“A Weak Wind of History”: The Ghost Stations of the Berlin Metro

by Zofia Ciołek

Carrying over 478 million passengers a year, the Berlin S – Bahn is one of the busier transit systems in Europe. Well-connected to various city areas and carrying passengers east to west, north to south, the metro is much more affordable, and even possibly more time efficient than any other mode of transport. However, it was only thirty years ago when this wasn’t true, when the Iron Curtain had been stretched across the old continent splitting it in half, leading to one of the more interesting ways in which the East had to barricade itself from the West. 

Screenshot of the video made by the East Berlin guards back in the 80’s

“Of course I used the U-Bahn,” said Mr. Joerg – Hendrick Sohst, a former professor for Duke in Berlin. “But I can only remember crossing the ‘Anhalter Bahnhof’ and the ‘Potsdamer Bahnhof’ (It was the S-Bahn in the underground.) The stations full of dust, the exits to the upstairs closed with bricks, and the Schilder [signposts] with the names of the stations hanging “schief” [askew] because of the 28 years of ‘waiting’. It was a strange feeling when crossing, like a weak wind of history.”

But why was this so? When the Berlin wall was first built back in 1961, its final version, a tall, concrete structure looming over Berlin and guards every few hundred metres, was enough to keep the majority of the population from trying their luck to make it to the other side. Still, this type of barrier could only keep people locked out above ground — so what about under? 

There were a few stations underneath East Berlin through which West Berlin trains had to pass through in order to most effectively commute. Because of the fact that the East Berlin forces did not wish for their citizens to board a train bound for West Berlin and leave, they barricaded and finally closed down these stations for the East Berliners, with the West Berlin trains being obligated to pass through these stations without stopping.

Brian Bell, a Berlin tour guide who led ASW students through the historical intricacies of the city, also gave them a mini tour of former ghost stations, unused by the city’s inhabitants for the duration of the standing of the wall. When walking up the stairs from the Nordbahnhof, he stopped at a tiny exhibition of photographs and information about this station and a few others unused during the Cold War, stating what purpose they served. 

As the whole group arranged themselves in a circle around him, he pointed to a small screen within the exhibition. “There’s also a really interesting video I want to show you… Luckily for us, two of the guards snuck recording equipment into the Potsdamer Platz station during the spring of 1989 — this was highly illegal, they could have gone to jail for a long time for this.”

The video showed the daily work routines of the guards, including sitting for hours in their bunker and watching the West Berlin trains move by, making sure that no one was getting off – or, more importantly, on. However, these guards were only human, and many of them too disliked the living situation they had found themselves in in the eastern half of the city.

Our tour guide pointed to the two guards in the video as they stood patrolling the platform. “Now we’re going to talk about the guards on the wall here in a second, how motivated they were, but you had two guards originally on each platform, right? Now, this led to some problems, because you got two guards down there and for example at this station, that hallway empties out into West Berlin. So one of those guards could be like ‘Oh, did you hear that? You stay here, I’m going to go investigate!’ and zhoom! He escapes out into West Berlin. So they actually had guards guarding the guards so they wouldn’t escape.”

When asked about who guarded those guards, the tour guide laughed. “So, that’s a great question. What would happen is that you have three guards down there, where one would say ‘I would go to the bathroom; you guys guard,’ and then he would escape. So they actually started to build a system of walls, walling the guards in so that they couldn’t escape anymore. Now those three guards again, if one of them would try to escape they built these walls there, I’ll show you where those walls were in just a second — there’s a tripwire alarm on the wall as well, so even if you took a pickaxe and broke through the wall that alarm would go off and would notify other soldiers who would come and stop those soldiers from escaping. And even that didn’t work because some of those soldiers brought pickaxes and went through and escaped. So they had a three wall system — with alarms and trip wires, and at that point none of the guards escaped anymore.”

However, the guarding system and escape attempts were not the only fascinating thing about the Berlin metro. Probably the most intriguing part of these former “ghost stations” was the way in which they seemed to be frozen in time. Because of the fact that they had been closed down in 1961, there was no need to renovate them, leading to the Germans opening them back up in 1989 and finding a time capsule way back to the 1930’s and 40’s. The font of the signs could be traced back to one highly associated with the Nazi regime, a gothic script called the “Gebrochene Schrift”, something which is hard to find around Berlin anymore, and the architecture of the train station was designed to be in the art deco style, as the line on which many of these stations lay was built in 1936 as part of the infrastructural expansion for the summer Olympics. 

Walking through the former Berlin Geisterbahnhöfe, or “ghost stations” can feel like a moment of travelling back in time to even as far as the Nazi era, the architecture and signs untouched in style since the mid 1930’s. They can give an incredibly interesting and authentic account of 20th century history without having to enter a museum building, since all you need to do is hop on the S – Bahn and make your way down to Nordbahnhof, Anhalterbanhof, or Potsdamer Platz.

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