Metro was cause of conflict and means of escape in divided Berlin | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.09.2009
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Culture

Metro was cause of conflict and means of escape in divided Berlin

Twenty years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, an exhibition has opened in the German capital about one of the divided city's many anomalies - a local rail network that ran through the West but belonged to the East.

S Bahn sign in front of glass high-rise on Potsdamer Platz

The "S" is still the same in reunited Berlin

Before the building of the Berlin Wall, many East Berliners used the S-Bahn, or city railway, to escape to the West. But after Aug. 13, 1961, trains crossing into the West were out of bounds.

From that day on, many West Berliners boycotted the network operated by the East German railway company, the Reichsbahn, as a sign of protest against the division of the city.

"The S-Bahn does not just allow us to comprehend German division," said Andrea Szatmary, one of the exhibition's curators. "Between the building of the Wall in 1961 and 1989, it was also a perpetual reminder of the remaining links between East and West Berlin. There was the Wall that divided, but the S-Bahn that connected."

Curators Claudia Ruecker (left) und Andrea Szatmary in front of various S-Bahn railway signs

Curators Claudia Ruecker (left) und Andrea Szatmary

An exposition at the Marienfelde Refugee Center Memorial recalls this era with photographs and witness accounts.

A ticket to freedom

Meinhard Schroeder was one of the many East Germans who used this route to flee to West Berlin. He was just 17 years old at the time.

At Easter 1960, he and his mother left Schwerin in the East German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania for Berlin and then got into a metro train bound for West Berlin. If they had been caught, they would have faced several years in jail.

"A border policeman came and I held up my ID-card just like everyone else and waited to be called out by him. I was also red in the face because I was really sweating blood and tears," said Schroeder. "He looked and moved on. I don't know what happened there. But I did know that the S-Bahn belonged to East Germany and that I shouldn't make any noise or show my happiness in any way."

Old-style S-Bahn train

Trains became a legend for East and West Berliners

By early August 1961, 1,500 East Germans were using the S-Bahn each day as an escape route into West Berlin. On the 13th, this ground to a halt. Several routes were closed down and control posts were erected at border stations.

Working for the East in the West

Historical picture of people exiting the subway in West Berlin

For some East Berliners, the subway was their ticket to freedom

The S-Bahn was an extremely curious legal construct. While it belonged entirely to the East German state, the Allied Powers - the US, France and Britain - had a right to use it. This was not just a source of frequent conflicts, but also of unusual labor relations.

"The S-Bahn traveled through West Berlin and was driven by staff that worked for the Deutsche Reichsbahn, i.e. East Germany," said Andrea Szatmary. "Therefore, East German staff traveled through West Berlin. It was not just a means of transport, but cut a political swathe as it passed through."

The railway employees lived in West Berlin and were paid in deutschmarks. However, they were trained in East Germany and employed under East German labor laws. This was not the only reason for the public transport system being a source of constant problems between East and West.

In addition, East Germany used the stations to distribute propagandistic newspapers and display posters with slogans like "Americans Go Home." On May 1, Labor Day, a state holiday in East and West, all S-Bahn trains were decorated with the East German state flag and a red flag.

Cut-outs of people with banners on their backs: an end to eastern control of our S-Bahn/Are you still paying Western money to Ulbricht?

There were Western protests against the S-Bahn

"The S-Bahn was an image of East Germany, and the West Berlin senate and the Confederation of German Trade Unions called upon Berliners to boycott the trains and there was a very strong response," said Szatmary.

Anti-S-Bahn protests

Many West Berliners chose not to travel on the network because the profits from the tickets went straight into the coffers of the East German state. In the immediate aftermath of the building of the Wall, demonstrators blocked railways, demolished carriages, and swore at staff.

Hartmut Mehdorn, former Deutsche Bahn CEO, Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's Mayor, Construction Senator Peter Strieder and former German traffic minister Kurt Bodewig, in front of S-Bahn.

In 2002, the Berlin S-Bahn Ring was complete again

Despite the higher ticket prices, many switched to the buses and subway, which were operated by the West Berlin transportation agency. While the Wall disappeared very quickly from the face of Berlin after November 1989, it took years to restore the city's S-Bahn network. The metro ring around Berlin was only reopened in 2002.

The exhibition at the Marienfelde Refugee Center Memorial runs until Jan. 31, 2010.

Author: Lydia Lypert (jg)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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