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Breitspurbahn: Nazi’s Germany’s Incredible Global Rail Plans

Written by C. Christian Monson

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DB-Museum_Breitspurbahn1.JPG

If you wanted to travel from Paris to San Francisco, you’d probably take a plane across the Atlantic. You definitely wouldn’t consider taking the train. After all… you have to cross the ocean somehow.

Yet in Hitler’s envisioned post-war empire, that’s exactly what you’d have done. Meaning “broad-gauge railway” in German, the Nazis’ imagined Breitspurbahn railway network would have connected the major cities of the Third Reich, or Grossdeutschland, in addition to those of neighboring countries under Nazi influence and even far-flung corners of the globe to facilitate trade and resource exploitation for the German people.

Considering that a single railway network connecting the globe or even Eurasia doesn’t exist even today, the Breitspurbahn may seem more like one of Hitler’s many impractical engineering dreams than a plausible proposal. However, compared to many Nazi projects, it actually came close to implementation and its ambitious design went on to inspire a number of other railways.

AN EXPANDING EMPIRE

Germany’s railway network, as operated by the Deutsche Reichsbahn company, was not doing well after World War I. It had been formed under the Dawes Plan as a means of paying Germany’s war reparations to the Allied Powers with the company’s profits partially contributing to the 132-billion-Goldmark bill Germany had received for the war, some 269 billion US dollars today. In fact, Deutsche Reichsbahn itself received a bill for 11 billion Goldmarks immediately upon its creation, even though its starting capital was just 15 billion Goldmarks.

The pressure of these reparations, in addition to the economic downturn of the Great Depression, sent German railways into disrepair. Deutsche Reichsbahn didn’t have the funds to maintain the tracks or expand service. When the Nazis came to power and began stimulating the economy, demand for rail travel increased, so improvement of their railroads and increasing their capacity was at the forefront of Nazi engineering concerns.

The first goal of the Breitspurbahn was to connect the many important cities of the “Greater German Reich,” the empire Hitler envisioned uniting all the German-speaking peoples in the states surrounding Germany at the start of World War II. By 1943, Germany had conquered and absorbed into this Reich Austria, Poland, much of Czechoslovakia and Slovenia, as well as territory within modern France.

Of course, the Reich’s true power spread far beyond that, having made important allies across Europe and installing puppet regimes in other countries Nazi Germany had invaded like France. They had dreams of expanding it even further to provide Lebensraum or “living room” for the German people. This included taking over the Soviet Union, which Germany began in 1941 with Operation Barbarossa, planning to repopulate the territory with Germans while exterminating the native populations and/or using them for slave labor.

As a result, the Breitspurbahn as first envisioned spanned most of Eurasia with the Welthauptstadt Germania, or “German World Capital,” more commonly known as Berlin, at its center point. 

An east-west route would have started in Paris and passed through Berlin via cities like Aachen and Hanover. It would have then headed east through Krakow, Poland, and Kyiv, Ukraine, before reaching Rostov, Russia. From Rostov, it was then proposed that the line could continue on into Iran and India via Baku, now in Azerbaijan.

This line was of particular importance because it would allow the Reich to access the fertile grain fields of Ukraine. In fact, the Nazis projected that an entire Ukrainian summer wheat harvest could be shipped to Germany in a few weeks utilizing the Breitspurbahn design.

An alternate spur was also conceived that would have branched off at Breslau and passed through Warsaw and Minsk on its way to Moscow. It would have then continued across Russia and Kazakhstan before arriving at Yakutsk, Siberia. From there it would traverse the rest of Siberia and finally cross the Bering Strait to Alaska where it would connect with US and Canadian railway networks.

A second east-west line would have used Munich as its center point and traveled down to Marseille, France, and then into Spain via Barcelona and Madrid. Multiple north-south routes would have also connected German cities like Hamburg, Leipzig and Nuremberg to distant places like Rome, Budapest and Istanbul.

While Hitler’s obsession with locomotive grandiosity can be traced back to 1936 when he ordered Albert Speer to begin work expanding Berlin’s Südbahnhof, the Breitspurbahn itself wasn’t conceived until 1941 when the Führer discussed such ambitions with Fritz Todt, who was the Reich Minister for Armaments and Munitions at the time, among other things. At this time, the German war machine was advancing through the Soviet Union, and Nazi leaders insisted they’d need better supply lines to transport troops, weapons and other supplies, and to bring the fruits of conquest back to Germany. 

By 1943, though, that advance had stalled out and the Nazis weren’t nearly as optimistic. Consequently, the Breitspurbahn’s planned routes were limited to Europe. Nevertheless, that same year, Hitler declared it a national military priority.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DB-Museum_Breitspurbahn2.JPG

LUXURY FOR SOME, HORRORS FOR OTHERS

Hitler’s envisioned Breitspurbahn was partly inspired by the grand ocean liners that connected the British Empire around the world. However, he saw the Reich as a land-based empire and so he imagined trains taking the place of passenger ships. He wouldn’t settle for anything less than the same luxury, though.

Indeed, the comfort and style planned for the Breitspurbahn would have been unprecedented. The eight-axle carriages would have been 42 meters long, or nearly 140 feet, and 7 meters tall, or 23 feet, allowing for two floors. Passengers would have been divided into three classes, with the first-class sleeping cars having individual cabins for each person. 

Additionally, there would have been restaurants, kitchens, bars, lounges, reading rooms, showers and toilets. There would even have been a full movie theater, barbershop, sauna and observation deck.

Luggage would have gone in a dedicated baggage car that also would have had space for two automobiles as well as dog kennels and the crew. A mail car would have complemented this with more crew quarters and room for six more automobiles. All of this was to be defended with 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns mounted on the train itself.

However, this amazing luxury was only intended for the German citizens of the Reich who would use the railway network to travel the globe. For others, it was merely a means to facilitate their oppression.

Specifically, the Breitspurbahn was foreseen as an efficient way to transport Ostarbeiter from conquered lands in the Soviet Union back to Germany. “Ostarbeiter,” which literally translates to “east worker” was the Nazis’ euphemism for slaves taken from Eastern Europe for use in forced labor camps. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H1216-0500-002,_Adolf_Hitler_(cropped).jpg

From 1939-1945, the Nazis captured at least 5.5 million slaves this way, 50% of them from Ukraine with other large populations coming from Poland, Belarus and Russia. By the end of the war, most adult civilians were conscripted to fight for the German military, so the Ostarbeiter mostly consisted of children between 12 and 16 years old. They did not get paid except in a special currency only usable at the labor camps and were subject to frequent abuse at the hands of the guards. Millions died from starvation, disease or execution.

The Breitspurbahn, while potentially offering unprecedented luxury for Germans traveling the Reich, would have merely facilitated this practice of mass forced labor and genocide. Its Ostarbeiter dual day/night car had no beds, but rather 480 seats where new slaves would have had to travel to the Nazis’ horror camps just feet away from wealthy Germans living the high life.

THE BROADEST GAUGE

If you’re thinking that a train with a full movie theater would require a lot more space than a normal train, you would be right. The carriages, in addition to their extra length and height, would be extra wide at six meters, or almost 20 feet. 

This was possible because the Breitspurbahn was designed as a railway with a 3,000-millimeter gauge, or about 10 feet. The “gauge” refers to the distance between the inside edges of the track’s two rails, with “standard gauge” defined as 1,435 millimeters. This standard gauge is the most commonly used gauge around the world, especially for high-speed rail lines, its adoption dating back to a Royal Commission on Railway Gauges in the United Kingdom in 1845.

The standardization of gauges helps train cars more easily cross borders which has prompted a wide adoption of standard gauge throughout the world, but many places and local or regional railway networks still use other gauges. Those narrower than the standard gauge are referred to as “narrow-gauge railways” while those wider are referred to as “broad-gauge railways,” hence Breitspurbahn.

However, it’s worth noting that the widest railway gauge in current use for passenger trains is the 5-foot-6-inch gauge currently used in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Chile and on the Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco metropolitan area. 5 feet 6 inches is just 1,676 millimeters, meaning the Breitspurbahn would have been by far the broadest passenger railway gauge in the world.

Many of Hitler’s advisors warned that the development of such an expansive railway network based on an entirely new gauge wholly incompatible with existing gauges was impractical. Hitler ignored them, though, and pressed forward with the idea along with Fritz Todt. Ultimately, 100 officials and 80 engineers came to work on the project along with major German companies such as Borsig, Henschel, and Krupp, the predecessor to the modern German multinational ThyssenKrupp AG. 

The wide gauge was not the only ambitious feature of the Breitspurbahn either. It was proposed as operating on ballastless tracks, or tracks without the cross ties or “sleepers” that hold the rails at a uniform distance. The purpose of this was so that the tracks could also serve as roads for military vehicles, but it required more advanced engineering. Specifically, the two rails would have had to have been placed on parallel concrete walls sunk into the ground and attached together with a horizontal concrete slab on top. This design would later be used in San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit network and the German high-speed rail network.

Additionally, officials proposed at least 41 different ideas for the train’s engines, including propeller-driven engines that had been developed by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company, but the committee finally settled on using electric or diesel-hydraulic-powered locomotives for the passenger trains. These would have had power outputs of 11,400 to 18,400 kiloWatts, or 15,300 to 24,700 horsepower, more powerful than Russian Railway’s Novocherkassk 4E5K, the current record holder with an output of about 17,838 horsepower.

Altogether, this would have formed a train nearly 500 meters long, which is over 1,600 feet, longer than Chicago’s Sears Tower is tall—sorry, Willis Tower. This would have given it a capacity for up to 4,000 passengers.

Still, based on the plans for the Breitspurbahn, the incredible size of the train would have hardly slowed it down. It was supposed to hit 200 kilometers an hour, or 120 miles per hour. While modern bullet trains can break 300 miles per hour, the electric and steam trains of the time rarely broke 100 miles per hour.

The estimated cost for this unprecedented feat of engineering: 1.2 billion Reichsmarks, which would be over $60 billion today, making it one of the most expensive planned Nazi projects. Despite Germany’s increasingly lost position in the war, Hitler continued to stress the importance of his grand vision of a railway network connecting Europe and beyond. Nevertheless, the Allies reached Berlin before even initial construction efforts were undertaken, and the Breitspurbahn with its unparalleled luxuries for some and unimaginable horrors for others, remained forever on the drawing board.

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