Diplomatic hotspot, cultural hub, war-torn battleground, cold war wasteland and revived urban center, the Potsdamer Bahnhof in Berlin has seen it all. Although it generally isn’t perceived as Berlin’s most important pre-war station, in a way it was.
First of all, it was the oldest one, the bookend of the first Prussian rail line between Potsdam and Berlin. Secondly, it was in the best place: within walking distance of the Brandenburg gate and Reichstag, and almost right up to the Potsdamer Platz, the city’s busiest intersection. The Leipziger Strasse, leading away from the square and the station, ran straight into the main city center, crossing the Wilhelmstraße – the home of most of government and diplomacy – and the Friedrichstraße, the city’s prime shopping street. And for most Berliners, Potsdamer Bahnhof was the most important station in the city in a practical sense. It was where traffic from Potsdam and Magdeburg started and ended; but at least as importantly, a major commuting hub.
The First Station
The first building of the Potsdamer Station opened in 1838, when the first rail line between Potsdam and Berlin was inaugurated.1)That first line pretty much followed the route of Berlin’s present-day S1 line up to Zehlendorf, only to continue straight on to Griebnitzsee station and, finally, Potsdam. It was something of a makeshift affair. Partially because it had been constructed in some haste; but also, because no one really knew what a station building was supposed to look like.
Just a short time later, other lines opened, and their termini suffered of much the same problem. This lack of consensus led to various forms and sizes of buildings, many of which were inadequate from the beginning. There is a photo of the first Potsdamer Bahnhof, but it is somewhat restricted, and the various drawings of the building tend to contradict each other (and are generally idealized as such drawings tended to be at the time). What is clear, however, is how the station was subjected to seemingly random extensions from the beginning.
Capacity was not the only problem, however; comfort – or rather, the lack thereof – was at least as big a consideration in the desire to construct a new terminal. This first batch of Berlin termini had their platforms in the open air because if they didn’t, the smoke and soot from the engines would suffocate the travelers. The obvious disadvantage was that travelers were thus exposed to the elements, including (in the case of unfavorable winds) still a heavy dose of engine smoke. Various solutions were attempted to solve this problem. The Hamburger Bahnhof (opened 1848), for instance, allowed trains to exit the station hall at the front, where a turntable allowed them to return using the other track. While this protected travelers from most of the elements, it still made the hall an uncomfortably drafty place to be.
It was not until the 1850s that new construction methods allowed for the building of much higher and broader halls, built using steel beams. Engine smoke could rise to the top of the hall, far above the passengers, who were now also properly insulated from bad weather. The first of these new stations were built in London, and included King’s Cross (1852), Fenchurch Street and Paddington (both 1854) and, most impressive of all, St. Pancras (1868).
Construction began in early 1870 on a new Potsdamer Bahnhof, built on the same principles as these London termini, with a single, big hall using steel beams, and a roof covered partially by glass to let in light. Contrary to other, slightly later Berlin stations such as the Stettiner and Anhalter, where the older structures were replaced wholesale, the Potsdamer integrated some parts of the 1838 station into the new one; the previous station hall now became the station exit (Ausgangsgebäude), albeit heavily modified.
The new, much larger and grander building was opened on 30 August 1872 by the arrival from Gastein (by train, of course) of what had recently become the German emperor Wilhelm I. As it was being built, the station had suddenly gone from being “just” a Prussian rail station to being the main transport hub of the new German capital, and both emperor and Reich chancellor Bismarck had shown great interest in the building process.
This is probably a good place to say something about style. Like most monumental 19th-century buildings, the Berlin termini all made use of designs based on historical examples. However, it is noteworthy that where stations in the UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium often employed neo-gothic designs, the Berlin termini relied on a specific Rundbogen (“round arches”) -style, which drew from classical, medieval renaissance and baroque examples to create an aggregate dominated by rounded forms. We can see this most clearly in the slightly later Anhalter and Stettiner stations (1878 and 1874, respectively), where arched elements were central to the station’s design. This had the effect of extending the train shed’s shape towards the façade. Large British stations, by contrast, tended to have an entrance building with its own stylistic identity; an autonomy often reinforced by the presence of an integrated hotel, which made the building functionally ambiguous. That duplicity did not exist in the Berlin stations – these buildings were purely intended for passenger rail traffic.
In a way, the Potsdamer Bahnhof was a bit anomalous, since the entrance building was firmly neo-renaissance in style, and its squarish nature referred back to the previous station, part of which was integrated into the complex. The shed, on the other hand, was adorned with the same mock-romanesque, rounded forms we see in most other stations. So in a way, the result was still very much a compromise, and did not yet fully display the ambition on display in the later buildings I just referred to. It remained, in a way, a very Prussian structure, a bit introverted and severe.
From one to three (or four)
In a repetition of the first building’s problems, the new station soon proved far too small once again. Another rebuild was hardly an option. The station was still fairly new, the Potsdam line had become a state enterprise, and furthermore the economic depression of the 1880s made further state expenses controversial. So rather than tackle the problem head-on, the old habit of smaller extensions was again adopted. By the turn of the century, the Potsdamer Bahnhof had become of three (or even four, depending on how and what you count) stations.
Allow me to explain. In the middle, and most eye-catching, was of course the old long-distance station. While not very big, it was among the city’s first and, as we discussed, situated in a crucial position. The opening of a new Anhalter Bahnhof in 1878, situated four hundred meters to the south-east, took away some of its luster as an international hub, but certainly not all of it.
To the left of the station was the suburban, “Ringbahnhof”. Significantly less grand than the main station, it really consisted of two stations itself: one platform was reserved for the Ringbahn2)Today called “Innere Ringbahn” to distinguish it from the GDR-era outer Ringbahn – a railroad constructed to circumvent West Berlin in the 1960s., the suburban lines to areas further out. The other connected to the Stadtbahn3)The terms “Stadtbahn” and “S-Bahn” are often used interchangeably, which causes some confusion. The Stadtbahn was the elevated stretch of railway that crossed Berlin’s inner city from Schlesisches Bahnhof (today Ostbahnhof) to Charlottenburg, the S-Bahn is a means of transport which sometimes uses the Stadtbahn but is far more extensive. The precise origin and even meaning of the term “S-Bahn” is disputed., meant for travel closer to the city. 4)At the time, Berlin was a fairly small city; the current limits of the city were only determined in 1920. Before that time, current districts such as Charlottenburg and Schöneberg were cities in their own right.
Simulation of operations at the Wannseebahnhof, ca. 1930, by Harald Krause (YouTube).
To the right of the station, and near its main exit, was the so-called Wannseebahnhof, another commuter station, this time specifically meant for people traveling to and from the stations on the Wannseebahn, Germany’s oldest line to Potsdam. Socially, the difference between both commuter stations could not have been bigger. The Wannseebahnhof was where the most prominent Berliners commuted to on a daily basis: civil servants, diplomats, and academics, who had found a home away from the noisy and grimy city into the leafy suburbs or Zehlendorf, Steglitz and Lichterfelde. Among them were special “banker’s trains” (Bankierzüge), that transported financial professionals from Zehlendorf to the city center.
By contrast, the crowd that used the Ringbahnhof was of a more lower middle-class and proletarian nature. Many of them didn’t end their daily journey at the station; they took other services to their place of work, or walked there. That walk started out at the station itself, since it was situated far to the back of the main station. Having left the Ringbahnhof, commuters needed to walk the length of the main station to their connecting service, a distance of a quarter kilometer. Such ordeals were not necessary for those leaving the Wannseebahn or the main terminus, of course. Here, a horse-drawn coach or tram could be entered pretty much immediately.
Around the Potsdamer
Of all the Berlin stations, the Potsdamer probably experienced the largest shifts in its surroundings. When the first station was built, travelers leaving it would still be faced with the old city walls. By the time the new one came around, these had gone and Berlin had started to assert itself as the confident capital of a new empire. As a consequence, the area surrounding what was now the Königgrätzer Straße (today’s Stresemannstraße) developed into an upper-class neighborhood, adorned with diplomatic villas, embassies, museums, upscale restaurants, and other places of entertainment.
Yet some odd remnants of the past remained. The most eye-catching of these was a graveyard, the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof, directly in front of the station.5)For more on this cemetery, see its (German-language) Wikipedia article. Never a reassuring sight for a prospective traveler, the cemetery was not removed until 1922. Plans to redevelop the cemetery into an extension for the station came to nothing, and it was eventually just turned into a square.
Within short walking distance, one could reach the Wilhelmstraße, the political center of the German Empire and arguably the most important power axis of the world around 1900. With the nearby Anhalter Bahnhof, the Potsdamer and its environs became the venue of diplomatic get-togethers and sessions of political gossiping.
The Roaring Twenties
Everything changed after 1918, as Germany’s loss in the First World War made itself felt. Diplomatic prominence was replaced with cultural exuberance. Next to the Potsdamer Bahnhof stood Kempinski’s, renamed Haus Vaterland during the war, arguably Berlin’s main entertainment venue during the “gay twenties”. Already a largish building in its own right, its bright lights totally dominated the street and the Potsdamer Platz at night, and helped to give Berlin its dynamic image in the years preceding Nazi dominance.
Of course, the Nazi era and then the Second World War changed all that once again: Kempinski’s glory days were soon over after Nazi repression started. In its wake, the whole neighborhood lost some of its luster. The Ringbahnhof and Wannseebahnhof lost their function in 1939, when the subterranean S-Bahn station made them redundant.
Had Albert Speer’s megalomaniacal plans for the new capital (and “world capital”) Germania come to fruition, the entire complex of the Potsdamer (and then some) was set to be razed to make place for the “North-South Axis”, a huge avenue leading from a new South Station to the “Hall of the People”. We’ll get back to those plans in an upcoming episode.
The end, an intermezzo, and a new beginning
The razing took place anyhow, just not the way the nazis intended. By the end of the war, most of the square, street, and stations were gone. Of all the Berlin stations, the Potsdamer probably suffered the worst: not only was it bombed multiple times during the war, the presence of Hitler’s Führerbunker in spitting distance also guaranteed it a central place during the final days of the Battle for Berlin. Burned, bombed and shot to bits, it was the only one of Berlin’s terminuses that could not be used again after the war. The Ringbahnhof was briefly used for S-Bahn services in 1945 and 1946, before it too was closed for good.
Because it was situated in the Mitte district (although protruding into Kreuzberg) it became part of East Berlin after the war, but since all the tracks were located in the western part of the city few initiatives were undertaken to revive the building. What remained of the Potsdamer Bahnhof had been leveled by 1960. One year later, the Berlin Wall was constructed, and for years the area remained little more than a flat wasteland in front of the wall. In 1970, the inconveniently situated strip of land was given to West Berlin as part of a land exchange, but nothing happened (apart from the demolition of the remaining ruin of the Haus Vaterland).
After the Wall was removed in the early 1990s, yet another era in the history of the neighborhood and the station began. As part of the new city development in the area around the Potsdamer Platz, another railway station was built once again, this time below the surface. Above ground, an empty grass area clearly delineates the contours of where the old structure, Germany’s very first station, once stood. Below, trains ride once again, just as they first did in 1838.
Thanks go out to Ger Dijkstra for being allowed to tap into his endless knowledge of railroad-related minutiae.
- “Wettbewerb für Vorentwürfe zur Neugestaltung des Vorplatzes am Potsdamer Hauptbahnhof in Berlin.” Zentralblatt der Bauverwaltung 39 (1919): 585–89.
- Bley, Peter. 150 Jahre Eisenbahn Berlin-Potsdam. Aus der Geschichte der ältesten Eisenbahn in Berlin und Preussen. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1988.
- Gottwaldt, Alfred B. Berliner Fernbahnhöfe. Erinnerungen an ihre große Zeit. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1982.
- Krings, Ulrich. Deutsche Großstadt-Bahnhöfe des Historismus. München: Prestel, 1985.
Winkler, Dirk. “Potsdamer Bahnhof – der Dreigeteilte.” Die Eisenbahn in Berlin, Eisenbahn-Kurier Special, 133 (2019): 44–53.
Last revision: 18 December 2020.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||That first line pretty much followed the route of Berlin’s present-day S1 line up to Zehlendorf, only to continue straight on to Griebnitzsee station and, finally, Potsdam.|
|2.||↑||Today called “Innere Ringbahn” to distinguish it from the GDR-era outer Ringbahn – a railroad constructed to circumvent West Berlin in the 1960s.|
|3.||↑||The terms “Stadtbahn” and “S-Bahn” are often used interchangeably, which causes some confusion. The Stadtbahn was the elevated stretch of railway that crossed Berlin’s inner city from Schlesisches Bahnhof (today Ostbahnhof) to Charlottenburg, the S-Bahn is a means of transport which sometimes uses the Stadtbahn but is far more extensive. The precise origin and even meaning of the term “S-Bahn” is disputed.|
|4.||↑||At the time, Berlin was a fairly small city; the current limits of the city were only determined in 1920. Before that time, current districts such as Charlottenburg and Schöneberg were cities in their own right.|
|5.||↑||For more on this cemetery, see its (German-language) Wikipedia article.|