It’s a scene akin to the ransacking of Iraq. Broken glass, smashed doors, charred ceilings, and paper. Lots of mouldy paper strewn across every room on every floor. Everybody knows about the abandoned Iraqi embassy in Berlin, its become a staple tourist destination for the not so adventurous explorers ever since the New York Times wrote about it over 10 years ago. Looters, vandals and a large assortment of other idiots have all had a go at the building – stealing and destroying everything that wasn’t bolted down. Nevertheless I ended up visiting the embassy twice and had a look for myself what the fuss was all about.
The abandoned Iraqi Embassy – In good company
The Iraqi Embassy was planned and designed in 1974 by a German-Iraqi Architect Group (headed by Horst Bauer). The building itself was constructed mainly of standardised prefabricated elements (the oh so famous plattenbauten) which were produced by the Berlin based factory Kombinat Ingenieurhochbau Berlin.
The buildings surrounding the Iraqi Embassy were designed in a similar fashion and made up the so-called diplomatic district of Pankow as they served as the embassies of France, Italy, Australia and as the residence of the Polish Ambassador to the GDR. They make up a fantastically ugly quintet of 1970s architecture. Interestingly enough, Iraq was the first non-socialist government that recognized the GDR in 1969 under international law, quite possibly why they got such a nice spot for their embassy.
The Iraqi embassy was always suspected to be a retreat camp for terrorists. Der Spiegel reported in 1991 that in addition to harboring Iraqi secret agents and Arab terrorists, RAF (a German terrorist group) followers were given refuge in the Embassy. It was reported as well that in 1990, the embassy had amassed an explosive storage for potential attacks. In 1980, several staff members of the Iraqi embassy were arrested by German Authorities due them being a potential threat to exile Iraqis living in west Berlin (the “potential threat” being that they carried a briefcase full of explosives).
The Iraqi Embassy after German reunification
After the start of the First Gulf War in 1991, the German Government expelled the Iraqi Embassy staff from the country (under no pressure of their Nato counterparts) – leaving the building empty until this day. Of course the Diplomats have since returned, setting up camp first in the old capital Bonn, then in Zehlendorf in Berlin and finally moving into a new building in Dahlem in 2010 – but it seems like they are doing everything in their power to avoid the negative karma of the East German Embassy.
As mentioned before, ive actually been to the abandoned embassy twice. The first time my camera battery died within 5 minutes of me setting foot into the building. Lesson learned – I bought a spare battery. The second time (which was exactly 1 year after my first visit) that I went to check it out, I noticed not much had changed with the abandoned Iraqi embassy in Berlin. That would have been rather difficult as there’s hardly anything left inside.
Inside the abandoned Iraqi Embassy
The embassy isn’t guarded (unlike other abandoned buildings in Berlin) but the neighbours are extremely wary of tourists and treasure hunters. The chance that they will call the police if they spot anyone trying to get inthe abandoned embassy is quite high. That said, the front gate is unlocked so you can just waltz in.
Most people will directly head through the ground floor aka the cellar which has a few bedrooms and a garage. As with most of the building, all that’s left is a few bits and pieces of smashed furniture, trash and pieces of paper. Its pitch black in there – so unless you have a flashlight there’s literally nothing to see.
The stairs lead you up to the first floor which is probably the most interesting part of the abandoned embassy. You’ve got the main reception room and a few of the offices with whats left of their typewriters. Looters have ripped out all the keys until only the metal framework was left.
The few pieces of furniture that have survived don’t look very welcoming – especially as they seem to be filled with what looks like two decades of water and mould.
One needs to be careful when venturing up to the 2nd and 3rd floor as someone set a fire in several of the rooms in 2003 (and again several times after that) so the stairs and the floor are somewhat brittle. Youll find the “Book Room” on the 3rd floor – aptly named as the floor is covered in a good 30cm worth of paper. One can only image what all the papers say – but unless you can read Arabic it will forever remain a mystery.
Theres a ladder in one of the closets – which to my amazement was sturdy enough to be climbed. If you do climb up – you’ll end up on the roof which can be accessed far more easily be the stairs inside. I would be wary of actually walking on the roof as it was leaking water from the inside from several spots, a sure fire sign that theres a good chance it wont carry a persons weight when someone stands on it.
Saddam’s pictures used to prominently hang on the walls – but people like the NYT Contributor Caroline Winter decided that they looked better in her kitchen. Saddam’s face isn’t gone though – his charming smirk still graces countless pamphlets strewn across the floor.
The legal situation of the Abandoned Iraqi Embassy
Let me first dispel the myth that embassies (and consulates) are sovereign territory. They are not. The property remains under the jurisdiction of the host state (in this case Germany) while being afforded special privileges (such as immunity from most local laws) by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Most embassies don’t even own the property they are located in, they tend to rent them.
So what about the Iraqi Embassy?
Well the German Government is the owner of the Land and the Building, but the Republic of Iraq has a permanent and royalty-free right to use the property.
So whats happening now with it (in 2013)?
Well nothing – the new Iraqi Embassy is located in a former Textile Villa in Dahlem and there are no plans on moving. The embassy did once issue a statement that they had planned on renovating the place and moving back in – but I am quite sure they’ve got other problems at the moment.
The situation could easily be resolved if the embassy would just give up on its free tenant claim, they wouldn’t have to pay anything for the possible renovation of the building, and the German state could sell off the properly. While I am normally a strong advocate of saving these kind of places – I don’t think I would shed a tear if this place was torn down.
The abandoned Iraqi Embassy in Berlin today (2020)
After receiving a whole host of media attention of the years, the German Foreign Office and the Iraqi Embassy had a talk as to what was to happen with the abandoned embassy and how to best solve the issue of illegal trespassers and securing the property against the increased vandalism (including multiple bouts of arson).
The Iraqi diplomats vowed to secure the building, and promised to prosecute any illegal visitors to the grounds. Some unlucky treasure hunters were caught when the Iraqi ambassador himself was touring the site. Talk about bad luck. The Iraqi culture ministry has been in talks with (again – or still) with the German Foreign Office and is seeking permission to convert the building into a culture institute – which would be a nice change to its current state.
As of 2020, the abandoned Iraqi embassy in Berlin has been sealed off and boarded up – allowing no access to anyone who shouldn’t be there. The grounds have been cleaned up, the perimeter fence has received a new coat of white paint – and the building itself has been completely cleaned out. So even if someone was to get in, theres nothing to see. Let’s hope that the building gets the second chance it deserves.
For more pictures of the embassy, check out the Flickr Album: The Abandoned Iraqi Embassy in Berlin
The Abandoned Iraqi Embassy Address
Public Transport: Tram M1, Bus 107,250 (Tschaikowskistraße)