Nordbahnhof – ghost station exhibition

  - darkometer rating:  3 -

A small topical exhibition in a restored Berlin underground regional metro train station, which itself used to be a ghost station during the Berlin Wall era of the division of Germany.  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: With the division of Germany post WWII into East and West, and in particular that of Berlin, with West Berlin having become an enclave inside the Soviet Zone/the GDR, several train lines, and stations on them, became obsolete because they traversed this Cold War border and thus became dead ends. Nordbahnhof was one such example – another good one is Anhalter Bahnhof.
With the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 came the final straw for those stations and most of the above-ground mainline train station of Nordbahnhof was completely erased – in this case it was also victim to the deliberate clearing of the border strip, as the station sat right on the border, with exits on both the Eastern and the Western side.
Underground, however, several metro and regional metro train lines still crossed this border – namely in the form of lines that had only a few stations under East Berlin territory and were allowed to continue running on these lines to connect with the rest of the line back on the Western side. But trains were not allowed to stop at the stations, now in the East, they had to go straight through. This applied in particular to a few lines running straight through the very centre of Berlin.
In the case of Nordbahnhof, it was the lines S1 and S2 (now also S25) running roughly south-west to north-east, entering East Berlin territory at Potsdamer Platz, passing through Unter den Linden (now Brandenburg Gate), Friedrichstraße, Oranienburger Straße and re-emerging on the Western side beyond Nordbahnhof, which had thus become a 'border station' ("Grenzbahnhof" – but without any border crossing checkpoints for travel between East and West – cf. Berlin Wall – that function was reserved for Friedrichstraße). Thus Nordbahnhof was in the doubly sensitive special category of ghost station AND border station.
All these ghost stations' exits were boarded up, even bricked up, and border guards would take positions inside them to monitor the train traffic – and make sure no one sneaked onto those trains to use them as a means of escape into the West (although there were a few successful attempts). The trains would pass slowly without stopping through these only dimly lit ghost stations.
I have vivid memories of the very tangible ghostliness that passing through such scenes always exuded. I was only a kid when I encountered this in the 1970s on my first Berlin trip. But slowly riding through Unter den Linden in particular left clear images in my memory: the greenish-yellowish dim light, shadowy silhouettes of half hidden boarder guards, the emptiness and derelict aura of the stations as a whole, and the old signs, still from pre-WWII times, and still in that old gothic script of the pre-Nazi era even (btw. one of those signs can still be seen in that station, as a kind of historical relic, even though it has meanwhile been renamed Brandenburger Tor!). That was history hitting right between the eyes – even as a mere 10-year-old I could not have failed to grasp this. (It was, in fact, a formative experience, I can now say – see also why this interest in dark tourism!)
Apart from those S-Bahn (regional metro train) lines, there were also a few U-Bahn (metro) lines that had ghost stations under East Berlin territory, in particular today's U6 and U8 lines running north-south through the GDR capital with ghost stations e.g. at Alexanderplatz and Friedrichstraße.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, those ghost stations were quickly opened up again too. All of them are now fully integrated into reunited Berlin's public transport network, some after first having been comprehensively overhauled (especially Potsdamer Platz). Nordbahnhof, too, has been reactivated as a fully active station and the formerly bricked up exits have been refurbished/rebuilt to their old design. The inside has been overhauled too, but still retains the typical old tiled look (just a lot shinier than in the old ghost station days).
To commemorate the era of the ghost stations, which as such had disappeared as completely as most of the Berlin Wall, a new exhibition about the topic was unveiled in the underground passageways of Nordbahnhof S-Bahn. It is in fact a comparatively recent addition to the larger Berlin Wall memorial complex at Bernauer Straße and designed by and run as part of the associated Berlin Wall Foundation.
What there is to see: The exhibition is a comparatively unobtrusive affair, consisting for the most part of text-and-photo panels on the tiled walls of the underground station, mainly around the main underground concourse, either side of a former (still permanently closed) ticket counter/booth, and partly in the corridor connecting the main part of the station with its Bernauer Straße exit.
Panels on a central column in the concourse part provide an overview of the thematic subsections of the exhibition. This is useful if you want to follow the chronological structure of the exhibition – but it's not binding. You can in theory start anywhere and piece it together as you like. 
Thematic subsections include: the prehistory of the ghost stations and how they came into being; the disappearance of stations and their entrances above ground in the East, the underground wall – border security measures underground; the border guards as suspects themselves; unsuccessful and successful escape attempts.
Especially remarkable, apart from various photographs capturing the gloomy, eerie atmosphere, are a few reproduced public transport charts/maps from the period – including one from the GDR entitled "U-Bahnhöfe im Demokratischen Berlin" ('underground stations in the democratic Berlin' – what an irony!).
In addition to still images with text there is also a video screen set into one of the panels which provides animated images further illustrating the eeriness of those former ghost stations.
The written texts are all bilingual, i.e. German with an English translation (as at the Berlin Wall documentation centre at Bernauer Straße, the translations are a bit wonky here and there but OK overall). 
The station as such, especially its platforms and rail lines, does not look any different to any other functioning metro station these days. It's hard to imagine how different an atmosphere permeated this place until the end of 1989 …
Location: inside the Nordbahnhof underground regional metro train station (lines S1/2/25) just to the north of the very centre of Berlin, and at the western end of the Bernauer Straße memorial complex to the Berlin Wall.
Google maps locator:[52.5332,13.3876]
Access and costs: easy, free.
Details: The location of the exhibition within Nordbahnhof station could hardly be more convenient – the regional metro train lines S1, S2, and S25 that pass through here provide excellent connections to the very centre of Berlin (e.g. Friedrichstraße, Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz).
The ghost station exhibition is freely accessible at all hours of operation of the station/S-Bahn, i.e. almost all the time except late at night.
Time required: Not long, maybe 20 to 30 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations: In general see Berlin – Nordbahnhof forms the western gateway to the main official Berlin Wall Memorial site at Bernauer Straße, which begins just outside the station exit of the same name. More Berlin Wall remains aren't far either, and can be incorporated into a Berlin Wall walk starting at Nordbahnhof/Bernauer Straße.
The regional metro trains going north from Nordbahnhof go through Gesundbrunnen, which is home to the Berlin underworlds bunker tours, next stop is Bornholmer Straße, and going all the way to the S1 line's terminus Oranienburg in the northern suburbs of Berlin is the best way to get to Sachsenhausen, a short walk away.
Going south, Friedrichstraße is only two stops away, Anhalter Bahnhof five, and the S1 line goes all the way south to Wannsee, from where you can reach the House of the Wannsee Conference or Glienicker Bridge – it is thus the line that spans the physically widest reach of dark tourism sites in this city.
If you take the southern exit onto Invalidenstraße and proceed across the square Elisabeth-Schwarzhaupt-Platz in a westerly direction you may notice Polish place names (Stettin, Gdansk) set into the pavement. This is a sort-of memorial to the function that the old Nordbahnhof, originally "Stettiner Bahnhof" (!) had: as the terminus of mainline trains from/to those formerly German cities that since WWII have become part of Poland
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The regional metro trains serving Nordbahnhof provide excellent connections to some of Berlin's premier mainstream sights such as the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, from where most of the rest of tourist Berlin is also easily reachable.
  • Nordbahnhof 1 - normal traffic todayNordbahnhof 1 - normal traffic today
  • Nordbahnhof 2 - once a ghost stationNordbahnhof 2 - once a ghost station
  • Nordbahnhof 3 - inside todayNordbahnhof 3 - inside today
  • Nordbahnhof 4 - inside thenNordbahnhof 4 - inside then
  • Nordbahnhof 5 - border guards undergroundNordbahnhof 5 - border guards underground
  • Nordbahnhof 6 - plan of the ghost station routesNordbahnhof 6 - plan of the ghost station routes
  • Nordbahnhof 7 - period network plansNordbahnhof 7 - period network plans
  • Nordbahnhof 8 - exit Bernauer StraßeNordbahnhof 8 - exit Bernauer Straße
  • Nordbahnhof 9 - outside exit InvalidenstraßeNordbahnhof 9 - outside exit Invalidenstraße


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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