On the 22 December 1939, 101 people* lost their lives in the worst train accident in the German Reichsbahn history – 42 of the victims came from Binzen.
The second world war had begun four months earlier and the invasion of Poland had already been completed. While many of the men had been called up to join the war effort, many of the residents from the southwestern border region, mostly women and children were evacuated by train to Kleinwalsertal in the Bavarian Alps.
However an expected French led invasion along the Rhine, did not materialise and the decision was made by the Wehrmacht to allow the evacuees to return to their homes in time for Christmas.
On that fateful evening, a special train left Oberstdorf in Bavaria, packed full with 500 people, excited to be able to spend Christmas at home. They came from Weil am Rhein and from the many villages surrounding the German town (the area known as Markgräflerland, on the southwestern border with France and Switzerland).
Recently the local newspaper (die Badische Zeitung) remembered the 75th anniversary of the disaster by publishing an interview with a sister and two brothers from Binzen who survived the accident. They shared how their mother was so nervous about the journey that their father had taken time off so he could come and personally accompany them home. While many were pushing to get into the front carriages, that would be warmer during the long journey, the father held the family back until the rush had passed. "He was always the one who called for calm", remarked his daughter. As most of the fatalities were in the front carriages, the siblings have often wondered if it was the calm nature of their father that saved their lives.
The passenger train and the freight train carrying coal, both travelling at 60 km/h, collided at 10:17pm. The explosion caused by the collision could be heard across Markdorf and further afield.
Hans Krebs who was 9 years old at the time recalled the moment of the collision, "there were two strong jolts, in fact with the first one we fell out of the overhead baggage nets." At least they landed on other family members who had slipped off their seats. In the final seconds, the driver of the passenger train had applied the emergency break. The second jolt was the collision. "After that there was no light and for a moment it was very quiet". "Then everyone started shouting". The father went out to investigate and then came back to tell them to stay put while he went to offer assistance. Later he would return covered in blood, while outside the emergency services dealt throughout the night with the carnage.
Despite it being a dark, foggy night, the investigation would later establish that the accident was the result of multiple failings that ultimately came down to human error. The signalling employees at Markdorf station had forgotten about the specially chartered train that was approaching, and had not followed proper signalling clearance procedures, so that the freight train was given the all-clear to proceed on the signal track railway - directly into the path of the oncoming passenger train. 101 people died that night, including 56 children and 27 women, 47 were injured. The majority of the victims came from Binzen 42, followed by Egringen 7, Fischingen 2, Haltingen 7, Weil am Rhein 27 and Welmlingen 13.
99 coffins were on display in Markdorf town square – those on the right for the children, left those of the women and the few men who lost their lives.
The Bodensee-Rundschau newspaper reported that the Wehrmacht solders on leave, an SS-Group, the Gauleiter, his assistant, the Lord Mayor of Markdorf and senior party members were all present.
The Hitler-Jugend formed a guard of honour. The flags of the Großdeutschen Reiches were at half mast. In his speech to the mourners, Gauleiter Robert Wagner sought to bring comfort to the German people by appealing to their national pride and reminding them that as Germans at war, they had a different view of death. Every death was a sacrifice that was not in vain. Wagner spoke of "the sacrifice of the people for a better future" and from "dying in the peoples battle for life".
Not wanting this tragedy to negatively affect the morale of the people, the NSDAP (the ruling socialist party) tried to prevent the incident from being widely reported. With war now in its first winter, this event could not be allowed to affect the morale of the people.
On the 25 December 1939, the coffins of the victims came to Binzen and were laid out in the Laurentiuskirche (Reformed Church). Gradually the children came to realise that their school friends, neighbours and relatives from the village were no longer there.
Today in Binzen a small plaque beside the war memorials list the names of the 42 people who tragically lost their lives that fateful evening, their bodies are laid to rest in the adjoining graveyard.
* The final number of fatalities including those who died later from their injuries was 106