Propaganda vehicle during the First World War


Postcard Balkanzug - a victory prize, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

September 2015

Nederlandse versie

On the day when Austria declared war on Serbia, the Orient Express, figurehead of the Belle Époque, also came to a standstill. Germany and its allies started running their own luxury train to Constantinople in 1916.

For Germany, the Balkanzug was more than a train. It was a way of settling a score with the French Wagons-Lits, a strategic link to its allies and an effective propaganda tool. And it allowed the Germans to increase their influence in the Balkans and Middle East.

This edition of retours is a prerelease of the informative iPad app
Orient Express History that will be available in early October.

by Arjan den Boer

Postcard Balkanzug, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)


As a new colonial power, Germany attempted to gain influence in the Ottoman Empire from 1890 onwards. The Deutsche Bank was financing the Baghdad Railway, for example. The Germans also provided military support for strategic reasons. At the outbreak of World War I, Germany and Turkey formed an alliance. The Balkanzug became a figurehead for this.

The Prussians in particular had a strong aversion against the largely French Wagons-Lits. The war provided an opportunity to oust Wagons-Lits not only from Germany and Austria, but also from the Balkans. The French sphere of influence had to be constrained. Therefore a Central European sleeping and dining car company was founded: Mitropa.

First Balkanzug leaving Dresden, 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)
Postcard 4-country alliance, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)
Balkanzug in Hungary, 1917 | Stögermayr (coll. Arjan den Boer)

Propaganda train

The first Balkanzug left Berlin in early January 1916 with prominent guests and under great public interest. Along the route, arranged groups of school children were waving at the train. The German press reported extensively on the 'victory train', while the French press initially denied the existence of any Balkanzug.

The train was composed of sleeping and dining cars of the German-controlled Wagons-Lits and the Prussian State Railways. The latter also provided 1st and 2nd class day coaches. The diverse carriages were fitted with large signs with Balkanzug inscriptions.

Balkanzug, 1916 | Agence Rol (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

First of all, the Balkan Express does exist, as I have travelled by it myself. It is one of the most perfectly-organised railway services I have ever seen, and I have seen many.

The Balkan Express is the show train of the world. Never has there been a train with such grave responsibilities. It might well be called ‘the Publicity Train’, for its object at present is to advertise German victory and German thoroughness.

Its name is blazoned in three-foot letters on each wagon. Engine and carriages are decorated with flags and flowers, and every passenger wears in his buttonhole a German flag on which appear the words 'Balkan-Zug' and the date.

The Balkan-Zug is photographed and described in countless journals, and it appears on myriads of post-cards. I have never seen such enthusiasm in England except in connection with some famous football player.

[J.M. de Beaufort], My Secret Service: By the Man Who Dined with the Kaiser, 1916


Eagle, double eagle and crescent: 1916 book about the Balkanzug by Ernst Wiesener.

Balkanzug book by Ernst Wiesener, 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

'Importance of the connection Berlin-Constantinople', 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

Board game

This German game let its players make the journey of the Balkanzug by throwing dice.

Balkanzug board game, c. 1916 | (Spielzeugmuseum Nürnberg)


Between 1916 and 1918 dozens of German propaganda postcards of the Balkanzug were published.

Postcard Balkanzug, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

Postcard Balkanzug - Egypt, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

Cigar box

Companies also picked up on the Balkanzug. Kunst-anstalt Jillert & Ewald designed a cigar box.

Sigarendoos Balkan-Express, c. 1916 | Jillert & Ewald (eBay)

Three branches

While Germany was looking for expansion and prestige during the war, Austria-Hungary was only aspiring to maintain its territories. Accordingly, the propagandist Balkanzug was mainly a German project. However, the Hungarian State Railways were put in charge of the 12 railway companies involved.

The Balkanzug had three branches. The first one ran from Berlin (Stadbahn) via Wroclaw to Budapest. The second one led from Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof through Prague to Vienna. There it was combined with the third branch coming from Strasbourg and Munich — the old Orient Express route. From Hungary onwards they continued as one train to Belgrade, Sofia and Constantinople, a journey of more than three days.

Balkanzug near Traunstein, Bavaria 1916 | Georg Greiner (coll. Wilhelm Tausche)
Postcard Balkanzug near Constantinople, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)
German bridge construction near Belgrade, 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

Serbia and Bulgaria

The Balkanzug could not start until the Balkans were controlled by the Central Powers. In 1915 Bulgaria joined the alliance. Serbia as a common enemy was the deciding factor for the Bulgarians, despite their difficult relations with Turkey. With help from Bulgaria the Mittelmächte could finally beat Serbia.

Warfare had severely damaged Serbian railways; bridges and tracks first had to be restored by the German army. During the occupation, Serbian railways were under the control of the Militär-Eisenbahndirektion Nisch. Because there still was a danger of attacks, the route was secured with military guardposts and reinforcements.

Balkanzug in Bulgaria, 1917 | (collection Gill Steenvoorde)

German military and officials stay behind in Bulgaria: 'Laß die nach Berlin fahren, wir stehen hier unsern Mann', according to the caption in a private photo album.

Postcard Balkanzug, c. 1916
Balkanzug at the station of Niš, c. 1916 | K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier (Europeana Collections 1914-1918)


In January 1916, the arrival of the first Balkanzug from Constantinople to Berlin was celebrated in Serbian Niš with a grand banquet.

Among the guests were the Bulgarian Tsar and the German emperor. Upon arrival of the train the German, Austrian and Bulgarian national anthems were played.

Niš station, January 18, 1916 | (collection Huis Doorn)

The Balkan-Zug was late. Night was upon us before it drew into Nish station, an impressive affair consisting of four sleeping cars, one dining-car, and one ordinary first and second class car.

As it steamed into the station the German, Bulgarian, and Austrian National Anthems were played, and King Ferdinand and his two unprepossessing sons entered before the rest of the passengers.

This was an interesting event also for the passengers from Constantinople, who leaned out of the windows, keenly interested.

The Kaiser had disappeared immediately after the Banquet, just as the Kaiser always does disappear, suddenly and mysteriously, no one knowing why or whither.

[J.M. de Beaufort], My Secret Service: By the Man Who Dined with the Kaiser, 1916

Inside the Balkanzug, 1918 | Ladislaus Tuszynski (coll. Arjan den Boer)


The Balkanzug was supposed to be the cultural and economic link between the German and Turkish 'brother nations'.

In reality, the train, which ran twice a week, was almost exclusively used by senior military and diplomats. Ordinary passengers had to go through a complicated approval procedure.

Postcard Balkanzug, North-South Express, c. 1916 | (collection Arjan den Boer)
Balkanzug Ausweis, c. 1916 | (eBay)

The 'Ausweis' for admission to the Balkanzug was in four languages: German, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish.

Arrival of Wilhelm II, 1917 | (collection Huis Doorn)

Kaiser and Sultan

In October 1917 Emperor Wilhelm II paid his third visit to Constantinople. He traveled in a special version of the Balkanzug. Apart from a meeting with the powerful Ottoman war minister, the visit was quite peaceful. Wilhelm visited mosques and palaces and sailed over the Bosphorus. He wore by turns a Pickelhaube and a fez.

A year later, the situation was totally different. In October 1918, Bulgaria was defeated by the Allies and the Balkanzug was discontinued. Shortly afterward Turkey and Germany surrendered. Wilhelm II was deposed, Mehmet V had died earlier.

Parlor car, the Kaiser's gift to the Sultan | Rahmi M. Koç Museum, Istanbul (foto Arjan den Boer)

Sultan Mehmet V welcomed the emperor at the Constantinople station while the German anthem was being played.

On arrival, the emperor presented one of the parlor cars to the Sultan as a symbol of good relations.

Interior of the parlor car | Photo Rahmi M. Koç Museum, Istanbul
Signing of the Armistice, 1918  | Pillard


On November 11, 1918 the German capitulation was signed near the French town of Compiègne. Significantly, this took place in a Wagons-Lits dining car which served as a mobile office to Marshal Foch during the war. After the Armistice (cease-fire) it took another six months to negotiate a peace treaty.

In the Treaty of Versailles, the map of Europe was redrawn. Germany, Austria and Hungary lost a lot of territory. New countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were created. In the aftermath, Turkey lost the Middle East to Britain and France.

Souvenir of the carriage of Marshal Foch, c. 1921 | (collection Arjan den Boer)

Simplon Orient Express

Under the Treaty of Versailles, no direct train was allowed to connect Germany with Turkey. A link between the defeated allies would be undesirable. A new Orient Express was to be introduced on a route that stayed outside Germany and Austria: the Simplon OrientExpress.

Mitropa, founded during the war as a Wagons-Lits counterpart, remained in existence in a restricted form.

Balkanzug, propaganda vehicle during WW I


This edition of retours is a prerelease of the informative iPad app Orient Express History that will be available in early October.

Related episode:


George Behrend, Luxury trains from the Orient Express to the TGV, New York, 1977

Jürgen Franzke (ed,), Orient-Express: König der Züge, Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung am DB Museum Nürnberg, Frechen


Jürgen Klein, Albert Mühl, Reisen in Luxuszügen: Die Internationale Schlafwagen-Gesellschaft, Freiburg 2006

Konrad Koschinski, 125 Jahre Orient-Express, Eisenbahn-Journal Sonderausgabe 2/2008

Jürgen Lodeman, Manfred Pohl, Die Bagdadbahn, Mainz 1989

Online Sources

Trains-WorldExpresses Werner Sölch & Hans Sölch

Wikipedia (German):