Trains have played a curiously prominent role in the history of Germany. The 1918 armistice was signed in a railway carriage, for example. Then there was the Kaiser's Royal train, at the time of his abdication, taking him into his exile, and then the awful efficiency of the railway cattle-trucks filled with human beings on their way to their deaths in the camps. In Berlin the railway has been a major part of the city's development and the way Berliners lived their lives, ever since 1838 when the first train chugged its way between Zehlendorf and Potsdam, out to the west of the city. By the turn of the century, Berlin was the central hub of a massive system of lines stretching out across Europe, from seven major mainline stations.
The end of the second world war changed all that. Most of the stations were wrecked, and barely usable, and their burned-out hulks were seen by the occupying allies as symbols of the far-stretching tentacles of the evil empire they had defeated. They were disliked accordingly by those now responsible for Berlin, and what minimal use of them that was still being made, was eventually stopped, and the buildings were dynamited. One central station for international services, at Zoologischer Garten, was enough for the diminished status of West Berlin. The east side kept more of the system going, with its main station at FriedrichStrasse, but the coming of the Berlin Wall made the few kilometres of track between these two stations one of the most famous, and definitely the strangest piece of railway in the world.
The local S-Bahn trains also used the same line, stopping at all the small local stations on the way. The last one on the western side was Lehrter StadBahnhof, it's name denoting it's now disappeared main-line station neighbour, Berlin Lehrter Bahnhof. There, the western train driver got off, and a driver from the east took over the train. This obviously had to be a trusted individual, privileged Party member perhaps, otherwise he would have just run off into West Berlin. With the new driver in the cab, the train slowly progressed over the bridge at the Humboldt Dock, and onto eastern territory. The track here runs parallel to the River Havel, which formed the border at this point. All buildings between the railway viaduct and the river had been pulled down, to afford the guards a clean field of view, to stop anyone who tried to run to the river, and make the swim to freedom.
Rising up beyond was the big hulk of the Reichstag over on the Western bank. Then suddenly the train would dive between high buildings. Old, seemingly derelict apartment blocks showing their blank crumbling backs to the line. The train seemed to be rumbling through within feet of some poor East Berliners' bedrooms. Then just as suddenly, the train would be drawing up at the specially enclosed platform at FriedrichStrasse Bahnhof. Armed guards could be seen on walkways above amongst the ironwork of the roof.
East side trains were only on the other side of the iron wall seen at the back of this photograph, but for anyone on this platform, to get to those trains, or out to the street, they had to get though the border controls set in the bowels of the building.
Because this was an 'International Border', there were 'duty free' kiosks on the west side of the controls, selling drink, cigarettes and perfumes. Throughout the eighties, some of the commonest passengers on this train were alcoholics, who would ride the train over, nip out and buy their booze from the kiosk, tax free, and nip back on the train again for the journey back to their hangouts by the Zoo station.
By an administrative anomaly, the East controlled all the S-Bahn trains throughout Berlin, including the western sectors. Due to financial constraints, and a degree of boycotting by westerners, the S-Bahn stations in the West became run down, and were hangouts of every kind of down-and-out. The film 'Christiane F. We children from Zoo Station' was a realistic picture of the drug dealing and prostitution that occurred there. After one crisis too many, the West took over the stations on its own territory and started a clean-up and rebuilding programme.
A later essay will deal with the East-West split in the U-Bahn system, the subway of Berlin.
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