21 April 2011

Berlin's Ghost Stations

Gothic & Graffiti

A handful of Berlin’s stations on the S-Bahn network (the rapid transit system) are known as Ghost Stations, or Geisterbahnhöfe.  During the Cold War these stations were closed in order to stop East Berliners escaping to the west.

Nordbahnhof is one such ghost station.  Originally called Stettiner Bahnhof, it began operation in 1936 and continued working throughout World War II.  In the Spring of 1945 the tunnels leading to the station were flooded to make life difficult for the advancing Soviet troops.  As luck would have it, the district where the station is situated fell within the Soviet sector in East Berlin.  The Russians repaired the damage and reopened the station two years later.  They also changed the name to Nordbahnhof in 1950.

The ‘ghost’ part of the story now comes in, together with the Berlin Wall.  When the wall went up in 1961, the station was closed and remained closed until 1990.  Lines that passed through this station originated and ended in West Berlin, with the middle section of the line situated in East Berlin territory.  Part of this East Berlin line stopped at Nordbahnhof.  It was, of course, unthinkable that a train heading towards West Berlin should make a stop in the East, at a station where East Berliners could simply hop on and then find themselves in the West ten minutes later.  So the East German authorities bricked it up.

The station was plunged into a time warp.  Trains from the West would drive through the station, they would slow down but not stop.  Western passengers on the train would observe a deserted station where time had literally stood still – decor, furnishings and advertisements were from 1961 and for each new generation of passengers, the ghost stations seemed even more alien.

The East German authorities sealed all possible entrances to the station above and below ground.  Anyone descending the stairs to the platforms would meet a brick wall.  The tunnel openings through which trains entered the station were made narrower – anyone trying to get to the West by riding on a train’s rooftop would meet with a sticky end.

The station was of course reopened in 1990, cleaned up and put back into service.  The original Art Deco style of the 1930s has been maintained, but somewhat marred by the addition of incongruous graffiti art next to the train lines, specially commissioned for the purpose.  There are photos of the station dating from the Cold War era on display in the entrance hall.

Messrs. Knobloch, Richter and Wenzel have written an excellent book on Berlin’s Geisterbahnhöfe with lots of fantastic photographs (however, the spoilsports at Google Books have left out the photos).  The authors interviewed train employees who worked at the stations at the time when they were shut down. 

To the trains
Entrance Hall
Most underground stations in Berlin are warm and cosy.  Nordbahnhof, however, is cold and draughty with a chill that goes right through to the marrow.  I’m sure this is down to the geology of the place but it is something that just makes you impatient for your train to arrive so you can get away while you can.

Trains to the West, via the East

Entrance Hall

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Squeaky Door by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.