Anhalter Bhf (c. 1880)

READING: Wolfgang Schivelbusch, "Railway Accident, 'Railway Spine,' and Traumatic Neurosis," from The Railway Journey

As the first major, long-distance railway line to open in a German state, the Anhalter Bahnhof has always had more than just an incidental connection to the city of Berlin and its liminal geography as a point of entry to eastern, western, and southern Europe. Walter Benjamin certainly recognized this when he immortalized the railway station's greatness, scale, and technological significance in recollecting his childhood in Berlin : “The ‘Anhalter' refers to the name of the mother cavern of all railways; it is where the locomotives are at home and the trains have to stop. No distance was further away than when fog gathered over its tracks.” To Benjamin, the Anhalter was the material reality of that marvelous and equally dubious nineteenth century dream of progress achieved by the historical possibility of connecting to a faraway place. It was where Kafka arrived from Prague when he visited Felice Bauer in Berlin; it is also where Celan arrived on his way to Paris from Cracow in 1938. During its legendary heydays in the 1920s and 1930s, a newspaper once mythologized the station like this: “Berlin-Anhalter Bahnhof! One ought to say these words very slowly: Anhalter Bahnhof! For this railway station opens up a world, a separate world, unparalleled and peerless; like hardly another, it is a gateway of entry and exit, a point of entry to the South, to Italy , France , and Spain." For more than a century, the station became a transformative symbol of Berlin 's modernity, and even in its present ruin, it is still a witness to both the volatility of the twentieth century and the hopes and fears of the nineteenth.


Fantasy of Germany Unified by Railway Lines (Design by Friedrich List, 1835)

On September 1, 1840, five years after the first German railway line opened between Nuremburg and Fürth, the first part of the railway line that would connect Berlin to the German state of Anhalt was opened between Dessau and Köthen by the directors of the Berlin-Anhaltische Eisenbahn Gesellschaft. By September of the following year, the construction of Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof was completed, and daily service began running to Köthen via Wittenberg, Coswig, and Dessau. The line, which connected the German states of Prussia and Anhalt together, was the longest railway line in any German state at the time, stretching more than 150 kilometers. By 1848, service from Anhalter extended to Dresden and Hall , and from there, into Thuringia . Prior to German unification, the Anhalter played a critical role in helping to expand the reach of the Prussian railway network.

Front of Anhalter Bhf (c. 1880)

The original railway station, designed and built between 1838 and 1841, was erected on what would become Askanischer Platz, directly on the outer edge of the old city of Berlin. It was to be accessible through a new gate leading into and out of the city. The three-story, neo-classical “receiving building” was reached through a main entryway and was designed to rival the greatest English railway stations – only the Anhalter was to be “more beautiful.” The station was a Kopfbahnhof, a terminal railway station, and constructed to connect the city of Berlin to places outside of Prussia . Its two main platforms, one for people and one for the transportation of goods, ran south out of the city along the newly constructed Militär-Strasse.

Immediately after German unification in 1871, the city of Berlin and shareholders of the Anhalter decided to rebuild the station in order to better service the rapidly industrializing nation. Beginning in 1872, the old station was torn down because it was deemed too small to handle the rising passenger and goods traffic and because the main receiving building lacked in any sort of distinguishing monumentality appropriate to the dominance of Prussia . Between the summer of 1871 and August of 1878, the chief architect of the new station, Franz Schwechten, proposed no fewer than nine different, monumental designs. Even though the final design would change several more times before the new station was completed, the orders for “one million well-browned building bricks” and “one and a half million red bricks” were placed in 1875, and construction officially began on September 7 of that year.

The Anhalter was rebuilt on a colossal scale and reopened to the public in 1880. At the time, the new building was one of the largest “terminal railway stations” in the world, measuring 170 meters long, 60 meters wide, and nearly 35 meters high at its apex. The passenger station now had six main platforms, two ancillary platforms, and six additional platforms for baggage. The brightly illuminated building, complete with glass windows along the roof, was held together by the massive innovations of iron construction. All sorts of accolades were heaped upon the architectural innovation of the structure: Anhalter Bahnhof was now the largest, the fastest, and the most efficient railway station in Germany . But more than that, it was also considered the most beautiful: More than 800 specially-trained stone workers were employed to craft the extravagant ornamentation covering the entire structure, ranging from terra cotta relief figures and sculpted arabesques to detailed friezes, ornate columns, and flowering capitals. Crowning the apex of the entrance hall was a sculptural group, officially called “Weltverkehr” [world transportation], composed of an angelic female figure flanked by two youths, one of whom guided a locomotive with his arms. The terra cotta ornamentation alone cost more than 1,500,000 marks, and the total cost of rebuilding the entire station was unprecedented in railway history, totaling 14,100,000 marks. Indeed, all of its proportions were mythological.

Although certainly unique in both its scale and attendant myth-making, the Anhalter itself was the product of a widespread frenzy of railway construction projects inspired and justified by the rhetoric of industrial progress and urban modernization. As multiple eyewitnesses and commentators attest, the rhetoric of railway construction in the nineteenth century approached the dimensions of the theological. Spatial progress linked cities and peoples together such that railways became wed to the concept of historical development, and progress itself was deified, both in its material construction and as an abstract ideal for societal evolution. Religion and railways became ‘ways of binding,' or essentially, covenants to progress. In his material history of nineteenth century Paris, Benjamin quotes the Saint-Simonian, Michel Chevalier, on the relationship between religion and the building of railway lines: “One can compare the zeal and the ardor displayed by the civilized nations of today in their establishment of railroads with that which, several centuries ago, went into the building of cathedrals.” Building railways was essentially the religion of modernity. In One-way Street, he even mentions a specific church that achieved precisely this union between technology and religion in the space of its interior architecture: The Marseilles Cathedral transformed itself into “the Marseilles religion station” at the end of the nineteenth century. When the refurbished church building was completed in 1893, it was the apotheosis of a “gigantic railway station ... [complete with e]xtracts from the railway traffic regulations in the form of pastoral letters [hanging] on the walls, tariffs for the discount on special trips in Satan's luxury train ... [with] sleeping cars to eternity [departing] from here at Mass times.” Religious dreams condensed into the reality of progress such that the modernity of the railways could transcend virtually any distance, whether worldly or otherworldly.


Hotel Excelsior attached to Anhalter Bhf after 1928

In Germany, the name ‘Anhalter' became legendary along precisely these theological lines, as both an allegory for and the material proof of the belief in progress. By the start of the twentieth century, service from Anhalter Bahnhof fanned-out all over southern Europe , with more than 100 trains arriving and departing daily. It was indeed the gateway to the South, the passage both into and out of Berlin . Adding to its mythological proportions, a gigantic underground passageway connecting the train station to the luxurious Hotel Excelsior across the street was opened in 1928. Guests arriving at the Anhalter station could walk to a doorway at the end of the platform, take an elevator downstairs, stroll through the “ longest hotel tunnel in the world ,” shop around the clock in the five underground retail stores, and emerge 80 meters away in the lobby of the “largest hotel on the continent,” the Excelsior. Analogous to the arcades of Paris in the nineteenth century, this twentieth century passageway was a hub of capitalist culture, a “dream place” of modernity. The materiality of the arcade and the railway station were imbued with a type of myth that simultaneously valued innovation – speed, size, beauty, efficiency – above all else, yet was, at the same time, always vulnerable to what would supercede it. In this respect, the Parisian arcades and Berlin 's Anhalter station are also material witnesses to the finitude and passage of the epoch that they inaugurated.

In the 1930s, Anhalter Bahnhof became known as an “ Abschiedsbahnhof” [farewell station] with a “platform of tears” because 3,262 Jewish children were sent South out of Germany by their parents from this station. After 1939, Jews still remaining in Berlin were thereafter unable to flee. Beginning on October 18, 1941 , a total of 180 “ special trains ” left Berlin , almost all from Anhalter Bahnhof and Grunewald Bahnhof, to gathering points in Germany and concentration camps in the East. As Heinz Knobloch writes in Meine liebste Mathilde of a special transport of elderly all over 65 years of age, “ In freight cars, a hundred elderly men and women were carried off. The train went to the Anhalter Bahnhof. … They were driven to Theresienstadt. With the German National Railway … The Berlin Jews left from the Anhalter train station on a regular D-train from the Berlin-Dresden line. ”

Anhalter Bahnhof became part of a journey of terror for Jews leaving Berlin , who earlier left begrudgingly with the rise of fascism, and who later were deported and killed in the name of fascism. In 1943, in the middle of the horror, Anhalter was used to save more than 700,000 non-Jews who also left Berlin after an order by Joseph Goebbels, who feared imminent air raid attacks on the city.


Remains of Anhalter Train Tracks (c. 1996)

While Berlin as a whole was utterly leveled by May 1945, Anhalter Bahnhof was not severely damaged, and after the war, trains began running again by August 1945. They continued to run until 1952 when the station was cut by the East/West division of Berlin and later by the erection of the Wall. After much debate, the station was finally razed in 1961. Most of its ruins were disposed of in the early 1960s except for part of the front portal and the southbound tracks, the latter left more or less to the forces of nature since their last use on May 17, 1952. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung somewhat prematurely declared in 1961, “Now, the Anhalter Bahnhof finally belongs to the past.”


Text by Todd Presner. This history of the Anhalter Bahnhof draws on the following studies: Peter Bley, 150 Jahre Berlin-Anhaltische Eisenbahn . Düsseldorf: 1990; Helmut Maier , Berlin Anhalter Bahnhof . Berlin : no date; Rainer Knothe, Anhalter Bahnhof . Berlin : 1987; Christine Roik-Bogner, “ Der Anhalter Bahnhof: Askanischer Platz 6-7” in: Geschichtslandschaft Berlin - Orte und Ereignisse. Band 5, Kreuzberg . ed. Helmut Engel, Stefi Jersch-Wenzel, Wilhelm Treue. Berlin : 1994. pp. 52-69. Handbuch der deutsche Eisenbahnstrecken: Eröffnungsdaten 1835-1935, Streckenlängen, Konzessionen, Eigentumsverhältnisse . Introduction by Horst-Werner Dumjahn. Mainz : 1984.