How East German Maps Made West Berlin (Almost) Disappear
On East German transit maps of Berlin, the city's western enclave was an unmentionable obstacle
Every map holds a promise, and hides a lie. Cartography purports to represent reality, so the map reader can navigate the world. But maps only exist because their makers manipulate reality, if only by selecting what to show. Maps always represent some kind of truth, but never the whole truth. If you know who made the map, you’re generally able to make a stab at the narrative behind it - and which story it isn’t telling.
Take this map of the urban transport network (1) in Berlin. At face value, it is a purely utilitarian map, giving its readers a no-nonsense, schematic overview of the transportational possibilities of the German capital. But context matters: this map was produced by the East German government, for its captive citizenry. It mixes information with propaganda as it tries very hard to ignore an inconvenient truth - too big to hide completely: the existence of another Berlin.
During the Cold War (1945-1989), world politics interfered with even the most basic elements of German toponymy. The country was divided in an eastern and western half, aligned with the Soviet and Western blocs respectively. The nomenclature reflected either state’s carefully maintained fiction that only it represented Germany as a whole (2). West Germany never officially referred to itself as ‘western’ but called itself the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany). Similarly, East Germany never self-applied the moniker Ostdeutschland, but chose Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic). The geographic, limitative name was generally reserved for the other half (3).
This national schizophrenia was replayed on an urban level in Berlin. Its eastern half was capital of East Germany, the Soviets’ most westerly outpost in Europe; its western half an enclave of West Germany, and a showcase for its Wirtschaftswunder (4). Both hemi-cities aspired to be Berlin’s one and only true incarnation, uncorrupted and unoccupied by the evil forces of either communism or capitalism. Hence the reluctance of either side to label itself as merely half of Berlin - official certificates for birth, marriage and death in both parts of the city were always issued in ‘Berlin’.
The official East German nomenclature treated the city’s division with the most circumspect of euphemisms - at least when referring to its own half, successively Groß-Berlin, demokratischer Sektor (Democratic Sector of Greater Berlin) over demokratisches Berlin (Democratic Berlin) to Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR (Berlin, Capital of the German Democratic Republic). Never, ever: Ostberlin. After all, it was the Wessis who were enclaved, not the Ossis (5). Those Ossis therefore had no qualms in referring to the western sector as Westberlin or Berlin (West), whichever sounded more diminutive. Correspondingly, the official West German names for East Berlin were Berlin (Ost), Berlin (DDR), Ost-Berlin, Ostberlin, and even Ostsektor (Eastern Sector).
Because of its special political geography, Berlin became a flashpoint in the Cold War, which almost turned hot when the Soviets blockaded the city’s western half in 1948. The freedom and prosperity of West Berlin also challenged the communist East’s claims of moral superiority (or at least equivalence). The hemorrhaging of East German talent, ‘voting with its feet’ to live in the West, led to the construction in 1961 of the Berlin Wall (6).
This map shows what happened next in the minds of the East German authorities: West Berlin atrophied, ceasing to exist as anything but a minor irritant to cartographers.The area served by the green S-Bahn is proudly marked as Berlin, its lines overflowing into the neighbouring districts of Potsdam and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. A clever ruse explains the diminutive size of Berlin (West): the lines extending westward into Potsdam district are shown on a separate map, overlapping the main map. The missing distance is rendered by arrows, connecting the lines on both maps. Those lines completely encircle West Berlin, greatly diminished by the overlap. Intriguingly, the overlap, where East eats West, creates two holes in the Staatsgrenze (national border) between both Berlins. Loopholes in the East’s cartographic logic? The encircling East Berlin lines look a bit like Pac-Man, the puny West Berlin nothing more than a freshly eaten, half-digested enemy.
It is quite remarkable how Berlin (West) is presented simply as a nondescript obstacle: not a single landmark is named, as if it is deepest, darkest Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nor are any of the S-Bahn or U-Bahn lines shown. This is due to the underground counterpart of the Berlin Wall, severing almost all links between the transport systems of both sides. This resulted in numerous so-called Geisterbahnhöfe (ghost stations), abandoned as the Wall went up (and projected downward) on 13th August, 1961, particularly on two U-Bahn lines and one S-Bahn line connecting different areas of West Berlin via the Mitte (centre), in East Berlin. Western trains would not stop, but slow down, permitting close visual inspection of these eerie metro stations.
The one exception was the station at Berlin-Friedrichstraße in East Berlin, where West Berliners could switch between one U-Bahn and two S-Bahn lines. Western traffic flowed next to Eastern, both flows hermetically sealed off from one another by an airport-style border control installation.
Many thanks to Mark Ovenden, who provided this image. It’s in his book Railway Maps of the World.
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(1) Consisting of U-Bahn (short for Untergrundbahn, or underground rail) and S-Bahn (short for Stadtschnellbahn, or urban rail, a more extensive, largely suburban and mainly overground network of lines).
(2) Not as big a leap of the imagination as it might seem. For most of its existence, Germany had been a fragmented jumble of dukedoms, principalities and kingdoms, an idea rather than a state.
(3) The East German authorities often deviously rephrased the official geonym for West Germany as Deutsche Bundesrepublik, thereby consciously highlighting the ‘Democratic’ adjective (and the supposed democratic nature) of their own state. This made it quite easy to spot Western apologists for the East: they used the abbreviation DBR for West Germany, instead of the more common BRD.
(4) West Germany’s ‘economic miracle’, which saw the country transform itself, post-war, from rags to riches at breakneck speed.
(5) Shorthand for West and East German(s), also after Unification (which itself gave rise to neologisms like Ostalgie, for many former East Germans' hankering for the comforts of their demised state.
(6) Dubbed an ‘antifascist defensive wall’ by the East German authorities.
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Hungarian cartographer travels the world while mapping its treasures.
- Simple idea, stunning result: the world's watersheds in glorious colors.
- The maps are the work of Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs.
- His job: to travel and map the world, one good cause at a time.
The world<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzU3Njk1M30.rRdZpcl0bfVi4oBsljHdZSbcX0New9rdLcx6fr2mD7Y/img.png?width=980" id="f982a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fa67421340f881d5ab91463514cf9a6d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Can you spot the world's ten largest drainage basins? In order of magnitude: Amazon, Congo, Nile, Mississippi, Ob, Parana, Yenisei, Lena, Niger, Amur. Image source: Grasshopper Geography
Africa<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTI2MzI0MX0.OeTS-scZwBES4AlZAan7fBlaBkznkig5hPjgcd1j6hw/img.png?width=980" id="e987c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2d3a8999ed4071a123b30efc5652fee9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Africa is home to the rivers with the world's second- and third-largest catchment areas: the Congo (in blue), with a basin of 1.44 million square miles (3.73 million km2), and the Nile (in red), with basin area of 1.26 million square miles (3.25 million km2). The Nile is the longest river in Africa, though (4,130 miles; 6,650 km), followed by the Congo: 2,900 miles (4,700 km). The Congo River's alternative name, Zaire, comes from the Kikongo nzadi o nzere ('river swallowing rivers'). Image source: Grasshopper Geography
Europe<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTkzOTMyMH0.tq5fjnq8wvLqXY0C9gzfoUd0ahOAQ7IZQxbpVnC1FdY/img.png?width=980" id="a8ec4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1ce5f59691501103343e080905ce74a3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The Volga (in yellow) is the river with the biggest catchment area in Europe (just under 545,000 square miles; 1.41 million km2). It flows exclusively through Russia, and the catchment area is entirely within Russia as well. Europe's number two is the Danube (in orange), which flows through 10 countries — more than any other river in the world. Its drainage basin (just over 307,000 square miles; almost 796,000 km2) includes nine more countries. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Germany<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzMC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzk4ODA3Nn0.qX1sOfJWAI7TUbTQCiIob-R5p4_wj299wEtrYAUREmg/img.png?width=980" id="d5efa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8e73c53d75840f21b4f2ca4b8a1e7f51" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The hydrographic map of Germany is dominated by just four major drainage systems: the Danube (in orange) in the south, the Rhine (in blue) in the west, the Elbe (in purple) in the east and the Weser (in green) between the latter two. In Antiquity, the Rhine was the border between the Roman Empire and the Germans. Rome once attempted to shift the border to the Elbe, which would have radically altered the course of history, but it suffered a massive defeat in 9 CE at the Teutoburger Wald (roughly between both rivers). Image: Grasshopper Geography
Great Britain and Ireland<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTk2MjM3MX0.nDy__OLIyC1arty4_2xd54fjTzmfsIZo-2pe5QRjjA4/img.png?width=980" id="31a6f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d089f66097f37a10ab854eaccdac3581" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Both Ireland and Great Britain are islands, as a result of which neither boasts a continental-class river. Twenty of the 30 longest British rivers are less than 100 miles (160 km) long. The longest river in Britain is the Severn (220 miles, 354 km), its catchment area shown in blue in the southwest. Ireland's longest river is the Shannon (224 miles, 360 km). Even combined they're not as long as France's Seine (483 miles, 777 km). Image: Grasshopper Geography
United States<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDYyMzEyM30.7S_83dA6bcLyID_7BhH1R_OTy61tpgDZrBMQ_iPwnjM/img.png?width=980" id="a879d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a7c74a7b5a7887fb2d13b40d5d96223c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Spread-eagled across the central part of the United States, the Mississippi's drainage basin covers all or parts of 32 U.S. states (and two Canadian provinces). The easternmost point of Ol' Man River's catchment area is really far east: Cobb Hill in northern Pennsylvania. Here rises the Allegheny, tributary of the Ohio, which in turn flows into the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Washington State<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MzU2MzM4OH0.mniqbkEQq84rNaWOQIl4fB4mOhNdJf5WactNyE_VsyM/img.png?width=980" id="adc4d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97eb5a5add49c06ef00ff0bca812b380" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Even leaving out the Mississippi, there's enough going on in the rest of North America to keep the eye occupied. Here's a drainage map of Washington State. The big fish in this much smaller pond is the Columbia River (drainage area in blue), the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. Only in the western third of the state is there a colourful counterpoint, in the multitude of smaller river basins that are draining into the Pacific or into Puget Sound. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Australia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTM0ODM2NH0.U7vckwnoNoxf-bk8SuYO246hNMpR2zXILILsd4pas9o/img.png?width=980" id="38c2b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c44d30d61c6cb94b8d5c7205cbabd58" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
At 1,558 miles (2,508 km), the Murray is Australia's longest river. It is often considered in conjunction with the Darling (915 miles, 1,472 km), the country's third-longest river, which flows into the Murray. The Murray-Darling basin (in blue, in the southeast) covers just under 410,000 square miles (1.06 million km2), or 14 percent of Australia's total territory. Don't let that spidery network of river courses in the interior fool you: Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent (Antarctica, bizarrely, is drier). Image: Grasshopper Geography
Russia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNy9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzg5MzIxOX0.WhShHLjjWdEh4FF_OZsY1oTN3Vc77X29TbMYbVHrHqA/img.png?width=980" id="f5cee" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="53acd93f1ab67be979e6ab128c144ce6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Four of the world's largest drainage basins are in Russia: the Ob, Yenisei and Lena (origin of Vladimir I. Ulyanov's nom de guerre, Lenin) entirely and the Amur, shared with China. The Volga may be Europe's longest river, but 84 percent or Russia's surface water is east of the Urals, in Siberia. The sparsely-populated region is traversed by 40 rivers longer than 1,000 km. Combined, the Ob, Yenisey and Lena rivers cover a drainage area of about 8 million km2, discharging nearly 50,000 m3 of water per second in the Arctic. Image: Grasshopper Geography
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