Last updated on November 8, 2022
Above me, the station clock flickers in the sun. It’s been broken for a year. Nobody knows why it hasn’t been repaired yet.
A fat, red-cheeked man, travel bag in hand, struts across while looking around searchingly. Already, a lady who, like me, stands around on the corner to earn money, is helping him. She calls him “Uncle” and “Sweetheart” so that he is completely moved and confides in her leadership. The other girls are annoyed that Emma has caught herself yet another one. “Man, look at her with that good-for-nothin'”.
— Hardy Worm, 1921
Until the end of the Second World War, the Stettiner Bahnhof, or Stettin Station, was also known as Vacation Station, the Urlaubsbahnhof. From here, Berliners escaped the capital’s sweltering summer heat by train, in order to cool off at the trendy resorts along the Baltic coast: Hiddensee, Rügen, Usedom – the places where German tourism was to a large extent invented. The Kaiser himself liked to visit the island of Hiddensee, and his people had followed in his wake. In the early summer, they would escort their families to the coast. In terms of passenger numbers, it was Berlin’s busiest.
In spring, summer, and early autumns, the station square in front of the side of the station was continually abuzz with droschken (small coaches) and porters, getting the vacation-goers and their monumental luggage into and out of the trains. Up to the Second World War, no station in Germany handled more suitcases and trunks than the Stettiner did. The family might stay on the Baltic coast for as much as four or five weeks, but the husbands habitually returned to the capital to work during part of the week.
Of course, they did not just go to work, and this is where we meet the station’s alternate identity. Being liberated of responsibility for their next of kin, husbands turned into Strohhutwitwer, “straw-hat widowers”, looking for entertainment of various kinds as soon as they’d left the station. They visited the bars and cabarets in the “Poet’s Quarter”1, the beer gardens near the Kastanienallee and Rosenthaler Platz, and many of them occupied the pay-per-hour hotel rooms in the neighborhood with their new-found “wives”, checking in under a variety of fictitious names.2 Sometimes these were surprisingly inventive, but usually, a satisfyingly anonymous “Schmidt” or “Müller” was deemed safest.
No, the area around Stettin Station was definitely not the sort of neighborhood where you’d leave your children on their own.
It was also predominantly a working-class quarter, where various proletarian movements enjoyed a very strong following. During the early 1930s, one of the Nazis’ greatest triumphs was being able to turn this neighborhood around to their side. From then on until the end of the war, it remained staunchly National Socialist. Today, it’s been mostly gentrified, with only the AirBNB-infested Torstraße an unwitting reminder of its less-than-stellar past.
The railway station building itself always looked a bit dusty too, almost as though the reputation of the neighborhood had brushed off on it. But the more concrete reason was that the northern part of the city was also the home of many factories, most notably the Borsig locomotive works; the smog quickly settled on the building. It also meant that the mood in the neighborhood was firmly proletarian, with scores of factory workers using the smaller Vorortbahnhof (suburban station) to reach their shift. Taken together, it definitely created a very different atmosphere than at the elegant Anhalter or the teeming Potsdamer stations. Hardy Worm’s observation of the broken clock adds to the overall impression that from an early point, the Stettiner made a slightly dilapidated impression.
But as we saw, it wasn’t entirely negative: for Berliners, the station marked the beginning (and end) of their Baltic holidays. In winter, however, the Stettiner largely fell into hibernation mode. The factory workers would still come in of course, but they mostly used the smallish Vorortbahnhof on the side.
The first attempts to open a line between Berlin and Prussia’s biggest port at Stettin started in the late 1830s. At the Berlin end, planners immediately ran into problems. Where the south of Berlin mostly consisted of flat terrain, the north was much more undulating. Plans to erect the new terminus in front of the Rosenthaler gate in the Berlin tax wall had to be canceled because it required the construction of a prohibitively expensive tunnel through the Weinberg, a hill to the north. However, an alternative site was found in the former gallows’ field on the Invalidenstraße, about three hundred meters away from the Hamburg Gate on the Torstraße.3 The field was no longer required after the introduction of the guillotine as the favored method of public execution. The (smaller) execution site was moved to the Chausseestraße, more or less where the German secret service (BND) building now stands, much to the chagrin of the locals.))
The Stettin-Berlin Railway company opened its first station on 1 August 1842, in the wake of the Potsdamer and Anhalter stations. In the first months, trains only ran up to Eberswalde; from mid-1843 onwards Stettin itself was reached. In terms of design, the station building differed somewhat from the Anhalter and Potsdamer, as it seems to have used noble villas rather than office buildings as its main source of stylistic inspiration; its neoclassical leanings were therefore more and can still be seen on other stations along the same line, such as in Bernau and Eberswalde. The building also mimicked the shortcoming of some earlier stations, notably the lack of outside protection for travelers. However, it did offer them more luxurious facilities, such as separate waiting rooms for each class, inside the building.
Like its predecessors, the station would see continuous extensions and additions to cope with the ever-growing stream of passengers and goods; in the mid-1850s it was extended considerably, but that didn’t prove enough.
Its problems became even more acute when plans for the addition of a new railway line to the city of Stralsund on the Baltic coast began to take shape in the 1860s; it was clear to everyone that the old building was in no way sufficient to handle the new line. The problem wasn’t just the addition of a new line – it was the type of travel. Mass tourism was still in the future, but people began to use the railways for non-critical travel: to go on day trips to the countryside, for instance, and also to visit family around religious holidays, particularly Easter and Pentecost (Christmas wasn’t yet the event it has become nowadays). The station building was ill-equipped to handle this onslaught, and in the beginning of the 1870s work started on a new station.
A new station
The development of the new Stettin station is connected with three other stations in three different towns: the new Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin (1880), London’s Fenchurch Street (1853), and Paris’s Gare de l’Est (1849). During the extensive design phases for the Anhalter, an alternative design had been presented that differed markedly from earlier and later sketches. Drawn by August Orth and Edmund Knoblauch, it quite obviously took Paris’s Gare de Strasbourg (today the Gare de l’Est) as its main inspiration.
This design differs noticeably from the others made for the Anhalter Bahnhof, but we can already see some elements that would end up as part of the new Stettiner: a large, rounded form flanked by two tower-like structures.
A design for the new Stettiner station from December of 1872, drawn by Franz Schwechten of Anhalter Bahnhof fame, shows something even more familiar. The three large, arched windows have become part of the façade, which is now visibly an extension of the train shed.
In both respects, Schwechten’s design followed a trend set by the design for Fenchurch Street (1853), one of the smaller London termini. The shared DNA is clearly visible, although the Stettiner included many improvements and extensions when compared to the London example.
One was the shed itself. The architects had learned from the example of two Berlin stations that had opened shortly before, the Ostbahnhof (or Küstriner Bahnhof) of 1867, and the Lehrter Bahnhof of 1869. Both used a round Tonnendach (“barrel roof”). This made it possible to build a high, airy but also light structure. They had also taken notice of London’s St. Pancras station (1868), which combined this construction method with the use of cast-iron girders, allowing for quick and relatively cheap construction.
That Orth and Knoblauch could integrate Schwechten’s design into their own work (they would also collaborate on the Anhalter around the same time) tells us something about the consensus that had arisen around the construction of a railway station. As a whole, Stettin Station was very much the result of iterative improvements on previous examples, coupled with contemporary aesthetic cues that favored a more overt expression of the building’s purpose in its form. The end result, however, was quite revolutionary by Berlin standards, even more so than the more famous Anhalter Bahnhof in some respects.
Throughout the process, the railway companies played an important part, continually stressing that the building should project an appropriate image for them. However, shortly after the building was finished, both railway companies that were going to use it were nationalized by the Prussian state.
A new beginning
The Stettiner represents an important new stage in the evolution from the “stationary umbrellas” to purpose-oriented travel lodges. Firstly in terms of design: this time, the shape of the hall made the structure immediately recognizable as a train station. Moreover, it had its entrance and exit (which were no longer separated) at the front. Not only did this give the building a much more welcoming appearance, integrating it with the city outside, but it also made the most of the terminal platform and services inside.
Entering the hallway, people could directly continue onto the rail shed, or drop their luggage. Most services were integrated; only purchasing tickets required passengers to either turn left for the Stettin line, or right for the Baltic one. However, the station retained some concessions to existing practices. For one thing, the hall was still built according to the Berliner Breite (“Berlin width”) of 38,22 meters, even though the two lower buildings to the side extended the total width of the structure to over sixty meters. The Anhalter, opened slightly later, was the first station to finally do away with that restriction.
Still, Berliners embraced the new station, arguably with even more fervor than they did the Anhalter. It was much more theirs than the exotic but also somewhat inaccessible and pompous Anhalter Bahnhof. Walter Benjamin expressed how for them, the station symbolized the “dune landscape of the Baltic Sea” which emerged “like a mirage, supported by the yellow sandy colors of the station building and opening those wide horizons behind its walls”.4 In other words, it was where their holiday began, and where they could finally leave the stresses of life in the capital behind them. Or, as Alfred Kerr put it, “In general one feels most comfortable in Berlin at Stettin station, when one is about to leave it”.5
A rare, if moderate, voice of criticism could be read in the Deutsche Bauzeitung, an architectural journal. Karl Fritzsch’s disapproval primarily concerned the execution of the building: “The powerful motifs used for the façade design, the harmony between the interior and exterior and the clear expression of the building’s purpose in its appearance would be advantages that could secure the new reception building of the Stettin railway station the first place among all recent designs of this kind in Berlin, if the architectural development of these elements were at the appropriate level.”. He found it particularlly regrettable that “regrettable that the beautiful impression of the worked limestone has been spoiled by a coat of diluted cement (applied to protect it from the weather).”6 Indeed, this was something that contributed to the somewhat dirty appearance of the building.
Not a perfect solution
Holidaymakers now wished to spend their summer weeks on the Baltic coast, and such structural tourism turned out to present a huge challenge because of its seasonal nature. To give some idea of the problem: in 1894, the Stettiner was Berlin’s busiest single station by some distance (if we don’t count the Stadtbahn as a whole). But by far the largest part of those travelers only used the station during the spring and summer. Especially during these months, the station again soon proved to be far too small.
There was another, major problem. The tracks leading to the station were all situated at street level, causing dangerous situations and countless traffic jams while everyone waited for the many trains to pass. But from May to September, traffic was so intensive that those streets were blocked for much of the day. That problem was worsened by the circuitous route the tracks had to take through Northern Berlin in order to reach the station. In addition, the terminus itself was much too small to handle all those people, the more so since those holiday-goers also came with a huge amount of luggage.
The Stettiner was part of a larger complex of railways in the north of the city, along with the Nordbahnhof, a goods station to its east, along Bernauer Straße (the location of today’s Mauerpark). During the 1890s, the overcrowding of the station got out of hand so badly that it was decided to divert part of the passenger traffic to what was essentially a goods station. A makeshift passenger terminal served here between 1892 and 1898.
By that time, it had become clear that the situation at the Invalidenstraße needed a more encompassing solution. A choice ought to be made between building an entirely new station or significantly extending the existing one.
Pushing up: the renovation of 1898-1903
Eventually, the authorities settled on doing both, and ordered the architect Carl Cornelius to redesign the station. The shell of the old station was left intact, but entirely revamped. The entire body of tracks was to be lifted to alleviate the worst traffic problems.
The project was carried out in stages: to begin with, a new station for suburban connections (the Vorortbahnhof) was constructed at the west of the main building and opened on May 1st, 1898. Built in a style that alluded to that of the main station, it had the added advantage of creating a social separation: factory workers on their way to the Borsig plant no longer needed to mingle with families going on holiday.
A temporary structure in the usual half-timbered style for holiday specials was opened on its east side just under a year later. This allowed for the reconstruction of the main station to begin in earnest.
While it might have looked more or less the same from the outside, the 1903 renovation created an almost entirely new building. The tracks were raised by about three and a half meters to well above street level, at last removing the constant traffic congestion issues. The station itself was extensively restructured, but great care was taken not to make the changes too conspicuous. For passengers, the most immediate change would have been that due to the raising of the tracks, they now needed to ascend stairs to reach the platform level, just like they did at the Anhalter Bahnhof. Likewise, the roof of the hall was lower above the passengers’ heads by the same three and a half meters, although it remained at an impressive height.
To the east of the old shed, three smaller ones were constructed in a similar style, devised to keep the visual consistency of the complex as intact as possible. They helped to double the surface areas of the station, which not only benefited the tracks and platforms but also passengers, who could now enjoy spacious waiting rooms for all three classes at the front of the new halls. Finally, a longish (179m) tunnel now allowed people to cross the vast rail yard without having to walk all the way around the front of the station.
After the reconstruction, the original shed was exclusively used for arriving trains; the new, lower halls were to be used for departing traffic, including the specials to the Baltic coast. For at least the time being, it brought the previous capacity issues to an end. Moreover, the authorities had learned from the continual shunting issues at other stations, and the number of sidings (tracks designed to park trains) had been extended to eleven.
Some problems remained, however. The platforms were still awfully short at a mere 325 meters, and the limited number of tracks feeding traffic into the station remained a bottleneck.
Despite some remaining issues, the station appears to have functioned pretty satisfactorily in spite of continued growth in passenger numbers to a massive 4,5 million in 1922.7. Significantly, when the architect Harald Roos proposed the restructuring of the Berlin railways in 1929, the Stettiner was the only one of the old termini to be left standing in his plans. Around 1930, 1,5 million passengers were handled annually and the station managed to cope quite well.
While the station could hardly boast the same number of international connections as the Anhalter, it did connect to Sweden via the Sassnitz ferry on the island of Rügen. This proved to be a crucial connection in both world wars when Swedes were able to visit Germany – and conversely, Germans could abscond to neutral Sweden.
The first decades of the twentieth century proved to be not particularly eventful in the history of the station. The most significant change was brought shortly before the Second World War with the opening of an underground connection between the Anhalter, Potsdamer, and Stettiner stations (the north-south tunnel serving today’s S1 and S2). An underground station (today Nordbahnhof station) replaced the old Vorortbahnhof, which was scheduled for demolition.
Ironically, today that old suburb station is one of the few parts of the complex to survive. With depressing predictability, the Second World War brought great destruction to the station – but not quite as extensive as in other cases. It already suffered bomb damage in 1943, which caused the 1876 hall to burn out. The newer halls survived mostly intact, however, and this is where train travel recommenced in July of 1945.
In 1951, the complex, now in the GDR, was renamed as “Nordbahnhof”; Stettin was no longer German, and it was deemed politically unacceptable to refer to once-German destinations.This was somewhat confusing since there already was a Nordbahnhof, the goods station mentioned before. This was renamed Eberswalderstraße station. For similar reasons, the Schlesische (Silesian) Bahnhof became “Ostbahnhof” at the same time, despite there already being a (now defunct) Ostbahnhof.
But the Stettiner’s main issue, only months later, was that it became obsolete. The railroad to Stettin, now Polish Sceczin, ceased to be the lifeline it once was, and while the tracks did also connect to the northern coast, they ran through West Berlin for some distance, with all the problems that entailed.
Today, only two fragments of what was once Berlin’s busiest single station remain. One is the old Vorortbahnhof, which had already become defunct before the war. Today, it looks a bit lost amidst the many anonymous office blocks in the vicinity. It appears to function as an event venue; in previous years there was a restaurant in the building, but that appears to be gone.
But at least it’s been lovingly restored. The same can’t be said of the Stettin Tunnel, a 179-meter underpass that served since 1896 as a pedestrian connection between the Gartenstraße and the Schwartzkopffstraße.
It is open to the public, but only for special tours. And even then no one can traverse its entire length, since a gas pipe occupies the eastern end of the tunnel these days.
The Stettin station has not disappeared entirely, however. The area had remained in the hands of the East German Reichsbahn following the demolition of the station, and after Germany had reunified the Deutsche Bahn built the offices for its services division on the site (and gave it the rather tired title of “Nordbahnhof-Carré”).
While stylistically quite distinct, the new building was forced to conform to the contours of the old station site, so that even today passers-by may get an impression, if a faint one, from what was once the city’s busiest station.
A scene at the station
A taxi drives up Invalidenstraße, slowly pushes its way through a confusion of pedestrians and electric trams, reaches the square in front of the station and, honking its horn as if relieved, hurries across the driveway to Stettin station. It stops.
– A lady gets out. “How much?” she asks the driver.
– “Two sixty, milady,” he replies.
The lady was already rummaging in her purse, but now she withdraws her hand. “Two sixty for a ten-minute ride? Nah, dear man, I’m not a millionaire, let my son pay for it. Wait.”
– “No can do, lady,” says the driver.
– “What do you mean can’t? I won’t pay it, so you’ll have to wait till my son comes. Four ten on the train from Stettin.”
– “I can’t,” says the driver. “We’re not allowed to stop here in the driveway.”
– “Then wait over there, Männeken.8 We’ll come over, we’ll get in over there.”
The driver puts his head on one side and blinks at the lady. “They’re coming, lady,” he says. “They’re coming as sure as the next pay cut is coming. But you know, let your son give you the money back. Much easier for you, ain’t it?”
– “How’s this?” asks a Schupo.9 “Drive on, chauffeur.”
– “The lady wants me to wait, Herr Hauptwachtmeister.”10
– “Drive on, chauffeur.”
– “She won’t pay!”
– “Pay please, lady. We can’t do that here, other people want to leave too.”
–”I don’t want to. I’ll be right back.”
–”I want my money, you old painted…”
– “I’ll write you up, chauffeur!”
– “Drive on, you old goofball, or I’ll run you into your Bugatti…”
– “So, madam, please pay! You can see for yourself…”
In desperation, the Schupo makes some kind of dance lesson bow, heels clicking.
The lady beams. “But of course I’ll pay. If the man can’t wait, I don’t want anything forbidden to happen. All this excitement! God, Mr. Schupo, we women should regulate such things. Everything would run just so smoothly…”
— Hans Fallada, Kleiner Mann was nun?, 1932
I want to (again) thank Ger Dijkstra and Mark Thomas for their assistance.
References and further reading
- Bley, Peter. Berliner Nordbahn: 125 Jahre Eisenbahn Berlin-Neustrelitz-Stralsund. Berlin: B. Neddermeyer, 2002.
- Berger, Manfred. Historische Bahnhofsbauten Sachsens, Preussens, Mecklenburgs und Thüringens. Berlin: Transpress, 1981.
- Bock, Hans. “Entstehung und Geschichte der Eisenbahn in Berlin (1838-1961).” Jahrbuch für Eisenbahngeschichte 11 (1979): 5–48.
- Brauchitsch, Boris von. Unter Dampf: historische Fotografien von Berliner Fern- und Regionalbahnhöfen. Berlin: Braus, 2018.
- Braun, Michael. Nordsüd-S-Bahn Berlin. 75 Jahre Eisenbahn im Untergrund. Berlin: Gesellschaft für Verkehrspolitik und Eisenbahnwesen, 2008.
- Cornelius, Carl. “Um- und Erweiterungsbau des Empfangsgebäudes auf dem Stettiner Bahnhof in Berlin.” Zeitschrift für Bauwesen 54 (1904): 213–24.
- Demps, Laurenz. Der Schlesische Bahnhof in Berlin. Ein Kapitel preußischer Eisenbahn-Geschichte. Berlin: TranzPress, 1991.
- Gottwaldt, Alfred B. Eisenbahn-Brennpunkt Berlin. Die deutsche Reichsbahn 1920-1939. Stuttgart: Franckh, 1976.
- Gottwaldt, Alfred B. Berliner Fernbahnhöfe. Erinnerungen an ihre große Zeit. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1982.
- Gröninck, E. Berlin und seinen zukünftigen Central-Bahnhofs- und Central-Hafen-Anlagen. Berlin: Polytechnische Buchhandlung A. Seydel, 1901.
- Hallfahrt, Hans-Günter. “Berliner Eisenbahnen und ihre Bahnhöfe von den Anfängen bis 1870.” ICOMOS – Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees 4 (1992): 50–52.
- Koll, and Helm. “Der Verkehr in Gross-Berlin.” Verkehrstechnische Woche 5, no. 11, 14, 21, 26, 28, 30 (1911): 260-266, 513-520, 345-347, 693-702, 744-750.
- Kuhlmann, Bernd. Die Berliner Bahnhöfe. München: Geramond, 2010.
- Preuß, Erich. “Max Palme reist nach Stettin.” Bahn-Special 1/95 (1995): 38–41.
- Roos, Harald. “Berlins Fern- und Nahverkehr. Vorschlag zu einer grundlegenden Neuordnung.” Das neue Berlin 1, no. 7 (1929): 142–43.
- Regling, Horst, Dieter Grusenick, and Erich Morlok. Die Berlin-Stettiner Eisenbahn. Stuttgart: Transpress, 1996.
- Verein Deutscher Eisenbahnverwaltungen, and der Preussischen Eisenbahnen Verband. Berlin und seine Eisenbahnen 1846 – 1896. Im Auftrage des Verein Deutscher Eisenbahnverwaltungen, Verband der Preussischen Eisenbahnen, Königlich Preussischer Minister der Oeffentlichen Arbeiten. Two volumes. Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer, 1896.
- Winkler, Dirk. “Der Ferienbahnhof.” Die Eisenbahn in Berlin. Eisenbahn-Kurier Special 133 (2019): 30–35.
- Worm, Hardy. Rund um den Alexanderplatz. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1981.
Not the most poetic neighborhood per se, but one in which the streets were named after famous German poets. ↩
Others made a deal with the porter of a Mietskaserne (tenement), who in change for a tip would turn a blind eye while one of the one-room apartments was being used for business. ↩
See Berlin und seine Eisenbahnen, Vol. 1, p. 176. ↩
Quoted from Krings 1985, p. 84. ↩
“Im übrigen fühlt man sich jetzt in Berlin am wohlsten, wenn man auf dem Stettiner Bahnhof ist, um es zu verlassen”. Letter by Alfred Kerr, 1896. ↩
As cited in Krings 1985, pp. 158-9 ↩
See Jänicke 1924. These numbers are somewhat inflated by the “travel boom” of the early 1920s, caused by Germany’s hyperinflation. Because ticket prices did not keep up with inflation, rail travel became almost free for a time. ↩
“Little man”. Derogatory. ↩
The “Schutzpolizei” was the uniformed branch of the police force. ↩
In the Schutzpolizei, a Hauptwachtmeister was a police officer with at least twelve years of service. Using the rank towards what is probably a much younger officer is probably meant sarcastically. ↩