WWII History


The railroad and the military

When one thinks of the Second World War (1939-1945), the images of Grandpa in uniform, of the numerous victims, or of Adolf Hitler involuntarily come to mind.

Few people think of the railroad, even though "The Iron Horse", the name given to the railroad by the Indians in North America in the 19th century, and the industrialization that went hand in hand with it, made the horrors of the war possible in the first place. Many learned about the Nazi regime in history classes, and one still sees clearly before one's eyes the horrible black-and-white image of a concentration camp with its barbed-wire fences and watchtowers, and the seemingly endless railroad tracks lightly covered with snow that led directly into ruin.

But one also saw the pictures of young girls saying goodbye to their fiancés, who had just been standing on the platform in their smart uniforms, with tears in their eyes as the train whistled away and slowly began to move. The young men were on their way back to their respective fronts after home leave, and only God knew whether the young soldiers would one day see their brides and also their homeland safe and sound again. But one also saw the countless wooden cattle cars into which opponents of the regime, political prisoners and, above all, Roma, Sinti and Jews were crammed to be exterminated. All of this was only possible thanks to the transport routes opened up by the railroad.

The Nazi elites formed the "body of the people," the Reich and the party were equated, and consequently not only adults but also young people and children were affected by the political Gleichschaltung. If you wanted to learn at the railroad, you had to be of "Aryan" descent and belong to the Hitler Youth.

In the years that followed, the railroad inserted itself completely into the machinery of war and destruction. "The wheels must roll for victory!" - was the insistent slogan of the Nazi propaganda of the Reich Ministry of Transport in Berlin in 1942. Of course, this meant not only the railroads, but also trucks, cars and tanks. And yet, the railroad stood for the death transports. Jews, Roma and Sinti were shipped to concentration camps and bestially murdered there.

The spooky thing was that the victims usually had to pay for their own deportation transport to their later death. Only the train ride for children under the age of 4 was free. These transports could not be stopped or even prevented. Any approach was life-threatening, the order police were everywhere. Nevertheless, resistance was manifold. Popular acts of sabotage included cutting brake coupling hoses and diverting entire train car sets to the wrong stations. The "offenders" usually had to pay for this rebellion with their lives. 154 railroad workers were executed. 1,400 ended up in concentration camps or penitentiaries, which in turn cost 135 of them their lives.

The railroad was and remained a willing enforcer of the Nazi extermination machinery. The railroad was a "war-important enterprise". This in turn meant for the railroad workers that they did not have to go to the front. And yet thousands of them, especially in the east, had to rebuild destroyed bridges or adapt tracks for the further German advance - which later served the retreat.

In the final phase of the Second World War, Allied bombing made it difficult to maintain rail operations. More than half of the rail network had been damaged and three quarters of the rolling stock completely destroyed. In the last days of the war, the remaining railroad workers organized rail traffic on their own, since large parts of the management level had gone into hiding or had been dismissed.

(Source: oepb.at "Death trains / The role of the railroads in World War 2".)

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