See Berlin from a new angle

Steaming Into Berlin's Past

The iron behemoth lay alongside platform one at Berlin's Ostbahnhof mainline train station, hissing and clanking, as if irritated at being called upon to work. Steam locomotive 52 8177-9 shrouded itself in clouds of smoke and steam as it waited for the clock to roll down to departure time. Never has a piece of machinery felt so oddly alive; its energy barely contained, sweat dripping from its iron brow, the engine was ready to answer, yet once more, the call of duty.

The vaulted roof of the 19th-century station soared overhead, as if wrapping its passengers in an industrial hug. This grand old space, dignified with age and pedigree, seemed to sit up a bit straighter, as if pleased to be asked, after all these decades, to once again play host to a steam train. Vehicle, station, and people blended into a harmonious whole that just felt right.

With a mournful blast of its whistle, the engine at last announced its imminent departure. Conductors slammed doors shut while those staying behind waved to those just boarded. It was a scene from 1925. Or 1935. Or perhaps sometimes in the war-torn Berlin of the 1940s. It was every scene from every train departure from every period book or film you've ever seen. It was timeless.

Yet it was 2018. And I was on board.

I was taking a ride on this historic steam train courtesy of "Berlin Macht Dampf," or Berlin Makes Steam, a society dedicated to preserving and running historic trains for the public to enjoy. From late spring to early autumn, on intermittent days, they run various nostalgia train trips, ranging from 90-minute runs around Berlin and its suburbs to day trips to other towns. It's a dream come true for train enthusiasts. For ordinary members of the public it's a chance to enjoy a day out with the family. But for me, as a travelling historian, it was a priceless chance to ride through Berlin's storied past and watch its history unfold before my window at a stately rate of around 25 miles per hour.

I was also haunted by a deeper matter. Can one, in all good taste, "enjoy" a ride on a steam train so closely associated with the dictatorship of Hitler, whose reign of terror was immediately followed by the Communist "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," the twin totalitarian regimes of 20th century Berlin? I was about to find out.

The train set off from the station with barely a lurch. I decided to ride in the 2nd-class carriage and as I sat down, I admired my surroundings. The interior was pure 1930s. The few post-war additions didn't detract from the feeling that I was in an Indiana Jones film and ought to be furtively looking around for the undercover Gestapo agent following me rather than admiring the view.

The hard wood benches were all equipped with a means of heating; below the seat was a machine which provided heat in three settings and was passenger controlled. Not bad for 2nd class in the 1930s. Above my head was a rack for my hat, and another one for my luggage, mounted directly above me. Bare light bulbs hung from the high ceiling and the light wood paneling softened an otherwise fairly Spartan interior. First class, needless to say, was all plush seating, privacy and fancy wallpaper. But had I been alive in the '30s, this is how I might have travelled. There was an understated elegance about the carriage, a certain softness which even the hard wood seats did not detract from.

As we chugged through the countryside, the history of Berlin and its relationship to the steam train leapt alive. Soon after departure, we passed though housing built in the 19th century to handle Berlin's population explosion. These often elegant looking blocks of flats towered above the streets but their German name, "rental barracks," belie their origins as places where flat owners where obliged to accommodate soldiers. By the time the industrial revolution came to Berlin, these iconic blocks came to house not only the rich, who might own an entire floor, but also the often revolutionary lumpen proletariat, where an entire family might share a single room on an upper floor. As the train powered through these neighborhoods, little seems to have changed since the early 1900s. I opened a window and felt the air, perfumed with sharp scent of burning coal, waft around me. Time itself seemed to have bent back and folded in upon itself and, as we clanked along the tracks, I had a momentary flash of being lost among the decades of a century and more ago.

This is why I travel.

It felt good to take a steam train ride in Berlin, for without the train, Berlin might today be nothing more than a large town, one among many, of no special note apart from being the erstwhile capital of Prussia. Having little in the way of natural resources and being somewhat out of the way, Berliners realized in the 1840s that their best shot at gaining a place in the sun with the other major European powers would be to import raw materials, build things people wanted, and their export those finished products to markets around the continent. To do this, they needed the railroad.

They got it, and the rest is history.

So Berlin's modern history is linked with the story of the railroads. Those railroads built a city and ultimately a nation. We think of the train as British invention which was then used to stitch together the United States, but the railways did much the same job for Berlin and Germany itself.

Created yes, but also nearly destroyed, both morally and actually. Within minutes our train chugged its way to within spitting distance of Berlin's memorial to the victims of the Nazi's wartime forced labor programme. Housed in the only such surviving camp, the memorial and museums documents the fates of the hundreds of thousands of people from across occupied Europe who were essentially kidnapped and brought by trains just like the one I was riding in to work as slave laborers for the Reich.

As the engineer sounded the train's whistle again, my thoughts turned to the tens of thousands of Berlin Jews who were rounded up and deported to the East, which was a standard Nazi euphemism for murder in the death camps or slave labor in Auschwitz. Some of those trains ran down the very rails we were now innocently riding along, enjoying a spring day on the nostalgia train. A creeping sense that the dark side of Germany's history with the "iron road," as the railway is known in German, lurked right beneath the surface of this jaunt, seemingly unnoticed by the families and the elderly all enjoying a glimpse into what they no doubt considered to be a more innocent era. Our memories, our nostalgia, can be remarkably selective.

The 1940s intruded into my thoughts even more strongly as we steamed into the suburbs and entered into park and forest land. Birch trees were just beginning to show signs of their annual spring rebirth and despite being close to the capital, it seemed as if we had all of a sudden entered into some kind of bucolic virgin forest. The smell of nature's spring time freshness mixed with the scent of the smoke billowing forth from the engine to create yet another of those moments when the decades fall away and you could be anywhere. Or any time, to be more precise.

For most people, I suspect, this leg of the trip was a delightful foray out away from the urban sprawl but for my history addled mind, this environment was the very essence of the story this train's locomotive has to tell. For it was the engine that was designed and built to haul troops and cargo through the primeval forests of Eastern Europe during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which was launched in June of 1941.

By 1942, large numbers of the evocatively named "Type 52 Kriegslok," or "war locomotive" were churned out by a variety of factories across the Reich and occupied Europe, sometimes using forced labor from camps similar to the one we had just passed or from concentration camps to do so. These engines were built as economically as possible, using simplified designs and cheaper parts than the civilian versions. Nearly 7,000 of these war locos were produced, which helped sustain the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union.

I slowly stuck my head out the window to catch a glimpse of this slightly sinister weapon of war hissing and clanking its way through the forest and tried to imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier headed to the front line, through the most partisan infested forests in the continent. Motely bands of resistance fighters, made up of Red Army men cut off behind German lines as well as civilians and specially trained experts wreaked havoc on the Nazi war machine's efforts to keep the army supplied. They blew up tracks and assaulted the trains. Engineers were dealt with summarily. If that weren't enough, the trains had to survive the onslaught of regular units of the Red Army and Air Force and do so in some of the harshest weather conditions imaginable. As we powered through the forests, I could only wonder that any of those old "kriegsloks" had survived at all.

In a way, it was a pity they had, for these were the very same engines used to bring trainloads of Jews and other "undesirables" to Auschwitz and the other Nazi run death camps in Poland. These prisoners were crowded into heavy goods wagons and treated as low priority freight trains, often taking days to reach their destinations in "the east."

Those images you have in your head, in black and white, of a train thrusting its way into Auschwitz-Birkenau moments before the horrid "selections" begun? Yes, that was a Type 52 locomotive.

Not long after, the train emerged from the woods and back into light and a short time later we passed Karlshorst, a peaceful and affluent suburb which was fated to host the official surrender of the German forces to the Allies on May 8, 1945. By the time the documents were signed and the ceremonies complete, it was already May 9 in the Soviet Union, which is still celebrated as Victory Day, one of Russia's biggest secular holidays. We had, in the space of thirty minutes, steamed through the history of wartime Berlin, from the invasion to the Holocaust to partisans to the surrender. Many captured Type 52 trains were taken to the Soviet Union as war booty where they were used for decades afterwards.

I decided to take a walk through the carriages and was happy to find that Berlin Makes Steam included several cars which had been remodeled by the DDR, the Communist East German state, in the 1950s and 1960s, giving the train a multi-era feel. Sitting down, I got to chatting to a young man named Markus, up from Bavaria on holiday. We soon got down to the issue that I had embarked on this day trip to explore.

"Do you think it's ok to enjoy a ride on a steam train with such a dark history?"

Markus thought, and hemmed and hawed for a while, seemingly caught in the endless German confusion about how to confront the past in front of a foreign visitor.

"Of course," Markus finally said, "it's important not to trivialize Germany history or whitewash it. But sometimes, you know, I think sometimes a ride on a steam train is just a ride on a steam train."

"Do you think there are many people here who are aware of the connection this train has to the Third Reich? I mean, the not only the locomotive but also the simple fact that many of the carriages were built in the '30s."

Markus again hesitated a bit, probably regretting by now being ambushed by the annoying foreigner.

"I think, yeah, if people stop for second to think, yes they understand the connection to the 1930s. But I don't think people come out to think about the dark sides of the past. There's something romantic about a steam train which can, how do you say, transcend the past?"

This last was delivered with a rising intonation, as if asking me if it was alright to hold this cheerful view. I let him off the hook with a smile and left him in peace to return to my place and carry on watching the scenery go by. Perhaps my new German acquaintance was right. Perhaps sometimes a train is just a train.

Or perhaps not. We were, at that very moment, just about to cross the Jannowitz Bridge, which spans the River Spree and was the scene of heavy fighting in the April 1945 Battle of Berlin. But what grabbed my eye was the city's iconic 1969 TV tower, which had just hove into view.

The Fernsehturm, to give the towering 368 meter tall edifice its proper name, was built in 1969 in honour of the DDR's 20th anniversary. It celebrated the Communist state's view of itself as a harbinger of future prosperity, of the centrality of modernity, of science and of technology. This was a tower which reached for the stars and proclaimed that mankind was destined, under the banner communist progress, to leap forward into the radiant future. The TV tower celebrated a future of space travel and technological rationalism. Hitler and the tawdry Nazi past were nowhere in sight.

As I admired the Fernsehturm, my view was blocked for a moment by the smoke billowing forth from the locomotive. It was then that I remembered that this engine stayed in service until 1990, to the very end of the regime. The Communist state would ultimately put a man into space while at the same time dragging its citizens around using 19th century steam power. The radiant future meets the smoky past. I seared the vision of the steam train's billowing black clouds obscuring the space age TV tower into my mind and knew I had a vision of the DDR which revealed more about Berlin's story than a hundred books could.

This, I realized once again, is why I travel.

My ride soon came to an end and I lingered on the platform watching the families line up to peer into the driver's cabin or take pictures in front of the train cars. It was the very image of a lovely day out. Most of the children would grow up and learn something about Berlin's dark past. They too would have to grapple with the meaning of the years of Nazi and Communist dictatorship, stories which have lost none of their power to abhor and fascinate. But for now the happy cries of the kids reminded me of Markus' words. Perhaps sometimes a ride on a steam train is just a ride on a steam train.

Yet the city's haunted past lies just down the track, never too far from sight. I relished the delicious ambiguity of the moment, the sinister connotations evoked by the wheezing old steam engine and the delight it evoked from young and old alike.

This, I knew, what why I travel.

If you would like to take a ride on the steam train yourself, please visit for details.

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