Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin



Hugo Heimann, the 56st honorary citizen of Berlin and the man who gave Berlin its first professionally managed free public library, dies in New York. The library he fully sponsored and run was – where else? – in Kreuzberg.


Heimann, the son of a Jewish publisher from Konitz (Polish Chojnice these days) never graduated from the highly respected Graue Kloster Gymnasium in Berlin he attended thanks to his mother´s second husband, Mortier Levy. Instead, he went to London to learn the business of publishing and selling books from the best. Four years later, in 1884 he returned to Berlin only to get the second best job he could dream of: he became a junior partner in I. Guttentag´sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, one of the leading Berlin publishers of that time (their focus was on law literature and court documents, including the legal codes of all instances). After Immanuel´s Guttentag´s decision to retire, the best job was also his: in 1890 he became the head of the house. After securing a publishing contract with the Ministry for Justice the business was running splendidly. So splendidly in fact that already in 1898 Heimann could sell it at a profit that secured his immediate and permanent retirement.

Unlike many other successful Rentiere of the day, however, he was far from enjoying life of no trouble and plenty of amusement. As a fervent socialist and a democrat, who joined the SPD party still as a very much active capitalist, Heimann devoted his time, energy and money to the purpose of changing the society enough to make it bearable for all.

Befriended with August Bebel, Paul Singer and other prominent social-democrats of the late 19th century, he shouldered the responsibility for educating the working class and he footed the bills for it, as well.

In 1899 he donated 600 000 Marks to fulfil his little personal dream: a free public library exactly like those he saw in England. Upon hearing what amount of money he meant to spend on what was in fact a charity programme August Bebel was rendered speechless. And making August Bebel lost for words was no mean feat: he was after all one of the greatest orators Germany ever produced. 600 000 Marks was – for the sake of comparison – the 1890 start capital of a company known later as Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, the forefather of today´s crib of all things Mercedes.

The new library, known as Öffentliche Bibliothek und Lesehalle zu unentgeltlichen Benutzung für Jedermann moved into a small Gartenhaus (a separate back building behind the main house, typical of Kreuzberg and Berlin architecture), where it opened for business on the 26st of October 1899. The address was Alexandrinenstrasse 26 (sadly, gone).

Even though it was a public library, whose target (to use today´s marketing parlance) were workers of both sexes and all ages, it was the most professionally run establishment of this sort in the whole Kaiserliche Reich. Heimann, not being an amateur himself, did not shy away from asking other professionals for help. He was assisted by the future president of the Reichsbibliothek (The National Library) and by Adolf Braun, a social-democratic journalist who helped catalogue the collection.

The library, which in 1908 moved to its own freshly built headquarters in Adalbertstrasse 41, was an instant hit. The 7,000 volumes they started with soon turned into 20,000. Five spacious reading rooms (a far cry from the rather modest conditions in Alexandrinenstrasse) offered 150 seats which could be used to read, for example, the 500 newspapers and magazines the library provided.

During the first year after its opening it counted 90,000 visitors. Over 50% of whom were working class. A lion share of those 50% were women – a truly unusual and revolutionary thing in the days when female non-citizens (no vote, no franchise, no citizen) had enough other things to do.

The titles the library stocked were very carefully selected – amusement literature or the equivalent of today´s chick-lit for both sexes was definitely not the focus here. Heimann, who apart from being a philanthropist and very much involved politician (he was an MP, the head of the parliamentary budget committee and a member of the leading political bodies in the land), wanted people to improve by learning. Knowledge being power, he believed working class could better themselves by reading about the world the live in and understanding its ways in order to change them. Thus he had the locksmiths, the bricklayers, the ironers (Plätterinen were ironing tons of fabric per day), the laundry girls read on the subjects such as political economy, natural sciences, history, social sciences, socialism and social democracy. And they did.

Coming in drones they could either read them in one of the reading rooms or borrow books to take home. Heimannsche Volksbibliothek was the first library in Berlin where no surety or guarantee from a third party was needed to take a volume out. Despite the criminal potential the idea had (book thieves, the nicest among crooks, are still common even today), per year for every 4,000 borrowed books only one (!) volume never found its way back to Herr Heimann´s establishment.

Even the opening hours were organised in such a way that the working class customers could profit the most: on weekdays 5.30 PM – 10.00 PM and Saturdays/Sundays 9.00 AM – 1.00 AM and then 3.00 PM – 6.00 PM after the siesta.

Unfortunately, History did not mean it well with the place. After a while the upkeep costs were eating up the money donated by Heimann quicker than expected. One of the reasons for it was the extra task that the library took upon itself: cataloguing and organising the SPD (German Socialist Party) archive to make it available for all interested as well. Unfortunately, fascinating as this story happens to be, there is not enough space to write about it in full here (a future project on my list). Suffice to say, the library was suffering financial trouble despite Heimann´s active work towards gaining new sponsors and supporters, and although SPD paid a small annual donation, too (12,000 Marks – 2,000 out of which came from the party members directly).

The war hit the library with particular vehemence. The number of visitors dropped from 134,360 in 1914 to 79,340 in 1918 – not surprising considering that most of their readers were dead on one of the numerous WW1 fronts or working doing the jobs of the husbands, fathers and sons they lost.

One third fewer books were borrowed.

On October 24th, 1919 Hugo Heimann closes the library down. On the 31st of December the same year the reading rooms follow. The money´s out. After 20 years of providing people with the greatest form of entertainment the human kind ever came up with, after serving 2,400,000 guests and lending 1,300,000 volumes to them, the library was forced to close. However…

The news of the library shutting down spread fast and caused great public outcry. What goes around, comes around and so did Heimann´s good deed: his friends and the book lovers (some of them pretty fresh in their love for the printed word) appealed to the city council to save the library. And won. After Hugo Heimann offered to give the whole collection and the rooms to the city of Berlin as a gift, the city of Berlin kindly accepted. And so in January 1920 in Adalbertstrasse 41 a new sign was hung above the door: “The 31st Berlin Public Library: Hugo Heimannsche Bücherei und Lesehalle”. The five employees of Heimann´s could keep their jobs as well.

Although more than 1,000 volumes of mostly socialist literature were passed onto the Stadtsbibliothek to enrich their progressive (!) literature collection and despite the fact that the library as such lost some of its old charm and appeal, the workers of Berlin kept coming here to read and thus become men and women of power until 1933.

Not surprisingly in that year, only several days after Hitler and his Nazis finally got what they wanted – the rule of the souls and the flesh – the name of Hugo Heimann: a Jew, a socialist, and a great politician who did more for German working class than Führer and his allegedly Volks-loving hordes ever would, was removed from the library´s front. It was replaced with a poster: “Juden unerwünscht”. Jews not welcome…

The library or both of the library seats: the one in Alexandrinenstrasse 26 as well as the house in Adalbertstrasse 41 were destroyed during the WW2 air raids. Along with tens of thousands of other books burnt also the manuscripts bequeathed by Marx to Engels and which later became part of the SPD archive built by Heimann for the party.

As for Hugo Heimann himself, he managed to save his and his wife´s lives by leaving Germany days after the Cristal Night – the night when Nazi troops and supporters openly attacked Jewish shops, houses and private flats as well as their owners in Berlin. With the help of the British consul they managed to join their two sons living in the USA already since 1933. The daughter, Johanna Heimann, stayed behind to continue her work for the charitable organisation she was involved with. Like tens of thousands of other Berlin Jews she was deported and died in the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

Hugo Heimann continued his political work in the US where he joined the German speaking wing of the Social Democratic Federation of America. In 1947, along with seven other former German MPs who had to leave the country under Hitler he issued an appeal to the Allies for just peace conditions that should be worked out together with a democratic government of post-war Germany – one undivided German state.

When in November of the same year he received news from Berlin that the city re-instated him as one of its honorary citizens – the title he was awarded in 1926 and then for sadly obvious reasons lost in 1935 – he was very deeply moved, indeed.

Today several Berlin schools, streets, a library and even a bridge bear his name. None of them in Kreuzberg.

P.S. I have tried hard to find images of the library online – used every method known to amateur hackers apart from direct break-in or bribery – yet failed. The only photo I could locate in the depths of Internet is covered with so much copyright that it was positively barking at me as I was just looking. So I passed. However, I do promise to add some pictures later. For as the lady Chief Inspector in the crime series Luther said once: “Everything is somewhere.” I could not agree more.


  1. berlioz1935
    Mar 3, 2012

    What a great story. It needs a wider readership. You are doing a great job. Jews did contribute so much to the cultural life of Berlin. I told a man on the train the other day about this as he was reading the book “The Book Thieves”. I did not know anything about Heimann or his library. Kreuzberg is an amazing “Bezirk”.

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