A few weekends each year, 40-year-old Heiko Schibilski likes to kick back at Heyse’s Tank Driving Fun School in Schönfelde, a small town in eastern Germany. “It reminds me of my childhood,” he told me one recent Saturday after a morning of tank driving. He had been just 8, he explained, when a passing Soviet soldier first offered him a ride in a T-64 battle tank.
Heyse’s Tank Driving Fun School traces its roots to the early 2000s, when a man named Axel Heyse and his brother came across an abandoned tank in a Czech scrap heap during a vacation in Prague. The brothers, who had both served in the now defunct East German army, thought it would be fun to take the Cold War relic home and drive it around a field. They soon discovered that they weren’t the only ones keen on the idea of driving an old tank, and a business was born.
Today Heyse’s school, which is about an hour’s drive from Berlin, has 13 tanks and attracts tens of thousands of customers a year, many of them for corporate retreats, bachelor parties, and birthdays. A half-hour spin in one of the armored vehicles runs €145 (about $160). For an extra €260 ($290), you can use your tank to crush an old car. “Forget your everyday worries and daily stresses,” the tank school’s Web site advises. “Switch off and do something completely crazy.”
Heyse’s success has inspired several copycat tank playgrounds around the country. Perhaps because many Germans are sensitive about their warmongering history, German media reports mostly resist the notion that the phenomenon might signal nostalgia for old-school militarism. “We’re not trying to play war here,” Heyse told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung. A writer for Die Welt, another paper, described Heyse’s clientele as a peaceful bunch including “neighborhood children cavorting with pensioners and conscientious objectors.” “The tanks here sound friendly,” she added. “No guns.”
Ulrich Reinhardt, a researcher who studies demographic change and consumer behavior at the Foundation for Future Studies, in Hamburg, attributes recreational tank driving’s popularity to Germans’ vaunted interest in “machines and technical things,” as well as to a male drive for “strength and power.”
“It’s just like being interested in old cars,” Schibilski told me. “Except it’s a tank.”