An Ode To Berlin’s S Bahn

Brian Melican revels in the beautiful simplicity of Berlin’s S-Bahn…

ode 1
Image © Paul Sullivan

How do you get from Schöneberg to Prenzlauer Berg using the S-Bahn? Don’t worry—it’s not a trick question. The quick way is the S1 heading north with a change at Gesundbrunnen or Bornholmer Straße; the scenic route is even easier, involving nothing more strenuous than getting on the S41 or the S42 and sitting still for half an hour.

You might be wondering why I asked something that simple. Well, let’s do a similar exercise in London: try getting from Balham to Stoke Newington and then let me know how that works out for you. Or let’s take Paris and say you want to get from Ivry to the 17th arrondissement: manage that in under an hour and I’ll owe you a vin rouge.

So why am I treating you like an overtaxed online transport app? It’s a roundabout way of showing how relatively easy public transport in Berlin is; which in turn is a round-about way of indicating just how instrumental railways have been in Berlin’s history.

London and Paris were both massive metropolitan centres by the time trains arrived in Berlin, meaning that big ideas such as high-speed overground railways encircling the city or cross-town link schemes were already de-facto impossible for them. From the inception of railways, it took Paris over 100 years to start linking its main termini with proper trains; London is only just moving on to Crossrail.

In Berlin, things were essentially the other way round. The hugely practical Ringbahn that draws a circle around the city centre was built in the 1870s on what was mostly greenfield land; Berlin’s growth spurt only really got going after they’d built it.

Tracking Berlin History

Forlorn but functional: the S Bahn station at Westkreuz. Image by Paul Sullivan.
Image © Paul Sullivan

Hence a ride on the S-Bahn today is simultaneously a journey through Berlin’s history, tracing the city’s impressively rapid transformation from capital of Prussia to capital of Germany.

It’s of course hard to imagine what the Schnell-Bahn meant to the first generations of passengers who used it. But in terms of its technological prowess and the effect it had on how people experienced and saw their city, the S-Bahn was presumably like a cross between high-speed rail and a smartphone: like the TGV or the Eurostar, it rearranged mental geography by bringing far away places temporally closer.

And like a smartphone, it became something of a symbol of its age. Especially following electrification in the 1920s, the ‘S’ in S-Bahn stood not only for schnell, but for sleek, smooth and nearly silent. In the literature of the time, it was associated with progress and modernity, and became part of the “Berlin feel” of the 20s and 30s that so attracted foreign writers to Germany: ‘Already we were sweeping through Charlottenburg. We passed the station without halting and on the platforms, with the old and poignant feeling of loss and of regret, I saw the people waiting for the Stadtbahn train,’ wrote Thomas Wolfe in I Have A Thing To Tell You (1937).

The large ‘S’ on a green background was an instantly recognisable brand that literally shone out into the dark skies of the dirty, coal-fired city, promising a clean, electric future. The S-Bahn was suitably expensive, too, leaving the proletarian masses to take the old, clattering trams, like Franz Biberkopf in Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929).

The rapidly changing Ostkreuz is a great place to get a feeling for those heady days: it’s Berlin’s busiest S-Bahn station and, even if the comprehensive rebuild is giving it an increasingly modern look, the crowds of people and the Bauhaus touches are still there.

There’s something decidedly rational and positivist about it, too: the Stadtbahn crosses over the circular Ringbahn to the East of the centre, so it’s called ‘East Cross’, plain and simple. Rather than taking some time-honoured name whose etymology is forgotten from the city around it, the S-Bahn imposes a name on this space that anyone can understand.

Ditto Westkreuz, whose proximity to the iconic radio mast at the Messe and the Olympiastadium also makes it a great place to understand what people in the 20s and 30s thought modernity looked like, and the breakneck speed with which Berlin was dashing towards it.

The rise and fall of Berlin’s public transport system

A 1900 view showing the front façade of the second Anhalter Bahnhof with Askanischer Platz and Königgrätzer Straße, as it was then known. Image: Public Domain / Wikipedia.
A 1900 view showing the front façade of the second Anhalter Bahnhof with Askanischer Platz and Königgrätzer Straße, as it was then known. Image: Public Domain / Wikipedia.

The Anhalter Bahnhof—which is to be transformed into a Museum of Exile—is a lasting memento of how Berlin’s railways went from being a symbol of the city’s pre-eminence in designing tomorrow’s world to being little more than a sad reminder of misguided dreams. Just one month after the start of the Second World War, the first S-Bahn trains ran through an underground station on the newly-opened north-south line, which complemented the east-west Stadtbahn: it was the pre-war apex of the city’s transport system, the last of the big, modernising projects that would be completed in Berlin for quite some time.

There were Nazi plans for a new branch to leave the tunnel north of the Anhalter Bahnhof to a huge new rail interchange under the Volkshalle (part of Hitler’s planned Germania), but of course the war took another course. As it happened, one of the last acts in the SS’s ‘defence’ of Berlin was to flood the north-south tunnel.

The above-ground station—a large, impressive main-line terminus in the ‘rail cathedral’ tradition of London’s St. Pancras or New York’s Grand Central—was bombed to smithereens in 1945, and traffic to it ceased in 1952 as the communist East started to cut off rail lines into the Western sectors. Today, nothing but a ruined section of the façade reminds the visitor that this was once one of the most famous stations in the German-speaking world.

Meanwhile, the underground S-Bahn section of Anhalter Bahnhof soldiered on in a manner symptomatic of the new historical role the Berlin railways had to play: after being a symbol of the city’s growth and then having suffered in the Second World War, the city’s railway network came to represent Berlin’s new division like nothing else—except, of course, for the Wall itself.

Although S-Bahn trains were running through Anhalter Bahnhof’s underground station again from 1946, the construction of the Berlin Wall placed the section of the north-south tunnel between Anhalter Bahnhof and Humboldthain in East Berlin, meaning that trains travelling on what are today the S1, S2 and S25 lines did not stop at Potsdamer Platz, Unter den Linden (today Brandenburger Tor), Oranienburger Straße or Nordbahnhof.

From 1961 to 1992, these stations lay dark, unused and often under armed guard as trains from the south to the north of West Berlin crawled through: the Berliners called them Geisterbahnhöfe,or “ghost stations”, and they came to represent the darkest and most menacing aspects of Cold War-era Europe. Anhalter Bahnhof was now the end of the line, smack-bang in the middle of the city.

Palace of Tears


The outside of the Tränenpalast or "Palace of Tears" where many goodbyes were said when people left for West Berlin or for other places in the West. Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-A0706-0010-001 / Krueger / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The outside of the Tränenpalast or “Palace of Tears” where many goodbyes were said when people left for West Berlin or for other places in the West. Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-A0706-0010-001 / Krueger / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The only station in East Berlin at which ‘West trains’ called was Friedrichstraße, where the north-south and east-west lines intersect. Today, thousands of people swap S-Bahns there without giving it a second thought, but back then the subterranean platforms of the north-south line were sealed off from the rest of the station: if you left the train there, the only way to leave these underground platforms again was to get back on a service to West Berlin, walk down a long and sinister passage to the equally subterranean U6 underground line (which also traversed East Berlin via a series of ghostly stations before arriving back in the West) or to go through DDR passport control.

This kind of lunacy, experienced on a daily basis, made reopening a normal service on the Berlin S-Bahn one of the top priorities after the fall of the Wall, and perhaps explains why so little is left to remind passengers today of the recent past.

Yet Friedrichstraße’s role as the border station is still enshrined in the building next to it, now a national monument and museum, which garnered the name Tränenpalast, or Palace of Tears. This was the place where lovers, friends and separated families were forced to say good-bye as those from the West took the last S-Bahn train of the day back through the Iron Curtain.

Besides national rail traffic planning, local pride, and a notoriously lax municipal exchequer, this emotional baggage perhaps best explains why Berlin was so anxious to build such a splendid new Hauptbahnhof. The central station looks more like an airport than a rail hub, and rather than keeping the name of the old terminus which once stood nearby its north—Lehrter Bahnhof—it has been rechristened with the neutral name of all main stations in all German cities.

It suits the surrounding landscape, of course, which for all its centrality is still one of Berlin’s most empty locations (though increasingly filled with hotels and other steel-and-chrome symbols of corporate modernity). In fact, in a way the name Hauptbahnhof is very much in the spirit of 1930s Ostkreuz, imposing a title on a part of the city rather than the other way round. As ever in the history of Germany’s capital, the city will follow the railway, rather than the other way round.


Next in Historical BerlinMadonna in a Fur Coat »