Despite the economic crisis, the German railways flourished between the two world wars. This was also the case for sleeping and dining car company Mitropa. Founded during the First World War as the German counterpart of Wagons-Lits, it entered a period of prosperity after the war, despite the restrictions it was subjected to.
The carriage interior style owed much to the Neue Sachlichkeit and Bauhaus, but with a luxurious rather than Spartan finish. The Mitropa logo and poster designs showed that the Art Deco style had become popular in Germany too.
In the 1930s Mitropa was used for Nazi propaganda and control. After the war the company was split, just like Germany itself.
by Arjan den Boer
During World War I, Germany seized its chance to break the monopoly of Wagons-Lits, the hated French-Belgian sleeping and dining car company. Using confiscated Wagons-Lits carriages, dining cars of small German operators, sleeping cars of the Prussian State Railways, and money from German banks,
a Central European counterpart was established. After the German defeat, the Treaty of Versailles restricted Mitropa routes to Germany, Austria and their northern neighbours. Later on, roughly the same market division was agreed with Wagons-Lits. New British and Canadian investors gave Mitropa an international ownership base.
In 1916 a direct train left Berlin for Constantinople, the German replacement of the Orient Express. This Balkanzug connected Germany to its allies Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. It served mainly as a propaganda vehicle. The Balkanzug was a direct forerunner of the establishment of Mitropa in 1917.
Most Wagon-Lits carriages were returned after the war. Nonetheless, Mitropa was fortunate to acquire the carriages of the deposed German emperor's train.
In 1923 upgrading of Mitropa's fleet started with the construction of 20 new steel sleeping cars. Five years later there were 68. They enabled comfortable night trips to all corners of Germany and the neighboring countries of Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, connecting to Scandinavia by boat train.
Mitropa involved the Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius in the design of the sleeping car compartments. He advised that it should dispense with the usual lavish decorations. Instead, a luxurious look was achieved by polished surfaces and high-quality materials. Gropius referred to the expensive-looking Vuitton suitcases which nonetheless contained purely functional compartments.
Starting with a mixed assortment of old carriages, which were replaced by sleek new steel ones in the 1920s, Mitropa acquired an overall corporate identity identity by 1927 — quite an innovation for the times.
It was the graphic designer Karl Schulpig — known as the father of modern logo design — who provided Mitropa its distinctive branding. All coaches were given a burgundy livery with yellow lettering and logo. The latter was a stylized eagle's head (based on the Reichsadler) on top of the letter M which doubled as eagle wings, and a wheel below. In addition, Schulpig designed a quirky angular typeface, inspired by woodcutting, a craft he was practising himself.
In 1929 Mitropa commissioned a second series of steel carriages. The Wegmann factory delivered 35 dining cars in addition to the 40 ones of the first series. The all-steel construction had riveted window frames. The carriages consisted of a modern electric kitchen and an 18-seat smoking area, separated by a glass wall from the dining room with 34 non-smoking seats.
Under the influence of New Objectivity, the interior design was straight and functional, but had a luxurious finish. All surfaces were glossy. These characteristics also applied to details such as the tableware.
In 1930 three million meals were served in Mitropa dining cars. By then Mitropa had also started operating station restaurants and catering facilities for the young Lufthansa airline. Supplies were distributed from central warehouses in Berlin and Hamburg with their own butchery and bakery shops. Mitropa also had a vineyard and bottling plant in the Moselle valley.
In addition to its own dining cars, Mitropa provided the catering service for the luxury trains of the Deutsche Reichsbahn which had become a major Mitropa shareholder.
The most legendary of these trains was Rheingold, which connected the Netherlands to Switzerland via Germany's Rhine Valley from 1928 onwards. The carriages were based on the Pullman cars of the competitor Wagons-Lits. As with the Pullmans, there were no separate dining cars; passengers were served at their seats which all had tables. The white-coated Mitropa waiters were well suited to the lavishly upholstered carriages.
Mitropa also operated the bar in Germany's first diesel trainset which connected Berlin and Hamburg from 1933. There was only one specimen of this streamlined DR 877, called Flying Hamburger. With a speed of 160 km/h it was a world record holder for its time.
After WWII the carriages were operated by the Rhaetian Railway itself. Two have since been restored and put back in service as dining cars. However, the burgundy colour has given way to dark blue and the Mitropa lettering became 'Gourmino’. In 2008 the Albula and Bernina Railway were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
In 1928 Mitropa managed to achieve a small but notable expansion of its territory in southern Switzerland. On the narrow gauge Bernina railway, opened in 1910, two Salon-Speise-Wagen were put in service. Large windows with thin frames allowed tourists to eat their lunch while admiring the panoramic views.
Subsequently, in 1929 three Mitropa dining cars were introduced on the Albula Railway, which also had a 1-meter gauge. These cars had less panoramic windows but the interiors had beautifully light wood finishings. After 1930 they were part of the famous Glacier Express on the section operated by the Rhaetian Railway.
In 1933 Hitler came to power. The Reichsbahn and Mitropa soon became used for Nazi propaganda. A swastika was added to the Reichsbahn logo. The Mitropa logo escaped from this; apparently it already fitted with Nazi aesthetics.
It was reported that Gestapo agents dressed as Mitropa staff were used to track down people escaping into exile in the trains of those days.
Hitler and other Nazi leaders regularly traveled by Mitropa car. Apparently the Führer liked the gastronomy aboard: in 1937 Mitropa chef Otto Günther was transferred to Hitler's private train and to his Wolf's Lair headquarters during the war.
During the Second World War Mitropa carriages also ran in occupied countries, used mainly for military transport. From 1943 onwards only 'kriegswichtige Reisen' (war-related journeys) were allowed. There was a shortage of staff and supplies. By the end of the war many carriages had been bombed by Allied forces or left scattered over the continent.
Just like Germany itself the Reichsbahn and Mitropa were divided into two. East Germany retained their prewar names: the railways as Deutsche Reichsbahn and Mitropa as one of the few shareholder companies in the GDR. Mitropa also operated East German (roadside) restaurants and hotels.
In West Germany, the Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB) and the Deutsche Schlafwagen- und Speisewagen Gesellschaft (DSG) were established. The Mitropa past remained visible in the carriage livery and the old logo until 1971. After German reunification the two companies were amalgamated under the old name in 1994. By the early 2000s Mitropa disintegrated into parts with different designations.
In East Germany the old Mitropa logo designed by Schulpig was modified to avoid Nazi connotations. The Reichsadler was beheaded so that only the letter M remained. The wheel at the bottom was given extra spokes to avoid associations with a swastika.
MITROPA, German Art Deco railway carriages and posters
Special thanks to:
Tilo Köhler, Sie werden plaziert! Die geschichte der Mitropa, 2002
Gottfried Krüger-Wittmack, 75 Jahre Mitropa, Eisenbahn Journal Special 2/1992
Gregory Votolato, Transport Design: A Travel History, 2007
Freunde der MITROPA: Geschichte