Berlin's history A Monumental Bombsite

Seventy years ago this week, Berlin's Anhalter station was bombed to near oblivion. Today, only its grand entrance remains, an embodiment of the city's patchy efforts to remember its past.
The back of beyond: A view from behind Anhalter's grand facade.

The magnificent, shrapnel-scarred façade of Anhalter train station stands like a relic next to a taxi stand in west Berlin. Now a grand entrance to nothing more than a patch of wasteland and an unfenced sports facility, it is hard to imagine that it once fronted one of Berlin’s busiest terminals.

Seventy years ago, on 3 February 1945, as World War II began to reach its destructive conclusion, the main body of Anhalter station was destroyed during the most momentous bombing raid on the capital of the German Reich.

The station, the biggest in Europe when it opened in 1880, was reduced to a skeletal wreck, and later completely demolished, except of course for its magnificent gateway.

Today, just five minutes from the gleaming skyscrapers of the city’s bustling and modern Potsdamer Platz square, the first thing that meets visitors is signs warning of "Danger! Unsafe grounds! No trespassing!"

Yet visitors are free to roam the wasteland that used to make up the concourse and platforms of the station. Traces of history are everywhere. Just beyond the yellow-brick façade, an information board explains that many Jews began their grim journey to the Theresienstadt concentration camp from this spot.

It is difficult to imagine what a transport powerhouse this place once was.

Nearby is a five-story former air-raid bunker, where no doubt many of Anhalter’s passengers sought refuge on the night the station was destroyed. Having proved impervious to post-war attempts to destroy it, in a twist of fate it now houses Berlin’s Chamber of Horrors museum.

Next door lies the circus-tent architecture of the Tempodrom, a spa, event venue and monument of West Berlin postmodern design. It is surrounded by poplar trees, a reminder that the fast-growing trees were used to produce rifle butts during the war.

The station in its 19th-century heyday.

 

Beyond the Tempodrom lies Anhalter’s railroad graveyard. The site where the station’s myriad tracks crossed and joined is now a park, and fragments of rails and stone ballast lie half-buried under bushes, trees and litter. Crows and blackbirds pick among the debris, as cyclists whizz past.

It is difficult to imagine what a transport powerhouse this place once was. And the same thing can be said for many of Berlin’s relics. Most of Berlin’s historic buildings are dependent on the whims of researchers and preservationists, the vitality of storytellers and attentiveness of listeners, to bring them back to life.

A better opportunity to visualize the city’s history lies a mile west of Anhalter station at Bayerische Platz. An upmarket district, it was home to many wealthy Jewish families before their houses were grabbed by Nazi bigshots in the 1930s.

Now, signs erected by a memorial project focusing on the administrative process behind the persecution of Jews can be found on many streets. And a display in the new subway station endeavors to create a time warp, complete with candles, old photos and nostalgic music.

But at least visitors to Anhalter station will find some concrete clues to its history, even if the statue on the top of its façade, called The Day and The Night, is a copy. Perhaps these examples sum up attitudes towards Berlin’s history – live and let live, or a subtle reminder.

Video: The aftermath of the bombing of Anhalter station in February 1945.

 

This story first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]