As one of Berlin’s most important train stations, situated on the city’s historic central line, the Stadtbahn, Bahnhof Friedrichstraße played a unique role during the Berlin’s Cold War division – a crossing point utilised by travellers arriving from the West and departing from the East; anyone eager, and able, to hop the border following the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Although this particular crossing point possessed one novel characteristic – that it was located entirely deep in the Eastern sector of the city – unlike, say, Checkpoint Charlie, the US military crossing at the border between the Western district of Kreuzberg and Eastern district of Mitte. Instead of immediately arriving into the East of the city, when crossing from the West, it was possible to disembark directly into the heart of the German Democractic Republic at Friedrichstrasse.
Returning back to the West would prove harder than arriving in the East – courtesy of the paranoid approach of the GDR regime, eager to put an end to the flood of refugees who had, up until 1961, made their way to the British-French-American sectors of the city to permanently resettle.
To embark on that eastward journey it would be necessary to pass through a passport control checkpoint – and face the scrupulous customs officers – before being allowed to continue.
This former departure terminal – for people leaving the East to head to West Berlin – now serves as a museum and historically protected monument, with preserved artefacts and personal histories on display, reflecting its time as the final impression many would have when saying goodbye to the East.
Its contemporary colloquial name, reflective of the painful separation of the country for more than 40 years and the painful parting of relatives and loved ones here at the border – the Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast).
Entering this glass and steel building, adjacent to Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, now, it is possible to retrace the steps of anyone who would have exited the German Democractic Republic through this structure from its construction in 1962 to the ‘Fall of the Wall’ in 1989.
Accessing the S-bahn line at Friedrichstrasse heading towards Bahnhof Zoo, but additionally the U-bahn line that would shuttle travellers to West Berlin via the northern district of Wedding and southern district of Kreuzberg, meant it was necessary to pass through this building and comply with the customary inspection and luggage checks from the guards.
In its present form, the museum here still contains the original passport control boxes – meaning that it is possible to recreate the border crossing experience, through these narrow corridors; albeit without the prying eyes of the representatives of the East German surveillance state.
Separate checkpoints here were previously established for West Berliners, West Germans, foreigners, diplomats, transit travellers and East Germans – but, now only one of the passport control boxes remains symbolically open.
One of the interesting artefacts on display inside the museum is this microphone - used by East German dissident artist, Wolf Biermann, to record an entire album (Chausseestraße 131) while banned from performing due to his being placed on a government blacklist.
For visitors from West Berlin, returning to the West through this building also provided the opportunity to come into contact with members of the much feared East German secret police (the Stasi) – although few would have known how close they were.
Members of the Pass and Control Units (Paß- und Kontrolleinheiten) who processed travellers passing through the GDR’s Grenzübergangsstellen (border crossing points) would appear in Border Police (Grenztruppen) uniforms – although they were, in-fact, members of the 6th Main Department (Hauptabteilung VI) of the Stasi.
Following the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the East German secret police (officially known as the Ministry for State Security) was rapidly expanded – to deal with the threats, perceived and real, to the East German system. Rather than swearing allegiance to defend to people of the country and their immediate interests, the Stasi was tasked as the ‘Shield and Sword’ of the ruling Socialist Unity Party – ensuring the realisation of its Marxism-Leninist platform.
This meant closely guarding the country’s borders, to deter smugglers from undermining the economy, prevention of ‘improper’ use of transit routes, but also the “securing” of the border crossings, and thwarting escape attempts.
Identifying individuals by their facial features and detecting any disguises that escapees may try to employ during their attempts would also fall under the remit of these border police.
Like many buildings in Berlin in the 1990s, this former border crossing control point was transformed into a nightclub and performance venue. It had actually been listed as a historical protected building by the East German government on October 2nd 1990 – one day before German reunification – although it took another 18 years to become a Federally listed memorial site.
In 2011, the Tränenpalast was transformed into a museum, overseen by the Haus der Geschichte – the Museum of Contemporary History – in Bonn.
Entrance to the museum is entirely free and it is still possible to leave to the West from this here, although it is now necessary to walk out the entrance and around to the train station – which is no longer connected – avoiding the need to show you documents.
Visitors to East Berlin can now freely cross a border that once looked impenetrable and maintained with the constant threat of the use of deadly force.