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History on the Tracks: The Berlin-Baghdad Railway

The current refugee crisis taking place across Europe is playing out on the railways, as it has before.
A German police officer talks to a young refugee as he waits for a bus outside the central railway station in Munich. (Photo: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

A German police officer talks to a young refugee as he waits for a bus outside the central railway station in Munich. (Photo: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

As thousands of refugees continue fleeing to Europe, images of their suffering and desperation reveal an intense and personal human drama. But as a historian of architecture and infrastructure, I also see in these images a striking historical resonance: that this refugee drama is playing out, as it has so often before, on Europe’s railways.

A haunting image emerged from the Hungarian town of Bicske, where a man defiantly threw himself, his wife, and their baby onto a railway track. It was their desperate attempt to board a train headed to Austria, to save them from incarceration in a facility where masses of people were being held indefinitely. As the family violently wrestles with police from the tracks, the tension between the safety of a child and hope for something better reminds us of something else: Detainment and uncertainty against the backdrop of railways recalls images of deportations during the Holocaust, deportations that began in these very locations.

Another image, directly outside Munich’s main railway station, showed a very different scene. A German police officer crouches down to meet a young migrant boy at eye level, the two exchanging an unalloyed smile as well as the officer’s hat, which sits floppily on the boy’s head. The boy’s associates—young and old—look on. I lived in Munich for just shy of two years and realized I knew exactly where this photograph was taken: a banal median near a taxi line and a McDonald’s kiosk. I recall that space with no particular warmth, yet the smiles and optimism of that image make the median seem like one of the happiest places on Earth.

Germany’s connection to this crisis is unexpectedly profound but it is also entirely literal—a chain of buildings, rails, and human drama linking Berlin and Baghdad and all points between.

The intensity of the human experience in these images and the prosaicness of the infrastructure around them sum up the complicated mood in Europe right now—both horrified and hopeful, skeptical and sanguine. The refugees’ plight reveals another striking contrast: the infrastructure with which many of them are making their desperate flight—the railways and railway stations—are both a link to past migrations and to what once defined the nascent modernity of Europe.

As part of the Ottoman empire, the now besieged Syrian and Iraqi cities of Aleppo, Kobani, and Mosul, to name a few, were pearls in the necklace of the so-called Berlin-Baghdad Railway, the crowing achievement within a larger network of lines comprising the fledgling Ottoman railways. The network was the pride of the Ottoman Empire’s modernizing impulses and yet it was actually predominantly engineered by Germans and built with the support of German investors like Deutsche Bank. While it employed local builders and craftsmen, and advanced Ottoman goals of imperial consolidation and modernization, it also accelerated German influence in the region. That influence, ambiguously colonial as it was, baffled the rest of Europe because of its contrast with the naked models of domination by Britain and France. It was an oddly symbiotic relationship, benefiting both the Germans and the Ottomans in its own ways. The Ottomans savored their new infrastructure, which enhanced the economy as well as mobility. The railways that connected Germany with modern-day Syria and Iraq were also the mechanisms used to remove and transport highly coveted objects of art and antiquity to their regal, neoclassical setting on Berlin’s Museum Island.

The ambiguity of the German/Ottoman relationship also furnished subtle opportunities for some the Ottoman Empire’s least enfranchised subjects—day laborers, particularly those in the imperial fringes of Syria and Iraq—to be heard and seen. These workers typically came from the surrounding countryside after hearing of the great financial investment in the railways. When the anonymous builders of the railway station at Carchemish, for example, saw the German blueprints for the station’s design, they exploited the openings afforded by what the blueprints left out: what type of stone to use, how to detail masonry, and what color to paint it. While we rarely know their names, we certainly see their presence in the striping patterns of doorways and in the carvings of window frames. We can sense their desire to transform a prototypical German building into something that was, at least, in part their own. Railway infrastructure was a grand state project that seemed to be about anything but the individual, but in the process of its construction offered the voiceless the opportunity to become identifiable.

In a time before Google Earth, an architect in Frankfurt drawing a pre-fabricated plan for a railway station in Syria could not anticipate the conditions or availability of materials at these faraway sites; the workers proved crucial in transforming plans on paper, with all of their gaps of knowledge and detail, into habitable structures that played host to a new social and cultural landscape. When Ottoman laborers at these remote sites tinkered with and adjusted the German plans in response to their own conditions and through their own artistic idioms, they were naturalizing European technology and stretching the little power they had to be heard, or seen, as far as they possibly could.

The Syrians and Iraqis arriving, protesting, and dwelling in the railway stations of Europe in 2015 are different than the workers who built the stations in 1915. These men and women have known the satisfaction that comes with one’s work being attached to one’s name; we do not need to interpret stones to hear and see their identities.

The issue of belonging is also nothing new. The Ottomans granted a German engineer by the name of Heinrich August Meissner the elite honorific of “Pasha” for his work on the neighboring Hejaz Railway, which traced the pilgrimage route to Mecca. In the same diplomatic spirit, railway administrators discussed a proposal of provisional Ottoman citizenship for foreign nationals working on the railway. The aim of this proposal was to avoid the bureaucratic and legal obstacles that came with a multinational labor force. This was even more apparent in areas along the railway that were off limits to non-Muslims; German and Christian engineers providing critical expertise there adopted Islamic pseudonyms so they could work without fear of being evicted from the country. Personal identities, like buildings, proved mutable.

History repeats itself and switches directions. The jubilant mood at railway stations like that in Munich are precious yet fragile. As we have seen, Germany’s connection to this crisis is unexpectedly profound but it is also entirely literal—a chain of buildings, rails, and human drama linking Berlin and Baghdad and all points between. Detractors in Europe demonstrate amnesia when they use the very term infrastructure to explain why they cannot handle migrants any longer, however much talent the 800,000 refugees expected to enter Germany this year bring with them. Chancellor Angela Merkel, for her part, has made it clear that she believes the infrastructure can cope, noting recently to reporters that “Germany is a strong country—we will manage.”

Germany is facing new challenges from the cheating scandal by its largest company. Those challenges may encourage anti-immigrant voices to resist integration of these refugees. But what must not be forgotten is Germany’s 100-plus years of railways abroad, which are a reminder of the prescience of history and the tethered strings connecting Berlin to Baghdad. These are the ties—even after a century—that bind.