Bidding to Build Trains in CA, Deutsche Bahn Railroad Whitewashes Its Nazi Past

Railroad track in Birkenau  concentration camp. Source: Darwinek, Wikimedia Commons.

“In recognition of the railroad workers’ unique achievements in this war I decree December 7 the Day of the German railroad worker.” — Adolf Hitler, December 7, 1943

Who is going to build California’s “train to nowhere”?

From a technical point of view, the likely bidders from France and Japan are far ahead of the competition. The French TGV (developed by Alstom and the state-owned SNCF) and the Japanese “bullet train” have a long track record of reliability. The Chinese CSR, on the other hand (which has hooked up with General Electric), is a relatively new player in the field, while the German high-speed train ICE has a long history of malfunctions and routinely drives German passengers to despair.

But both CSR and the German venture of Siemens and the state-owned railroad operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) are willing to sweeten up the deal: CSR’s offer includes financing; Siemens is luring law-makers with the promise to create 1,000 new jobs in Sacramento. So the race is still open, and other factors come into play.

In August, a bill was passed in California’s Senate and Assembly requiring companies vying for contracts to build California’s high-speed rail system to disclose their involvement in deportations to concentration camps during World War II. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told PJ Media:

We supported the act in order to encourage companies with WWII-era histories related to slave labor and abetting genocide to acknowledge those actions and apologize accordingly.

Although Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, it is nevertheless already a success: the French railroad company SNCF, which transported 75,000 Jews from France to the death camps between 1942 and 1944, apologized for the first time and launched a website where it presents all its efforts to “shed light on the facts.”

“The apology was apparently not prompted by regret,” the Los Angeles Times criticized. Maybe that’s correct.

Even a half-hearted apology, however, is still more than what the German railroad company — which, needless to say, transported a much bigger number of Jews to the gas chambers and shooting sites — has ever been willing to offer. Says Hans-Rüdiger Minow, chairman of the German organization Train of Memory:

Deutsche Bahn has a selective view on history. … It pretends to bear no responsibility for the deportations because it was founded only in 1994. On the other hand, it is celebrating its 175th anniversary.

The anniversary of the first steam locomotive trip in Germany is being celebrated in Nuremberg between December 7 and 14. Five hundred high society guests were invited, and Chancellor Merkel and company CEO Rüdiger Grube spoke. Grube stated in a press release in May:

The railroad has always brought people together. … It helped to spread ideas and to rapidly promulgate progress. We look back at a fascinating history, without fading out the seamy sides.

What might be the “seamy sides” of this history? Would it be possible to vaguely circumscribe the deportation of more than three million Jews without using the words “deportation,” “murder,” “death,” “Holocaust,” or “Auschwitz,” let alone any other word that could indicate that people have been killed (and that the railroad may have something to do with it), and without even mentioning the Jews?

Grube shows how it’s done:

In its history, the railroad has also been a tool of domination. DB actively deals with the role of the Deutsche Reichsbahn under National Socialism.

He then switched to other important topics like the anniversary tour, the company’s gift shop, and very appealing anniversary ticket offers.

It should be noted that the Jews who were transported from all over Europe to their deaths got discounts, too:

The charge would be half the third-class rate provided that at least four hundred people were being shipped. … Children under ten traveled at half fare; those under four traveled free (Raul Hilberg, German Railroads/Jewish Souls).

“Sonderzüge” (“special trains”) were organized, and many thousands of railroad employees gave their best to make sure that the genocide could be carried out on schedule. On August 13, 1942, Obergruppenführer Wolff, chief of Himmler’s personal staff, wrote to Albert Ganzenmüller, deputy general director of the Reichsbahn and undersecretary of state at the Transport Ministry:

With particular joy I noted your assurance that for two weeks now a train has been carrying, every day, 5,000 members of the chosen people to Treblinka, so that we are now in a position to carry through this population movement at an accelerated tempo. I, for my part, have contacted the participating agencies to assure the implementation of the process without friction. I thank you again for your efforts in this matter and, at the same time, I would be grateful if you would give to these things your continued personal attention. (Quote from: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews)

And that’s what happened. The goal of annihilating European Jewry couldn’t have been reached if it had not been given absolute priority — even over the efforts to win the war.

On January 20, 1943 — when it was already clear that the 6th German Army in Stalingrad had been completely defeated and the tide of war was about to turn — Heinrich Himmler urged Ganzenmüller to provide more trains for the deportation of Jews:

I know very well how tensed the situation of the railroad is … and which demands are made against you. Nevertheless I must make this request to you: Help me and give me more trains. (Quote from Raul Hilberg, Sonderzüge nach Auschwitz. The Role of the German Railroads in the Destruction of the Jews)

In the Nuremberg trials the Reichsbahn was not an issue. Not a single one of its employees was ever convicted, and most of them continued their careers in West Germany’s Bundesbahn:

Albrecht Zahn, who signed orders scheduling death trains to Treblinka, became Bundesbahndirektor in charge of Stuttgart. Schelp [who had been in charge of the pricing of the death trains] … rose to the rank of Bundesbahnpräsident. Geitmann, who had run the Oppeln Direktion (which included Auschwitz), moved up to be one of the four members of the Bundesbahn’s top directorate — one of the crassest promotions in postwar German history. (German Railroads/Jewish Souls)

During the second Treblinka trial that took place in 1964, locomotive drivers and high-ranking officials of the Reichsbahn were heard as witnesses. Some examples:

“I always thought that the Jews should, following the model of the Westwall (western rampart), build an Ostwall (eastern rampart) in Treblinka”; “I have dealt with these things only at my desk, handled the trains only with regard to the schedule”; “I created folders in due form about the bodies which were found on my railroad territory. The folders were sent to the directorate, so my duty was fulfilled.” A locomotive driver who had driven death trains to Treblinka said: “I have never seen the shootings along the rail. That`s because I never turned around, I always looked forwards.” One of his colleagues said: “I haven’t seen the loading of Jews in Bialystok. I was permanently busy filling out all these shipping documents, I had no time to observe what was going on around me.”

When terminating the interrogations, the judge concluded: “The loss of memory at the Bundesbahn is phenomenal.”

The same held true for Albert Ganzenmüller, who in 1973 became the only person of the Reichsbahn ever indicted. An excerpt of the interrogation:

Judge: Mister Ganzenmüller, what did you as a State Secretary know about the plans and intentions of the Reich’s government to annihilate the members of the Jewish race in Europe?

Ganzenmüller: I had never heard about intentions to annihilate the Jews. I found it out only after the war.

Judge: Didn’t you listen to the Führer speech to the Reichstag in 1939?

Ganzenmüller: No.

Judge: Have you never read the “Stürmer”?

Ganzenmüller: No, I was way too busy.

Judge: And Goebbels’ speech in the Sports Palace in Berlin in 1943, in which Goebbels officially spoke of the “annihilation of Jews”?

Ganzenmüller: I wasn’t present there either.

Judge: When did you hear the shout “Perish Judah!” for the first time?

Ganzenmüller: Never.

(Click here to read more of this amazing document.)

After an alleged heart attack, Ganzenmüller was declared unable to stand trial (he lived for another 23 years).

If the SNCF is being held responsible for its actions during the German occupation, what about the Deutsche Bahn?

Although it doesn’t bear the name Reichsbahn anymore (unlike the socialist East German railroad operator, by the way, which merged with its western counterpart in 1994), today’s Deutsche Bahn is in many respects still the same enterprise. It has the same owner (the state), its trains drive on the same rails, it possesses the same real estate, and it pays pensions to retired employees of the perpetrators’ generation. Moreover, it continued to profit from stolen capital after the war. Apart from what the Reichsbahn took directly from the Holocaust victims (they had to pay their deportation themselves), it took advantage of forced labor, and distributed loot, including 1,576 carloads of furniture, to its bombed-out personnel.

Today’s railroad operator, however, claims to have no connections to the Reichsbahn: “It wants to make people believe that no trains existed in Germany between 1939 and 1945.”

When German companies, under international pressure, contributed money for a fund to compensate former slave laborers, Deutsche Bahn was not in a spending mood, either. In 1999, it appeared on a list of major employers of forced labor who were unwilling to pay a dime. For a long time it also refused to follow the example of the French SNCF and open its stations for an exposition about 12,000 Jewish children who were deported from France (it only gave in after the German Transport Ministry put its weight behind the project). The exposition, which was organized by the French organization FFDJF, showed pictures of happy girls and boys, weeks or months before their deportation.

That’s not something railroad passengers should be exposed to, Deutsche Bahn’s then-CEO Hartmut Mehdorn argued:

The subject is far too serious for people to engage with it while chewing on a sandwich and rushing to catch a train.

Moreover, the exhibition was a “security risk,” he claimed. Neo-Nazis could try to tear it down. Also:

We at the Deutsche Bahn do not need a new exhibition. We have already one in the national railway museum in Nuremberg.

That’s true. Unfortunately, the part of the company’s gigantic, state-subsidized museum that deals with the deportations is less than 200 square feet, says Minow, who also criticizes the museum for praising a Nazi-era locomotive which has been refurbished at a cost of over 100,000 euros (in the course of which a new swastika has been tinkered, too) as a “highlight of railroad history”:

For decades Deutsche Bahn has tried to prevent by all means that the deportations are commemorated at the stations. … You’ve got to pay a lot of money and wait a long time if you want to receive the approval to install a name plate inside a station. It took nine years until a plaque was attached to one of the walls of Hanau’s central station [from which 164 Jews were deported in 1942]. There are many citizens’ initiatives that made such efforts for ten or twenty years without success.

Attempts by Holocaust survivors to get back the money stolen from their families have been equally futile. The company`s latest offer amounts to one million euros, according to Minow — less than what DB is spending for the anniversary party. To make things worse, the money shall not be paid out directly but given to a foundation to make in-kind transfers.

On the other hand, Deutsche Bahn charges high fees whenever the “Train of Memory” (a rolling train exhibition that presents pictures and letters of children prior to their deportation, as well as biographies and post-war careers of perpetrators) uses the company’s infrastructure and electricity: 1000 € ($1400) for each day the train is on the rail. Recalls 72-year-old Holocaust survivor Andrée Leusink (Several dozens of her relatives were murdered in Auschwitz and Riga. She survived hidden in a French village):

Three years ago my newspaper launched an appeal to spend money to enable Train of Memory to make a stop in Berlin. … I thought I went mad. … People who have survived the deportation, the death camps, the slave labor, shall pay in order to preserve the memory of these horrible deeds. This state-owned company has earned millions with deportations, and now it profits from the memory of our dead.

Last Saturday, she was one of the orators at a protest rally in Nuremberg’s downtown. Five hundred people attended the demonstration, which could only be held because a court had previously overruled a decision by Deutsche Bahn and the city authorities who wanted to prohibit all protests at the site where the anniversary festivities will be held, citing “security concerns.” Are people like Andrée Leusink really that dangerous? Maybe they are. If their protest is too loud, Deutsche Bahn’s CEO Grube may fear, it could further diminish the company’s chances to sell its questionable technology to the American market.

 

Photo: Railroad track in Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration camp.Source: Darwinek, Wikimedia Commons

Stefan Frank

Ich bin unabhängiger Publizist, Übersetzer und Buchautor. In meinen Beiträgen, die gedruckt und im Internet erscheinen, beschäftige ich mich mit Politik, Wirtschaft, Finanzmärkten, Technologie und Gesellschaft. Meine letzte Buchpublikation: "Kreditinferno. Ewige Schuldenkrise und monetäres Chaos" (Saarbrücken 2012).