Code Name Nicholas

“Victory above all will be to see well into the distance,
to see everything up close and that everything has a new name.”


Who gives names leaves tracks. The informational value of a name is not necessarily determined by the degree of its comprehensibility. As members of the clandestine “Organisation Gehlen” took possession of a property between Großhesselohe and Pullach near Munich, which was to become the base for their organisation’s intelligence activities, they felt an acute need to find a suitable name for the area. With an ironic sensitivity, they named the premises of the estate after that famous Metropolitan of Myra, of all people, whose anniversary was celebrated on precisely that day: Camp Nicholas. In retrospect, the title does indeed seem like a pre-Christmas gift that attests to a childish, playful, possessive reflex, rather than to sophisticated coding strategies. However, looking at the image the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, has cultivated for decades, one cannot help but speculate whether or not this assessment is an erroneous conclusion. Tracing back the etymology of the name Nicholas leads to a double meaning which, in its ambiguity, points in a decidedly different direction: “Victor from the people, victor over the people”.

Who gives names covers tracks. The reactivation of the spacious compound in Pullach was supposed to create, under the CIA’s protectorate, room for the activities for the secret „Organisation Gehlen“ that was as self-sufficient as possible and in which the intelligence assignments could be carried out, independently from the other Allies and the German authorities at first. From the beginning, the consequence of this idea was a radical principle of isolation, which, inevitably, is the ambivalent hallmark of the activity of any intelligence service. It is manifest even today in a four-kilometre ring of walls and steel fences that shield the premises of the secret service in Pullach from the outside world. The public of the Federal Republic was largely ignorant of what was hidden behind the address “Heilmannstrasse 30“. Even after the secret „Organisation Gehlen“ had been incorporated into the Bundesnachrichtendienst in 1956, the area retained an aura of intangibility that was reflected in an official title. For decades, the hermetically sealed premises were identified as a part of the „Federal Property Administration, Department for Special Funds, Pullach branch“, and rumour had it that hundreds of gardeners, beekeepers and fiscal officers worked there. It was a camouflage by names, inadequately disguised, which in its meaningless noblesse continues to appear absurd to this day. An ambivalent myth remained whose image was cultivated with care and much irony. For example, signs that warned against taking photographs of the barricades that blocked the view were mounted on the four-metre walls of Heilmannstrasse. A fine of DM 10,000 was imposed in case of non-compliance, a price that has remained stable after the introduction of the euro.

Over the years, the Bavarian community Pullach became synonymous for the covert intelligence activities of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, even if this property, which is shrouded in mystery, only comprises ten per cent of its total area. “Pullach”, with the connotations associated with it, still represents a specific grey area of perception that a democratic society was able to tolerate. Only since the end of the 1990s, starting under the presidency of Hansjörg Geiger, has the highly charged label BND been adapted to the requirements of a modern information society. With the scheduled relocation of the Bundesnachrichtendienst to Berlin and the planned abandonment of the premises, the functional profile of the hermetically sealed area has come to the fore, probably for the last time. The question still remains: what do the walls of Pullach hide, what does the code name Nicholas hide?


Object Nicholas

Who takes photographs can do without names. In December 2003, Andreas Magdanz approached the people in charge of the Bundesnachrichtendienst with a request to be allowed to document the area for a photography project. The conditions for realising this project seemed favourable. Foreign intelligence work had gained pivotal importance following the attacks of September 11th, 2001; the Bundesnachrichtendienst seemed firmly rooted in society. At the same time, given the Cabinet’s decision of April 10th, 2003, it was foreseeable that the premises of the intelligence service in Pullach would serve a different purpose in the future. After all, Andreas Magdanz had the project „Dienstelle Marienthal“ to show for himself, a unique work that had been published in 2000 and dealt with the former government bunker of the Federal Republic of Germany, a site of German post-war history that was comparable to Pullach in its sensitivity and had a similarly burdened legacy. This reference project and the concept convinced the heads of staff of the Bundesnachrichtendienst; in the wake of the historical turning points, cooperation was begun. After an extensive vetting procedure, which took over half a year to complete, the photo artist was guaranteed complete freedom in the development of the project as regards form and content.

In August of 2005, Andreas Magdanz was granted access to the premises of the Bundesnachrichtendienst for the first time. Accompanied by a security officer at all times, he was allowed to view the entire outdoor facilities on condition that he did not take photographs of the employees. Every day, the photographer had to exchange his ID card for other identification papers. For outdoor shooting, he was provided with a self-propelled carriage (Haulotte) that could be raised to a height of 16 metres. Magdanz was also allowed access to all building units subject to prior arrangement. A map scaled 1:2,500 from the year 1998 provided a useful means of orientation for the photo documentation, which was completed in January 2006. Without displaying any names, it shows numerous building complexes, streets and footpaths. Only the map legend bears the words „Object Nicholas“.

A map grid on the north-oriented map accompanying this book of photographs evenly divides this area west of the river Isar into 88 grid squares that disclose the complex basic development structure of the BND’s premises. Just like closed ventricles supplied by a single artery, the two parts on both sides of the Heilmannstrasse show the deep historic roots of the land that reach back into the era of the Nazis by their different developmental structure. Thus, as he inspected the 68-hectare compound, it was Andreas Magdanz’ aim to probe the various buildings and functional units with regard to their chronological layering. Those who carefully study the sequence of the images in this volume will discover a multitude of visual traces which attest to the burden of the national socialist past of the former Reichssiedlung Rudolf Hess and of the Führerhauptquartier Siegfried. They are relics and spaces that underwent complex metamorphoses due to the new functions and purposes they were given since 1947. Thus, an oil painting of the legendary Prussian King, Frederick II., from the former Bormann Villa serves as a representative backdrop in a lecture hall, an underground cell of the Nazi bunker complex Hagen is a wood-panelled indoor shooting range, a house in the woods is an auditorium of the main training centre. What can be found in reality is saved from being completely faceless, strikingly, by the double-edged historicity of individual items, rooms and architectures in the estate, because in accordance with the requirements of a modern service apparatus, the locales at the Bundesnachrichtendienst display a severe functionality that has a sobering effect if the images are viewed in their totality. In building complex 110, for example, the eye is met by whitewashed corridors whose decorative elements are limited to the red of the fire extinguishers. In the Lage- und Informationszentrum (LIZ, situation and information centre) which is considered the actual core of the intelligence agency, the technical equipment strictly obeys the requirements of communication of the so-called information age. Only a framed portrait of the German President, hung up right next to the entrance, is a reminder of the mandate the State has conferred upon the Bundesnachrichtendienst. Last but not least, the photographic view hits the velvety black plastic surface of rows of IBM robots that form the contemporary memory of the intelligence agency as its digital storage unit. Their visible expressive value is also almost non-existent.


The Code of Perception

Who mistrusts images should also mistrust names. In contemplation, the visual exposure of the BND area in Pullach, arguably, amounts to a demythologisation. Its hitherto hidden nature that has maintained, child-like, its mystique, shows itself, in its perceivable functional determinants, to be a mere service element of a „Superior Federal Authority under the Jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Federal Chancellery“. But even this official legal appellation is to be mistrusted if one wants to work in the focal point of information, disinformation and the denial of information. It is one of the characteristics of this project that Andreas Magdanz, with his innate scepticism, has translated what he found there into a multi-layered image concept which addresses the imagery itself in its discursive limits. Because even in the form of a negation, the image nurtures those patterns of mythification that still shape the Bundesnachrichtendienst’s profile of today.

Roland Barthes said once that a myth was not defined by the object of its message, but by how it dared to express it. For the documenting artist, realisation generally presents a dilemma if he does not wish support the myth but intends to put up his own independent position against it. For Andreas Magdanz, dealing with the mythical basic structure of the BND represented an all-too familiar task. Removed from the various schools and trends of contemporary German photography, he has embarked upon a unique path whose markings are placed in the national context, as they are in the case of Michael Schmidt. Thus, his elaborate book projects about the open pit mining site Garzweiler (1997), the former government bunker of the Federal Republic of Germany (2000), and the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau (2003), were aimed at disclosing blind spots in recent German history. Here, the basic strategy always obeys a consistent restraint with regard to the subject, the image transfer that is to be accomplished always derives itself from the nature of the historically charged site. Magdanz’ books are like films that use editing to dissect the topic. Only when viewed in total, the images evoke an intellectual free space which, last but not least, tells of the failure of the visual.

Andreas Magdanz has also applied this principle stringently in “BND-Standort Pullach“. He obviously utilises the limiting factor of the security restrictions the Bundesnachrichtendienst imposed. The strict ban on taking pictures of the employees, who always introduced themselves to him in a friendly manner, but invariably gave false names, serves as his intellectual starting point. Atmospherically, that desertedness grows to become an all-pervading moment of absence that lays itself, leadenly and ubiquitously, over the sequence of images. Its mute plea is unambiguous and, in changing from colour to black and white, suggests a latent menace that is reflected contrapuntally in the disassociated observation devices and fire arms. An uneasiness that, beyond transparency and secrecy, casts a broad shadow over the premises of the Bundesnachrichtendienst. Any detailed information, it seems, is pointless, names are useless, as are images. The grey area of perception manifests itself in an overcast sky. Only the snow serves as reminder for December 6th, 1947. St. Nicholas’ Day.

Christoph Schaden