Trains to Death

details place/state: Lower Saxony   INSTITUTION: Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Schüler   AUTHOR: Andreas Kraus age group: 14 years and older Country/ Countries: Germany subject: Crosscurricular study group   learning activities Analyzing a film   Changing perspectives   Interactive problem solving   Linking past and present   Preparing field trips to memorial sites   topics Concentration camps   Deportation   Mass murder

Since 1973, Hanover's Association of Christian Students has worked with youth groups in a simulation game about railroads and the deportation of victims to concentration camps. The participants are placed in positions of perpetrators and railway management at the center of deportations like those organized during the Nazi era. The young people experience how a bureaucracy made mass murder possible.


"It can happen anywhere." (Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved)
The Scenario

Imagine that you were hired for a job in a large bureaucracy. Let us assume that you are employed by the railways. Your job consists of creating timetables or perhaps planning and equipping train cars for travelers. You are happy to have this job, since times are bad, many people are unemployed, and the political and social system are shaken by crises. You consider yourself an ordinary, average person with a family and a job.

You receive orders from your job supervisor to prepare special schedules for trains that only travel at night, although you are not informed of the reasons. These trains are part of a government program, which you read about in the press. The government has decided to resettle unemployed foreigners from the economically weak north to the economically strong southwest, thus creating new jobs. Your supervisor stresses the importance and urgency of this project, which like everything else right now is to be completed as quickly, cost-efficiently and cheaply as possible. In case you were not assigned to set up train schedules, you would still be involved in the project and would design and equip special train cars with places for 50 resettlers.

Would there be any reason not to do this job or to react by resigning or refusing to work? Any reason at all? When would you take the risk of being dismissed, despite the consequences of loss of employment for you and your family? When you discover that 150 people and not 50 are to be sent in each train car for resettlement? When you learn that shipments include the elderly and young children? But you are not responsible for the occupancy, only for the schedule or equipment. Would you react if you knew that people would be injured during the transport? Or if you happened to learn from a newspaper that the transports' destination was most probably radioactively contaminated and that the deportees were thus undoubtedly being sent to their deaths? You would assume that nobody would participate in this and that everyone would protest. But we unfortunately know from history (and even from the present) that this fictitious scenario had an analogous historical reality.

The German Railways: Historical Model

There is a very imposing object, a freight car, at both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem. It is one of the most impressive symbols of the Holocaust. Indeed, the murder of millions of Jews and non-Jews in extermination camps would not have been possible without mass transport via railways. Some of the victims were deported hundreds of miles to their final destinations. Die Deutsche Reichsbahn [The German railways], one of the largest enterprises and bureaucratic agencies in the Third Reich, solved the logistics of deportation almost flawlessly and without any moral hesitancy or resistance. Raul Hilberg has investigated the role of the German railways in detail and has not found any instances of employees or civil servants whose moral scruples prevented them from handling the "special trains to Auschwitz." In this respect, the freight cars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and in Yad Vashem are not only symbols of the agonies of Holocaust victims, but also symbols of bureaucratic and technical efficiency and of moral indifference to participating in a massive criminal enterprise. They also tell us about the mentality of the perpetrators.

The idea of using the historical model of the Deutsche Reichsbahn for an exercise in analogies was developed in 1973, long before Hilberg's work was published in the German language. The Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Schüler (ACS) [Association of Christian Students] in Hanover reviewed several films in order to prepare young adults for a study trip to Auschwitz. The reviewers discovered that the Alain Resnais film Night and Fog contains a large number of historic images of deportation trains. The ACS then considered whether, if it were possible to place participants in situations similar to those of the German railway employees of the past, the question of the conditions required to bring about the Holocaust would no longer be an abstract historical one. It was assumed that the Stanford Prison experiment, the well-known Milgram experiment, and the teen book "The Wave" would be unfamiliar to such participants.

The ACS therefore developed an analogy-based exercise, which simulates the fictitious deportation of foreigners from northern Germany to a nuclear-contaminated site in the south - the situation described in the introduction. Just as in the situation in Nazi Germany, the scenario is not explicitly described, but everyone is able to understand what is happening by assembling details into a complete picture. The participants in the game are assigned specific roles and become members of a deadly fictive bureaucracy. As they take on the roles of past train personnel, the participants are confronted by questions about whether they recognize what they are doing and whether they can resist a monstrous system. This game does not explicitly focus on anti-Semitism, racism, or xenophobia as intentional motivations for behavior, but focuses on apathy and cognitive indifference in comparison with one's own personal conduct.

Obviously a simulation activity based on analogies cannot imitate reality, but it generates its own dramatic authenticity. Some characteristics of the fictional situation are comparable with historical events, while others are not. For educational and pragmatic reasons, the number of players (roles) and the degree of the bureaucracy are reduced in contrast to the complex organization of the former German railways. Obviously, the purpose of the fictional deportation is adapted to current conditions.

The Structure of the Game and Game Materials

The game is divided into three railway divisions: north, center, and south. Each division has a director, a person responsible for the timetable, a food supply manager, and a person responsible for preparing the railway cars. Each train division is allotted two private enterprises: a food supplier and a salesman from the company, "Karosseriebau Universal" [Universal Body Work Construction, Inc.]. Two inspectors, one in the north and the other in the south, have administrative functions at the beginning and end of the deportations. A physician, assigned to the destination, must prepare reports about the condition of the "resettlers," evaluate statistics, and order medical supplies. Command of the game is assigned to the Federal Ministry of Economic Development, roles that are played by members of the educators' team [see Documents].

A minimum of eight players and a maximum of 28 players are needed for the game, depending on the allocation of roles. The educators' team should consist of three to six individuals, depending on the number of players in the game.

Each player receives extensive material; first is a list with the general rules. The rules specify that communication is allowed only in writing on specially prepared forms [see Documents] and that leaving one's workplace is prohibited.

Second, all participants receive a game newspaper, called "Globus." This newspaper covers the social, political and economic background that influences the work of the railway bureaucracy.

Third, each participant gets a precise description of his/her role, functions and duties. Each role has special attributes required in the job, such as abilities to cooperate, organizational skills and careerism. Each job description contains somewhat candid clues about the questionable nature of the position. For example: the trains are allowed to run only at night; nobody is allowed to talk about the transports; and the offices of the physician and the inspector for the south are located in nuclear shelters.

The most important forms are the Zuglaufzettel [train timetable] and Verpflegungsnachweis [proof of provisions] [see Documents]. These forms represent the trains in the game. Postmen deliver all official communications, and members of the educators' team hold these positions, thus maintaining control over the course of the game.

A Typical Game

This game is usually used in non-school educational work and makes the most sense if it is included in a two- or three-day seminar. The time required to play and evaluate the game is a minimum of six hours. The game itself usually requires two and one-half hours. The film "Night and Fog," shown afterwards, requires 40 minutes and the post-game group discussion usually takes two to three hours.

In ACS seminars, the game is frequently used to motivate and prepare teenagers for trips to former concentration camps and memorials. The game can also be used for other educational purposes but requires adequate time for evaluation. Usually the participants are teenagers, 15 to 20 years old, but the game can also be played by older students and by teachers.

Naturally, the participants are not informed of the true purpose of the game. They have usually registered, for example, for a seminar about the Third Reich or the Holocaust and only expect to receive historical information. They do not know that they will play a central part in a simulation.

At the beginning of a seminar, the educational staff informs the participants that the first part of the program consists of a game and that each person will receive all necessary written information. The players will receive the most important rules in advance of the game. The first rule is: "Behave in a way that you can assume responsibility for your actions!" The second is: "Behave in the way you think conforms with reality!" The first rule encourages individual responsibility and moral freedom and the second emphasizes the seriousness and realism of the game.

After this brief introduction, the players are assigned their roles and brought to their assigned work places. Ideally, game participants should sit together in one room, but they are not allowed to communicate directly with one another during the game. No one should understand the entire game structure, since anonymity and division of labor are two central features of the simulation.

The participants are given twenty to thirty minutes to read the material and then receive the first timetable and proof of provisions from the "Ministry." The task of the educators' team is to cause moral and cognitive conflicts among the isolated players and to provoke moral decisions. However, the team must consider that the participants have to take the final step to sufficient moral and political behavior on their own. One strategy to increase this conflict is the gradual deterioration of deportation conditions for the fictional "resettlers."

Usually resistance during the game is limited to various forms of individual unwillingness to work; the educators' team can react flexibly to these situations as they arise. The players are almost never able to stop the fictional deportation completely. Despite initial instructions about the moral freedom to act, the game situation is so psychologically convincing that the absolute majority of players conform without problems. The empirical results of the Milgram experiment are again corroborated. ends when a substantial number of trains pass through the railway bureaucracy with all players participating.

Evaluation and Post-game Discussion
After a break, the film Night and Fog is shown to the participants, thereby showing them the historical model for the game. The subsequent group discussion has three objectives:

First, it is essential to understand the structure of the game, the course of events, and the various roles.

Second, a conversation is held about the mechanisms that contribute to conformity. These include division of labor, hierarchical structures, tendency to obedience, stress, the desire to adapt to compulsory roles, the bureaucratic abstraction of events, the absence of direct communication, the selective perception of information, the ostensible legality of the resettlements, etc.

The third goal of the post-game discussion is clarification of conditions for successful resistance and moral behavior; these are the opposite of conditions that result in conformist behavior.

The success of the discussion depends on the fact that the participants do not feel they are on trial. Naturally, one of the most important points, also emphasized in the film, is the comparability of behavior during the game to behaviors during the historical situation of deportations to the killing centers. The educators' team must make it clear that the game is not about a simple reenactment of what happened, but about understanding the behavior of normal humans, who may unknowingly commit crimes in certain situations.

Experiences, Risks, Recommendations

Confrontation with the possible consequences of their behavior is a psychic shock for many players. Not all participants and groups can handle this situation and one can assume that defensiveness will occur. Thus, the educators' team assumes a high risk and should consider possible negative reactions in planning and implementing the game.

There is also the ethical problem of manipulative education in this simulation. The team leaders need to be sensitive and flexible.

In everyday life, historical and political explanations are usually very simplistic and monocausal: the SS were sadists; all Germans were anti-Semites; only Hitler was responsible and he seduced the Germans with propaganda; no one could have known anything about the Holocaust; all resistance fighters were heroes, and so on. Such explanations assume that history is the sequence of singular events and that past and present are not connected.

The game shatters such simplistic explanations. By playing it: bureaucratic structures and processes become more visible; past and present are no longer disconnected; human behavior becomes liable to analysis and interpretation; responsibility for one's own behavior becomes central. We often see that participants understand the relevance of the game experience. It is common that players want to transmit their experiences to others via this game.

It is important to discuss these matters. Then, the simulation game is a sensible way to activate learning that raises and answers uncomfortable questions about the Holocaust.


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