Where in the world is Sonneberg?

Sonneberg, a small town of about 20,000 souls, calls itself the “Weltspielzeugstadt”! Loosely translated it would mean “The World’s Toy Capital”. Quite a boast for a town of that size, but, as we shall find out, there is indeed some merit to this extravagant claim. 

The town is on the southern edge of the “Thuringian Forest”, a very famous area known for it’s winter sports and summer outdoor activities. It is in the German state of Thüringen, just across the border from Bavaria. Until the German reunification in 1990, Sonneberg was part of the former communist East Germany (DDR). After the reunification, the rail link to Nürnberg (the closest major city) was reestablished and electrified. Deutsche Bahn runs a regional express service between the two cities, using class 442 electric multiple units. From Sonneberg on the railway is not electrified and continues to the little town of Lauscha. That stretch is run by the Süd Thüringen Bahn using diesel “Regio Shuttles” manufactured by Stadler.

 A Deutsche Bahn AG class 442 Electric multiple unit. 

A Deutsche Bahn AG class 442 Electric multiple unit. 

A Süd Thüringer Bahn Stadler “Regio Shuttle” diesel unit at Sonneberg. 

Already during the late 18th century Sonneberg was known for the manufacturing of toys. Wood was around in abundance and was the basic raw material for the toys. Remember those typical German nutcrackers? Well, the best ones were made in Sonneberg. Sometime during the 19th century the good bürgers of Sonneberg discovered the advantages of papier-mâché and took to it with a vengeance. Thus the doll manufacturing industry was born. Teddy bears were also made in that little town. By the early 1920’s reputedly about 20 per cent of all the world’s toys were fabricated in Sonneberg. This led the US chains Kresge (the forerunner of Kmart) and Woolworth to establish offices and warehouses in Sonneberg.  

 The Woolworth warehouse in Sonneberg in 1928. Photograph from the collection of the German Bundesarchiv

The Woolworth warehouse in Sonneberg in 1928. Photograph from the collection of the German Bundesarchiv

 The former Kresge warehouse in Sonneberg.                                         

The former Kresge warehouse in Sonneberg.                                         

Not all was rosy in Sonneberg though. The toy manufacturing during the early part of the 20th century was a cutthroat business. Business margins were thin and one of the consequences was the need to produce the goods ever more cost effective and cheaply. More often than not it also resulted in workers being forced to work for ever longer hours, for less pay in deplorable conditions. All this did culminate in uprisings, which were brutally put down. It was fertile ground for radicalism and such. Something which the Nazis eventually skillfully exploited.

I do not think that I need to go into the awful details of the history of the Third Reich. Neither do I think that this blog is an appropriate venue for such a historical dialogue. Suffice it to say that Sonneberg was not immune or exempt from being involved in Nazi atrocities. 

Sonneberg was the site of a “branch” of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Forced labor was used in munitions manufacturing. In April of 1945 the Germans knew that the end was close. However the Nazis did not want the approaching Allies to see and to liberate the poor souls, but instead force marched them towards the East. There were many of these “death marches” (Todesmarch in German). 467 people were murdered during this one alone. The photograph below depicts one of the numerous monuments commemorating this event.

Here are a few photographic impressions of Sonneberg:

 Sonneberg Train Station

Sonneberg Train Station

 The Toy Museum in Sonneberg

The Toy Museum in Sonneberg

 Sonneberg City Hall

Sonneberg City Hall

“Downtown” Sonneberg

Sonneberg has lots of old, renovated houses. Notice the sort of bay window. That is called an “Erker” in German and is very often found on buildings here.

More “Erker”! Hard to believe, but this is one of the main streets in town. The restaurant on the right was great. We ate there several times and had a good time.

 A little park in the middle of town.

A little park in the middle of town.

 In the hills above Sonneberg

In the hills above Sonneberg

 The window of a doll repair shop...

The window of a doll repair shop…

The only dilapidated building we did see in Sonneberg. How ironically appropriate: “Gesellschaft für Deutsch Sowjetische Freundschaft”, the “Association of German Soviet Friendship”

In 1949 PIKO was founded in Sonneberg. PIKO is a manufacturer of model trains. During the  German Democratic Republic (DDR) communist era it was a state run enterprise. After the German reunification the German government proceeded to attempt to sell and privatize all the former East German state run companies. PIKO was eventually bought in 1992 by Mr. Wilfer, who still is the company CEO. PIKO has managed to capture a significant share of the model train market. Their G scale line particularly has taken off, because it hits the sweet spot of price, value and model accuracy. For example they do not do silly gimmicks like cab doors which open! It used to be that LGB was the undisputed market leader. However they are pricing themselves out of the market and the takeover by Märklin has not helped LGB either.

 A PIKO G scale Deutsche Reichsbahn Class 132 diesel electric locomotive owned by the author. This beast weighs a bit over 11 pounds and is roughly two and a quarter feet long. The pulling power is incredible!

A PIKO G scale Deutsche Reichsbahn Class 132 diesel electric locomotive owned by the author. This beast weighs a bit over 11 pounds and is roughly two and a quarter feet long. The pulling power is incredible!

PIKO still makes all of their G scale model train stock, as well as their HO scale “Classic” product line, in Sonneberg. And every two years PIKO arranges an “Open House” of it’s production facility in Sonneberg. So now one can easily guess why Brad and I decided to pay a visit to Sonneberg. (With a consequent week long trip to Vienna, Austria. More about that in another blog entry) PIKO claims that around 15000 visitors showed up for this year’s event. PIKO uploaded a video about the “Open House” to YouTube. Unfortunately it is in German only, but still worth watching:

Several charter trains were also part of the event. We happened to be at the Sonneberg train station when one of them pulled in.

A former “Deutsche Reichsbahn” class 50 steam locomotive. A relatively light weight 1 E configuration (2-10-0 “Decapod” in the Whyte classification system), used for both passenger and freight service. It is owned by the Meiningen Dampflok Werke , which is ultimately owned by Deutsche Bahn AG, the German Railway.

More about the PIKO experience in my next blog entry.

All photographs by Brad Wing and Ralf Meier, unless otherwise stated. Brad uses his iPhone 7. I mostly use a Sony a7R II and an iPhone 7 Plus.

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