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Reichsbahn 1920 – 1945

"In the service of democracy and dictatorship"

Innovation and destruction, economic boom and the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties and the Holocaust. Germany swung from one extreme to another in just a few short years, and the changes also involved the national rail company.

On 1 April 1920, Germany's president Friedrich Ebert and transport minister Dr. Johannes Bell signed the state contract founding the company called Deutsche Reichseisenbahnen. It saw the central government assume control of seven companies that had previously been run by different German states. At the time, nobody had any inkling of the dramatic political developments that were to follow in just a few years' time.
The DB Museum guides visitors through the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic, with their political turmoil, economic upheaval and fascination for everything new. Our exhibition explains how the national rail company came to serve the Nazi regime when it seized power.

Enlarge image Screen with Deutsche Reichsbahn propaganda

Screen with Deutsche Reichsbahn propaganda

The Weimar Republic 

Just four years after its creation, the state company was reconstituted along the lines of a privately managed company, with the objective of making profits to pay Germany's war reparations. This endeavour was a tremendous success.

Our exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the work and lives of the people running the railway system, into Reichsbahn's housing campaigns and the structure of trade unions. Scores of original items from the era bring it to life: a telephone from Reichsbahn's own phone network (BASA), models of new designs from the Einheitslokomotive line of engines, plus a whole range of exhibits relating to the famous Hamburg Flyer express train. Visitors can also listen to a radio report covering the record-breaking journey of the Rail Zeppelin, a multiple unit driven by a wooden aircraft propeller. 

The Nazi dictatorship 1933-1945 

In 1933, Reichsbahn was subordinated to a radically changed political system. The museum's documents and objects illustrate how, step by step, the company was coopted by the Nazi regime. Following strategic dismissals, massive propaganda campaigns and changes to its corporate structures, Reichsbahn fell into lockstep with the rest of the country. The company's mission expanded to include new activities – job creation, the organisation of Strength Through Joy holidays, the construction of the country's motorways, and the provision of logistical support for the Nazi party's national conferences. 

Having been subsumed into the Nazi state, the rail company was directly involved in WWII and the atrocities committed by the regime. Documents, images and contemporary film footage underscore how neither the merciless war on the eastern front nor the transportation of millions of Europe's Jewish citizens to the continent's death camps could have been possible without Reichsbahn's participation. A separate section of the exhibition is dedicated to the company's involvement in the exploitation of forced labour and people forcibly removed from their homelands. The exhibition ends by showing how Reichsbahn was targeted by Allied air raids that led to its near-total destruction. 

Literature:  

  • Gall, Lothar/Pohl, Manfred: Die Eisenbahn in Deutschland. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Munich 1999.
  • Gottwaldt, Alfred/Schulle, Diana: Die ‚Judendeportationen’ aus dem Deutschen Reich 1941-1945, Wiesbaden 2005.
  • Hilberg, Raul: The Destruction of the European Jews, 9th edition in German, Frankfurt am Main 1999.
  • Hilberg, Raul: Sonderzüge nach Auschwitz, Mainz 1981.
  • Im Dienst von Demokratie und Diktatur. Die Reichsbahn 1920-1945. Catalogue of the permanent exhibition in the DB Museum, Regensburg 2002.
  • Mierzejewski, Alfred C.: The Most Valuable Asset of the Reich. A History of the German National Railway, Volume II 1933-1945, University of North Carolina Press 2000.
  • Sonderzüge in den Tod – Die Deportationen mit der Deutschen Reichsbahn, edited by Andreas Engwert and Susanne Kill (additional documentation from Deutschen Bahn AG for the touring exhibition of the same name, published in cooperation with the German Museum of Technology and Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin – Centrum Judaicum), Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2009.
  • Wege in die Vernichtung. Die Deportation der Juden aus Mainfranken 1941-1943. Publication accompanying the exhibition created by Würzburg state archives and Institut für Zeitgeschichte München-Berlin, edited by the Archives of the Bavarian State, Munich 2003.