(Hon. Mention) Mapping Divided Berlin: The Politics of Under- and Over- Representation

When East Germans, looking at atlases of their country in the years 1960 to 1989, searched for maps of their capital, they often found images such as that in figure 1. Juxtaposed next to the urban sprawl of Berlin was a large hole, empty and unlabeled. That hole represented West Berlin, irrevocably tied to its eastern counterpart by shared history, but separated by its absence on the map as well as the physical wall that spanned the length of its borders in reality.

After the end of World War II, the Allied powers called for Germany and its capital to be jointly occupied by the war’s victorious powers. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, they finalized plans for Berlin to be administered in four discrete sectors — by the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France.[2] That system of administration ultimately lasted in various forms through 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, marking a wave of democratic revolutions in central and eastern Europe.


Figure 1: excerpt from map of East Germany, 1988[1]

Maps of Berlin from 1945 to 1989 do not only narrate the city’s complex modern history; they serve as evidence of actions by both West Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany) to manipulate their relations in the aftermath of the division of Nazi Germany. As T. H. Elkins noted, Berlin served as a stage for events representing shifts in the global Cold War.[3] While not all such maps were as dramatic as that in figure 1, contrasting the maps produced in each half of Berlin — especially in the ways they depicted the other side — suggests that both sides attempted to use cartography as a means to advance their own vision of Berlin’s future.

Building (and depicting) the Berlin Wall

Even prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall, maps of the divided city raised questions as to what, exactly, constituted “Berlin.” A map produced in East Berlin in 1960 — just one year before the wall was built — depicted the city’s sectors in equal parts. [4] But in nomenclature, the map already weighed “Westberlin” against “Demokratischem Berlin,” and its legend suggested that Westberlin was just a puppet state of the United Kingdom, the United States, and France.[5] (The map provided no such description of the relationship between “Demokratischem Berlin” and the Soviet Union.)

The issue of nomenclature was a profound one: Along with the name of Berlin came a sense of political legitimacy for either of the two successor states of Nazi Germany. In West Germany, the state’s leaders decided that Berlin could not be the capital due to its split occupation; they instead opted for Bonn, in the far west of the country.[6] But in East Germany, the Soviet-approved leadership faced little dilemma in opting for East Berlin as capital, despite the post-war Allied agreement preventing this choice.[7]

Before the construction of the wall, residents of either half of Berlin were permitted to pass freely between the two sides. In the 1950s, this became a problem for East Berlin, whose citizens were enamored with the culture, commodities, and Soviet-free information readily available in the Western sectors. Most importantly, those dissatisfied with life in East Germany had an easy escape route through West Berlin, from where they could easily travel to West Germany and beyond.[8] In 1960, with 1,000 East Berliners fleeing westward each day, East Germany seemed on the verge of collapse.[9] In response, on August 13, 1961, the East German government laid a barbed-wire foundation for the Berlin Wall, immediately halting travel between the two halves of the city.[10] From this initial border — which the Western powers viewed as a violation of post-war agreements enabling freedom of movement throughout Berlin — emerged layers of barrier preventing movement between East and West; as Elkins wrote in 1988, “escapers are extremely few.”[11]


Figure 2: the Berlin Wall, as depicted in a West Berlin map of 1961[12]

Maps from West Berlin manifested those concerns as well, with one 1961 map — created in the same year as the wall — portraying the barrier as made of brick, imposing in its harsh red color (the actual wall was constructed from concrete). Together with the bold line of barbed wire separating West Berlin from East Germany, the map depicted Berlin as trapped between a wall and a field of barbed wire, as shown in figure 2.[13] Indeed, the idea of barbed wire mirrored the mental image of a borderland that many West Berliners envisioned; Elkins noted that Postdamer Platz was “once the ‘Picadilly Circus’ of Berlin,” only to become a “wasteland along the sector boundary.”[14]

Given this sentiment, as well as the history of actual blockades restricting movement into West Berlin, it is not surprising that some maps included insets of the defined transit corridors into the city.[15][16] There were three such paths that planes could travel from West Germany to West Berlin, in addition to four passenger train lines and three separate autobahns.[17] Emphasizing these corridors in a map inset — one that was obviously not intended to help guide air travel — served to draw the isolated city of West Berlin, which was surrounded by hostile forces, closer to its allies. These ties between West Berlin and West Germany were tenuous, with the Soviet Union actively working to prevent formal relations between the city and state. While the Western powers were trying to reduce West Berlin’s isolation, the Soviets were aiming to preserve it.[18] The 1971 Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin allowed greater freedom for West Berliners to travel to East Berlin and East Germany, in exchange for keeping West Berlin under the control of the US, the UK, and France, as opposed to West Germany.[19] Significantly, the Soviets and Western powers disagreed over whether this agreement applied to East Berlin too; like the dispute over the capital’s location, Soviet officials argued that the territory of East Berlin was exempt because it was embedded within East Germany.[20]

Across the Wall


Figure 3: U-Bahn Map (made in West Berlin), 1966[21]

Railway maps, with their simplified symbology, provide a strong source for studying maps’ ties to political history; Berlin, with its two separate urban rail networks, provides an especially ideal set of these maps. At the end of the war, the Allies, including the Soviet Union, had agreed that the East Berlin-based Deutsche Reichsbahn would continue to manage the S-Bahn, which ran throughout the entire city.[22] Upon the construction of the Berlin Wall, however, West Berliners began to boycott the S-Bahn in favor of the U-Bahn subway system, which was predominantly based in West Berlin, and a bus system.[23] Any depiction of West Berlin’s subway network would have to represent part of East Berlin in some way: two of West Berlin’s underground lines passed through East Berlin territory. At least since 1966, stops within East Berlin on those two lines (a total of 11 stops) were closed to West Berlin subway trains, according to a 1966 U-Bahn map, shown in figure 3. Not only did the map depict those two stops; it also included an additional U-Bahn line almost wholly contained within East Berlin, to which transfers were not available.

But on the eastern side of the wall, the first map of the Berlin tram network produced after the construction of the Berlin Wall showed that the city’s scope had already been redefined.[24] Compared to its pre-wall counterpart,[25] the 1965 map has been re-centered within the Soviet occupation zone, and it depicted nothing that lies west of the wall, including tracks of the S-Bahn that continue across the border. Gone, too, were the labels for each of the city’s sectors; those four parts have been replaced with only two: “Berlin” — the focus of the map — and “Westberlin.”

Use of the two labels became widespread in East Berlin transit maps. But as the wall increased the isolation of West Berlin, transit maps soon began to compartmentalize the western sectors of the city in ways other than just nomenclature. While a 1966 S-Bahn map included lines that ran beyond the wall, it depicted the entire Western half of the network, and the city, as contained within a walled-off bubble.[26] That bubble helped to distinguish “Westberlin” — dominated by its counterpart to the east — from Berlin, emphasized as “Capital of the GDR.”[27] As Elkins has noted, this official title helped East Germany underscore that “East Berlin is an integral part of its territory,” as opposed to the looser relations between West Berlin and West Germany.[28]


Figure 4: East Berlin S-Bahn map, without West Berlin, 1984[29]

Over time, that container for the West on East Berlin maps gradually shrank, particularly as the Cold War drew closer to its dramatic conclusion. On an East Berlin-made transit map in 1984, “Westberlin” was secondary to “BERLIN” in both typeface and positioning; it filled an ambiguously sized cloud on the left side of the map, as depicted in figure 4. By 1989 — what would be the second-to-last year for divided Berlin — West Berlin was little more than a small bubble, enveloped within the loop of a regional train that encircled the city of Berlin.[30] In the minimalist context of a transportation map, the effect is less startling than it would be in a normal street map,[31] but the conclusion is essentially the same: East Berlin is wholly separate from West Berlin.

East Berlin officials had often tried to introduce policies that, like the train maps, emphasized the distinction between East and West Berlin. For example, in designing immigration policies between the western sectors and East Berlin in 1966, East Germany attempted to require diplomats and uniformed military personnel to show passports when crossing into East Berlin — which would have directly contradicted agreements about the governance of Berlin held after World War II. Writing in 1988, Elkins noted “In [East Germany’s] view, West Berlin’s status is certainly not to be enhanced; rather it is hoped that the city will wither on the vine, falling eventually into the lap of the GDR.”[32] He added that, unlike Western officials, East Germans long believed the boundary between East and West Berlin to be international by definition and, accordingly, attempted to negotiate with West Berlin as a sovereign state.[33]

Moreover, in minimizing the presence of West Berlin features and institutions on its maps, East Berlin cartographers drew upon techniques that simulated, graphically, the same effects that the Berlin Wall had in actuality. Just as the Berlin Wall prevented the free flow of information, people, and commerce between West and East Berlin, the techniques used to underrepresent West Berlin in maps similarly helped to obscure reality. Facing the masses of Germans discontented with living in East Berlin, East German leader Erich Honecker sought to convince them of their rightful place in East Germany, much as the Berlin Wall had restrained East Berliners from fleeing westward. Following the 1971 agreement, which led to improved relations between East and West, Honecker’s strategy was to strengthen East Germany’s ties to history with a calculated, if preposterous, campaign to rewrite German history. As Alexandra Richie has written, “[Honecker’s] dream was to inculcate a sense of identity in his citizens such that they would forget that they had ever had ties with their neighbor to the west, and would treat [West Germany] like any other foreign country.”[34]

Following Honecker’s strategy, East Germany rewrote its history to remove ties to Germany and its recent Nazi history, associating Hitler’s crimes with the narrative of West Germany rather than its own past. Because it was impossible to eradicate all references to Nazi Germany, historians were required to associate the era of Hitler with the evils of capitalism.[35] Richie noted:

[Historians] were to cultivate the East German sense of identity, to foster individual initiatives and social engagement and love of the Vaterland [her emphasis]. … [T]hey created a version of history which ‘proved’ that East Germans had not been involved in any of the terrible crimes of the Third Reich and that only those now in West Germany had any connection with Nazism. Of all the twentieth-century attempts to rewrite history, this one must stand alone as the most ludicrous.[36]

The new version of history recast World War II as a class struggle, glorifying the Soviet Union for its victory.[37] Such a deception required distancing East and West Berlin in maps, though that was only one part of a much larger campaign. Everything both German and positive, like Beethoven, Goethe, and Bach suddenly became “East German” — regardless of historical realities — while West Berlin and West Germany were left with fascists and Nazis.[38] Richie writes, “With West Berlin erased from all East German street maps only East Berlin could claim to be the heir to that ‘great historical, political, administrative, economic and cultural centre’ which had grown into ‘a centre of artistic and scientific excellence’.”[39]

map5 Figure 5: Transportation map with West Berlin as an island, 1966[40]

Still, though the examples thus far have stressed maps of East Berlin that minimized the existence of its western counterpart, this technique was not unique to the DDR. West Berlin maps often reversed the naming conventions of East Berlin maps; the 1961 map, for example, referred to the West as simply “Berlin” to suggest its authenticity as Germany’s leading city while East Berlin was “Ostberlin.”[41] Another such example was a 1966 West Berlin transportation map, which depicted West Berlin as an island adjacent to a selected section of East Berlin (see figure 5). This was more or less in line with the way that West Berliners viewed their own place in the European landscape; as Elkins noted, the “extraordinary island city of West Berlin has all its most essential economic, political and cultural links not with its immediate environment but with the ‘mainland’ of the Federal Republic [West Germany], 175 km and more away.”[42] Even maps that included parts of East Germany’s Brandenburg region that surrounded Berlin (and thus, did not depict West Berlin as an island) minimized the presence of West Berlin’s neighbors in more subtle ways. For example, a 1962 street map included the same level of detail for the geography of Soviet-controlled regions as it did for those of West Berlin, and the map’s insets for the city’s transportation networks included the full set of stops outside West Berlin.[43] But the map’s cropping excluded most of the non-West Berlin territory, and the placement of the map’s legend covered up much of downtown East Berlin.


Figure 6: Integrated S- and U-Bahn map, West Berlin, 1984[44]

While transportation maps in East Berlin gradually depicted less of West Berlin territory over time, subway maps in West Berlin instead expanded to include more of East Berlin’s transportation networks. In 1984 years later, following the addition of one U-Bahn and two S-Bahn lines, West Berlin produced a new map of its transportation network, shown in figure 6. This map, which integrated the U-Bahn and S-Bahn networks, also expanded the extent of East Berlin’s transit options vis-à-vis previous West Berlin maps. Like the U-Bahn stops within East Berlin, which were still depicted on the map even though they were closed to West Berliners, the newly added East Berlin S-Bahn lines were not accessible to residents of West Berlin. Thus, they are a strange addition to the map. In a city that had been divided for nearly 40 years, the expanded representation of the East Berlin transit system — which appears to connect seamlessly with its West Berlin counterpart — drew the two halves of the city closer together.

The explanation for why West and East Berlin adopted different approaches in including or excluding detail from the city’s other half may lie in their perceived relationship. While East Berlin officials, as previously stated, viewed the Berlin Wall as the expression of an international boundary line, the West Berlin government saw the border as “a purely internal political division within Greater Berlin.”[45] Following that principle, as Elkins noted, the West Berlin administration did not seek to station border controls along the Wall, as their East Berlin counterparts did.[46] Similarly, transportation maps in the West included their East Berlin components because the maps sought to depict the entire transportation network of the city, and West Berliners’ definition of their city differed from that of East Berliners.

Conclusion: Questions Raised in Reunification

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, the dramatic changes for both East and West Berliners alike reopened questions about the status of Berlin — and Germany — that had long gone unanswered. Would East Germany ever again find stability? Would the countries re-merge? Would Berlin be the capital of a unified Germany?[47] Ultimately, by July 1991, the countries had joined together, with Berlin as their united capital, to face many more questions ahead.


Figure 7: Unified network map following fall of Berlin Wall, 1990[48]

When the Berlin Wall lost its ability to separate East and West, the clause on West Berlin transportation maps for many East Berlin S-Bahn stations, “only accessible by trains of the BVG East and DR,” no longer held true.[49] Finally, the full extent of Berlin’s transportation network (see figure 7) was easily accessible to all of the city’s residents. With reunification finally achieved, it became possible to interpret the series of West Berlin rail maps as a narrative of gradual movement toward reunification. However, that end was not always guaranteed, and among western nations, only the United States and Canada supported reunification immediately — which in itself did not guarantee the result.[50] Thus, we should avoid interpreting reunification as a change that was widely foreseen and predicted in maps of Berlin from the 1980’s. After all, when he posed the question of Berlin’s future in 1988, Elkins answered himself, writing:

West Berlin, it can be argued, so rigorously shut off by an unsympathetic neighbour, is no longer an essential component of German life. There are already those who describe it as ‘provincial’; will it relapse into the condition of an ‘old-age pensioner’ of the Federal Republic, until the West Germans no longer care enough to keep it out of the hands of the GDR? Or will the initiative and creative ability inherent in a free economy find new and viable roles for the walled city?[51]

Instead, the cartography from Cold War-era Berlin suggests that the mapping and counter-mapping of two opposing forces reveals where their political aims diverge. In this case, the critical question at hand was whether or not a city divided would be drawn back together. 

This essay was awarded a 2013 Acheson Prize Honorable Mention.

Andrew Henderson (’13) is a History and Economics major in Silliman College.

[1] “Topografische Karte 1:200.000.”

[2] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 31.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] “Strassenübersichtsplan Von Berlin :ohne Aussenbezirke Mit Namenverzeichnis.”

[5] The legend reads: “Westberlin: Bereich des Besatzungsregimes der USA, Großbritanniens und. Frankreichs,” which translates as “West Berlin: The area of the occupation regime of the United States, Great Britain, and France.”

[6] As Alexandra Richie has noted, it did not help that West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had a strong distaste for Berlin. Richie, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, 678.

[7] Ibid., 679.

[8] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 51.

[9] Ibid., 54.

[10] Ibid., 55.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Mauerplāne.”

[13] In the map, West Berlin is in fact labeled as just “Berlin,” suggesting that it is the authentic heir to the city’s cultural and political heritage. Thus it suggests that Berlin, not West Berlin, is “trapped.” I will return to the question of which side was the authentic “Berlin” later.

[14] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 50.

[15] One example is the famous Berlin Airlift, instituted after Soviet forces discovered engineering problems with the land routes between West Germany and Berlin. Getting around the blockade required roughly 380 plane flights a day in 1948 and 1949. Ibid., 42–43.

[16] “Mauerplāne.”

[17] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 108.

[18] Ibid., 58.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “U-Bahn.”

[22] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 115.

[23] Ibid., 116–117.

[24] “Tram.”

[25] “Tram.”

[26] “S-Bahn.”

[27] Translated from “Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR

[28] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 48.

[29] “S-Bahn.”

[30] “S and U-Bahn.”

[31] For an example, refer back to figure 1 at the beginning of this paper.

[32] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 59.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Richie, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, 734.

[35] Ibid., 734–735.

[36] Ibid., 735.

[37] Ibid., 739.

[38] Ibid., 742.

[39] Ibid., 742–743.

[40] “BVG Liniennetz: U-Bahn.”

[41] “Mauerplāne.”

[42] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 62.

[43] “Stadtplan Berlin :mit Sehenswürdigkeiten Und Berlin Bei Nacht.”

[44] “S and U-Bahn.”

[45] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 59.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Richie, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, 836.

[48] “S and U-Bahn.”

[49] Translated from: “Bahnhöfe, die nur mit den Zügen der BVG Ost und der DR zu erreichen sind.”

[50] Richie, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, 839.

[51] Elkins, Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City, 251.

Works Cited:

“BVG Liniennetz: U-Bahn”. West Berlin: BVG, 1966. University of California, Los Angeles. http://linuxdev.ats.ucla.edu/.

Elkins, T. H. Berlin: The Spatial Structure of a Divided City. New York: Methuen, 1988.

“Mauerplāne”. Berlin, 1960. Map Collection, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

Richie, Alexandra. Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998.

“S and U-Bahn”. West Berlin: BVG_West, 1984. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.

“S and U-Bahn”. Berlin, 1990. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.

“S-Bahn”. Berlin, 1966. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.

“S-Bahn”. East Berlin: Ost, 1984. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.

“Stadtplan Berlin :mit Sehenswürdigkeiten Und Berlin Bei Nacht”. Berlin, 1962. Zentral-und Landesbibliothek Berlin. http://collections.europeanalocal.de/muradora/browse.action?parentId=eld%3Azlb-bsk-collection&type=1&sort=dc2.date.

“Strassenübersichtsplan Von Berlin :ohne Aussenbezirke Mit Namenverzeichnis”. Berlin: Centre for Berlin Studies, 1960. http://collections.europeanalocal.de/muradora/browse.action?parentId=eld%3Azlb-bsk-collection&type=1&sort=dc2.date.

“Topografische Karte 1:200.000”, 1988. Zentral-und Landesbibliothek Berlin. http://www.zlb.de/berlin_studien/karten/berliner_ansichten.

“Tram”. Berlin: BVG, 1949. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.

“Tram”. (East Berlin): BVB, 1965. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.

“U-Bahn”. West Berlin: BVG, 1966. http://www.berliner-verkehr.de/snetze.htm.


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