All photos by Alexander Coggin
If you want to get behind the wheel a 34-ton Soviet-era tank—and really, why wouldn't you?—just do what I did. Go to Berlin, drive two hours east to the municipality of Beerfelde, and find your way to Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule, a tank driving school that advertises itself as "Germany's biggest men's playground." There, you can pay 160 euro (about $180) to hop in one of 13 de-weaponized tanks and cruise around a dirt course for half an hour while an instructor tells you to stop stalling out every few minutes. For an extra 100 euro, you can crush a car.
Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule, which roughly translates to "Tank Fun Driving School," was founded in the early aughts after brothers Axel and Jörg Heyse bought and refurbished a Soviet T-55 tank they saw in a scrapyard in the Czech Republic. Axel had previously worked as a tank instructor in the East German army for a decade, and he and his brother drove their new toy around a neighbor's farm for kicks. "I just couldn't stop thinking about tanks," Axel told a German newspaper in 2009.
After the local government asked them to bring their tank to a local harvest festival, people started calling them nonstop with requests to drive the "iron pig," as they referred to it. In 2005, the brothers started the driving school on 20 acres of farmland in Beerfelde, and by 2009 they had purchased upwards of a dozen tanks that belonged to a variety of different armies, culled from sources "all over Europe." When I pressed him for details, Jörg told my translator, "You know, Eastern European countries like Slovenia. All over."
In the years since, Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule has hired more employees, including several former soldiers, to teach the driving lessons. The school has also been approached by the German and Austrian militaries to offer training courses for soldiers. But the majority of people who show up to drive aren't military types, but rather international tourists or local thrill-seekers. The day I was at the school, there were people of all ages waiting to hop in an iron pig, including a family or two. "You're the typical customer," Jörg said. "Our customers really come from all walks of life."
When you're driving a tank in Germany, it's hard not to think about the history of violence that surrounds you. The T-55 is one of the most popular tanks in the world, and has seen action in the Middle East, Vietnam, Angola, and elsewhere over the last few decades. And according to Jewish Gen, a site run by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Beerfeld, where Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule is located, was home to a facility linked to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg.
Maybe the strangest thing about the tank playground is that the founders relentlessly downplay any connection to the military or those who fetishize it. "[Besides the tanks], there's nothing else in sight [at Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule] that has anything to do with the military," Jörg said in the 2009 interview. "This here is just fun." The instructors I met, many of them former soldiers, echoed this sentiment, and wouldn't talk about the military history aspects of all this tank play.
Maybe they just didn't want to indulge a noisy American tourist. But a tank is not just a big car, it's a big car with a huge gun strapped to it. You don't drive a Soviet or German killing machine and imagine yourself going to the shop to pick up eggs—you probably imagine yourself roaming a battlefield, scorching some earth. Why else would the tanks at the driving school have fake missiles attached to them? And why did we wear outmoded leather helmets, earflaps and all? I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel inspired to make pew! pew! sounds while behind the wheel of my rented metal behemoth.
Dr. Thomas Kühne is a Professor of History, the Strassler Chair in the Study of Holocaust History, and the Director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. When I told him about my experiences at Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule, and asked why the company seemed to be eager to ignore German military history, he said, "[Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule] likely didn't want to talk about war history because they were actively ignoring it or just don't think about it. Germans these days are apathetic to war and the military."
According to Kühne, there are still some Germans who fetishize war history and military culture—notably the far-right groups that have recently been growing in size—"but it's a very small minority… and this group of people interested in the history and ephemera is much smaller than what's in America."
He continued, "Today, Germany is not entirely homogenous, but I would say 70 to 90 percent of Germans have no interested in the military at all."
Panzer-Fun-Fahrschule may brand itself as an entertainment experience—straight-up novelty tourism—but it's hard sometimes to separate the war from the war machines, the historical context. Or maybe I'm overly sensitive, and shouldn't have expected to learn about the past from a company whose website says crushing a bunch of cars with a tank will help customers "forget everyday worries and everyday stress."
After steering the T-55 up and down dirt mounds for a half hour, bouncing non-stop at the wheel, I didn't feel any more relaxed than before; I felt nauseous. I got out of the tank, took off my balaclava, and thanked the soldier-turned-driving-teacher. Then I politely excused myself, took a sip of a beer that my photographer had waiting for me, and promptly vomited.