Why the berlin s-bahn was a rolling museum

The picture, presumably taken around 1920, shows workers in a Berlin S-Bahn repair shop.

Photo: akg-images / picture alliance

in the 1970s, you could still experience the golden twenties with a berlin original – the red and yellow S-bahn classic

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In the Berlin of the sixties and seventies, contemporary history was a loaded term. Romanticism or nostalgia directed at the pre-war period were still unknown, and were regarded as a retrospective under a blanket of dust, at best. In junk stores, the few who wanted to style their homes in art nouveau, art deco or 1920s style got their furniture and accessories – today worth a fortune – thrown at them. Nobody wrote and nobody published new books about the recent history of the imperial capital, uninteresting. An emotional situation in the walled-in or walled-out double city fifty or sixty years ago that one can no longer imagine today, reunited even in the worship of "babylon berlin," the glorification of the "golden twenties.

Nevertheless, anyone who, say around the beginning of the seventies, exceptionally and by chance, came across pre-war books or old magazines about berlin from that time and even leafed through them, discovered, if they wanted to, a dynamic city gripped by a magical modernity, boulevards and hotels full of haute couture; but which was above all in motion, gripped by the motto "tempo, tempo!". the new airport south of the hasenheide was the air hub of europe, the "flying hamburger" drove its world records on tracks, the central telephone and pneumatic post offices were running hot. beautiful black and white photos, almost two generations back. And then he saw something that made him wonder, something familiar.

A sound like a slowly swelling siren

The S-bahn, as this fictional reader had already heard, enjoyed an almost legendary reputation in the 1920s, even internationally. its punctuality, its then novel technology, its fabulously large network that extended far beyond its urban area (the second largest in the world) – this berlin peculiarity had been triggered through the generations even without new books. "they only ever stopped at the stations for a minute," grandma once told us enthusiastically. But now it became clear: the old black-and-white pictures are exactly the S-Bahn of today, the same railcars, the same wooden benches, the same cast-iron stations with the same mechanical directional signs, the same design as now, half a century later. Only one difference: the crowds of people in the pictures of the railroad from back then, they are missing now, in the 70s.

Almost no one rides the S-bahn at that time anymore, from the time the wall was built until the fall of the wall, for different reasons. But that’s exactly what makes every trip on the S-Bahn in those years miraculously a journey back in time, over almost two generations, to the grandparents when they were still young. You sit alone in the large carriages on the wooden benches, no miniskirt or trouser suit, no rustling student beard, no beatles hairstyle disturb the film that is playing before your eyes. "kuhle wampe" for example, from 1932, in which the key scene takes place in an S-bahn, fully occupied, passengers in berets, stresemanns or knickerbockers. There we dive in.

the unhurried swaying at the track bolts

Brecht’s screenplay could possibly have been set here, in the same wagon that now rattles along the tramway between "lehrter bahnhof," when it was not yet the new main station, and "Bellevue," in true style on the prewar tracks, unmistakable. Even the loud howling noise at every start of the S-Bahn, like a slowly swelling siren, still comes from that time, was once an expression of modernity, of technical progress, when electrification replaced the "tsch-tsch" of the steam locomotive. Everything to be heard in original sound, still undamped and in full length. If you want to get out of the car, you have to brace yourself against the heavy brass handles that the street fighters of the KPD and SA used to touch, or that later, in 1936, even jesse owens might have opened with a light hand if he wanted to stretch his legs under the lime trees.

Huge they are, the now empty, slow wagons, the echoing squeal in the curves, the leisurely rocking on the track bolts, all this reinforces their force, from an era when progress was still called growth. The great time of the S-Bahn, it is getting on in years, but it still travels there on every kilometer. Only further ahead, behind grunewald station, parallel to the avus to wannsee, you wake up from the dream and feel that the new era of the seventies is driving in the fast lane in the automobile, still without speed limit to 100, of course. Although, in former times, in the times of Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Nuvolari and the great racing battles between Mercedes and Auto Union, one could, with luck, marvel at even higher speeds from the same S-Bahn window right next door behind the pines. "tempo, tempo," as another berlin movie was called in 1929.

From today’s perspective, the 1970s were the halay point between now and the golden twenties. The boycott of the S-bahn, operated from the east by the reichsbahn, proclaimed by the senate, the DGB and the west berlin media after the wall was built, and the parallel bus and subway services that were set up at the same time, together ensured that fewer and fewer people got involved in this rolling pre-war cinema at the time. But such a tour did not only lead through the wagon park and the tracks of the past. The S-Bahn ran (and still runs) differently from the subway, over long stretches through small gardens and backyards; through neighborhoods with warehouses, sheds and mechanic’s garages, right next to multi-track marshalling yards and factories with high chimneys that were still visibly smoking. Like the other chimneys next door from the side wings and cross buildings with outdoor toilet, briquette air brand "lausitz record. And one was still allowed to smoke in the wagons themselves, everything as in former times.

No subway went that far out

In quiet berlin, it still smelled like the city that was germany’s largest industrial metropolis before the war, lively and well-functioning, with an even better-functioning suburban railroad. Or you rode the north-south tunnel through the east, still in the same condition as shortly after it was flooded at the end of the war. But not only that. Until its collapse after the strike in 1980, the subway ran farther out into the Jottwede than any other subway in the west, just as before the war it took the masses of working-class and petit-bourgeois families "into’t jrune" on Sundays, to the garden pubs ("the old custom is not broken, families can make coffee here").

If you wanted to, you could take the old train out to the west, all by yourself, just like that, even if you didn’t know why. To the terminus stations of heiligensee, frohnau, lichtenrade, lichterfelde sud, for example, then walking a few meters on dead tracks until everything was just overgrown, past buffer stops, then right in front, behind the thicket, the metal fence and the wall. And dreaming there, how it all was, back then. When the workers were driven in here, from oranienburg, hennigsdorf, zossen or ludwigsfelde, when everything was one. But who did that back then?

"traffic curiosity" and "social-archaeological fascination

And yet, there they were, passengers, individuals. S-bahn fans, old reichsbahner, who knew every screw on the 165 railcar, for example. Or even individual intellectuals who recognized and appreciated the historical dimension of such a trip. Like gerhard armanski, who after temporarily leaving the S-bahn in 1980 published the book "trains from the past" together with wolfgang hebold-heitz and barbara sichtermann, an eulogy to the "views from the S-bahn window" of that time: "the berlin s-bahn – a curiosity from the point of view of traffic, a fascosum from the point of view of architecture and social archaeology, a rattling remnant of past imperial glory, a railroad for excursions, workers and poor people, an oasis of small gardens, a wild garden (…) is a unique guide through the history of this city and its industrial culture (…), dozing away, waiting for the knowledgeable and affectionate visitor.". For him, beneath the "patina of decay" there was something "sparse, markisch, old proletarian that attracted me, half-dark shadows in the West Berlin cosmopolitan glamor, remnants of an iron industrial culture amidst plastic knickknacks.". That’s how it was, in the 70s, back at half-time.

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