13. October 2017

A cacophony of voices akin to Babylon, a wild night life and poverty: In the inter-War years, Berlin differed decisively from other German cities. Something also reflected in its literature.

By Julia Schmitz

World War I inflicted a sharp break on cultural life in Germany, and above all on Berlin: Many authors and artists fought for their lives on the front, died there, or returned to the city traumatized and emotionally broken. And it did not offer them any peace either: In the Greater Berlin Act, several towns that previously did not belong to a district (and they included Lichtenberg, Schöneberg, Charlottenburg and Neukölln) were integrated, and Berlin’s population doubled from 1.9 to 3.6 million, making it the third largest city in the world.

The city resembled a fairground. The fronts of the buildings were smeared with bright light, and they put the stars to shame.

Erich Kästner, Going to the Dogs, 1929

Newcomers from all over the world, war invalids, prostitutes, industrial workers and the upper classes made for a melting pot with a constantly seething potential for conflict. The expansion of the underground network and enlargement of the sunlight-deprived tenement houses in the poorer districts, the market criers and junk dealers made for a constant level of noise.

Full of people from the cellar to the attic

So it is hardly surprising that when after years in prison in Tegel Franz Biberkopf – the protagonist from the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin published 1929 – finds his head throbbing ominously on traveling to downtown Berlin again: “Crowds, what teeming crowds. How they mill around,” we can follow his expressive thoughts, “On Alexanderplatz they are tearing up the road for the underground train. You walk on boards. The electric trolleys cross the square and go up Alexanderstrasse through Münzstrasse as far as Rosenthaler Tor. There are streets to the right and left. In the stets the houses stand close together. They are full of people from the cellar to the attic. Below are the stores. […] But above and behind the stores are apartments, and at the back are courtyards, side buildings, lateral buildings, buildings behind the tenements accessed via a courtyard, backs of buildings.”

Alfred Döblin, Image via dhm.de

Berlin in the 1920s was above all overstimulation of the senses on a grand scale: “[...] eat fish, then you will stay slim, healthy and well. Ladies stockings, real artificial silk, you have here a fountain pen with a wonderful gold nib,” the omnipresent billboards and neon signs are not only too much for Franz Biberkopf, but also impress the “Artificial Silk Girl” (Das kunstseidene Mädchen) (1932) by Irmgard Keun: “Berlin settled on me like a quilt with fiery flowers. [...] We have here a veritable excess of neon signs. I was surrounded by twinkling.” In his novel “Going to the Dogs” (Gang vor die Hunde) (1929), which initially appeared under the title Fabian in a subtler version, Erich Kästner joins the various descriptions: “The city resembled a fairground. The fronts of the buildings were smeared with bright light, and they put the stars to shame.”

The orgy begins

People had furnished lodgings in war widows’ spacious apartments and sought to compensate for a boring working day by having a wild nightlife. “The panorama of female voluptuousness accompanied by music excited the clerks, bookkeepers and retailers jostling against the barrier. Then the dance master shouted that they could make a dash for the women, and they fell upon them. […] The orgy could begin,” is how the main figure in Kästner’s Gang vor die Hunde describes the nightly pleasure.

Erich Kästner, Image by Basch, [...] / Opdracht Anefo [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons

Once closing time came around at one in the morning people moved on to illegal night clubs in private apartments, where ample alcohol and drugs were consumed and same-sex love was practiced. “There are clubs where women sit wearing stiff collars and ties, who are frightfully proud of being perverse, as if that sort of thing were not a gift nobody could do anything about,” the “artificial silk girl” comments ironically. 

The sour smell

However, not everything was glitter and gold in the city. While in the West people strolled along the Kurfürstendamm wearing fox fur stoles, the tenements in the east of the city were home to abject poverty: “In order to get an idea of how people live you have to venture into the courtyards, the first grim ones, and the second grim ones, you have to observe the pale children hanging around and squatting on the steps of the three, four and more entrances to the dark lateral building, moving and grotesque creatures, like Zille drew and painted them. […] Anyone who has the opportunity to feel their way up the narrow, gloomy stairs to the miserable kitchen-cum-living rooms reeking of cabbage and the bedrooms with the sour smell of infants can 'learn'”, argues Franz Hessel, who in 1929 published his book “Walking in Berlin” (Spazieren in Berlin).

Irmgard Keun, Image via uni-duesseldorf.de

There were much worse fates. Georg Fink, who was actually called Kurt Münzer, describes in his novel “I am starving” (Mich hungert) (1929) the misery of the small boy, who is forced to beg by his father – but knows that it is possible to have even less: The courtyard was narrow, with tall buildings around it, the lavatory adjoined our wall. Thirty-one tenants lived in the front building and the wings, 163 people with the young men and women who rented out beds from other people (“Schlafburschen” and “Bettmädchen”). […] In the hundred rooms and kitchens of the houses you could see the poverty of the world, and yet it was not the most bitter variety. After all, there were other rooms, there was a roof, an oven. Others had the benches in the groves, lived under bridges, or ramshackle summer houses.”

Order in Paradise

Like in real life an ever darker shadow also darkened the literature of the Weimar Republic – anti-Semitism gained ground. Some authors were taken in by the showy gestures of the National Socialists including Franz Biberkopf: “Franz now sells national newspapers. He has nothing against the Jews, but he is in favor of order, because order must be in Paradise, everyone must appreciate that. He has seen the paramilitary troopers, the young men, and their leader, too, that is something.”

Egon Erwin Kisch, Image via gisele-freund.com

It is an author’s subtle criticism of people who accept Hitler’s populism without asking any questions – and which just a few years later led to books by popular authors in the Weimar Republic like Alfred Döblin, Erich Kästner, Egon Erwin Kisch and Kurt Tucholsky landing on the fire during the mass burning of books. Nonetheless, Berlin’s appeal continued to be echoed in literature – and continues to do so today.