The Germans and model railways

Toy Train Enthusiasts

Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaCopyright: picture-alliance/ dpaGermans love machines. There is no European male who gets more pleasure out of dismantling and repairing and inventing new ways of refrigerating cheese or reducing exhaust fumes or making rockets fly more quietly.

Germany is a country of engineers. And it begins at the age of about eight when the typical middle class German boy gets his first model train set.

A return to childhood

Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaThe Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung recently researched what happens to these boys when they grow up. The answer is: they expand their cellars to accommodate even larger train sets. Horst Seehofer, the Agriculture Minister – outwardly 59 years old, inside 12 years old – has been building his train-world so that it resembles his political biography. There is the Bavarian village where he grew up; there is a model of the Bonn Hauptbahnhof (where he first became a minister under Helmut Kohl) and a big hospital to remind him of his time as Health Minister. “When I am here with my trains, I even forget the Chancellor,” he says (“Bei meiner Anlage vergesse ich sogar die Bundeskanzlerin”). But, of course, he never forgets himself. For the average German toy train enthusiast, it is a return to childhood and to a remembered bond between father and son.

Other toy train fanatics include the former prime minister of Saxony, Kurt Biedenkopf. He not only has a set in the cellar, but also a big one in the garden. This professor of economics, still regarded as one of the sharpest political brains in the Christian Democratic party, greets important guests to his garden parties with the words “For today, I’m Lukas, the train-driver.”

In search of a “heile Welt”

Knuffingen, Copyright: Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg GmbHStrange? Well, yes. For the like of Wendelin Wiedeking – head of Porsche and Germany’s top-paid executive – the train-obsession seems to be about control. “I am a spontaneous collector,” says Wiedeking who is currently engineering the take-over of Volkswagen, “if I see a beautiful engine, take it in my hand – then I can’t resist buying it.” The list continues: Hans Eichel, former finance minister; top trade unionists like Manfred Schell and Hubertus Boldt. All seem to be in search of a “heile Welt”, an immaculate world where the people are small, plastic, immobile and silent, where the houses have no mortgages and no rising damp; and where, of course, the trains run on time.

This early education of the current business and political elite has two effects. First, this generation of Germans is obsessed with the functioning of its own real-life national train service, the Deutsche Bahn. The citizens of every country want their trains to be clean, un-crowded, safe and punctual. But the Germans have become passionate about their railway privatisation. Will it bring chaos to the rails? Second, a toy train childhood creates not only mechanical engineers but social engineers. Towns on display at the Nuremberg toy fair have well-functioning waste disposal, buses, bus-shelters, manicured green gardens, freshly painted houses, happy cows, women with prams – and the trains, of course. No junkies; no illegal rubbish dumps; no crime.

A good training for the real world

Copyright: MärklinNow here’s my daring thesis: managers who grow up playing trains with their fathers feel most at home in small-town Germany, thrive in communities that visually resemble their old train-sets, their Faller houses and Märklin or Fleischmann engines. This is no bad thing: provincial Germany, rather than big bustling Berlin or Frankfurt, is the true pulse of the country. Germany, as we know, tops the list of world exporters. But closer analysis shows that the export champions are largely in the south-west, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria. Germany, and Europe, is hovering on the brink of recession but Swabian companies like Liebherr have full order books. In small Franconian towns like Herzogenaurach – now headquarter not only of Adidas and Puma but also Conti, all global players – beats the heart of the open, competitive Mittelstand. These little toy town communities, with their tidy pedestrian shopping zones, seem to be as sleepy as the model version laid out in the cellar. Yet they are finely attuned to the changing real world. Take Steiff. The Teddy-company from little Giengen an der Brenz shifted production to China. Now it has understood that the oil price has boosted the costs of transportation – and is redefining the idea of a Billiglohnland, a cheap-labour land. So the Teddy is coming home. That surely is the essence of the modern German economic miracle. In a country, still creaking under clumsy over-regulation, entrepreneurs can make swift, intelligent changes of course, like yacht skippers catching a new wind. It is as easy as dismantling a bit of the railway set, shifting the houses in toy town.

So I would argue that the German male (and let’s face it, very few girls share this obsession) idée fixe with the train set is not a psychiatric problem, sign of a regressive personality, but rather good training for the real world. It gives children respect for the small town; it encourages them to adapt, to repair and to change. For the generation that grew up in the 1950s, it certainly seems to have worked.

A very German story

Copyright: www.pixelio.deAll this makes the history of Märklin, the toy train manufacturer, a very German story. Märklin – operating, of course, out of the small Swabian town of Göppingen – began to mechanise toy trains at the end of the 1890s. In the real world, Germany was going through an extraordinary tense period of industrialisation. In the play-room, Märklin introduced a similar process. All the characteristics of the Mittelstand engineering company were taken on by Märklin – attention to quality and to detail, hand-finishing. Märklin’s real commercial innovation was to make detachable track – every Christmas, every birthday, the child’s parents could buy him more track to expand his universe. After the First World War, Märklin lost the British and French markets because of anti-German sentiment. But it always tried to touch the national nerve – reproducing the Prussian P-8 steam engine or the massive 3102, a huge steam engine that was supposed to take tens of thousands of troops to Russia. When the Second World War turned against Germany, the real engine was never completed. But Märklin made a version of what-could-have-been, to the delight of children (and adult collectors). The company has always adapted – it reduced the size of its models when the Nazis ordered a cut back in the use of metals – but it has been struggling to deal with the competition from video games and electronic toys.

Cheeky innovations

Audience; Copyright: Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg GmbHMore and more, train sets have become something for a certain kind of older adult, rather than their children. A sign of confusing times: at last year’s Nuremberg toy fair, manufacturers (though not Märklin) started to introduce sex and violence into their Lilliput world. One showed a nudist beach, a waitress wearing only an apron and stockings and a police raid on a brothel. Another showed an execution and a man about to slaughter a horse.

“You see so many poker-faced collectors in their 50s and 60s who make their trains operate according to their own tightly worked-out timetables,” says Rolf Fleischmann, heir to the Fleischmann model train empire. “We want to show young people that it can be a more relaxed world.”

But these cheeky innovations haven’t been enough. Märklin has been bought by a British financial investor and is dramatically cutting costs; Fleischmann has been sold. Could it be that German kids are becoming adult more quickly? That they no longer have the patience (or the space in their cellars) to set up a mini-universe? That small town Germany, so lovingly recreated by train sets, has become ineffably boring rather than a source of commercial inspiration? That would be sad. Somehow the thought of cabinet ministers and chief executives tinkering with broken engines is a comforting one: typisch deutsch – but for how long?

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times".
He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Photo 5 © Dietmar Grummt / PIXELIO

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online Editorial Office

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August 2008

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