If you would like to get a feel for what life in Berlin was like during the Cold War – the Wall, the Stasi secret police, the machine gun-toting border guards – you should visit this underground station.
I visited Französische Strasse when it was one of the scariest underground stations in the world, officially designated a ghost station. I just rode through the station, a train ride through hell. To leave the train and step onto the platform would most likely have resulted in my immediate death in a hailstorm of bullets.
This delightful trip on the Berlin underground 35 years ago was courtesy of my uncle Henrik who knew better than most where to find all the spookiest examples of the evil and disruption the Wall caused, and the often-grotesque ways it interfered with daily life. Henrik was the Danish ambassador to East Germany, and he had invited me to stay with him in his official residence, placed in a cordoned off residential area for foreign diplomats that was heavily guarded (not to protect the diplomats, I think, but rather to prevent East Germans to apply for asylum). I got a good feel for life on the wrong side of the iron Curtain the very first evening when I asked Henrik during dinner if they had any problems with surveillance.
– Absolutely not, he assured me. We are treated with the utmost respect.
After dinner we went out into the garden where he quietly revised his answer.
– We assume the entire house is bugged, and we know for a fact that our maid and driver are interrogated by the Stasi secret police every month.
Over the coming week we visited a number of interesting sights on both sides of the Wall. With a diplomatic visa crossing the border was easy enough. (But it did cause raised eyebrows later that year at immigration at JFK, with the first several pages of my passport adorned with big communist stamps).
The most indelible experience, that I still remember vividly, was going to West Berlin and taking the underground from one station to another on the U6 line. This may sound innocuous enough, but for a short distance the line passed through the borough of Mitte, the historic city centre which now was part of East Berlin. The metro network was so important to the West Berliners that the two Germans governments agreed to allow this Western excursion into communist territory, but naturally the metro stations located on the eastern side of the Wall were closed. All West Berliners knew such a station as a Geisterbanhof – a ghost station.
Trains did not stop there, but for technical reasons they had to slow down significantly while passing through. So, as we approached Französische Strasse – one of the ghost stations – I got a very good look at the heavily armed East Germen border guards patrolling the dimly lit platform, watching us through the carriage windows, their German Shepherds prowling for prey. Behind them, the windowed platform service booths had been transformed into police stations. Barbed wire fences made sure would-be escapees from East Berlin could not easily access the tracks. My uncle told me that the guards always worked in pairs, and that care was taken when assigning them that there were no personal ties between them. Clearly, the authorities feared that the prospect of freedom just a few hundred yards through the tunnel could prove too tempting for some guards.
A few minutes later, we were back in West Berlin.