“Flüchtlingszüge”, October 1989

Railways have been key to facilitating many of the major historical events of the last two centuries, but it is rare that the trains have been the subject of the world’s attention.  This is the tale of two nights in 1989 when, for a series of trains, that was indeed the case.

The Background

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, was a Communist state formed in 1949.  Mainly due to the comparative lack of its own naturally-occurring industrial resources, it never managed to match the “economic miracle” that occurred in West Germany after the Second World War, and indeed the flow of people from East to West in search of a better life was stemmed only by the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.  Ten years later, the man who masterminded the project – Erich Honecker – became the country’s leader, and ruled with an iron fist.  Many citizens dreamed of leaving the country, but the very existence of the Wall – as part of the Iron Curtain that bisected the continent – steadfastly prevented them from doing so.  Their international travel was limited to a small number of fellow Warsaw Pact nations.

As the 1980s progressed, disquiet diffused throughout the Eastern Bloc.  Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, Moscow no longer got involved in the Warsaw Pact states’ internal affairs, and amid this atmosphere, the first crack in the Iron Curtain showed on 11th September 1989 when Hungary dismantled its border with Austria.  Thousands of East Germans began travelling through Czechoslovakia to Hungary for “holidays”, then simply crossing to Austria and beginning a new life in the West.  Unsurprisingly, this situation was not allowed to develop.  As a bid to cut off the flow of people, Czechoslovakia closed its border with Hungary to GDR citizens.

This left thousands of East Germans stranded in Czechoslovakia.  Rather than return home, many headed straight to Prague and congregated at the West German Embassy, 3,000 people cramming themselves in the baroque palace and its gardens, seeking asylum in the West.  West Germany did not have grounds to protest – according to its own Basic Law, they were all German citizens.  Eventually, almost double that number presented themselves.

This had the potential to cause extreme embarrassment to the GDR regime, who were gearing up for lavish celebrations in the first week of October to mark the 40th anniversary of their country’s formation.  At a time when they were preparing to demonstrate that everything was rosy in the East, they really did not need a high-profile diplomatic incident in which significant numbers of their citizens would rather live in borderline unsanitary conditions in corridors and cupboards than make a life in their country.

The decision to let them leave for the West was therefore an obvious one that suited all parties.  However, Honecker wanted the last word.  He could have let them all simply leave on service trains directly to the West German border.  However, in revenge for potentially tainting his highly-anticipated anniversary celebration, he wished to humiliate them.  He also wanted to portray them to the world as traitors, as undesirables that were being expelled by the glorious GDR rather than fleeing it.

Honecker’s self-serving solution was to insist that all 5,490 refugees travel in sealed refugee trains – or Flüchtlingszüge – from Prague, transiting through the territory of the GDR, whereupon Stasi officials would confiscate their ID papers and effectively render them stateless, before depositing them just across the border at Hof.

The Evacuation

The decision had been made late on Friday 29th September.  Things got moving the following evening.  Prioritising those with small children, the first tranche of passengers were marshalled onto buses outside the Embassy and driven to Praha-Libeň railway station.  To say that the atmosphere was tense would be an understatement.  There was suspicion that the East German authorities would not let the train proceed beyond their territory.  Nobody knew how this would play out.

At 20:50, hauled by a class T478.3 “Goggle” diesel loco, the first train pulled out of Praha-Libeň.  In total, another five trains followed at two-hour intervals.  Ironically, the reason that the requisite coaching stock – six rakes of at least 10 vehicles apiece – had been able to be cobbled together with such a short lead time, was that scratch sets had already been assembled at various locations across the GDR in readiness for working reliefs in connection with the 40th anniversary celebrations later that week; it was these rakes that were sent to Prague.  True to Honecker’s promise to himself that he would humiliate the passengers, however, they were unheated and in various states of disrepair.

The trains proceeded via Dĕčín to Bad Schandau, where they lost their Czechoslovakian motive power and gained both Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) locos and Stasi border officials, who confiscated the paperwork of the passengers.  The trains then continued via Dresden and the “Sachsen Magistrale” route through Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) and Zwickau, then finally across the border to Hof, the first one arriving at 06:14.

The journey was not a smooth one.  Most of the trains were booked a crew change at Dresden Hbf – the main station of the third-largest city in the GDR.  Obviously, the GDR was not publicising the fact that the trains were running, but the West Germans were, and although it was illegal to do so, East Germans in some areas could pick up Western TV.   Ironically, the area around Dresden was known as the “Valley of the Clueless”, the geography of the region blocking out TV signals from over the border.  During the brief crew change on the second train however, at least three young people were able to jump aboard.  Many arrests were made further along the route as others tried.  A dramatisation was made for the 25th anniversary featuring 231 012 of WFL, some of which is on YouTube here.

The locos used to power these illustrious trains through the night in the GDR were as follows:-

Headcode DR Loco(s)  
23360 250 192 Bad Schandau – Reichenbach
132 478 Reichenbach – Hof
23362 132 285 Bad Schandau – Hof
23366 132 059 Bad Schandau – Hof
23364 132 696 Bad Schandau – Hof
23368 132 695 Bad Schandau – Hof
23370 132 701 Bad Schandau – Hof

The Consequences

The scenes of the trains’ arrival at Hof were shown on TV screens across the world.  Millions saw the big Russian class 132 “Ludmilla” diesels (later DB class 232, after reunification) lumbering along the crowded platforms at Hof, illuminated by blinking flashguns as they came to a halt and their excited and relieved passengers alighted.

Of course, amongst those millions were large numbers of East Germans – who, their resolve strengthened by the feat of successful escape by their fellow countrymen, then immediately made their way to the West German Embassy in Prague in an attempt to emulate them!  Almost as soon as it was emptied, the old building became full of East German refugees again.

Eventually, 7,607 people shoehorned themselves into the Embassy.  There could only be one solution.  However, Honecker persisted with his insistence that they be removed on trains that pass through the GDR.

The Second Operation

This time, eight trains were required to convey them.  The first departed from Praha-Libeň at 18:34 on the night of Wednesday 4th October, the last seven hours later.

This time, the locals in Dresden were prepared.  5,000 people crammed themselves in the Hbf, with 10,000 outside, all with the hope of getting aboard one of the refugee trains that was due to pass through. What ensued was nothing short of an all-out riot; described afterwards as the greatest example of civil disobedience in the GDR since the 1953 uprising.  Many were injured, including one man who lost both of his legs when he fell underneath one of the trains whilst trying to climb aboard.  Severe damage was caused to the station.  Police used water cannons in an attempt to quell the disturbance but thankfully, in contrast to 1953, no shots were fired.

After the first three trains had passed Dresden, and amidst escalating chaos, the remaining five trains were diverted away from the city.  This was no mean feat, with them having to travel further through Czechoslovakia, entering the GDR by way of Bad Brambach.  The use of this route necessitated a reversal at Plauen.  During a run round here, a further seven people succeeded in sneaking aboard one of the trains, but ultimately, these diversions were a success.

The DR locomotives involved on the second night were as follows:-

Headcode DR Loco(s)  
23358 132 478 Bad Schandau – Hof
23362 132 655 Bad Schandau – Hof
23360 132 596 Bad Schandau – Hof
23366 132 701 Bad Brambach – Hof
23356 132 285 Bad Brambach – Hof
23364 132 059 Bad Brambach – Hof
23368 132 696 Bad Brambach – Hof
23370 132 643 Bad Brambach – Hof

Here is some footage on YouTube from Hof as these trains arrived.  Again, after seeing the scenes from Hof, thousands more East Germans descended on the Embassy in Prague.  This time, however, they were loaded onto a much lower-key special train on 3rd November and simply taken via Cheb directly into West Germany.  The GDR regime had learnt from their mistake, but – as with many things in their short history – it was too late.

The Locos Today

The route to Hof is now electrified.  The border has gone.  There are no longer two Germanies or a border between them.

However, most of the locomotives that found themselves thrust into the world spotlight over those two nights in 1989 still exist.  The fates of the nine class 132s that performed on the refugee trains over the two nights are as follows:-

Loco No. Final No. Current Operator Current Status
132 059 232 059 scrapped
132 285 233 285 DB Cargo operational
132 478 233 478 DB Cargo operational
132 596 233 596 DB Cargo stored at Chemnitz
132 643 233 643 DB Cargo stored at Chemnitz
132 655 232 655 scrapped
132 695 232 695 scrapped
132 696 233 696 DB Cargo stored at Cottbus
132 701 232 701 Leipziger Eisenbahngesellschaft GmbH stored at Delitzsch

Even the class 250 that worked the very first train out of Bad Schandau – 250 192 – still survives, as DB Cargo loco 155 192, stored at Sassnitz-Mukran on the island of Rügen.

The part that these locomotives played has not been forgotten.  PIKO produced a G-scale model of 132 478, the loco that brought the first train over the border, and Lok Magazin have made a couple of calls for the loco, now DB Cargo’s 233 478 and still in traffic, to be preserved as a memorial to the events.

Another of the locos, 132 701 – now 232 701, recently purchased by the private freight operator Leipziger Eisenbahngesellschaft GmBH (LEG) – has attracted attention.  The Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper dubbed it “die Lok der Freiheit” (“the freedom loco”) and expressed the editorial opinion that given its status as “ein Stück Weltgeschichte” (“a piece of world history”) it should be brought back into action – it currently remains stored at Delitzsch.  ‘701 did not haul the ground-breaking first train, however the interest in it might well be explained that its arrival at Hof was later in the morning, after daybreak, and therefore it appears in far more photographs from the day.  (Edit 08/2018 – the loco has been put through works in Latvia and has now returned to Germany, hopefully to re-enter service with LEG shortly).

The Historical Impact

There is a credible interpretation of history that says that these fourteen trains over two nights in autumn 1989 irreversibly changed the world.

Routing the trains via the GDR was a gamble that did not pay off.  Intended to act as a show of State strength, it only served to strengthen the resolve amongst many of those that remained in the GDR to emulate the passengers in their journey west.  Public unrest spread like wildfire, and the numbers taking part in the peaceful demonstrations springing up across the GDR swelled.  According to politician Günter Schabowski, Honecker’s decisions regarding these trains were the major catalyst that swayed the Politbüro to force his resignation on 17th October.  It was amid this background of spiralling social and political chaos that the Berlin Wall was opened on 9th November.

From there, the domino effect was unstoppable.  The general anti-Communist sentiment that had taken hold across the Eastern Bloc throughout 1989 gained renewed strength.  Bulgaria’s leader Zhivkov was ousted the very next day; the government in Czechoslovakia had been overthrown in the “Velvet Revolution” by the end of the month; Christmas Day saw the violent deposal, fleeting trial and summary execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.  These events effectively rendered the Warsaw Pact null and void, and it was dissolved in 1991; in this act, the Cold War was arguably ended on the spot.

Perhaps, then, if anyone would have been lucky enough to have been stood at the lineside on the “Sachsen Magistrale” on those two nights almost three decades ago, they would have not only witnessed a procession of powerful Russian diesels howling over the steep gradients with their heavy trains, but they would have been witnessing true history in the making.

4 thoughts on ““Flüchtlingszüge”, October 1989

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