Horst Seehofer, President of the German Bundesrat and acting head of state until Joachim Gauck’s election, is a model train enthusiast. In his basement an impressive layout traces the course of his political career from his Bavarian birthplace to Bonn where he first served as a minister under Helmut Kohl and a hospital which reminds him of his time as Health Minister.
‘When I am with my trains, I even forget the Chancellor,’ he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. (‘Bei meiner Anlage vergesse ich sogar die Bundeskanzlerin.’)
Ditto Kurt Biedenkopf, economics wizard and former Ministerpräsident of Saxony, who has two train sets, and greets guests to his summer garden parties with the words ‘For today, I’m Lukas, the train-driver.’
Ditto almost one-in-five middle-aged German males.
To some people model railways are the embodiment of German philistinism, a ‘perfect’ world where the common (i.e. unmoving plastic) man knows his place, the Euro is stable and the trains run on time. Retirees, politicians, business leaders (Porsche’s former boss Wendelin Wiedeking is an enthusiastic collector) and millions of other men across the country like nothing more than laying track through papier-mâché mountains and oiling the miniature drive shafts of the TEE 10/9 Rheingold express. So it was as a matter of duty that I visited the world’s largest model railway.
Twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun hit upon the idea of creating a gargantuan layout back in 2000. After a dozen bank managers nearly laughed them off the track, the brothers happened upon a banker who was a fellow enthusiast, and loaned them the start-up capital. Twelve years on their Miniatur Wunderland, in Hamburg’s historical warehouse district, is one of the most successful permanent exhibitions in northern Germany.
Miniatur Wunderland stretches over three floors and across eight ‘lands’ from Germany and Scandinavia to the United States. Its Switzerland layout spirals around the Matterhorn which rises through the ceiling to ‘Knuffingen’ international airport. The Hamburg section includes a working harbour, a replica St. Michael’s Church (built from 15,000 pieces and based on the original blueprints) and the Reeperbahn red light district. Almost 1,000 trains run along its ten miles of track, past 1,500 signals and 250,000 figurines, beneath 228,000 miniature trees and a quarter of a million lights. Over the next few years Italy, France, the UK and Africa will be added to the complex.
An attention to detail along with good humour brings the display to (weird) life. Tiny, naked lovers cuddle in a sunflower field. A family of penguins (with their pet polar bear on a lead) wait for a train. Fairies, trolls and unicorns flit about behind industrial zones. Beneath a Hamburg graveyard an evil scientist transforms skeletons into Frankenstein-esque monsters. Snow White – watched by a peeping Tom -- leads the Seven Dwarfs alongside a Californian river. Beyond them, at a secret US Air Force installation in the Utah desert, green aliens play basketball.
In one animated scene a weekender chops down a tree in his Schrebergärten allotment, which falls on his house, smashing the roof, fusing the electrics and releasing a torrent of abuse from his panicked, plastic wife. Next door behind an innocuous exterior, drug dealers grow marijuana by ultraviolet lamps. Across the hall, and deep in the Austrian Alps, a tunnel-boring machine stands poised to break into a forgotten cave inhabited by prehistoric beasts and pixies. The imagination and skill of the builders so startles that, at times, the visitor forgets to look at the trains.
On my visit, duty became pleasure and – although I have little desire to create my own immaculate ‘heile Welt’ – I now can’t wait to go up into the attic and blow the dust off my old Märklin Miniclub train set.