The next stop on the photo tour along the Inner-German border is a train station that played a key role through every era of railroad history in eastern Germany. First built in 1848 and expanded in 1880, the Hof Central Railway Station is a key strategic point for the region of Franconia and Vogtland. Considered by the German Railways (the Bahn) as a Category 3 train station, Hof Central Station is the starting and stopping point for all regional railroad services coming from Bavaria in the south and Saxony in the north. Prior to 2012, it had been a throughfare station because of regional trains passing through from Nuremberg and Bayreuth enroute to Zwickau, Leipzig and Dresden. Thanks to the electrification of the line between Zwickau and Hof via Plauen, the northern line now operated by Transdev going to Dresden; the Bahn operates the portion of the line going south.
As in the beginning, Hof was a central point for all trains passing through for it was a hub serving rail services to Munich in the south, Leipzig and Berlin in the north and Cheb (Eger) in the Czech Republic. Even some of the now abandoned raillines, like the Triptis-Marxgrün Line, found its place in Hof. Sadly though, after the end of World War II, Hof Central Station became an inner-German border station, just like it is today. All rail service from the south and west ended in Hof and those who wish to travel further to Leipzig and Berlin had to switch trains and use Transit Trains provided by the East German government. Sometimes passport and customs controls were necessary if you wanted to travel to East Germany, yet most of the action was done by East German border guards at the train station Gutenfürst.
The scrutiny of passport and people checks were nothing new when traveling in East Germany. Because the East Germans had to pay for reparations, many kilometers of tracks were removed because of the steel needed for other (military) purposes. This was the case for the rail lines north of Hof as some of the small lines were abandoned with some of the crossings between East and West barracaded. Along the main lines to Dresden and Leipzig, many stretches were one-track only instead of two, like in the time before World War II. From 1945 to 1989, the only way in and out of East Germany through Hof was via the Dresden-Hof-Nuremberg Magistral Route, which is still in use as of today.
Fast forward to 1989 and the time before and of the Fall of the Wall. Thousands of residents from East Germany started fleeing the country and its brutal regime under Erich Honecker. This was a reaction to the opening of the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary on 27 June, 1989. To obtain a visa to travel to West Germany, they had to go to the German Embassy in Prague, for travel to the Czechoslovakia without a visa was allowed through an agreement between officials in East Berlin and Prague. Travel to Poland had already been blocked thanks to Polish elections earlier in 1989 which ushered in democracy and brought the ouster of its dictator and his officials. With thousands of East German refugees sitting on and near the grounds of the embassy, politicians from Czechoslovakia, the two Germanys and the Soviet Union had to act quickly to stem the flow of refugees fleeing East Germany for the west. An agreement was reached on 30 September, 1989 to allow the refugees to go to West Germany but first going through East Germany. Hans-Dietrich-Genscher made the announcement at 6:58pm local time, only to be greeted with cheers, tears and relief in both Prague and here in Hof.
The first set of refugees boarded a train later that evening and took the 254 kilometer trip through Saxony, via Bad Schandau, Dresden, Karl Marx Stadt (Chemnitz), Plauen and Gutenfürst, arriving at 6:54am on October 1st in Hof. Between 5200 and 5400 people left the country. The second set of refugees arrived four days later with as many as 8000 people on board the trains. It was after that, that more trains carrying refugees would follow suit, putting pressure on the East German regime to open the gates that had separated Germany and Berlin into two for too long. At the time of the Fall of the Wall, as many as 25000 residents had fled by train to West Germany through Hof. Hundreds of thousands of more people would follow when cars started crossing the borders on 9 November to receive their Welcome Money and buy the goods they had been deprived of. Only a fraction of those who fled to the West have ever returned. It was an escape from the repression by the likes of Honecker, who had vowed to keep the Berlin Wall standing for another 100 years but had been dethroned for losing touch with reality.
Enter post-1989 Germany. Attempts were made to convert Hof into a central hub for train services making it a throughfare station, just like in Leipzig or Berlin. This included the introduction of Inter-City and ICE-Trains along the Magistral Route between Nuremberg and Dresden. Sadly though, due to the age of the locomotives, combined with environmental concerns (air pollution), and the reconstruction of some of the tracks, the Bahn moved to eliminate that service by 2004 and instead has worked to electrify the key lines in order to make it a throughfare station again. The project has been slow going and is expected to be finished by 2030 with a line going along the Magistral branching off to include Bayreuth and Marktredwitz. Another one is expected to connect Regensburg.
Still, a lot has to be done to make Hof a central hub again. The station building has a lot of charm regarding its architecture and interior design that makes it a popular place to visit. The Main Hall, with its columns and the coats of arms from Bavaria and Saxony was restored to its original glory and has become a waiting area with a book store, Yorma’s Eateries and a place to dine while waiting for the train. The Royal Waiting Room has also been restored and a restaurant and conference room have taken its place. Still, the front entrance of the station as well as the restrooms are awaiting restoration and revitalization as they have fallen on hard times and need to updated to meet the increasing needs of the passengers who pass through. With its architectural character that had been a blessing, the first beacon of light for the East Germans that fled the run-down buildings and Communist-style „Plattenbau“ highrise apartments with a bland and boring taste, the station in Hof has seen better days, for creases and wrinkles from 1989 are noticeable. That the restoration has been ongoing since that time is a given.
Walking through the halls of Hof Central is like walking back into time, where I was one of many greeting the refugees that had gotten off that train from Prague to flee the eastern half and its years of neglect. Many filled with tears and joy and excitement. It is almost like the scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the opressed had no choice but to leave for greener pastures inspite the rebellion to overthrow the oppressors. Like in the book, there were two different types- one to overthrow the Nazi Regime under Hitler and one that overthrew the communists who had defeated Hitler but imposed their will on others for their benefit. While many have fled for good, never to return except for some reminiscence, others returning to the former East have seen lots of changes for the better.
For many, Hof Central Station was the Symbol of Change that was needed to end the divide, bring Democracy and peace to the People and subsequentially reunite Germany. It is the same Hof Central Station that should serve as a reminder of the efforts taken to Change the landscape and the lessons that should be learned, which is to maintain Democracy and ist principles and never again have what Germany had dealt with in the past. This goes well beyond its structural character, which trickles down to even its lighting.