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Germany

School Keeps Germany's Old Windmill Blades Turning

The age-old art of milling is enjoying a revival in the modern world. At a school near Berlin, students can still learn the trade.

Windmill near Erfurt, Germany

For those at the training program, historic windmills aren't just nice to look at

Only a few of the eight trainees can stand up in the small, circular chamber as they listen to their instructor.

Michael Schillhaneck explains how the fantail turns the low room they are crammed into around its own axis towards the wind, while the windshaft and other levers assist in the movement.

The chamber is called the cap, and sits on top of an historic windmill in Berlin's southern suburb of Britz.

Up here, Schillhaneck is teaching his latest class, a group of five men and two women who are keen to take their first steps towards becoming certified millers.

Serving other purposes

Although modern, white power-generating windmills have become a normal sight all over Germany, there are still historic flour mills, too. Some were converted into homes, others into restaurants.

And several of the 900 historic mills which the local millers' association oversees in the Berlin region still grind flour.

Windmill in Thuringia, Germany

Many historic flour mills have been converted into houses or restaurants

The milling trade has long been extinct in Germany, but technical monuments like the Britz mill operated by Schillhaneck need trained staff to maintain the mechanism.

Mario Cochius is a student at the 13th course currently being held at the Britz mill. It is the only education center for certifying windmill millers in Germany and offers a two-year training program, at the end of which successful students are awarded an official miller's diploma by a Dutch examination committee.

From different walks of life

Cochius, a trained electro-mechanic, read of the milling course in a local paper. He told his wife, a fitter and truck driver, about it and they signed up.

"We do lots of crazy things," Cochius says. "This is just what we needed. And it's better than slouching in front of the TV."

Among their fellow students are a teacher, civil servants and a restaurant owner. "I'm interested in historic machinery," says Alfred Hermann von Luenen, who will retire soon. "It's good to have a new occupation."

Once they are certified millers, the non-profit club running the mill hopes to keep them as volunteers. The club members grind grain into flour which is then baked into organic bread by a Berlin bakery.

Schillhaneck, himself a certified miller since 2005, was teaching his first lesson on milling history in a draughty container at the foot of the impressive 20-meter-high (66-foot-high) mill with its 25-meter-wide blades.

Its bulging shape and white-framed windows give the mill an inviting, homely look which is far removed from that of its spindly power-generating modern cousins.

Over the next two years, the trainees will attend theory classes and gather experience on site twice a week. A field trip to the Netherlands, homeland of windmills, is also part of the course.

Milling's dangers

You should wear special millers' overalls," Schillhaneck says. "They're tight-fitting, so you don't risk getting caught in the rotating machinery. Working in the mill, we can't just turn off the mechanism at will."

Milling can be a dangerous business. On the mill's second floor, two small doors open to the outside gallery circling the structure at four-and-a-half meters above ground.

It is vital to chose the right exit, Schillhaneck explains -- the wind wheel adjusts to the wind direction, and if you take the wrong exit, a blow from the powerful blades can be fatal.

Precise hearing also is crucial. "The stones have to sing," says the teacher. "That's when the space between the bed and runner stones is just right. But if they're rumbling, there's the danger of sparks and a dust explosion."

Original equipment

Fire is the main menace to the historic building, where the brake wheel, shafts and gear mechanisms constructing its inner life are all made of wood.

The 18th-century equipment was put back in place in 1985, replacing a diesel drive that had been installed in the 1930s.

Some of the junior trainees still look on helplessly as they listen to Schillhaneck's explanations. But they're determined to learn and revive a tradition which -- in the form of simple rubbing stones -- was born in Babylonia more than 6,000 years ago.

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