After All: The eerie quietness of Berlin’s deserted and dimly lit ghost stations
Image credit: Christine Bohling
We explore the once divisive railways and hidden train stations of the German capital
My first introduction to one of Berlin’s lesser-known Cold War relics, the so-called ‘ghost stations’, or Geisterbahnhöfe, was spontaneous and totally unexpected.
Having just landed at Berlin’s Schöenefeld Airport, we took an S-Bahn (overground) train to Friedrichstrasse Station, where we changed to the U-Bahn (underground) U6 line to get to our hotel. As the train was leaving Französische Strasse Station, only two stops away from our destination, I had a quick vision of a dimly lit and deserted platform sliding past the train window. There was enough time to spot some scaffolding on the walls and a solitary concrete mixer in the corner.
“Can you pinch me, please?” I said to my wife. “I think I’ve just seen a ghost...”
Well, my suspected hallucination was not that far from reality. As I discovered later, I had witnessed one of the 15 former ‘ghost stations’ of East Berlin, or rather what was left of it. What I saw was actually the island platform, which the trains of the West Berlin BVG used to pass slowly, yet without stopping. During our several days in Berlin, I was able to tick off similar abandoned ‘ghost platforms’ at two other U-Bahn stations: Potsdamer Platz and Oraniennburger Strasse, as well as at the S-Bahn’s Nordbahnhof.
We stayed at a brand-new Staycity Wilde Aparthotel, next to the former Checkpoint Charlie and right across the road from the Museum of the Trabants (or ‘Trabies’) – the iconic East-German tin-shaped car, designed to the principle ‘the fewer parts, the better’ (it did have wheels!). My own past was facing me everywhere, and there was no escape from Berlin’s gruesome Cold War history either above or below ground.
Ghost train stations of Berlin had a special attraction to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a devoted train buff I was automatically drawn to anything railway related. Secondly, I had my first glimpse of the West just there, in Berlin, then still divided by the Wall, from the window of the Moscow-Hook of Holland train carriage in which I decided (uncharacteristically) to travel to Britain (and to the West) for the first time in October 1988.
In the middle of the night, having just cleared the Wall and the paranoid East German passport controls, our train stopped briefly at the West Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten Station. It was there, through the window, that I first observed Westerners – a man and a woman – in their natural habitat, so to speak. They were probably just middle-aged burghers returning to their suburb after a party. And yet, to me, they looked like creatures from a different planet. Their faces were totally devoid of the habitual Soviet ‘seal of oppression’ – that haunted look, moulded by years of queueing and humiliation, by the daily struggle for survival and repressed emotions, as if constantly expecting a blow from behind – the look that made my former compatriots so easily recognisable in a Western crowd.
It seemed to me that the small white poodle the woman was cradling under her parka had the same satisfied ‘Western’ look.
Prior to that, there was a long stop at Friedrichstrasse, then firmly and fully in East Berlin. It was there that a dozen or so East German border guards, with portable ladders and dogs straining at their leads, boarded our carriage for a grand search for God knows what...
I had no idea that Friedrichstrasse Station – now just a busy commuter hub – was known then as the Palace of Tears. The Berlin Wall, albeit invisible, ran between platforms, with a metal partition dividing the area with the S-Bahn trains to the West from the ‘Eastern’ ones. It was the place of sad farewells with relatives and other visitors from the West returning home. East Germans were not allowed to step onto that Western platform, but could only watch it from a distance, from behind the dispassionate backs of the Stasi-controlled border guards.
As an official crossing point from East to West, however, the Mother of All Cold War Stations, as I am tempted to call Friedrichstrasse, was not a ‘ghost station’ by definition. ‘Ghost stations’ appeared as a direct result of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And although the actual dividing Wall was entirely above the ground, its dark shadow reached down to the U-Bahn train tracks, with some stations, still served by West Berlin trains, finding themselves in the East Berlin territory. Those stations were firmly closed to East Berliners: all entrances shut, bricked up and barred with iron railings.
The armed Stasi guards kept patrolling the empty stations, through which the ‘Western’ trains were passing slowly but not stopping. The soldiers were able to watch the mysterious creatures from the free world moving past them inside the brightly lit train carriages. The ‘Western’ passengers must have felt uneasy under their stares.
Later, the soldiers were all hidden from the Westerners’ view inside special bunkers. The main reason for that was the fear that the East German border guards could easily jump onto a slowly moving train and flee!
In the words of a former senior officer of the GDR Grenzpolizei (Border Troops), “... our guards were actually walled-in on some stations. They stood inside walls with observation slits ... so that they wouldn’t desert... But that was in the ’80s when things had been tightened up. At the beginning, the guards were allowed to walk up and down the platform...”
The cruel hypocrisy of such ‘arrangements’, when even the most trusted guardians of the regime were not actually trusted, defies belief and the norms of human behaviour.
With the collapse of the Wall and the reunification of Germany, the divided stations and railway lines of Berlin were ‘reunited’ too.
The last ‘ghost station’ was reopened to all passengers in 1992, and the very term – ‘ghost station’ – has come to denote any disused platform remaining from the divide, like the ones I was able to see in Berlin earlier this year. They are all being restored now, although I would like to keep one or two of the platforms intact as silent witnesses to the not-so-distant time when not just countries, cities and human souls, but also rail tracks and train stations, were dissected by the ruthless, ridiculous and entirely meaningless borders.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.