical undercover agent surrounded by beautiful women. A slightly modified film poster starring Lex Barker and Maria Perschy in the 1967 film "Spy Today, Die Tomorrow" shows the BND doesn't shy away from poking fun at itself.

A nod to more serious affairs

The secret service as such is far too serious and dangerous a subject to only be taken lightly, however. The BND exhibition, which covers a total area of over 400 square meters, is both professional and informative, including information found on rectangular pillars that give people an idea of the legal basis on which the secret service works and who controls it.

A suicide vest on display at BND HQ
A suicide vest makes clear espionage can be a dangerous businessImage: photothek.net

A suicide vest is tangible proof that BND officers sometimes risk their lives. Exhibits also include portable surface-to-air missile systems used in war zones, known as MANPADS. A child-sized life jacket suitable for the high seas is a reminder of what happens every day on the refugee route in the Mediterranean.

Anyone who wants to take a closer look at the €2.5 million ($2.8 million) BND exhibition in Berlin should plan ahead. For security reasons, it is only open to registered groups. In the long run, the agency plans to change its opening policy so people can simply drop by when they wish, just like they do at the nearby Natural History Museum.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.