Robert Hampton

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9th November 2014

Berlin, Take My Breath Away
Posted by at 12.18pm | No responses | In the News

Imagine you’ve just arrived in London, after getting off a train from the provisional capital, Manchester. You get on a Northern Line train (Bank branch) at Euston. After King’s Cross you hear an announcement that you are about to leave the Western Sector. The train proceeds, but it doesn’t stop at Angel – it crawls through the platform at walking pace, enabling you to peer out at the dimly lit station. It is dusty, derelict and dimly lit. You can just about make out some guards standing at the platform exit. They look bored, but the guns they are carrying are still intimidating. The pattern is repeated at Old Street, and Moorgate.

Finally, you reach a station that is open – at Bank you alight to change onto the Central line. You take a wrong turn and find yourself heading for the exit, only to find your way barred by a border guard. You don’t have the right papers, of course, so you turn back and return to the platform. This time you were lucky; you could have been arrested for trying to cross the border.

This is the daily grind that Berlin’s U-Bahn passengers faced during the Cold War. The division of the city between 1961 and 1989 sliced through the public transport network, leaving it very much a Tube of two halves.

The map above is from 1970 and shows the divided system. The thick, jagged grey line running through the map is, of course, the Wall. Note the stations on the U6 (purple) and U8 (blue) which are crossed out. Both these lines started and ended in West Berlin, but passed through stations in the East en route. The map key euphemistically describes these stations as “Stations at which the trains don’t stop”. In truth, the station entrances were boarded up and armed guards were posted on the platforms to prevent anyone trying to use the trains to escape to the West.

West Berlin U-Bahn maps continued to depict the whole network, even the lines wholly located in the east, which are shown as thin lines with open circles for stations. East Berlin, on the other hand, barely acknowledged the West at all, merely showing it as an empty space. This essay, Mapping Divided Berlin, goes into more detail on the politics of street maps and U-Bahn diagrams during this period.

The one station not crossed out is Friedrichstraße on the U6, which remained open to West Berliners as it was a key interchange point with several S-Bahn lines. The station was divided into separate sections for East and West. To cross between them, those fortunate enough to have the correct papers could use the station as a border crossing. A huge hall was built to handle the security procedures, and it was the scene for many tearful goodbyes between relatives at the end of the rare, brief visits permitted by the authorities (the building soon gained the nickname “Palace of Tears”).

The closed stations existed in something of a timewarp – for the most part, they were left in their 1961 condition, with minimal maintenance carried out. The YouTube clip below is some amateur footage from 1989 showing Bernauer Straße station, dimly lit and deserted.

This German news programme from 1990 shows one of the largest ghost stations. Potsdamer Platz was built to serve what was, in the 1920s, the “Piccadilly Circus” of Berlin. The Wall went right through Potsdamer Platz, and the station entrances were walled up for nearly three decades.

The divided underground network is trivial, of course, compared to the other consequences of the divided city. People were shot trying to cross from East to West. How did people put up with such a ridiculous, tragic situation for so long? The answer, I think, is that people can get used to pretty much any situation. Walls go up, border guards separate neighbour from neighbour. It’s terrible, it’s inhuman, but at the end of the day, life goes on. Your local station has been closed indefinitely because of Cold War politics? Ultimately, it’s the same reaction as if it were a signal failure or track defect – oh well, guess I need to find another route to work.

Of course, eventually the situation become so intolerable that change became inevitable, as happened across Europe in 1989. Today, 9 November, the world celebrates 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the intervening quarter-century, Berlin has regained its place on the world stage. The ghost stations have all reopened, although it wasn’t until 2002 that the last severed S-Bahn routes were reconnected. Potsdamer Platz is once again a centre of commerce, home to some of the biggest multinational conglomerates. Berlin is an exciting, vibrant city packed with culture and nightlife. I’ve visited there twice and will be going back sooner rather than later, I’m sure.

The image below was shared by the German Foreign Office on Twitter. It shows the line of illuminated balloons placed along the path of the Wall, showing where the city was split. This is a city that doesn’t forget its history.

For more background on the U-Bahn during the Cold War, here’s an excellent article on the VisitBerlin web site. You could also check out my previous blog about the Berlin Wall from 2012, which includes a visit to the former “ghost station” at Nordbahnhof, which now contains a permanent exhibition on the subject.

Finally, some further reading on the Berlin Wall generally:

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