Last updated on December 26, 2021
Note: this post remains a work in progress as I work on the other chapters. Feel free to comment directly, or get in touch via e-mail if you feel it could be improved.
Today, Germany’s capital, Berlin, is a major destination for railway travel, both for business and pleasure. Thanks to Germany’s excellent railroad infrastructure, the journey is usually comfortable and quick, and drops you off right in the centre of the German capital. Granted, Hauptbahnhof is rather cramped for the amount of traffic it receives and it’s somewhat on the fringes of the city center, but it takes only minimal effort to get wherever you need to go – even if that destination lies outside of the city.
It used to be very different. Before the Second World War, Berlin was a city meant to arrive in, and not so much one to traverse on your way to a different place.1 Around the centre of the city, a number of large terminal stations was constructed in the course of the 19th century, each named after and leading to a different destination. The Anhalter Bahnhof carried passengers to and from Anhalt, the Potsdamer Bahnhof to and from Potsdam… you get the idea.
Gare to Gare
Everyone who’s suffered the misfortune of having to traverse Paris or London using a rickety underground train on the way from the Gare du Something to some other Gare will get the idea of the reality of that situation. Ideal it was not. For the large majority of travelers, however, that was not a consideration: they came to Berlin to work, to see the city or to take care of business. Or they left it for a holiday, to travel to other cities and countries, or to visit family.
It was something of an accident that the capital’s railway infrastructure developed the way it did, the consequence of a railway system build on private enterprise combined with Berlin’s explosive growth as a city. At the beginning of the 19th century, what was then the Prussian capital contained 172,000 people. By the time the German Empire was founded in 1871, it had grown to just over 800,000; at the time World War One came around in 1914, it was nearly 2 million. And even that does not tell the whole story since many boroughs that are now part of Berlin were then independent cities. When Greater Berlin was formed in 1920, the population of the city more than doubled, to 4,5 million.
That put an enormous strain on all transport infrastructure, including the railways. Lines and stations couldn’t be built quickly enough, as projections of traveler numbers continually proved to be far too modest. With each line a private enterprise (until nationalization between 1884 and 1894) all received their own terminus, positioned just outside the old city walls.2
That wasn’t just a construction issue. Until 1860, Berlin possessed a city wall, which primarily functioned as a tariff barrier (Berliner Zoll- und Akzisemauer); property ownership (and tax payment) was beholden to citizens of the city and forbidden for companies. The owners of the Frankfurt-Breslau railway were the only ones to recruit a citizen as a formal landowner so the station could be built within the walls.3 But building your station just outside the walls also meant you didn’t need to pay city taxes.
Apart from population pressure, the early stations suffered the consequences of two miscalculations. The first one was that the money was to be made in passenger travel. When after a few years it turned out that freight was going to be the big earner, the city already possessed a sizeable railway infrastructure. This meant that freight infrastructure often had to be crammed in between existing construction, or moved to the fringes of the city, where further transport might further clog up its street traffic.
The second big mistake was the assumption that long-range travel would make up the majority of passenger movements. But however quickly the demand for long-range travel grew, it was quickly overtaken entirely by a cry for local and regional means of transport. By 1894 – a year for which we have solid statistics – Berlin’s number of less than four million long-distance travelers paled in comparison to its sixty million local passengers.4. When the railway authorities began to address this structural problem, it was with hesitancy, and also snobbery: long-distance travel involved debonaire people visiting far-away lands, while local railways transported dreary commuters and grimy laborers to their places of work.
The first station, the Potsdamer Bahnhof, opened in 1838 as the terminus of the line to, you guessed it, Potsdam. The following decade saw the construction of no fewer than four further stations: the Anhalter (1841), Frankfurter (1842), Stettiner (1843), and Hamburger (1847) stations. The Görlitzer (1866), the “old” Ostbahnhof (commonly referred to as “Küstriner” Bahnhof, 1867), and the Lehrter (1869) followed later. In addition, a whole slew (to which we’ll get back) of ad-hoc stations was conceived.
Some of these led only short lives: the Dresdener Bahnhof opened in 1875 but closed again in 1882, while the Küstriner (officially Ostbahnhof) functioned for barely fifteen years before closing in the same year. The first Potsdamer, Anhalter, and Stettiner stations soon needed replacement by much larger buildings to accommodate the increase in passenger numbers. The Stadtbahn, a four-kilometer stretch of elevated railroad and stations, connected some (but by no means all) of these from 1882 (see “Bahnhof to bahnhof”, below)
This cycle followed the major events of German and European history: the rise of Prussia as a political and industrial nation, the formation of the German Empire in 1871, World War One and World War Two, and the Cold War, in which Berlin enjoyed a rather exceptional place. With very few exceptions, the latter two events sealed the fate of these buildings: most had either mostly or entirely gone by 1970.
|1838||1872||1945||1946||Currently Potsdamer Platz|
|1842||1870, 1881, 1950, 1987, 1998||–||–|| Several name changes,
|1842||1876, 1903||1952||1962||Currently Nordbahnhof|
|1847||–||1882||–|| Currently a modern art
Table: dates of first construction, renovation(s), and demolition for the Berlin termini.
A lot of the termini went through a similar life cycle: A first, often improvised station in the 1830s and 1840s (Potsdamer, Frankfurter, Anhalter, Stettiner, Hamburger) which was gradually extended; a re-build or extensive renovation in the 1870s, some adaptations around the turn of the 20th century, destruction in World War Two, and demolition during the 1950s and early 1960s. There are some exceptions, but as a generalization, this mostly holds up.
But this was not the only factor that determined the shape and role of Berlin’s stations. Technology did as well, in addition to evolving ideas about crowd control. To name two examples: the first stations were set up with a turntable, to turn the locomotives around and allow them to leave using a different track than the one the passenger cars were on. These soon proved to be impractical, as they required a lot of space in front of or inside the building, and they were often replaced: initially by a transfer platform, on which the locomotives could be pushed to a different track, and later by switches inside the train shed.
A second adaptation was the installation of a ticket barrier at the head of the platform. Initially, stations were split up in separate sides for arriving and departing passengers, all of which entered and left on their own side of the building.5 This involved lots of walking and a cumbersome infrastructure for baggage. Later buildings such as the Stettiner and Anhalter mostly removed this separation, and before 1900 most others instead installed a ticket barrier at the head of the platform, which usually allowed for more efficient operation – and less fare-dodging.
The terminus as a billboard
It took until the 1880s for the first through station in Berlin to be opened, and even then it was an adapted terminus, and the end or beginning for most of the lines anyway. Part of the reason for this lay in the logical status of the national (and later imperial) capital as the endpoint of a railway line. As I said earlier, Berlin was very much a city designed to arrive (and stay) in.
But for an independent company, a terminal also offered all sorts of advantages. Basically, the station was a huge advertisement sign for the company and the city being served. You could control everything for your passengers: not only trains but also facilities that would serve them before and after. For the city, the existence of so many stations was a problem, of course, since you had to be very aware of which destination was served from which station (and sometimes, these could overlap).
The need for urban (and national) planning was one of the reasons the Prussian state decided to nationalize these railway companies. Between 1876 and 1882 they were all incorporated in the Prussian national railways, which made it possible to take a broader look at Berlin’s railway landscape and plan for better integration of services. Over time, this led to a number of plans to re-design the capital, which overlapped and inspired each other to a surprising degree. We’ll come back to this in a subsequent chapter.
Termini are usually impressive buildings and perhaps particularly satisfying from an architectural perspective since they offer such an identifiable “face”. They’ve often been referred to as “railroad cathedrals”. This is not a coincidental reference: if you show a random person a picture of Philibert de l’Orme’s design for a Basilica from 1648, a large percentage of people are bound to identify it as a railway station.
Despite their impressive architecture, and their role in defining the urban experience for so long, almost all of these stations have now disappeared. Often, little is left as a reminder of the transport hub that used to be there. Second World War bombings and Russian artillery obliterated the buildings; the division of Germany and Berlin after the war did the rest.
While architecturally lamentable, this disappearance is also understandable for a number of reasons. First of all, after the partition of Berlin most stations lay in different zones from the tracks that fed them. This became particularly problematic after 1952, when GDR citizens were formally (and inefficiently) forbidden from entering West Berlin. The Anhalter, Stettiner and other stations were still in use even in their bombed state, but people traveling to, say, Magdeburg could no longer get to the place where they were supposed to begin their journey.
A second convincing reason has to do with the intrinsic shortcomings or termini. For the traveler, the setup of all tracks stopping in front of a big hall can have a host of advantages: it is easy to change trains, all the facilities can be grouped together for the benefit of everyone, and wayfaring and information supply is generally quite simple to organize efficiently.
But there are drawbacks, too: a terminus generally involve a lot of walking, since you always start on the platform near the tail end of your train; we’ve already visited the throughfare problems, and stopping in front of that hall didn’t always work, either. The first termini also did not exploit these potential advantages very efficiently. Initially, arriving and departing passengers were strictly separated, with their own entrances, exits and services. Changing a train therefore meant walking around the building.
While termini might offer advantages for passengers, they are a nightmare when it comes to transport logistics. To begin with, platforms and tracks can’t be used nearly as efficiently as in through-fare stations; in most stations one half of the station was reserved for trains arriving and the other half for those departing, effectively halving their capacity. Cockpits (and in the past, engines) needed to be on both sides of the train since driving in and out had to be done from different sides, and parking trains after service was much more complicated because it interfered with regular traffic.
Adding to this problem was that as impressive though as they might have looked, the capacity of these stations wasn’t that great to begin with. Most of the Berlin stations weren’t that big; it’s just that there were a lot of them, which made their aggregate capacity considerable. However, at just over 50,000 m2 of shed surface combined, they still fell 10,000 short of Leipzig’s massive main station alone, and only just topped Frankfurt’s and Munich’s. If Berlin was not your final destination, you were doomed to a considerable amount of cross-city travel.
Bahnhof to Bahnhof
Of course, the Berliners thought about ways to connect their stations, but the solutions they invented for inter-station travel owed more to improvisation than to planning. The first such attempt was the Berliner Verbindungsbahn (Berlin connector train), which opened in 1851.6
Rarely did a rail service have “afterthought” written over it to the same extent as this street-level steam train, which criss-crossed Berlin’s center and added a noisy and smoky element to an already over-crowded and polluted city. Because it competed with other forms of traffic, it also wasn’t particularly fast: often, the horse-drawn omnibus or even a brisk walk offered quicker – and not quite so loud – transport. But it was not even meant for passengers (apart from occasional troop transports), but rather to carry supplies from station to station.
Still, Berliners should be grateful to the Verbindungsbahn, because its shortcomings prompted the construction of the Ringbahn, an elevated railroad circling the city and connecting the various terminuses through the outer city. Its opening in 1871 meant a welcome goodbye to steam trains in the streets (with the exception of a short stretch still used for coal transports from the Görlitzer Bahnhof to the Berlin gas plant next to the Schlesischer Bahnhof).7
Ten year later there was the Stadtbahn, also an elevated railroad crossing the city center. This is the railway you are likely to use when visiting the city today, and it uses Zoo, Hauptbahnhof, Friedrichstraße and Alexanderplatz stations. It opened in 1882, and connected the Frankfurter Bahnhof (which was turned from a terminus into a through station) to Charlottenburg, and went straight through the heart of the city before meeting up with the Ringbahn.
However, it did not connect the other termini with the exception of the Lehrter Bahnhof, where a Stadtbahnhof was built on top of the existing lines entering the station.
It is here that Berlin Hauptbahnhof now sits, on the site of the old Lehrter Stadtbahnhof and Lehrter Bahnhof. Anyone arriving or departing from the top platforms of the station will have noticed how cramped it still is, since it still has to deal with the restrictions of a 19th-century system – and an extension of capacity is impossible in such a densely packed city. However, it also uses a north-south tunnel (begun in the 1930s but only completed recently) in the basement. Reserve a good ten minutes to get from one to the other, though. Yes, it is still clumsy, but a heckuvalot better than having to fight your way through a city to get from one station to the next.
What remains today is not much. The Potsdamer, Küstriner and Görlitzer Bahnhof have almost entirely disappeared. The Schlesisches Bahnhof is now Berlin Ostbahnhof, having gone through two renovations and three re-namings since the war. The Hamburger Bahnhof, already out of service well before 1900 and turned into a transport museum, today is an art museum and has survived its ordeals relatively well. The Stettiner has disappeared save for the Vorortbahnhof (suburb station) that had already become redundant before the bombs fell and survived as an entertainment venue.
Stations as a symbol
In the coming months, I will be publishing a briefish history of these stations. I’m primarily interested in what they meant for the city: why and how did people travel from and to them, what was their influence on the surrounding area and the city as a whole? And why does this part of Berlin’s past still conjure up such nostalgia? Not in all cases, of course, such as in the case of Grunewald Station – not a terminus strictly speaking, but very much representative for the end of the Berlin Jews, most of whom started their journey to the death camps here in the Second World War.
I will be focusing on their founding and their history during the period in which Germany was known as the Deutsches Reich: the imperial, Weimar, and Nazi years. Berlin’s post-war history had its own, unique dynamic in which these buildings played a mostly negligible role.
Perhaps none of Berlin’s old stations symbolizes this nostalgia more than the Anhalter Bahnhof, the portico of which survives near the eponymous S-Bahn station. Once Berlin’s most prestigious station, its ruin serves as a reminder of both the horrors of the Second World War and the corruption afterward. There are plans to reconstruct it as an entertainment venue or as the entrance to the new Berlin Exile Museum. These plans have yet to really get off the ground, but the fact that it is being discussed tells us something about the places these venues still hold in the public imagination.
Something about the series. After much doubt, consideration, and reconsideration, I’ve settled on a roughly chronological setup. No, it’s not particularly inspired, but it has the huge advantage of being more or less objective, and of presenting important background information to the reader in the right order. Links to the chapters are blow, and I will keep updating this directory as the series progresses.
That means that the setup is now (links to already written sections in bold):
- Introduction: A City to Arrive in
- Potsdamer Bahnhof: Three for the Price of One
- The Anhalter: Grand Not So Central
- The Schlesischer Bahnhof: Portal to the East
- The Berliner Stadtbahn: Europe’s longest station
- Stettiner Bahnhof: Vacation Station
- Hamburger Bahnhof: More than the sum of its parts
- Lehrter Bahnhof: Triumph and Failure
- The Küstriner bahnhof The Weird One
- Görlitzer Bahnhof: on its own
- The Beginning – and the End – of the Line: Grunewald, Ruhleben and Schöneberg
- Stuff: how to supply a metropolis
- Plans! plans! Plans!: The long road to Hauptbahnhof
Anyone interested in the 19th century railway (and transport) experience, should read Wolfgang Schivelbusch’ The Railway Journey (German edition 1981, updated English edition 2014), chapters 11-13. The most extensive treatment of German station architecture in the 19th century is probably still Ulrich Krings’ Deutsche Großstadt-Bahnhöfe des Historismus (1981 as PhD dissertation, commercial edition 1985) and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Boris von Brauchitsch’ Unter Dampf consists mainly of photographs, but the selection of images for the book is really well-done. For more detailed informatioin, I refer you to the works of Peter Bley and particularly Alfred Gottwaldt.
If you’re more into rolling stock (unlike me), there is a hoard of material available, but a good introduction is Winfried Reinhardt’s Geschichte des öffentlichen Personenverkehrs von den Anfängen bis 2014.
- Ag, Deutsche Bahn. Planet Eisenbahn: Bilder und Geschichten aus 175 Jahren. Köln/Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2010.
- Bley, Peter. 150 Jahre Eisenbahn Berlin-Potsdam. Aus der Geschichte der ältesten Eisenbahn in Berlin und Preussen. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1988.
- Brauchitsch, Boris von. Unter Dampf: historische Fotografien von Berliner Fern- und Regionalbahnhöfen. Berlin: Braus, 2018.
- Demps, Lorenz, “Vom Frankfurter Bahnhof zum Hauptbahnhof. Aus der Geschichte des Berliner Ostbahnhofs”. Modell-Eisenbahn 9/87, 1987.
- Gall, Lothar. “Eisenbahn in Deutschland: von den Anfangen bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg.” In Die Eisenbahn in Deutschland. von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart, edited by Lothar Gall and Manfred Pohl, 13–74. München: C.H. Beck, 1999.
- Knipping, Andreas. 175 Jahre Eisenbahn in Deutschland. Die Illustrierte Chronik. München: GeraMond, 2010.
- Krause, Falko. Die Stadtbahn in Berlin. Planung, Bau, Auswirkungen. Hamburg: Diplomica, 2014.
- Krings, Ulrich. Deutsche Großstadt-Bahnhöfe des Historismus. München: Prestel, 1985.
- Reinhardt, Winfried. Geschichte Des Öffentlichen Personenverkehrs von Den Anfängen Bis 2014. Mobilität in Deutschland Mit Eisenbahn, U-Bahn, Straßenbahn Und Bus. Wiesbaden: Springer Vieweg, 2015.
- Sauer, Mark. In geplanten Bahnen: Eisenbahnanlagen als Kulturlandschaftselemente in Deutschland von 1848 bis 1998. Bonn: Universität Bonn, 2000.
- Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise. Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit Im 19. Jahrhundert. München & Wien: Ullstein, 1977.
- Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014.
- Winkler, Dirk. Die Eisenbahn in Berlin, Eisenbahn-Kurier Special, 133 (2019).
A special shoutout to Ger Dijkstra for sharing some of his omniscience of rolling stuff on steel beams with me, and to Mark Thomas for his map.
(c) Ilja Nieuwland 2021. All rights reserved.
I’ve ripped the title for this chapter from Dirk Winkler’s introduction in the 2019 special issue of Eisenbahn-Kurier, dedicated to railways in Berlin during the inter-war years. ↩
With the exception of the Frankfurter Bahnhof in the east ↩
In the case of the Frankfurter the necessity of building within the walls was also greater because they extended so far eastward; in the west, the walls remained very close to the built-up area of the city, so the stations were still located quite close to the city center. ↩
See Berlin und Seine Eisenbahnen. Berlin: Ministerium der öffentlichen Arbeiten (1896). ↩
This was officially regulated in very Prussian fashion through a set of guidelines to which each station had to adhere. ↩
At first, the Ringbahn stretched eastward from Moabit, via Stralau-Rummelsburg (today’s Ostkreuz) to the Potsdamer Bahnhof; the western section was completed in 1877. All local passenger trains still had to go in and out of Potsdamer Bahnhof. ↩