Little remains of Anhalter Bahnhof – once one of the grandest train stations in Europe – except a graffiti covered portal entrance battered by time and the ravages of war. Now flanked by a large sports field that covers much of the footprint of the original railway terminus, this ruined facade previously led to the waiting rooms of this doomed station and sits some 600 metres away from the bustling square of Potsdamer Platz.
Built on the site of a previous city gate (the Anhalter Tor) located in Berlin’s tax and excise wall facing nearby Askanischer Platz, Anhalter Bahnhof would enter into existence as a modestly-sized structure before growing to become not only the largest train station in Germany; but also the largest train station in continental Europe. A fixture in Berlin’s urban landscape akin to King’s Cross station in London, or Gare du Nord in Paris, that would serve as the arrival and departure point for international trains – sometimes referred to as the ‘Gateway to the South’ due to the services to places as far away as Rome, Naples, and Athens.
Opened in 1880, by both Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, this lavish and spacious terminus would actually cater for four different classes of ticket holders – with a separate entrance for royal and diplomatic visitors.
At the peak of its use in the 1930s, trains left the six platforms at Anhalter Bahnhof every three to five minutes, carrying an average of 44,000 people daily – around 16 million a year – compared to around 49,000 people who would travel each year from Berlin’s central Tempelhof Airport.
The adjacent goods yard and station would see use by industrialists looking to gain a foothold in the German capital and locate their headquarters near the Prussian and German government offices of nearby Wilhelmstrasse.
As the premier station in Berlin, Anhalter Bahnhof was also connected directly to the Hotel Excelsior – the largest hotel in Europe – via a 100 metre long underground tunnel that from 1929 allowed guests exclusive access to the station hall, and the opportunity to avoid the hustle and bustle of overground street traffic. This was seen as guaranteeing the highest class of luxury train travel at the time; as it was possible for all guests at the hotel to purchase their tickets from the concierge and arrange for their luggage to be transported directly to their carriage before even stepping foot in the station.
The darkest chapter in the station’s existence came following the Nazi takeover in 1933, when from 1941 Hitler’s regime began shipping Berlin’s Jewish citizens to their deaths – with many sent from Anhalter Bahnhof to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia.
Around 9,600 individuals would be deported from here, in groups of 50 to 100 at a time, in 116 trains – with ordinary passenger wagons rather than freight cars utilised, and simply coupled up to regular trains departing according to the normal timetable – not to arouse too much suspicion.
According to the plans drawn up by Adolf Hitler and his court architect, Albert Speer, for the post-war redevelopment of the German capital, Anhalter Bahnhof was set to be demolished with all rail traffic rerouted to two stations outside the city. The land was instead earmarked for the construction of a swimming pool.
The Anglo-American air raids on Berlin during the Second World War devastated the Nazi capital and Anhalter Bahnhof was not spared.
On the night of November 23rd 1943, a large Royal Air Force raid caused serious damage to the station, so much so that long-distance train services ground to a halt. Further attacks on February 3rd and February 27th 1945 put the terminus completely out of action.
As a result of the Cold War division and occupation of Berlin by the Allied Forces, the train station ended up in what became known as West Berlin – and the American sector of control. Something that would initially prove problematic for the Soviet authorities, as all trains passing through their zone of Germany would arrive at this partially restored station. That is until traffic was eventually re-routed to the Ostbahnhof station in 1952.
What remained of Anhalter Bahnhof was then left derelict for another 8 years, until it was largely demolished in 1960 – with the recognisable portico left as a solitary trace of the former station’s glory.
A pair of statues – Day and Night – that previously decorated the front of the station are now on display in the German Technical Museum, as they were judged too fragile to remain on the facade when the West Berlin senate voted in 1959 to demolish the remains of the station.
Walking through the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof today, it is hard to imagine what this station once was. Not only one of the largest train terminals in the world but also the first – and last – impression than many people would have had when arriving in, and departing from, Berlin.
Like a handful of other sites in the city – such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche – it also stands as a testament to human folly and the abomination of war. A scar on the landscape, where a great example of the fruits of human endeavour once stood. But as proof that tyranny must be fought. That in bombing this station in 1943, the British air force may have, at least inadvertedly, managed to derail the Nazi deportation efforts from this particular location and disrupt the official Nazi timetable for the extermination of European Jewry. Diplomatic traffic also had to be re-routed and when Adolf Hitler’s personal train arrived in Berlin for the last time in January 1945, it was not to the destroyed Anhalter Bahnhof, but far away in the Grünewald instead.
The Thousand Year Reich that Hitler dreamed of fortunately never materialised. The swimming pool that the Führer intended to eventually have constructed here is now an astro turfed sports field.
A new museum is now scheduled to be built where Anhalter Bahnhof previously stood, detailing the lives of the many people condemned to exile by the Nazi takeover, who would have bid farewell to the city from this former station.
The Exile Museum aims to open in 2025 and juxtapose the narratives of famous German emigrants, such as Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, against the further 50,000 known individuals who fled the Nazi regime and have largely remain nameless. Certainly the location could not be more fitting.