Berliner Unterwelten is a really great organization that leads tours in all sorts of freaky, mainly underground places in Berlin: WWII bunkers, a Cold War nuclear shelter, the remains of an anti-aircraft tower, etc. I’ve already been on most of their tours, so I was happy to hear that they were programming several special tours for September and October. I convinced Uli to come with me on one in far West Berlin following the ghost of a four-kilometer long graveyard train.
In the early 1900s, Berlin’s population was greatly growing and there was also a need for more graves. The city began building a new, giant graveyard in Stahnsdorf on the far western outskirts of the city to accommodate the demand. Because it was so far away, an efficient way to transport the bodies was needed and by 1911 work began on railway line leading from Wannsee to Stahnsdorf.
In 1913, a large public opening celebrated the new line which thoughtfully had separate trains for the corpses and visitors. The graveyard was also a park and became a favorite excursion spot for Berliners. But a year later in 1914, the train was temporarily halted by WWI. This would be the first in many interruptions during the graveyard train’s short lifespan.
When the Nazis came to power in 1930, the graveyard train was needed more than ever. Albert Speer began implementing plans to build a new, massive north-south axis that would cut through Berlin, and he cleared the route of any cemetery in its way. 13,000 grave sites were re-located to Stahnsdorf, including that of Walter Gropius. S-Bahn service was also established along the line and new passenger stations were built.
Of course, train operations were again interrupted again by WWII. In fact, in 1945 the Wehrmacht blew up the bridge the train used to travel over the Teltow Canal, to prevent the Soviets from coming into Berlin. By 1948 however, the bridge was rebuilt and train service was restored.
But the post-war division of the city would have dire consequences for all traffic on the line, which had the unfortunate luck of traversing between Wannsee (West Berlin) and Stahnsdorf (East Germany) in its short four kilometer journey. By 1954, the GDR had set up a checkpoint at the Dreilinden S-Bahn station and border guards stopped everyone. Even the corpses were checked for fugitives and contraband. On August 13th, 1961 when the east/west border was officially sealed and construction of the wall was begun, all train traffic on the line came to a complete halt, forever.
Amazingly, you can still see parts of the graveyard line and the whole area is full of fascinating, historical sites -such as an old highway that was re-routed in 1969 (due to difficulties over automobile traffic entering West Berlin) and the former Checkpoint Bravo that was replaced by a new checkpoint built in Dreilinden. We also had lunch at the former waterway-border control along the Teltow Canal, not far from where the first West Berliner was shot and killed by GDR border guards. It was hard to imagine this place as a heated international border, but the trees and plants haven’t quite grown over all the remnants of this dark and convoluted history.