James McElvenny writes:
A name that’s been on my lips quite a bit lately is Deutsche Bahn, the name of the German train service. It generally gets muttered under my breath – along with some lovely English words that can surely be reconstructed for proto-Germanic – because my train is delayed. With the ongoing celebrations for German reunification, I’ve been reminded of the interesting fact that if I’d been kicking around this part of Germany – i.e. the eastern part of Germany – just twenty years ago, I would’ve been cursing a different name: Deutsche Reichsbahn.
You might wonder why the Cold War-era socialist country with perhaps the greatest reasons for being concerned about its image would include such a potentially objectionable word as Reich in the name of its train service.
The name Deutsche Reichsbahn (and earlier Deutsche Reichseisenbahn) was first used in the Weimar Republic, the political form that Germany took after World War I. The name was retained by the Nazis after they took power and continued to be used up to the end of World War II.
Immediately after the war, the victorious Allies agreed in their various treaties that the Deutsche Reichsbahn had the sole right to operate rail services in Berlin, which, as with the rest of Germany, was divided into four occupation zones, one for each of the Allies. It soon became clear that the Western Allies – the US, Britain and France – and the Soviet Union weren’t going to be able to come to terms, and in 1949 two new German states emerged from the occupation zones. The parts of Berlin that belonged to the Western Allies became West Berlin, an enclave of West Germany inside East Germany.
The railway system in West Germany was more or less re-established as a single entity and became the Deutsche Bundesbahn. But the East German rail system didn’t, unfortunately, get a new name more appropriate to the socialist state – such as perhaps the Volksbahn – because under the name Deutsche Reichsbahn, which was written into all the treaties, East Germany still had the right to operate all the rail services in both East and West Berlin, which they did with much political opportunism on both sides until 1984.
So what’s in a name? At least as far as the Cold War powers were concerned, that which we call the Deutsche Reichsbahn by any other name would terminate at the Wall.
Epilogue: the Deutsche Bundesbahn and the Deutsche Reichsbahn merged in 1994, after reunification, and became the current Deutsche Bahn. Now if they can just get the trains to run on time…