Railway rumpus rattles Bismarck's bones

There was a time when the rumble of passing locomotives was considered a blessing by the squire living beside the railway line. In 1871, when Kaiser Wilhelm I gave the estate to his favourite public servant, the track was upgraded so as to speed Otto von Bismarck's passage to his Berlin office, 200 miles away. Doting kings and princes made the journey down the narrow gauge to Friedrichsruh. On the retired statesman's 80th birthday, the gifts, including a portrait of Queen Victoria and an elaborate ivory carving from the Emperor of China, filled 35 carriages.

Many presents are displayed around a captured French cannon in the museum next to the station that still serves only the Bismarcks and the tourists who come into their domain, but the railway itself has become something of a curse. Early next year Inter-City Express trains - Germany's feeble answer to the French TGV - will be whizzing past the family home at 100 miles an hour, shattering the eternal peace of Prince Otto and his wife, who lie buried in the mausoleum by the track.

And a second line is coming: German railways will leap into the future with a magnetic levitation train, which will glide above a concrete rail at nearly 300mph between Berlin and Hamburg. The silent apparition will not disturb the dead, but its track will cut across the family estate, devouring trees and scattering the wild boar.

For the current seigneur of Friedrichsruh it's the greatest calamity since the RAF bombed his schloss to cinders at the end of the war, because they thought Himmler was hiding there. "I don't know why it should run through my forest," says Prince Ferdinand von Bismarck, Otto's great-grandson. "It could run through the fields further south. Then no trees would be chopped down and tractor crossings could be built for the peasants."

The "peasants" do not see it that way - the villages along the alternative route have sided with the railway company. A hundred years ago things might have been different, but in today's classless Germany one single aristocrat stands no chance against hoi polloi, especially if he is called Bismarck. Ferdinand is rich but powerless, the family name evoking nothing more than a type of pickled herring, the schnapps distilled by brother Maximilian and the mineral water concession sold to Nestle.

That, and the phenomenon known as the "Bismarck-Hitler continuity". The Iron Chancellor who forged a united nation is at best an "ambivalent figure" to the Germans of today; a genius as well as a bully, worshipped only by the loony right. But the prince and the government are out to change that,too.

In the musty former stables next to the resurrected schloss, a small group of historians is beavering away among the Bismarck busts, setting up a government-sponsored foundation that aims to foster the memory of Germany's greatest statesman.

"After 1945, the picture of Bismarck was clouded," says the curator, Michael Epkenhams. "Our task is to come to a balanced assessment of his person and the Bismarck era." The foundation is renovating the dilapidated railway station. Here the academics will pore over unpublished Bismarck documents donated by the prince. Their tranquillity is guaranteed - the railway company is building a wall in front of the station to shield the learned men from the modern world.

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