Berlin is an urban metropolis overflowing with tradition and compelling history. With its breathtaking architecture, rich culture, and captivating nightlife, it is one of the premier destinations in all of Europe. Without a doubt, one of the city’s biggest draws is its fascinating history. Berlin has endured quite a bit in its lifetime, including two World Wars, the construction and demolition of the Berlin Wall, as well as rapid restoration and economic growth in the past 25 years.
The combination of these events makes Germany’s capital a historical gold mine. However, what most people don’t realize about this city is that some of Berlin’s greatest wonders lie hidden underneath all of the excitement of the daily life. One of the most fascinating and underappreciated historical and cultural aspects of this great city is the U-Bahn. The U-Bahn, or “Untergrundbahn,” is the German subway. Here is a look at its culture and history.
The Lifeline for a Modern Metropolis
Pictured above: “Park and ride” is a way of life in Berlin [Image via Flickr by extranoise]
This simple, yet remarkably logical and efficient network of subways is the lifeline of Berlin as a modern metropolis. The establishment of the U-Bahn isn’t the only fascinating thing about the network; perhaps more exciting are the different U-Bahn stations through which each line passes.
The U-Bahn is composed of nine lines altogether, named sequentially as U1 through U9, and it’s operated by the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG). During rush hour, the trains run every four to five minutes, and in the evening, every 10 minutes. With such an intricate and organized system spanning such a wide range of locations, it’s no wonder the U-Bahn is such an important aspect of both Berlin’s history and culture.
Berlin’s U-Bahn, however, wasn’t always the organized and reliable network that it is today. During planning and excavating, the system was completely jumbled, but construction and progress was, of course, largely hindered by historical developments within the city. This was particularly the case during the First and Second World Wars, as well as during the division of East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
Pre-Cold War Evolution of the U-Bahn
It’s hard to imagine, but before the U-Bahn system even was established, the city operated with a horse-drawn tram network. This network eventually transformed into an electrically operated tram system between 1896 and 1902. In 1902, Berlin’s very first U-Bahn line stretching from Nollendorfplatz to Warschauer Straße was built. From that point onward, the railway steadily increased in size until the outbreak of the First World War. Before World War I, the U-Bahn spanned a total length of only 38 kilometers. Such a short line may seem like it isn’t particularly noteworthy, but it was the beginning of something that would affect the lives of every future citizen of Berlin. In the 1920s after the First World War, Berlin was faced with a time of rapid U-Bahn construction, which included the addition of lines five, seven, and eight.
Between 1930 and 1950, Berlin’s U-Bahn expansion was brought to a halt by the economic depression and the Second World War. Bus traffic declined and ultimately favored railway transportation due to the war, which resulted in more than 737 million passengers—a peak that never again was reached. However, the lines ran as they normally would through the city. That was, of course, until August 13th, 1961 when the Berlin Wall was erected.
The Berlin Wall Era: The U-Bahn Divided
Picture above: An East Berlin public transport map [Image via imgur from the German Philological Library]
The division of the city ended not only the freedom of movement between East and West Berlin, consequently tearing apart families and friends, but it also caused many changes in the overall railway system. Some of the U-Bahn lines ran either into the eastern side or the western side of the city, whereas others were divided between the two areas. Lines such as the U1 were drastically shortened, while other lines were simply cut off at certain stations completely, such as the U2 at Potsdamer Platz.
Interestingly enough, the West Berliners were encouraged to boycott the S-Bahn (the “Straßenbahn,” as known as the above-ground railway) because it belonged to the East German government, while West Berlin controlled the U-Bahn network. It was a confusing time, as the property rights of the S-Bahn remained under Western control. In 1953, the railway authorities of the German Democratic Republic introduced trains that would not stop in West Berlin and checkpoints were introduced at the border.
This is where the story really gets interesting—with the division of the city also came a division in public transportation. The fact that Berlin was divided by the Wall meant that a few of the U-Bahn lines from West Berlin actually travelled underneath another country, essentially, underneath East Berlin. As a way to prevent citizens from passing over into the areas of the city in which they didn’t belong, passengers were not able to leave the train at the stations in the East until the train reached West Berlin again.
These stations became known as “ghost stations.” Ghost stations were dimly lit stations that the subway would pass through, but at which they couldn’t stop. Armed East German border guards would patrol and watch as the trains passed, making sure they didn’t drop off any passengers. Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz are two of the most popular U-Bahn stations today that were ghost stations during the Cold War. Other ghost stations included Anhalter Bahnhof, Unter den Linden, Oranienburger Straße, and Nordbahnhof, just to name a few. While the Berlin Wall was standing, East Berlin was left with only two U-Bahn lines – one from Mohrenstraße to Vinetastraße (today the U2) and a line from Alexanderplatz to Friedrichsfelde (today the U5). The maps from West Berlin weren’t labeled as ghost stations, but with signs reading “Bahnhöfe, auf denen die Züge nicht halten,” which translates to “stations at which the trains do not stop.”
Imagine living in a society where you are forbidden from entering the other half of the city where you grew up. Entering the U-Bahn, seeing the intimidating East German guards watching your every move from the between-decks. That’s exactly what it was like for both East and West Berliners alike.
East Berlin subway maps didn’t show the lines from the West at all, not to mention the ghost stations. This was naturally all a part of the meticulous strictness of the German Democratic Republic’s actions in solidifying the division of the city. The station exits in East Berlin were closed up while border guards or police made the rounds at the ghost stations, making sure no one could enter or exit without authorization. Drastic measures were taken by the GDR to inhibit Easterners from trying to enter into the West. The entry or exit ways of the ghost stations were primarily obstructed with barbed wire or cement.
Today, with the multitude of different-colored U-Bahn stations, you might never believe that popular stations such as Alexanderplatz or Potsdamer Platz were ever so obstructed. These stations weren’t visible from above ground, either. The East Berlin government didn’t want any recognizable connection to the West and certainly didn’t want to remind the easterners of the western trains running underneath their feet.
The architecture of the underground railways was something else entirely. The term “ghost station” was not given in vain. After the Wall was torn down and re-entry into the stations was permitted, you could see the remnants of the old life just as it had been before the wall—everything was left completely untouched. Vintage posters and scratched-up ads still hung on the walls, and trash lay all over the platforms. Many of the platforms, both under and above ground, had been subject to graffiti that stretched along the entirety of the tracks.
The Ghost Stations of East Berlin
Pictured above: A border guard at Unter den Linden [Image via imgur from the German Philological Library]
All of the stations in East Berlin became ghost stations for almost 29 years. An exception to this, however, was Friedrichstraße on the U6 line. It was the only station in East Berlin to remain in service as a border-crossing point for pedestrians, as well as a transfer point to the S-Bahn, so passengers from either side could cross over without having to surface. In addition to the creation of ghost stations came a split in the networks.
On the eastern side, the U5 was extended toward the east to new residential areas, while the U2 was split into a few different lines—line one was curtailed at Schlesisches Tor, and lines six and eight began travelling through East Berlin skipping all stations on West Berlin territory. During the years of the Cold War, the U-Bahn developed in completely different directions in both parts of Berlin. In the west, a new line was added: a north-south link called the U9. The U9 was conceived as the first U-Bahn line exclusively for West Berlin, and it was erected in 1961, just a few weeks after the construction of the Berlin Wall.
The former ghost station, Potsdamer Platz, was located directly on the borderline between East and West Berlin. One entry point was located in the western part of the city, while the other two entryways were situated in the east. It was the first underground station in Berlin. The station that the locals know today, however, is located about 200 meters northeast of the original station. This is because Potsdamer Platz met the borderline between East and West Berlin and the station could not be used by either side, but served the eastern BVG for stabling trains until the reopening of the station in 1993. Potsdamer Platz also suffered a lot of damage due to the war and therefore had to be restored.
Berlin’s U-Bahn in the Modern Day
After the Berlin Wall was demolished on November 9th, 1989, all the ghost stations were reopened. The underground railway transformed slowly but surely into the U-Bahn network that we know today. Just two days after the fall of the Wall, Jannowitzbrücke reopened to the entire public. It was the first of many stations to be reopened in the new, reunited Berlin. In 2009, three stations opened an isolated line called the U55, which consisted on stations at the main train station, the federal parliament building known as the Bundestag, and at the Brandenburg Gate.
Springing ahead 25 years to the present day, it’s almost impossible to imagine that these former ghost stations that thrive on the hustle and bustle of its citizens ever belonged to a different territory at all. Today, these various U-Bahn stations have been rebuilt and thrive abundantly in the Berliner culture. One of the most famous U-Bahn stations that both native Berliners and tourists frequent is Warschauer Straße on the U1 line. This station is a prime location for some of Berlin’s wild, exciting nightlife as it’s situated near some of the most popular clubs in the city.
Potsdamer Platz is another one of Berlin’s most frequented areas, even though it was a ghost station for so long. It was architecturally redesigned after the Cold War allowing Berliners, as well as travelers from all over the world, to come visit and to experience the remarkable mixture of art, entertainment, and shopping that this historical square has to offer.
Throughout Berlin’s history, there is one U-Bahn station in particular that has gained praise in spite of it all. That is the famous Alexanderplatz. No other center in Berlin operates with as many connecting lines as Alexanderplatz. The U2, U5, and U8, as well as a few different S-Bahn lines, all connect at this popular square. A multitude of Berlin’s urban history is located in this square, interlacing years of architectural, social, and political history. Alexanderplatz, named after the Russian Tsar Alexander I and commonly called simply “Alex” by the local Berliners, is situated in the Mitte borough, which is in the center of reunited Berlin. It is the home of the government district, as well as a large public space where you can go shopping or just hang out with friends. This station also obtained a literary memorial due to Alfred Döblin’s famous novel, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” and has been under the protection of historical monuments since 1977. Although this station is bigger than any other station in Berlin, the architectural design is not particularly fancy—with its red-brown tiles reminiscent of an unadorned brick wall.
Berlin’s transformation into the European metropolis that it is today was made possible by the development of a modern transportation system. Today, the U-Bahn network spans across more than 150 kilometers and has 169 stations. It’s hard to imagine a Berlin without the U-Bahn. There’s even a museum in Berlin dedicated to the history of the U-Bahn, which can be reached by traveling with the U2 line. In fact, there are many attractions in Berlin to visit when you want to know more about the history of the U-Bahn. At Nordbahnhof, there’s an exhibit called “Border and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin,” and it tells all about the division of the city, how the border was constructed, and the lives of the people involved. There’s also a place to investigate Berlin’s underground architecture called the “Berliner Unterwelten Museum.” Here, you can take a tour of the ghost stations, escape tunnels, and air raid shelters, but you have to use the S-Bahn this time to get there.
- Fabian, Thomas. “The Evolution of the Berlin Urban Railway Network,” Japan Railway & Transport Review, no. 25. (October 2000). P. 18 – 24.
- Handke, Stefan. Berlin und seine U-Bahn. Berlin: Marion Hildebrand Verlag, 1994.
- Knobloch, Heinz. Geisterbahnhöfe. Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag, 1992.
- Koztur, Marlene. Berliner U-Bahnhöfe zwischen Krumme Lanke und Vinetastraße: Denkmale des historischen Großstadtverkehrs. Berlin: Schelzky und Jeep, 1996.
- Richter, Dagmar. “Spazieren in Berlin,” Assemblage, no. 29. (April 1996): 83. JSTOR. (3171395). P. 72 – 85.
- Schwandl, Robert. Berlin U-Bahn Album. Berlin: Schwandle, 2013.
 Stefan Handke, Berlin und seine U-Bahn (Berlin: Marion Hildebrand Verlag 1994), p. 1.  Robert Schwandl, Berlin U-Bahn Album (Berlin: Schwandle 2013), p. 4.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Thomas Fabian, “The Evolution of the Berlin Urban Railway Network,” Japan Railway & Transport Review, no. 25. (October 2000): 22.  Schwandle. P. 5.  Fabian. P. 22.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Heinz Knobloch, Geisterbahnhöfe (Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag 1992), p.8.  Schwandl. P. 25.  Knobloch. P. 7.  Ibid., P. 5.  Schwandl. P. 15.  Ibid., P. 28.  Ibid., P. 26f.  Ibid., P. 99.  Ibid., P. 4.  Ibid., P. 86.  Ibid., P. 14.  Fabian. P.22.  Schwandl. P. 144.  Marlene Koztur, Berliner U-Bahnhöfe zwischen Krumme Lanke und Vinetastraße: Denkmale des historischen Großstadtverkehrs (Berlin: Schelzky und Jeep 1996), P. 41.  Schwandl. P. 28.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Knobloch. P. 10.  Schwandle. P. 138.  Ibid., P. 56.  Koztur. P. 41f.  Ibid., P. 53.  Dagmar Richter, “Spazieren in Berlin,” Assemblage, no. 29. (April 1996): 83. JSTOR. (3171395)  Koztur. P. 53.  Ibid., P. 55.  Fabian. P. 24.