Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: May 1, 1998
Not long after the fall of the Berlin wall I had the pleasure of discovering one of Europe's most famous and heavily trafficked hitch-hiking spots. Dreilinden was the old border crossing out of West Berlin, and during the cold war years it ad grown into something of a bus stop for West German hitchers heading home through the East.
West Berlin was a little island surrounded by an infamous wall in the middle of Russian occupied Germany. It enjoyed a kind of twilight status of being in Germany, but not in Germany all at the same time. Young Germans would flock to West Berlin in order to escape military service in the West. Back home they'd have to do a full year of service in the military, but in Berlin under American, British and French occupation, they didn't fall under the jurisdiction of the West Germans and were not compelled to complete any military service for them. They did have freedom of movement in and out of West Berlin guaranteed by the occupying allies thumbing their noses at the Russians all around.
They would thumb their way back home frequently, standing at the border crossing to catch a ride. Most cars leaving Berlin were of course also headed into West Germany, passing through the East in transit. The drivers of Berlin became so used to and comfortable with this crowd of hitchers Dreilinden that it would be a rare wait that exceed 10 or so minutes.
Even in 1991 when I arrived there were 10 or 20 hitchers there every time I passed through and a spirit of community I'd not seen anywhere before. Hitchers stood together waving signs, chatting about destinations and origins and every minute or so a car would stop. The driver would either pick someone up then and there, or if nobody nearby could use the ride, the offer was shouted around the crowd: "Anyone headed for ...?" None of the seedy eyes, the cautious distance, or sense of rivalry that you find elsewhere among coincident hitch-hikers. A sense of camaraderie and certainty that your ride would come pretty soon in spite of all the competition.
It was so well known among European hitch-hikers that Simon Calder in his 1980 book Europe: A Manual for Hitch-hikers listed it as the very best spot in all of Europe! Krakow incidentally was the second, the M5/A40 junction in Britain the third and Lyon the worst. He wrote of Dreilinden:
Simon's forecast of course approached as the wall came down, nine years after he wrote those words. With the loss of the border post, the motorway was doomed to become a motorway true. No queue of cars to get through the border, just a stream of high speed traffic. Still Dreilinden didn't give in to progress quite that easily ... and it's not a dead horse yet, still kicking.
Until very recently Dreilinden was a construction zone. The border was torn down, the motorway was being improved. Witches' hats and backhoes were the sign of the times, for most of the last seven years! The work it seems was slow and steady, no rush. The hitchers weren't pushing anyway.
Still, you could hitch out of Dreilinden! Were it anywhere else, looking the way it did, a motorway with no shoulder to stop on, barriers and witches' hats all around, no one in their right mind would try to hitch, and no one in their right mind would pull over. But at Dreilinden there was culture and spirit, there was memory, at Dreilinden they still hitched, and they still pulled over, in spite of the dreadful situation.
In fact drivers were still looking for thumbers and approaching slowly in the hope of finding them. Three of us standing 'tween witches' hats on a motorway got the ride we needed inside of five minutes this January! This was no ordinary spot of road after all. This was Dreilinden, here were hitch-hikers! We were down to two or three at a time, not the 10 or 20 of years gone by, but still, we stood as a testimony to the history and tenacity of Dreilinden, which was very soon to fade ...
There came the day, very recently alas, when the work was pretty much done and there was little more than motorway left. The barriers were gone, the witches' hats were gone. The police would chase us away. It was no secret after all - they knew people would be trying to hitch this little spot of six-lane motorway in spite of the laws forbidding such.
Even so, hitching into Berlin only recently I saw a lonely lass hitching out at that dismal spot that faded legend. A part of me yearned to talk to her, share some fond memories of the spot she sought, but I of course was hurtling into town in someone else's car on the other side this motorway. How little respect the authorities have for such a significant undercurrent of German culture! Of European culture! How much tenacity the hitchers and hitchees of Germany have to defy that disrespect thus far!
There is a light that burns at the end of the tunnel, a dim one but a light all the same. The old border crossing looks to become a service station in time. I have no promise of it, but the space is there as are the signs. For the moment the work seems to have come to a halt, but in time if services do spring out of the ground, Dreilinden may return to capture some of its former glory, if only some. It's conveniently situated a short kilometre walk from the Wannsee S-bahn station on the outskirts of Berlin. People still turn up there from time to time, not having heard of, not having seen the destruction, but they will become fewer and fewer until there are none.
It may be only a memory that remains if and when the old border crossing becomes a well frequented services. It may suffice to lure the hitchers back, to have them queuing for rides again. Something of the old spirit will have been lost regardless - it was already in decline when I first got there - but, without the border, without East Germany to cross, without the Russians, and without military exemption, the student culture, and the hitching culture in Berlin, will never be quite what it was.
For all its vices, the virtue of having a common enemy all around is the bonding of people together, in fuelling the fires of community and society. I wonder if we'll ever mature enough to find those feelings without an enemy around - without wars and without the them that defines the us? Perhaps that will be the day when the spectacle of Dreilinden becomes an ordinary sight in more European cities, when drivers and hitchers come together for the ride ...
Hats off to Dreilinden.