Last updated on October 20, 2022
Lehrter train station. An atmosphere full of the haze of sulfur, the freedom to kiss, and bustle. The salty wind already up your nose. Ships and coal lie in the harbor. Invalidenstraße. Boys’ museums, stones, telegraph models and whale skeletons. Heidestraße.
— Joseph Roth, The “Romanticism” of Travelling
Of all the lost stations of Berlin, the Lehrter could be regarded the least successful from one viewpoint, and the most successful from another. Officially it still exists in name, and in reality it still exists in practice. Today, however, it’s called Berlin Hauptbahnhof, and it’s the busiest and biggest station the city has ever had. And when you started to look around, it has been even more important than you thought. But for a few reasons it never caught the public imagination in the way some of its sisters did.
I’m guessing much of its reputation has to do with its surroundings. The Lehrter was never part of a particularly vibrant neighborhood – some might say it was never really part of any neighborhood. Squeezed inbetween a large exhibition and entertainment area (ULAP), Berlin’s most notorious prison (Moabit), an extensive rail yard and an industrial port (the Humboldthafen), it was never a place to be unless you purposely had to go to the station. On the other hand, that lent it a certain amount of gravitas.
This stood in stark contrast to the busy roads leading to the Anhalter, the sophisticated atmosphere of diplomacy and culture around the Potsdamer, or even the more than slightly seedy but still bustling environs of the Stettiner and Schlesischer. As part of a anonymous neighborhood, smack in the middle of a non-place, it became somewhat anonymous itself.
Quick lines to the west
The Lehrter owed its existence to Prussia’s victory in the war against Austria (1866). The peace settlement included the inclusion of the Kingdom of Hanover into Prussia, which now came to stretch without interruption from Memel (today Klaipeda) in the Baltic to Cologne on the Rhine. The Prussian state and the Magdeburg-Halberstädter Eisenbahngesellschaft took the initiative to build a line to Lehrte, where it could hook up with existing railways in Hanover.1 On the Berlin side, the line entered the city together with the lines from Hamburg. Over time, his proved to be a crucial line: not only did it connect Prussia to its western provinces, it also made faster travel to Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, and France possible – something the French would find out in 1870, when Prussian soldiers managed to reach their border rather quicker than they had thought possible.
The Hamburger Bahnhof, which had served the Hamburg line since 1847, had long been one of the larger and better equipped train stations in the city (I’ll get back to it soon), but by the late 1860s it had already become far too small to handle all the traffic from Hamburg, let alone coping with the trains from and to Hannover as well. But instead of razing the Hamburger Bahnhof and replacing it wholesale – as would happen to the Potsdamer and Anhalter stations, it was decided to build an entirely new station across the road from the old one. The reasons for this decision were twofold: firstly, the railyard near the old station was simultaneously cramped and quite busy, including goods services and all sorts of facilities. To rebuild the entire infrastructure would interrupt services for a long time. In addition, the Hamburger could remain in service for the time being to handle post trains, as well as the express passenger trains to Hamburg.
As luck would have it, a large area nearby, just behind the Humboldthafen, had become available and seemed eminently suited to build an appropriately grand new station. As we saw earlier, by this time the railroads – and particularly this one – had become a source of pride, something that both architects and railway authorities felt deserved prominent architecture and a prominent position in the city. Although the Lehrter was an entirely new building in a different place, we can consider it a de facto rebuild of the Hamburger, just like the the Potsdamer and others were replaced by new buildings a few years later.2 The old station would remain in service for incidental passenger traffic until 1884.
Opened in 1871, the Lehrter Bahnhof was first of all a grand statement. It was a much more grandiose in style than the Küstriner, Frankfurter, or even Potsdamer Bahnhofs, which had opened briefly earlier.
Its design, by the architects Alfred Lent, Bertold Scholz and Gottlieb Henri Lapierre, also contrasted markedly with Berlin’s other stations. Next to the Potsdamer and Frankfurter it looked almost gaudy, and was clearly influenced much more by French than by Prussian architecture.3 A fitting tribute, as also its location at the bank of the river Spree seemed to be inspired by Baron Haussmann’s re-design of Paris.
In addition, it referred to a triumphal arch, perhaps not entirely coincidentally.4 Even for the time, its eclectic style was seen as being rather exuberant – too exuberant for many, who were used to the far more severe architectural language that was common for public buildings in the city.
However, it did address some criticisms that the design of particularly the Küstriner had provoked. Its façade made no attempt to hide that this was a railway station, as the shape of its large shed could clearly be seen in but also through the big window at the front. That window, oriented southward, also was the main source of sunlight for the shed. This was particularly important since unlike the Küstriner and Potsdamer, it did not possess a glass roof. Windows lined the sides, but they did not let in a lot of light.
Looking out the window
The front was dominated by the giant triumphal arch, flanked by two columns on either side. Imposing though this part of the building was, it was mainly placed there for display; the real entrance and exit were housed in the two traditional exit and entrance buildings. One still could not enter through the front of the building; just as with other stations in the city, the entrance and exit were separated, although it was possible to travel between the two using an internal platform. In fact, one could walk up some stairs and look out the front windows – but not to enter or leave the building.5
The construction of the Stadtbahn in 1882, and nationalisation of the railways in 1884, signalled the end of the Küstriner Bahnhof as a passenger hub, but it also impacted the luster of the Lehrter station, in two ways. Firstly, the new railroad crossed the Lehrter’s tracks immediately behind the station on a viaduct, where the Lehrter Stadtbahnhof was built. While that made transfer easier, it also blocked any sunlight from that side, thus making the hall significantly darker.
Over time, this turned out to be a somewhat unfortunate arrangement for the Stadtbahnhof as well. Steam from trains leaving the station corroded its foundations, and it needed a thorough refurbishment in 1912 and again in 1926. Ever-increasing traffic using bigger and heavier trains meant that the marshy Berlin soil was starting to give way, causing structural problems for both stations.
In addition, most trains to and from Hanover were now directed over the Stadtbahn, so the Lehrter now only handled traffic to Hamburg and just a few trains to Lehrte and Hanover. That meant about 22 incoming and outgoing trains a day. With around three quarters of a million travellers annually (1894), that put the Lehrter firmly in last place among Berlin’s stations when it came to passenger numbers.6. However, the link to Hamburg, the empire’s second-biggest city and main port, still was an important one, also for freight transports. The loss of passenger trains meant that the rail yard could now be used more intensively for cargo, and a new goods station opened in 1881. However, it also gave the area an even more industrial feel, thereby further diminishing its attractiveness for regular travelers.
As the “Gateway to the north”, the Lehrter also became the gateway to the ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven for immigrants on their way to the new world. A steady stream of (generally poor, often Jewish) people and their luggage from the Prussian and Russian hinterland could swell to sizeable numbers. At times these throngs totally overwhelmed the facilities of the elegant station:
“Already in the early 1880s the local press registered growing disorder, especially at the major train stations. Large groups of migrants blocked the limited waiting facilities at Lehrter Bahnhof. Quite a few migrants explored the vicinity of the train stations. Others got into fights or disturbed regular travellers and commuters. In central Berlin neighbourhoods some migrants spent weeks, even months before moving on.”7
Eventually, complaints led to the erection of an entirely new station some distance from the city center dedicated to emigrant trains (and the detainment of migrants until they could be taken away to their port of destination), the Auswandererbahnhof Ruhleben (1891).
With the emigrants gone, the station returned to its more sedate existence, and didn’t fundamentally change in the following fifty years. That did not mean that nothing remarkable took place. On 19 December 1932, a new rapid train, the streamlined Fliegender Hamburger (or “Flying Hamburger”; yes, I know), was first used on the Berlin to Hamburg run, setting speed records and establishing the fastest train connection in the world, at 160 kilometers per hour.
More fundamental developments were in store though and, as usual during the Second World War, they set up the station’s demise. From 1944 onwards, the station proved to be an easy to hit target during air raids; various parts of the station, including the shed, had burned out by the end of hostilities.
After the ordeal
Damaged but not irretrievably so after World War II, it remained in use for a few years after 1945 and could perhaps have served longer, because unlike many other terminal stations its tracks were still used to connect Berlin to Hamburg.8 Both architecturally and logistically worthy of salvation, it nonetheless fell victim to West Berlin’s relentless drive towards modernization. Few even noticed when it got blown up in 1959. In a final bout of ignominy, even the news report about the destruction of the station mixed it up with the Görlitzer.
To a new Lehrter Bahnhof
Because of its proximity to the Berlin Wall, the area remained mostly unoccupied for the subsequent three decades, with the Stadtbahnhof remaining as a rather forlorn memento of what had been. That all changed in the late 1990s, when the site was chosen by the German state and Bundesbahn as the location of a shiny new Hauptbahnhof, the main station for Germany’s new capital.
With the Stadbahn tracks now used for long-distance train travel as well, the Lehrter’s location opened the possibility of creating, for the first time in Berlin’s history, a true train hub, combining the Stadtbahn with connections to the north and south, this time through a new tunnel. A large new station was opened in more or less the same location as the old one in 2006. Initially, it was even given the weird hybrid name “Hauptbahnhof / Lehrter Bahnhof”, but nowadays the old name is only left at the Stadbahn platform – although few people are probably even aware of it.9
Timeline by the German Aerospace Center, showing the development of the Lehrter and Hauptbahnhof.
Unfortunately, the construction of such a huge new station meant sacrificing the Lehrter Stadtbahnhof. The Deutsche Bahn, at the time run by the almost proudly unsentimental Hartmut Mehdorn10, justified this with the argument that there were still enough of these stations left from the same era, such as the Hackescher Markt and Bellevue station. Make of that reasoning what you will.
Whether you like the new Hauptbahnhof or not (I’m torn, but we’ll return to that in a subsequent chapter), there is no doubt that it is a success. For one thing, its annual 120 million travelers are testimony to that – almost double the amount of all of Berlin’s stations in 1894 combined. And functionally, it is truly a Hauptbahnhof, connecting railways from all sides. Little has improved in the neighborhood, though; one only really visits the area around Hauptbahnhof to go to Hauptbahnhof. Thankfully, it’s now hooked up a lot better to the city’s transport infrastructure than the old station ever was.
The Lehrter’s children
In Germany, the Lehrter’s triumphal arch-inspired design was adopted in a few other railway stations. Particularly Mannheim (built 1876 and still among us) clearly shows the Lehrter’s parentage.
But its influence went further than that. And as unlikely as it may sound, you can still see the original Lehrter Bahnhof in action – well, kind of. There’s a fairly exact facsimile of the building, located in Budapest. Called Keleti Pályaudvar (or Eastern Railway Station), it comes very close to being a full-on duplicate of the Lehrter.
The building was designed (using some tracing paper and a pencil, one assumes) by the architects Gyula Rochlitz and János Feketeházy and opened in 1884 to serve train lines to Transylvania and the Balkans. While there are some stylistic differences, these are minor; it has almost the same width (42 vs 38 meters) and height as the Lehrter Bahnhof, the same layout (including, originally, entrance and exit buildings, and track layout) and an almost identical façade.11
It was restored to much of its original splendor during an overhaul of the area in 2004, which means that anyone willing to travel to Budapest can experience something very close to the Lehrter Bahnhof for themselves, even seventy years after it’s gone.
A few decades later, Margadant designed the much better-known Haarlem station, which opened in 1908. Still in use today, it is widely considered to be among the Netherlands’ most beautiful stations and the default example of art nouveau design in railway architecture. But some of the Lehrter Bahnhof’s DNA returns to Margadant’s work in the form of a monumental entrance, with a large, arched window flanked by two pillar-like structures, with those rounded forms repeated to either side.
The station itself might not have made the biggest of most favorable impression on its contemporaries in Berlin, but when it comes to spawning an architectural legacy, we may perhaps consider the Lehrter Bahnhof to have been the most successful of them all. And considering what happens at its location today, even the most important.
The usual thanks go out to Mark Thomas en Ger Dijkstra for their proof-reading and comments.
- Anon. “Die Einführung der Berlin–Lehrter Eisenbahn in den Stadtbezirk Berlin und die Berliner Bahnhofsanlagen derselben.” Deutsche Bauzeitung 5, no. 27/39 (1871): 212–14, 305–9.
- Anon. “Das Projekt der Umwandlung des Lehrter PersonenBahnhofs in Berlin zu einem Ausstellungs-Gebäude.” Deutsche Bauzeitung 16, no. 41 (1884): 242.
Architektenverein zu Berlin, and Vereinigung Berliner Architekten, eds. Berlin und seine Bauten. 3 vols. Berlin: Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 1896.
Becker, Tobias, Anna Littmann, and Johanna Niedbalski. Die tausend Freunde der Metropole. Vol. 6. Kulturgeschichte der Moderne. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2011.
- Bley, Peter. 150 Jahre Eisenbahn Berlin – Hamburg. Berlin: Alba, 1996.
- Brinkmann, Tobias. “Strangers in the City: Transmigration from Eastern Europe and Its Impact on Berlin and Hamburg 1880–1914.” Journal of Migration History 2, no. 2 (September 30, 2016): 223–46. https://doi.org/10/gkr866.
- Gottwaldt, Alfred B. Berliner Fernbahnhöfe. Erinnerungen an ihre große Zeit. Düsseldorf: Alba, 1982.
- Krings, Ulrich. Deutsche Großstadt-Bahnhöfe des Historismus. München: Prestel, 1985.
- Romers, H. De spoorwegarchitectuur in Nederland, 1841-1938. Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, 1981.
- Verein Deutscher Eisenbahnverwaltungen and Verband der Preussischen Eisenbahnen. Berlin und seine Eisenbahnen 1846 – 1896. Im Auftrage des Verein Deutscher Eisenbahnverwaltungen, Verband der Preussischen Eisenbahnen, Königlich Preussischer Minister der Oeffentlichen Arbeiten. Two volumes. Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer, 1896.
- Winkler, Dirk. “Bahnhof am Hafen – der Lehrter Bahnhof.” Die Eisenbahn in Berlin, Eisenbahn-Kurier Special, 133 (2019): 54–61.
In 1879, the MHE was nationalized and so became part of the Prussian state. ↩
There are evident points of inspiration from the grand termini of Paris, particularly the Gare de l’Est (1849) and the more recent reconstruction of the Gare du Nord by Jacques Hittorff (1866). ↩
To be fair, it was not the first example of a central arch as a central element in a station’s design – that distinction, at least as far as Germany is concerned, probably goes to Braunschweig’s second station, opened in 1845. However, that arch is much more modest in its dimensions, and hardly “triumphal”. ↩
There is at least one photo from the 1920s showing a smallish entrance at the front of the building, so it is possible that entry through the front became possible around that time. However, the door is still quite small, and it is also possible that it offered access to offices or a restaurant. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out more. ↩
566,000 to Hamburg/Altona, 201,000 to Lehrte and Hanover. See Berlin und seine Bauten, I, 204. The Lehrte part is mentioned as the Königliche Eisenbahndirektion zu Magdeburg, the state enterprising running the line to Lehrte. ↩
Brinkmann 2016, p. 234. ↩
One of the provisions of the Potsdam agreement was that West Berlin remained tied to West Germany by three rail lines: Hamburg, Hannover and Nuremberg. Only the Hannover connection could be used by non-Germans, however. ↩
It’s even a bit more complicated. The subterranean station, where the tracks have the same basic orientation as in the old station, is officially still called Berlin Lehrter Bhf (abbreviated BL – a designation only used internally); the S-Bahn tracks carry the designation Berlin Lehrter Stadtbahnhof (abbreviated BLS). ↩
Yes, that’s the same Hartmut Mehdorn that helped make even more of a pig’s breakfast of the construction of Berlin’s new airport in the 2010s. ↩
Although Keleti sports a public front entrance today, that is a later adaptation. The Lehrter’s shed was about 40 metres longer, although the platforms are about the same lengths; but in Budapest they extend into the open air. ↩
It seems likely that Margadant at the very least took some solid inspiration from an article in the Deutsche Bauzeitung about the Lehrter: Anon. “Die Einführung der Berlin–Lehrter Eisenbahn in den Stadtbezirk Berlin und die Berliner Bahnhofsanlagen derselben.” Deutsche Bauzeitung 5, no. 27/39 (1871): 212–14, 305–9. Ironically, even today’s Leiden Centraal looks vaguely like (but is about a decade older than) Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, but the stylistic differences are considerable and similarities are more down to common modern guidelines of station design. ↩