The train slows to a crawl as it emerges from the tunnel and enters the underground station at Potsdamer Platz. There is no sign of humanity in the cavernous station, except for a pair of East German border guards who stare blankly at the passing train — keeping an eye on it to ensure no one tries to jump aboard and escape communist East Berlin.
The station walls are still bedecked with posters from the 1960s. Leaflets blow on the dusty platform.
For 28 years, this is what it was like to take public transportation in Berlin. From Aug. 13, 1961, until Nov. 9, 1989 — exactly 25 years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down — scenes like this played out day after day in train stations on the oppressed east side of the city.
Berlin’s two rapid-transit lines — the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn — together had more than a dozen platforms that came to be known colloquially as “ghost stations” because they were eerie and mostly void of human activity. (In German, the phrase is geisterbahnhöfe.)
They were a handful of stations that, although they were on the east side of the Berlin Wall, were allowed to be used by trains from West Berlin, as long as the vehicles only passed through the stations without stopping.
“It was frozen in time,” said Axel Klausmeier, now 49 years old, who remembered taking trains as a teenager in West Berlin during the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The light was dimmed down. You could see the guards with machine guns patrolling, and the trains were traveling extremely slow, just to make sure the guards had a chance to control it. It was actually forbidden to take photographs and to film. You were sort of rumbling through East Berlin slowly, and then as soon as you were back in the west, the train sped up.”
Today, it’s safe to say those ghosts have been exorcized.
Some of the former ghost stations — Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, Unter den Linden (recently renamed Brandenburger Tor) — are now among the most popular places in the city. That’s thanks to an investment of the equivalent of billions of dollars in public funds, much of it raised by a reunification tax assessed nationwide to fix the infrastructure in the east that was left to crumble during socialist control.
No longer do riders get a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach as the train creeps into the Soviet sector. Instead, the trains stop at these stations, which are now a vibrant part of Berlin. Passengers who step off the trains and walk into the neighborhoods are likely to encounter crowds of young, mostly upbeat people dressed in the latest casual fashions.
Visitors to these stations today perhaps may be surprised to hear many Germans speaking near-flawless English — not just to foreign tourists, but to each other. They may feel the vibe as they walk into districts of the city filled with the sound of teeming nightlife and the smell of currywurst.
‘More than one’ wall
The ghost stations are a relatively little-known sidebar of the Berlin Wall story, especially for those who weren’t in Germany’s traditional capital city to experience them.
As celebrations of the Berlin Wall’s demise take place this weekend, the focus likely will be on places such as Brandenburg Gate, and other such landmarks where the world watched on television as Germans took hammers and picks to the hideous concrete wall, then drank and danced on the remnants.
But for those who wish to learn more about the ghost stations, plenty of information is available, and getting to it can make for an adventurous day in the city.
A good place to start is at the S-Bahn’s Nordbahnhof station on the north end of Berlin’s Mitte district. Passengers who walk the stairs up to ground level near Bernauer Strasse (Bernauer Street) will encounter a large hallway exhibition titled “Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin.” Narratives on the walls are in German and English.
The exhibition provides meticulous details about the two U-Bahn lines and one S-Bahn line that were mostly in West Berlin but allowed to operate partly in East Berlin.
Some may wonder why the East German government, while building the Berlin Wall, didn’t simply cut off all the rail lines. It may help to know that East Germany owned the S-Bahn, even during the Cold War, and wished to continue taking money from the West Germans paying their train fares.
Outside Nordbahnhof, a .86-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall has been preserved in its original position. That area, known as the Berlin Wall Memorial, includes a preserved portion of the sandy, 100-foot-wide buffer that was constantly patrolled by East German guards, who had standing orders to shoot anyone caught in it.
“You can see the so-called death strip, where people were not able to go to, and where people who tried to escape from the east side were killed,” said Hannah Berger, memorial spokeswoman. “And you have the sand, to show any traces of [footprints]. This is what we want to show, that there is not only one border. There was not only one wall. There was more than one. There was the first wall, and the hinterlands as well.”
Visitors will learn that, as weird as the severed transportation system was for West Berliners, it was perhaps even ghostlier for those who lived in the East. There, many stations — Nordbahnhof among them — were closed to East Berlin residents, and in many cases the station doorways were sealed with bricks and metal.
East Berliners could hear the trains rumbling underneath their neighborhoods. The ground would shake. But they could not see the trains or any of the occupants — their West Berlin neighbors.
Maybe the most bizarre situation of all was at Friedrichstrasse, which was a station of split personalities. It was located entirely in East Berlin, but served as a transfer point for trains in both the east and west. East and West Berliners could change trains without going through customs, but they weren’t allowed to mingle. West Berliners used one set of platforms and East Berliners used another, and they were separated by well-guarded walls of metal.
It is possible that many East Berlin residents who used the station weren’t even aware West Berliners were there, too, said Klausmeier, who traveled to East Berlin during the Cold War with a visitor pass.
“The East Germans particularly weren’t aware there was a second system right behind the wall,” he said. “It was entirely closed off, bricked off, with artificial walls in the station. So it was really weird. It’s actually impossible to imagine this today.”
IF YOU GO
Learn more about Berlin’s “ghost stations” and other strange twists of its history from a transportation perspective. Attractions are free except as noted.
• Nordbahnhof — A station on the S-Bahn north of the city center with a permanent exhibit, “Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin.” Visitors can review dozens of photographs and several videos of the ghost stations.
• Berlin Wall Memorial, Bernauer Strasse — Part of the Berlin Wall Foundation, the memorial aims to tell the story of “flight and emigration in divided Germany.” Also includes the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum, which preserves the stories of 4 million people who fled East Germany.
• Palace of Tears — Outside Friedrichstrasse station, Tränenpalast was a place where West Berliners said goodbye to their friends and loved ones after visiting East Berlin.
• Potsdamer Platz — The former ghost station is now a hub of modern activity, surrounded by high-rise buildings and shopping. The area has centuries of history as a public square. A replica of Germany’s first traffic signal is on display, and there are usually a couple of guys dressed as East German customs agents who will stamp your passport for a donation.
• Alexanderplatz — Although one of the Alexanderplatz’s rail lines was boarded up during the Cold War, making part of the facility a ghost station, Alexanderplatz was actually a hub of activity during the Soviet era. Attractions include the Fernsehturm television spire, which offers tourists a dramatic view of the city, and the cylindrical World Clock.
• U-Bahn Museum — Located inside the Olympic Stadium station, the museum features artifacts from throughout the U-Bahn’s history, including a 1930s signal panel used to control trains. Check hours before visiting. It’s run by volunteers, and sometimes open only one day per month. A small admission fee of about $2.50 ($1.25 for children) is charged.
Where to stay
• Motel One, in Alexanderplatz, is an easy walk to many restaurants and shops as well as attractions such as the Fernsehturm TV tower. Delicious breakfast included. Room rates as low as $86 a night. Alexanderplatz station is across the street from the hotel, with around-the-clock train service; www.motel-one.com/de/hotels/berlin.
• For a more luxurious stay, try Hotel Berlin, Berlin, in the city’s Tiergarten district, a brisk but enjoyable walk from Brandenburg Gate; www.hotel-berlin.de/en.
• Get some Euros before leaving the United States, so you’ll have pocket money as soon as you arrive. Many banks can order Euros.
• Berlin is not an easy city to fly to. There are no direct flights from DFW Airport. Try flying into Amsterdam or Frankfurt and taking Germany’s very nice InterCity Express (ICE) bullet trains.
• Want to learn more about Berlin beyond the tourist traps? Listen to “Radio Spaetkauf,” a 30-minute, English-language podcast put together by a group of British/Australian expatriates who have lived there long enough to know lots about local politics and culture; radiospaetkauf.com.