"Like a stage, platform by platform”

3 Jul 2023

Railway stations symbolize the onset of modernity. They stand for connections and encounters. We join Margit Dirscherl, a Germanist who studies the fascination that railway stations have held for writers, on a whistle-stop tour through literary history.

As somebody researching railway stations in literature, what is your favourite station?

Dirscherl: Before returning to Munich, I spent a couple years in England, where I grew fond of two stations in particular. London Liverpool Street used to be my favourite; now it is London Paddington. In the United Kingdom it is permitted to take bicycles on the trains free of charge, something I really appreciate. In Paddington – a classic terminus – several underground lines meet, and one can cycle almost into the concourse. On Platform 1, one passes the bronze statue of Paddington Bear, who sits on a suitcase.

Railway stations in literature

Railway stations stand for connections and encounters, for freedom – but also for journeys with no return.

© Florian Generotzky / LMU

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A Bear Called Paddington is a children’s book by Michael Bond, which, famously, was held dear by the late Queen Elizabeth. But there is a serious background to the book. Could you explain?

Dirscherl: Michael Bond was inspired by the Refugee Children’s Movement, which rescued Jewish children from Nazi persecution by taking them to the United Kingdom. We are reminded of the so-called Kindertransporte at the very beginning of the narrative: Will somebody talk to this bear, who sits on his suitcase in the station, and take him with them? That is the question. At its core, the story of Paddington, this bear “from darkest Peru,” addresses the question of how we greet strangers.

Which can be positive or negative, right? Since Stanisław Mucha’s emblematic photo of the gatehouse of Auschwitz, railways have also stood for the Shoah.

Dirscherl: Indeed, railway stations also stand for journeys with no return. Mucha’s photo, which ‘only’ depicts the tracks leading up to the gatehouse, nevertheless evokes – precisely by showing this sinister emptiness – the absence of all the people murdered in the extermination camp. The scene captured in the photo is also the setting of Tadeusz Borowski’s short story This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen: “It’s an idyllic platform, such as you find in remote provincial stations. A little square covered in gravel, framed by the greenery of tall trees. (...) From here, everything is brought to Birkenau: materials to expand the camp and people to the gas chambers.”

But the photo is not idyllic, surely?

Dirscherl: Neither the photo nor the story could be described as idyllic! The story can be read as a counterpart to the picture. It brings to life the people who are not depicted in the photo. And it describes the cruelties that the photo omits. Railway stations are also mentioned by Peter Weiss in The Investigation, a documentary drama of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. A judge asks a witness: “Did you work in the camps?” The witness replies: “No, I was only supposed to make sure the train lines were in order and that the trains came in and out according to time-table.”

The railway station as a site of longing

A metaphor for the Shoah – of course this is not what we generally associate with railway stations. For the most part, they promise adventure and departure into the unknown. How can these elements coexist?

Dirscherl: Railway stations are indeed sites of longing. Imre Kértesz pointedly shows up this contradiction in his novel Fatelessness. Through the small window of the cattle car the narrator spots the sign “Auschwitz-Birkenau” – he contemplates the name of the station with the curiosity of a traveller, while the reader has immediately understood the terrifying fate of the passengers. Ever since railway stations had become a familiar sight around the middle of the 19th century, they had held out the promise of freedom.

In what ways is this expressed in literature?

Dirscherl: In Theodor Fontane’s novel Effi Briest, for example, the eponymous character – who is expected to adhere to the bourgeois morals and conventions of the late 19th century – and her newly-wed husband gaze after the express train to Danzig which passes through the provincial station: “Would you like to be on it, Effi?”, he asks. “She said nothing. But when he looked over at her he saw there was a tear in her eye.” Effi “would immediately afterwards become aware of what she missed” – that is to say, precisely this freedom.

Do I sense a ‘but’ coming?

Dirscherl: Of course, this promise of freedom is not always kept. Railway stations also mark turning points in individuals’ lives, because they force us to decide: Should I board the train or not? Should I leave or stay? The answers to these questions often decide the life trajectories of characters, sometimes with welcome, sometimes with devastating consequences. And there are also cases in which – at least until something unexpected happens – nothing is answered or decided. Christa Wolf depicts such a situation in her novel They Divided the Sky. Shortly before the Building of the Berlin Wall, the protagonist Rita buys a return ticket to West Berlin: “This is what made the city different from all cities of the world: for the price of forty pfennigs, it offered you two different lives.”

On the stage

Railway stations in literature – “The lead actors are constantly changing and the place is often crowded by spectators,” says Germanist Margit Dirscherl. View from Hackerbrücke over Munich Central Station.

© Florian Generotzky / LMU

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The democratization of travel

The invention of the railways as public transport in England in 1825 marked the end of the era of the stagecoach and revolutionized the world. The opening up of North America and Siberia would have been unthinkable without the railways. In what ways do stations relate to the experience of modernity?

Dirscherl: To begin with, the railways completely transformed our perception of nature. Further, they democratized travel. It had always been a luxury to travel on a stagecoach. Then, all of a sudden, third-class railway passengers overtake wealthy people in stagecoaches. With the invention of the motorcar, the pendulum swings back towards traveling in one’s own vehicle as an expression of individual freedom. However, in addition to the freedom that stations promise, they are also places of encounter. But above everything else, the railways completely redefined our sense of space and time. Heinrich Heine writes: “Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone.” Walter Benjamin took a similar view, observing that for him – as for anyone setting out for the seaside – the beach begins at the station, “as if the journey was already behind us.”

Are railway stations so fascinating because they represent modern crossroads?

Dirscherl: All walks of life come together in railway stations, and stories begin or end there. And because there are different classes of passenger travel to this day, they are also mirrors of the respective society, also with respect to political power struggles and warfare. Although US President Joe Biden may have travelled to Kyiv by train primarily for security reasons when visiting President Zelensky, it was not just the visit itself that was symbolic, but also the journey.

Cathedrals of modernity

Railway stations can be a contested ground, the Stuttgart 21 project being a prime example. Why do people get so exercised about stations?

Dirscherl: Railway stations are special places. People who are not themselves traveling – but are waiting to welcome passengers, for example – are especially receptive to their atmosphere. Stations can be likened to cathedrals of iron and glass – light, bright, transparent, open, and simultaneously destinations and places of rest. They are spaces full of endless possibilities, places to dream. They could not have been built entirely from stone as such a weight could not have been supported. “The only way of catching a train [...] is to miss the train before,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. “Do this, and you will find in a railway station much of the quietude and consolation of a cathedral.”

Transparent and yet anonymous ...

Dirscherl: Railway stations are fascinating for travellers and flaneurs alike. Apart from their role perhaps as modern cathedrals, they also resemble a stage. Platform by platform, existential dramas play out. The lead actors are constantly changing and the place is often crowded by spectators. Occasionally a protagonist stumbles and falls, disappears from the stage, and reappears in the audience. In his novel The Interim, Wolfgang Hilbig tells the story of an East German writer who is permitted to leave the country for a year. The character neither properly arrives in the West nor returns to the East. He gets stuck in the limbo of Munich Central Station: “He always went only as far as the kiosk in front of the platforms. When he had missed all the trains, it was time to seek out his sleeping place, with a new bottle of vodka.”

Interview: Maximilian Burkhart

© Florian Generotzky / LMU

Dr. Margit Dirscherl is lecturer at the Institute of German Philology at LMU. During the winter semester just past, she was Junior Researcher in Residence at LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies (CAS).

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