A Symbol of Another Time
We left the Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector late in the morning for a last look at West Berlin. The old Kombi van rattled along towards Potsdamer Platz and the British Sector. There was little traffic, only the occasional military patrol. While looking for a street that would take us to Potsdamer Platz, without entering the Soviet Zone, we saw the ruins of a large building surrounded by rubble overgrown with grass. By the size and shape of the structure we thought it must have been an old West Berlin railway station before the war. Later we learned it was the Anhalter Bahnhof, once Berlin’s largest railway station and “symbol of civic pride.”
Before the war Berlin had five large stations for long distance trains, Potsdamer Bahnhof, Lehrter Bahnhof, Ost Bahnhof, Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof and the Anhalter Bahnhof. All were heavily damaged by the Allied bombing raids and the Russian army during the Battle of Berlin. Potsdamer Bahnhof was opened in 1838 and rebuilt in 1872 to handle trains to and from Cologne, Paris, Frankfurt/Main and Aix en Provence. It was then the busiest train station in Berlin. Lehter Bahnhof was opened in 1871 to link Berlin with Lehrte near Hanover and in 1884 with Hamburg. After the war it was on the border between West and East Berlin and the last stop on the S-Bahn before the train crossed into the Russian Zone. Today it is Berlin’s main train station.
Ost Bahnhof in the Friedrichstain-Kreuzberg district has had several name changes since it was opened in 1842 as one of Berlin’s two main train stations. Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof was built in 1878 and was extended several times before the war. It escaped major damage during the bombing raids but during the Battle of Berlin the Germans exploded bombs in the tunnels under the station to flood the system. It later became a major S-Bahn and U-Bahn station in East Berlin and crossing point to the west. Anhalter Bahnhof, located in the magnificent Askanischer Platz was built in 1875-80 as the terminal for trains to and from the south of Europe. It was the grandest of them all.
In his book Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45 (The Bodley Head, London – 2010) Roger Moorhouse wrote:
Berlin’s Anhalter Station was one of the most potent symbols of the German capital. Unlike the Brandenburg Gate, the Victory Column or the Reichstag, it spoke not of military victory, nationalist bombast or the grubby business of politics; rather, it was a symbol of civic pride, of German industrial prowess and of the astonishingly rapid social and economic developments of the nineteenth century.
When it first opened in 1841, it had been a rather modest affair, with a three-storey frontage, resembling a suburban mansion block, and a small platform area behind….This modest terminus soon proved insufficient for the growing city’s needs, and in the 1870s a radical rebuild was carried out. When it re-opened in 1880, the Anhalter Station was the largest rail terminus in continental Europe. Its new façade, constructed in yellow Greppiner brick, was over 100 metres wide and embellished with Romanesque arches and elaborate terracotta detailing. Behind that impressive frontage was the enormous locomotive shed. Constructed in iron and glass, its curved roof measured over 60 metres in width and 171 metres in length. Beneath it, six platforms were laid out, which, it was claimed, could accommodate 40,000 passengers.
The rebuilt Anhalter Station served rail traffic to the south, initially in the direction of Leipzig, Frankfurt and Munich, but by the early decades of the twentieth century it was also serving destinations as far afield as Athens, Rome and Naples. By the 1930s it was handling over 40,000 passengers a day, with trains leaving, on average, every four minutes. It soon became known as Berlin’s ‘Gateway to the World’…. The Anhalter was also the station of choice for Hitler’s train….As the war progressed, the Anhalter Station would not only be associated with flag waving and grand ceremonial, it would witness countless tearful farewells as soldiers left their loved ones to travel to the front. In time, some nine thousand Berlin Jews also padded through the station, en route to the camp at Theresienstadt in Bohemia. Above all, however, the Anhalter Station would become synonymous with the evacuation of children from the capital…
By the end of 1941, The Anhalter Station, too, was showing signs of considerable damage, the glass arc of its roof was already disfigured with holes from incendiaries and its elegant frontage was sandbagged. In late November 1943, it was so seriously damaged that only local traffic could use the station, and all long-distance trains were redirected to the Silesian Station, or to Potsdam. After subsequent air attacks, large sections of the roof collapsed, or had to be dismantled…. Where it once proclaimed the grandeur, opulence and confidence of the city that it served, the Anhalter Station was now symbolic of the destruction and dislocation that had become commonplace in Hitler’s capital…
In the winter of 1945, Christabel Bielenberg (The Past is Myself) left Berlin by train from Anhalter. She wrote: Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof had become a symbol of disintegration; its huge dome roof, once glassed in, stood out like a skeleton greenhouse against the sky. Along the platforms the propaganda posters hung unnoticed in red and black tatters from the shrapnel-pitted walls…. Every day the windowless trains trundled in and out in the few hours left for living between the American mass daylight raids and the sporadic British night attacks; they carried a rudderless crowd of soldiers, civilian refugees and evacuees along diverse routes to uncertain destinations.
The fate of the Anhalter Station was finally sealed in February 1945, when a daylight raid by the US Air Force wrought havoc in the heart of the city. The Anhalter’s platforms were so pitted with craters, and its iron girders so buckled by the heat of countless incendiaries, that the station was considered to be beyond repair and rail traffic was finally suspended. Its cavernous remains would later be demolished, leaving only a small, jagged section of its once elaborate frontage to mark the building through which so many Berliners had travelled to distant parts…
In 1959 the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof sat there silently, a lonely silhouette against a cloudy sky as a symbol of Germany’s defeat. Without ceremony we took several photographs of the empty shell before leaving to drive back to West Germany. I was sorry to leave Berlin as there was more to see and do and the image of Anhalter Bahnhof remained with me as a caricature of that visit. We drove more quickly to Helmstedt (Checkpoint Alpha) where the inspection of the Kombi and passport check was faster than we expected. A car had crashed through two of the barriers at the East German checkpoint and there were lots of police and military activity. We were not a priority for them.
It was many years later before I thought again about Berlin and the Anhalter Bahnhof. It took me a long time to find the old photographs taken in 1959 and it was fifty years before I returned to Berlin. Anhalter Bahnhof was one of the first places I looked for, hoping it had been rebuilt. What I found was only the central facade, a lonely memorial to the grand old train station, and behind it a football (soccer) stadium. I then walked a half mile to Potsdamer Platz, with its modern S-Bahn station and office buildings. There I sat outside a coffee shop, where the barrier between the British and Soviet Sectors had separated Potsdamer Platz from Leipziger Platz, and wondered what they and Anhalter Bahnhof must have looked like before the war.
- Images: all of the photos in the story were taken by the author, Ken Peacock.