Inside the Forgotten Ghost Stations of a Once-Divided Berlin - Atlas Obscura
Free iron-on Atlas Obscura badge when you preorder our new kids’ book. Shop now.

Inside the Forgotten Ghost Stations of a Once-Divided Berlin

article-imagePotsdamer Platz ghost station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

The old adage of “what you see on the surface tells only part of the story” couldn’t be more true for a city like Berlin.

Having endured two World Wars, being divided by the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and rapid gentrification — all in the scope of a century — the German capital is drenched to the proverbial bone in history. Because of this, unlike other major cities like New York or Paris that have a more conventionally beautiful exterior, Berlin’s wonders are underneath the hustle and bustle of the daily grind and within the bowels of the city itself — in its century-old subway system.

Taking a ride on Berlin’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn is like stepping into a time machine, being propelled out of 2014 and into the Cold War-era where West Berliners traveled under East Berlin socialist territory on a daily basis through “ghost stations,” known as “Geisterbahnhöfe.”

article-imageDimly-lit ghost station (photograph by Helmut Caspar)

When the East German GDR government constructed the Berlin Wall on the morning of August 13, 1961, not only did it end the freedom of movement between East and West Berlin, tearing apart lovers, families, and friends for nearly three decades, it also split Berlin’s public transit network into two. Some U- and S-Bahn lines fell entirely into one half of the city or the other, and other lines were divided between the two jurisdictions, with trains running only to the border and then turning back.

However, three lines — today’s U6 and U8, and the Nord-Süd Tunnel on the S-Bahn — passed through a relatively short stretch of East Berlin territory in the city center. This meant that passengers actually travelled from West Berlin beneath East Berlin. However, they were not able to leave the train until it reached West Berlin again.


“Potsdamer Platz S-Bahn Station: Ghost Station From 1961 to 1989
”

Just imagine: You’re on your typical morning commute to work when suddenly a warning comes over the loudspeaker: “Last stop in West Berlin!” You then descend slowly into the underground of a foreign country under socialist rule where you see phantom-like armed East German guards on dimly lit platforms peeking back at you through narrow slits in bricked huts. It’s no wonder these eerie stations were soon dubbed as “ghost stations” by West Berliners.

article-imageEast German guard peeking in a metro watch station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

article-image
Stairways to West Berlin stations in East Berlin were sealed (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

article-image
Potsdamer Platz ghost station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

Although West Berlin subway maps labeled these stations “Bahnhöfe, auf denen die Züge nicht halten” (“stations at which the trains do not stop”), East Berlin subway maps did not depict Western lines or ghost stations at all, part of the scrupulous perfectionism of the GDR’s actions in cementing the division of the city.

article-imageOld East Berlin S-Bahn & U-Bahn map without the West Berlin lines (via S-Bahn-Galerie.de)

Doing everything in their power to prevent the underground transport system from being used for an escape, barbed-wire fences were installed to prevent any would-be escapees from running into the track bed, and if someone were to break one or two barriers, an alarm would be triggered.

article-imagePotsdamer Platz ghost station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

article-imageEmergency alarm on ghost station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

As for the entrances, the signage was removed, walkways were walled up, and stairways were sealed with concrete slabs, erasing the stations from the cityscape entirely.

article-imageBricked wall blocking the tunnel from Nordbahnhof to Potsdamer Platz station (photograph by Helmut Caspar)

On the platform itself, the guards would always work in pairs and superior officers could conduct surprise inspections at any time.

article-imageEast German guards (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

Despite these extreme measures, a high number of escape attempts were actually carried out by border guards themselves. Although most of these attempts failed, landing the would-be fugitive in a GDR prison, a lucky few were successful in reaching the “promised land” of the capitalist West.

Because a vital part of West Berlin’s transit network lay in East Berlin territory, maintenance work on the tracks and tunnels was a logistical, not to mention safety, nightmare. If a Western train broke down in East Berlin territory, passengers would need to wait for Eastern border police to appear and escort them out.

article-imageEast German guards (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

Although not a ghost station itself, the station that played the most significant role in transporting border traffic between West Germany and the GDR was the Friedrichstraße station. Not only was it the only station West Berliners could stop at in East Berlin, it was the only transfer point where East and West Berliners would pass each other unseen. Being transformed into a major border crossing, Western passengers could walk from one platform to another without ever leaving the station or needing to show papers. After passing through a convolution of tunnels and walkways designed to prevent any direct contact with GDR citizens, Westerners with appropriate papers could also enter East Berlin here. Naturally this wasn’t a two-way street, as East Berliners were forbidden to leave GDR territory, being “Gefangene im eigenen Land” (“prisoners in their own country”).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 1989, the first people to enter the ghost stations discovered that they lived up to their name, with the ads and signage on the walls remaining unchanged since 1961.

article-imageOld advertisement in a ghost station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)

Jannowitzbrücke was the first ghost station to reopen to passenger traffic on November 11, 1989, two days after the fall of the wall. Equipped with a checkpoint within the station, East German customs and border control were installed to facilitate passengers heading to or coming from East Berlin. As the old signs from pre-1961 were crumbling from age and missing the terminuses of post-1961 line extensions, hand-drawn destination signs were hung up on the platforms.

article-imageOpening of Jannowitzbrücke station (photograph by Robert Roeske, via German Federal Archives)

Fast forward a quarter century to present day and it’s almost impossible to fathom that these former ghost stations, now pulsating with the everyday commotion of an urban metropolis, once belonged to a different country altogether, one where bananas and Levi jeans came in limited supply and plastic Trabi cars had a waiting period of 15 to 20 years.

article-imagePotsdamer Platz S-Bahn Station in 2012 (photograph by Ingolf/Flickr user)

article-image
Potsdamer Platz Station in 2012 (photograph by Ricardo Ramirez Gisbert)

Immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, Thomas Wenzel, Michael Richter, and Heinz Knobloch captured this unique phase of history through interviews and photos in their book Geisterbahnhöfe: Westlinien unter Ostberlin, published in 2002. Berlin’s Nordbahnhof station features a free ongoing exhibition called Border and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin, which chronicles life in the shadow of the border installations, highlighting the sheer absurdity of the division. Exploring the city’s underground architecture, Berlin’s underworld society Berliner Unterwelten also runs tours in English of disused railway tunnels, WWII bunkers, Berlin Wall escape tunnels, Cold War air raid shelters, caverns, and derelict brewery vaults. 

On a typical morning commute to work in 2014, when a warning comes over the U-Bahn loudspeaker, it’s “Next stop: Potsdamer Platz!” and as you descend upon the now brightly lit, freshly painted station, the train stops to a halt, the doors open, and busking musicians step inside the carriage belting, “The times, they are a-changin’!”

article-imageOld inscription marking border of soviet Berlin at entrance of Stettiner Tunnel, a pedestrian tunnel closed since 1958 (2008 photograph by Beek100/Wikimedia)

article-imageThe Stadtmitte Berlin ghost station in 1989 (photograph by Frits Wiarda)