Last updated on July 6, 2022
Diplomatic hotspot, cultural hub, war-torn battleground, cold war wasteland and revived urban center, the Potsdamer Bahnhof in Berlin has seen it all. Although it generally isn’t perceived as Berlin’s most important pre-war station today, in a number of ways there’s no denying that it was.
First of all, it was the oldest one, the bookend of the first Prussian rail line between Potsdam and Berlin. Secondly, it was in the best place: within walking distance of the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag, and almost right up to the Potsdamer Platz, the city’s busiest intersection. The Leipziger Strasse, leading away from the square and the station, ran straight into the main city center, crossing the Wilhelmstraße – the home of most of government and diplomacy – and the Friedrichstraße, the city’s prime shopping street.
And for many Berliners, Potsdamer Bahnhof was the most important station in the city in a practical sense. It was where traffic from Potsdam and Magdeburg started and ended; but at least as importantly, a major commuting hub.
The First Station
The first building of the Potsdamer Station opened in 1838, when the first rail line between Potsdam and Berlin was inaugurated.1 It was something of a makeshift affair. Partially because it had been constructed in some haste; but also, because no one really knew what a station building was supposed to look like.
Just a short time later, other lines opened, and their termini suffered of much the same problem. This lack of consensus led to various forms and sizes of buildings, many of which were inadequate from the beginning. There is a photo of the first Potsdamer Bahnhof, but it is somewhat restricted, and the various drawings of the building tend to contradict each other (and are generally idealized as such drawings tended to be at the time). What is clear, however, is how the station was subjected to seemingly random extensions from the beginning. The rather minimal first reception building was extended by separate structures in the 1950s to house ticket and baggage offices.
Capacity was not the only problem, however; comfort – or rather, the lack thereof – was at least as big a consideration in the desire to construct a new terminal. This first batch of Berlin termini had their platforms only partly covered because if they didn’t, the smoke and soot from the engines would suffocate the travelers. The obvious disadvantage was that travelers were thus exposed to the elements, including (in the case of unfavorable winds) still a heavy dose of engine smoke. Various solutions were attempted to solve this problem. The Hamburger Bahnhof (opened 1848), for instance, allowed trains to exit the station hall at the front, where a turntable allowed them to return using the other track. While this protected travelers from most of the elements, it still made the hall an uncomfortably drafty place to be.
For arriving passengers, things were even worse. There were no facilities to get them comfortably (or even drily) off the train. Instead, they were unloaded on the platform and supposed to find their own way into the city.
For decades, the station area became a more or less permanent building site, as the railway company grappled with the growth of its business. The first real improvement came in 1846 with the installation of a canopy over the tracks, which gave the travelers at least some protection from the elements. And less than ten years later, an observer noticed that few of the original buildings were still left standing.2 The original reception building remained, although it was continually extended. In 1862, a new baggage facility brought some relief, but with the constant increase in passenger numbers, the situation remained entirely unsatisfactory.
It was not until the 1850s that new construction methods allowed for the building of much higher and broader halls, built using steel beams. Engine smoke could rise to the top of the hall, far above the passengers, who were now also properly insulated from bad weather. The first of these new stations were built in London, and included King’s Cross (1852), Fenchurch Street and Paddington (both 1854) and, most impressive of all, St. Pancras (1868).
By 1861 the authorities had their fill and demanded a re-development of the station. After some back-and-forth, the railway company acquiesced, and set a host of Baumeister3 to work, led by the company’s director Julius Quassowski. Construction began in early 1870 on a new Potsdamer Bahnhof, built on the same principles as these London termini, with a single, big hall using steel beams, and a roof covered by glass to let in light.4 The whole railway was raised as well, to separate it from street traffic.
The new, much larger and grander building was opened on 30 August 1872 by the arrival from Gastein (by train, of course) of what had recently become the German emperor Wilhelm I. As it was being built, the station had suddenly gone from being “just” a Prussian rail station to being the main transport hub of the new German capital, and both emperor and Reich chancellor Bismarck had shown great interest in the building process.
At the time of opening, however, it hadn’t been entirely finished yet: the platform the aging Emperor alighted on was the only one completed. The royal waiting rooms were ready, but Wilhelm traipsed through them without looking to reach – of all things – a horse-drawn coach that was to transport him to his city palace. Common travelers had to wait for a few months more until the station was opened to them as well, on November 1st.
Once finished, the new building was certainly an improvement. Much bigger than the old station, it offered far better waiting rooms and facilities. And, of course, it looked like a proper place to arrive in a city that was increasingly beginning to regard itself as an international metropolis.
However, it also copied some of the earlier stations’ shortcomings. The ornate, neo-renaissance front was useless for departing passengers, who needed to enter at the right of the building. This section also contained the ticket and baggage offices, and the waiting rooms for four classes of passengers.5 Arriving passengers could leave the stations through the front or the left side, where a large space was reserved for coaches to carry the travelers to their destination in the city.
Things were different if you were royalty (or in the service of the royal household), as the station contained separate arrival and departure lounges for the Allerhöchste Herren, initially placed at a proper distance from the rabble. Unsuspecting passengers could easily mistake these for the general entrance or exits since they looked quite a bit bigger than those reserved for common folk.
The separation of arriving and departing passengers also meant that services could not be centralized. If you had left your luggage at the baggage office upon departure, you had to circle the building to pick it up again or wait until it had been brought to the office on the arrival side. Initially, it was also not possible to cross from the departure to the arrival platform, or vice versa.
Somewhere in the early twentieth century, a central access and departure point was created at the head of the tracks, which made checking tickets much easier, but also forced passengers to walk longer distances. The front building remained mostly unused, and much of it was not even devoted to passenger services; it contained offices and (mostly) living quarters for railway personnel.
From one to three
In a repetition of the first building’s problems, the new station soon proved far too small once again. Another rebuild was hardly an option. The station was still fairly new, the Potsdam line had become a state enterprise, and furthermore, the economic depression of the 1880s made further state expenses controversial. So rather than tackling the problem head-on, the old habit of smaller extensions was again adopted. By the turn of the century, the Potsdamer Bahnhof had become of three stations.
Allow me to explain. In the middle, and most eye-catching was of course the old long-distance station. While not very big, it was among the city’s first and, as we discussed, situated in a crucial position. The opening of a new Anhalter Bahnhof in 1878, situated four hundred meters to the south-east, took away some of its luster as an international hub, but certainly not all of it.
To the left of the station was the suburban, “Ringbahnhof”, which opened in 1891. Significantly less grand than the main station, it really consisted of two stations itself: one platform was reserved for the Ringbahn6, the suburban lines to areas further out. The other connected to the Stadtbahn7, meant for travel through the city, using the Halenseekurve.8
Simulation of operations at the Wannseebahnhof, ca. 1930, by Harald Krause (YouTube).
To the right of the station, and near its main entrance, was the so-called Wannseebahnhof, another commuter station, this time specifically meant for people traveling to and from the stations on the Wannseebahn, Germany’s oldest line to Potsdam.9
Socially, the difference between both commuter stations could not have been bigger. The Wannseebahnhof was where the most prominent Berliners commuted to on a daily basis: civil servants, diplomats, and academics, who had found a home away from the noisy and grimy city into the leafy suburbs of Zehlendorf, Steglitz, and Lichterfelde. Among them were special “banker’s trains” (Bankierzüge), that transported financial professionals from Zehlendorf to the city center.
By contrast, the crowd that used the Ringbahnhof was of a more lower-middle-class and proletarian nature. Many of them didn’t end their daily journey at the station; they took other services to their place of work or walked there. That walk started out at the station itself since it was situated far to the back of the main station. Having left the Ringbahnhof, commuters needed to walk the length of the main station to their connecting service, a distance of a quarter kilometer. There was, however, also a tunnel to allow them to cross to the entrances of the main station and Wannseebahnof.
Having three fully outfitted stations instead of one made the whole thing quite expensive to operate: everything had to be done and paid for in triplicate. For that reason, the Potsdamer Bahnhof always ran at a considerable loss.10
Around the Potsdamer
Of all the Berlin stations, the Potsdamer probably experienced the largest shifts in its surroundings. When the first station was built, travelers leaving it would still be faced with the old city walls. By the time the new one came around, these had gone and Berlin had started to assert itself as the confident capital of a new empire. As a consequence, the area surrounding what was now the Königgrätzer Straße (today’s Stresemannstraße) developed into an upper-class neighborhood, adorned with diplomatic villas, embassies, museums, upscale restaurants, and other places of entertainment.
Yet some odd remnants of the past remained. The most eye-catching of these was a graveyard, the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof (Trinity Cemetery), directly in front of the station.11 Having a graveyard in front of the station is never a reassuring sight for a prospective traveler, of course, but the cemetery offered good opportunities for prostitutes to avoid the vice squad by posing as grieving widows. That contributed perhaps most to its removal in 1922. Plans to redevelop the cemetery into an extension for the station came to nothing, and it was eventually just turned into a square.
Within short walking distance, one could reach the Wilhelmstraße, the political center of the German Empire and arguably the most important power axis of the world around 1900. With the nearby Anhalter Bahnhof, the Potsdamer and its environs became the venue of diplomatic get-togethers and sessions of political gossiping.
The Roaring Twenties
Everything changed after 1918, as Germany’s loss in the First World War made itself felt. Diplomatic prominence was replaced with cultural exuberance. Next to the Potsdamer Bahnhof stood Kempinski’s, renamed Haus Vaterland during the war, arguably Berlin’s main entertainment venue during the “gay twenties”. Already a largish building in its own right, its bright lights totally dominated the street and the Potsdamer Platz at night and helped to give Berlin its dynamic image in the years preceding Nazi dominance.
Of course, the Nazi era and then the Second World War changed all that once again: Kempinski’s glory days were soon over after Nazi repression started. In its wake, the whole neighborhood lost some of its luster. The Ringbahnhof and Wannseebahnhof lost their function in 1939, when the subterranean S-Bahn station made them redundant.
Had Albert Speer’s megalomaniacal plans for the new capital (and “world capital”) Germania come to fruition, the entire complex of the Potsdamer (and then some) was set to be razed to make place for the “North-South Axis”, a huge avenue leading from a new South Station to the “Hall of the People”. We’ll get back to those plans in an upcoming episode.
The end, an intermezzo, and a new beginning
The razing took place anyhow, just not the way the nazis intended. By the end of the war, most of the square, street, and stations were gone. Of all the Berlin stations, the Potsdamer probably suffered the worst: not only was it bombed multiple times during the war, but the presence of Hitler’s Führerbunker in spitting distance also guaranteed it a central place during the final days of the Battle for Berlin. Burned, bombed, and shot to bits, it was the only one of Berlin’s terminuses that could not be used again after the war. It didn’t even need to be blown up like some of its sisters. The Ringbahnhof was briefly used for S-Bahn services in 1945 and 1946 before it too was closed for good.
Because it was situated in the Mitte district (although protruding into Kreuzberg) it became part of East Berlin after the war, but since all the tracks were located in the western part of the city few initiatives were undertaken to revive the building. What remained of the Potsdamer Bahnhof had been leveled by 1960. One year later, the Berlin Wall was constructed, and for years the area remained little more than a flat wasteland in front of the wall. In 1970, the inconveniently situated strip of land was given to West Berlin as part of a land exchange, but nothing happened (apart from the demolition of the remaining ruin of the Haus Vaterland).
After the Wall was removed in the early 1990s, yet another era in the history of the neighborhood and the station began. As part of the new city development in the area around the Potsdamer Platz, another railway station was built once again, this time below the surface. Above ground, an empty grass area clearly delineates the contours of where the old structure, Germany’s very first station, once stood. Below, trains ride once again, just as they first did in 1838.
Thanks go out to Ger Dijkstra for being allowed to tap into his endless knowledge of railroad-related minutiae.
- “Wettbewerb für Vorentwürfe zur Neugestaltung des Vorplatzes am Potsdamer Hauptbahnhof in Berlin.” Zentralblatt der Bauverwaltung 39 (1919): 585–89.
- Bley, Peter. 150 Jahre Eisenbahn Berlin-Potsdam. Aus der Geschichte der ältesten Eisenbahn in Berlin und Preussen. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1988.
- Bock, Hans. “Entstehung und Geschichte der Eisenbahn in Berlin (1838-1961).” Jahrbuch für Eisenbahngeschichte 11 (1979): 5–48.
- Gottwaldt, Alfred B. Berliner Fernbahnhöfe. Erinnerungen an ihre große Zeit. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1982.
- Handke, Peter, Die Eisenbahn Berlin-Potsdam. Die Wannseebahn. Berlin: Marion Hildebrand Verlag, 1988
- Krings, Ulrich. Deutsche Großstadt-Bahnhöfe des Historismus. München: Prestel, 1985.
Winkler, Dirk. “Potsdamer Bahnhof – der Dreigeteilte.” Die Eisenbahn in Berlin, Eisenbahn-Kurier Special, 133 (2019): 44–53.
Last revision: 18 December 2020.
That first line pretty much followed the route of Berlin’s present-day S1 line up to Zehlendorf, only to continue straight on to Griebnitzsee station and, finally, Potsdam. ↩
See Berger 1981, 139. ↩
A Baumeister was a function typical for Germany, which combined the capacity of an architect and contractor (but could lean more to one or the other side). ↩
It seems that some remnants of the old building were re-used in the new complex, but it is unclear which ones. ↩
Confusingly, there were in fact five classes: four regular ones, and “mail class”. Yes, it was possible to mail yourself to a destination in a mail car. In particular, children would often be sent to family in the country this way by hard-up parents. ↩
Today called “Innere Ringbahn” to distinguish it from the GDR-era outer Ringbahn – a railroad constructed to circumvent West Berlin in the 1960s. ↩
The terms “Stadtbahn” and “S-Bahn” are often used interchangeably, which causes some confusion. The Stadtbahn was the elevated stretch of railway that crossed Berlin’s inner city from Schlesisches Bahnhof (today Ostbahnhof) to Charlottenburg, the S-Bahn is a means of transport which sometimes uses the Stadtbahn but is far more extensive. The precise origin and even meaning of the term “S-Bahn” are disputed. ↩
At the time, Berlin was a fairly small city; the current limits of the city were only determined in 1920. Before that time, current districts such as Charlottenburg and Schöneberg were cities in their own right. ↩
It’s not entirely certain to me when this opened. Some sources mention October of 1891, but that seems to refer rather to the opening of the Wannseebahn itself, which at the time ended and started at Großgörschenstraße, some kilometers south of the Potsdamer Bahnhof. Stefan Handke’s book about the Wannseebahn (Handke, Peter, Die Eisenbahn Berlin-Potsdam. Die Wannseebahn. Berlin: Marion Hildebrand Verlag, 1988) is not specific either, but suggests 1895. That seems likely, as statistics for the years 1894/5 don’t mention the station yet, but it was certainly in service by 1897. ↩
For details, see Bock, Hans. “Entstehung und Geschichte der Eisenbahn in Berlin (1838-1961).” Jahrbuch für Eisenbahngeschichte 11 (1979): 5–48. ↩