Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


New York Draft Riots of the same month and year, July 1863 (image: Associated Press)

New York Draft Riots of the same month and year, July 1863 (image: Associated Press)

Ask anyone in Berlin what they associate Kreuzberg with and they are bound to answer: punks/hipsters (depending on the generation they represent), Turks/Spaniards, Schwaben and Americans (ditto); the sweet whiff of Anarchy and riots.

While the first two reflect the rich social structure of the borough, the last ones say something pretty true about its climate. Anarchy should not be taken too literally, though. The riots, on the other hand, very much so.

Contrary to what many believe, the world-famous Mai Krawallen – the heavy riots that broke out in Kreuzberg on May 1, 1987 and have been taking place every year ever since (as already said in one of recent posts, tradition obliges) – were not the first time when Kreuzberg faced such disturbances. Stone-hurling, police-bashing and casual torching of often accidental objects are things of long standing in the traditionally working-class borough. For some they are the only way of making their message heard, for others a way of stirring things up a bit for stirring up´s sake.

Which of the above reasons was behind the first big Kreuzberg riots – the Moritzplatz Krawallen of 1863 – is hard to judge. But it all began in Oranienstrasse 64.

The area of Moritzplatz Krawallen of 1863 with Oranienstrasse 64 marked in red

The area of Moritzplatz Krawallen of 1863 with Oranienstrasse 64 marked in red (Hobrecht Plan 1863)

The house in Oranienstrasse 64, where at the beginning of the 20th century a famous German composer Paul Lincke (the one of Berliner Luft and of Paul-Lincke-Ufer in Kreuzberg 36) would live, belonged back then to one Schneidermeister (master-tailor) Steffen. In March 1862 he rented the ground floor of the building and the flat directly above it to one Cafetier Schulze.

The contract was for 5 years of lease at the price of 400 Thaler a month. Schulze must have been quite a promising tenant since the situation on the housing market was so bad that soon it would not be unusual to offer a maximum 3-month lease instead.

The problem was the lack of payable, affordable accommodation. Berlin´s population had tripled since the beginning of the century: in 1800 the city had only 172,000 inhabitants while in 1880 their number would reach 1,124,000! Although the construction boom was slowly under way, house owners were not prepared to forego their potential profits and squeezed out of their tenants maximum secure income.

The extremely short leases, which in 1863 were indeed signed for 3 months only, worked as a threat and a guarantee of payment at once. The fact that due to this policy at the end of each trimester the staggering 49.6% of all tenants were either left homeless or were forced to search for a new place to live did nothing to improve the relationship between the owners and the tenants. And the hostitlity was becoming more and more open.

So back to Oranienstrasse 64. The initial amiability between Schulze and Steffen, who were also neighbours as Steffen lived in the house he owned, must have suffered its first blow when slightly over a year later the landlord raised the rent from 400 to 450 Thaler. And that despite their alleged agreement that no such rent-hikes would happen. Since Schulze opened a well prospering beer Lokal in the rooms that he rented (according to Steffen not only against the conditions of the contract but also against his clearly expressed wishes), he was now earning a pretty penny with it. It is possible that Steffen wanted to participate in his success as well. Hence the higher rent. It is also possible, though that he had enough of the noise and the late-night fights that took place there regularly (so Steffen).

And here is where the plot thickens and the story becomes one of protest and honourable resistance or one of stubborn malice – depending on interpretation. According to Schulze his landlord demanded he vacate the premises and sued him to make the eviction legal. In his story Schneidermeister Steffen decided to get rid of his tenant to punish him for having the old tile stove in the rooms that he rented replaced with an iron one (the contract, indeed, specifically forbade it).

That was at least what Schulze wrote on the posters he pasted to the windows of his Kneipe two days before the eviction. It was planned for Wednesday the 1st of July – the second round of annual evictions took place at the end of the second trimester and on the last day of June. Although allegedly Schneidermeister Steffen allowed Schulze to stay until July 1st. The latter, in order to inform the whole world about his plight, wrote: „Warning! As a result of having installed an iron stove and due to the order of eviction, I am forced to close my pub.“

The Berliner Gerichtszeitung, an important Berlin newspaper at the time, in its edition from July 2nd, 1863 commented: „Naturally, this warning attracted great attention of passers-by and Schulze´s “Lokal” filled up with customers as never before. Because everybody wanted to know what happens next.

People were coming in throngs to listen to Schulze´s story of woe and once they were there, why not have a beer to cool down in the summer heat? Schulze could hardly keep up with the orders and his voice must have been getting hoarse from the talking and the smoke hanging inside.

It is not hard to predict what happened next, once the beer started getting to his customers´ heads. A group of Schulze´s “protectors” gathered and went upstairs to have a word with the landlord (they later claimed they went to see whether he´d not rather sell the house, now that its price would sink without the pub). After he refused to let them in, says the newspaper, they broke the door and he was „subject to all imaginable Schabernack at the hands of the crowd“, Schabernack being pranks or mischivious tricks. One thing is certain, they were not gentle.

After they left, Steffen sent his son to lodge a complaint and fetch help from the local police station. However, since the crowd that gathered in Oranienstrasse 64 was inside, meaning in the pub and the little garden before it and not on the street as such, there was no reason for the police to bother. A mistake as it turned out.

By the evening the crowd grew so big and so angry that it was no longer possible to ignore it. The section of Oranienstrasse up to Moritzplatz was getting fuller and fuller. After the local police force failed to get it under control, 12 mounted Schutzleute (armed and trained police forces) were sent to deal with the upset citizens. Schulze was ordered to remove the offending posters, which he eventually did, but that did not help much. The crowd, filled with anger and beer, was turning into a mob.

Probably the greatest danger that such a mob poses are its unpredictability and its inability to reason. You do not need much for the situation to get out of hand. On that Monday in June it was a drunken man who demanded fire for his cigar in a less than polite manner. He got a no as an answer and a mighty shove to boot. That shove send him falling backwards onto the cobble-stone street and cracking his skull on it. The crowd gathered around the two men attacked the offender and heavy fighting began.

A fight inside the crowd worked like a magnet, constantly pulling in new participants. On top of that, quick as a lightning there spread a rumour that someone got stabbed by a pickpocket: the thief was trying to ease him of his watch but got caught red-handed and lashed out. Now hundreds of people were pushing in the direction of the fight to have their say in it, too. The chaos turned into pandemonium.

Nothing but Saeuberung – removing every single person from the street could stop it. The troops were given the order to proceed. Somebody died, many were injured and even more got arrested. But that, unbelieveable as it might sound, was only the beginning.

On Tuesday, instead of calming down, the situation spinned out of control even more: Schulze, the evicted pub owner to be, chose to stir things up a bit anew. Not only did he decorate his windows with the posters again but he also glued similar announcements on all Anschlagsaeulen (advertising pillars) around, too. Plus, a clever businessman that he was, he added a little note telling people that the opening of his new establishment shall be announced in the same manner.

Needles to say, his pub almost immediately filled in with customers again and again a river of beer got flowing (Schulze is alleged to have sold 20 tonnes of beer on those days only – more than he could have dreamed of pushing before). People were coming from all over the city to have a look and a whiff of the Skandal playing around Moritzplatz. The pub at No. 64 was full until late in the night.

Since among the guests were also those who “find particular pleasure in such scandals and savagery” (Berliner Gerichtszeitung again), soon Schneidermeister Steffen received another visit. And again after he refused to open the door, they forced their way inside, „invited“ him for a drink downstairs and having their kind offer rejected, became violent and „accidentaly“ broke some things. Like crockery. And furniture. And windows.

Another group followed Steffen’s son dispatched to fetch the police. They were not gentle with him either.

The windows of the pub downstairs had already been broken the day before. Now the mob only finished the “refurbishing”. The place was a ruin.

By the evening of June 30th hundreds and hundreds of people gathered in Moritzplatz again. Refusing to follow the order to disperse, they had to face the mounted police anew. The troops were met by the shouts “Haut sie!” (Hit them!), „Reißt die Hunde von den Pferden – schlagt die Hunde tot!“ (Pull the dogs down from their horses – bash the dogs in!)  and a shower of stones. This time all shop and house owners around Moritzplatz had to shut the doors and the windows to prevent damage but also to keep the rioting crowd from seeking refuge inside.

“To break the resistance the masses were attacked with full ferocity and slowly pushed apart, going street by street. It was not until midnight that the protest ended,” reported the newspaper.

On the following day the riots continued and led again to numerous arrests. However, this time among the arrested there were also some residents of Moritzplatz, accused of encouraging the mob to resist the police by shouting from their windows. Their flats were opened forcefully by hired locksmiths.

On July 1, 1863 Bierwirth Schulze was evicted and all should have stopped. But that hardly mattered any more. In the evening a slightly different crowd (so the Berliner Gerichtszeitung) assembled in Moritzplatz and around it. Unnützer Buben und andere verächtliche Gesindel (good-for-nothing little scoundrels and other contemptible riff-raff) began to yell and whistle like Indianer (those were clearly pre-PC days), jibing at the passengers of the omnibus that had its stop right in the square, offending the ladies in a vulgar manner and generally making sure that the police had every reason to step in.

Yet, surprisingly, the forces of law and order took their time responding. But when they finally did react, it was without holding back their anger. According to the reports of the day, some 150 troops were involved in pacifying the mob. Stones and sabres were in full swing. Once pushed apart, the crowd kept re-gathering, closing around the police forces like water. It wasn’t until the arrival and the intervention of the mounted police that the protesters’ began to lose their standing. The barricades they tried to raise – for example, in Prinzenstrasse where 15 people got eventually arrested or in Wassertorstrasse where a smiliar thing happened – were immediately dismantled.

By 3am it got quiet again. The police made 50 new arrests and the vicinity of Moritzplatz looked more than ever like an abandoned battlefield. To keep the “rebellious element” from seeking refuge outside the city walls, both Kottbusser Tor and Wassertor – two important city gates in the Akzisemauer (Excise and Duty Tax Wall) running in the south of Berlin along Landwehrkanal – were shut and bolted.

Schankwirth (innkeeper) Schulze’s conflict with his landlord, originally fulled by him with beer and cheap Schnaps, turned into regular public unrests. As much as Schulze’s motives could be described as questionable, the Berliners’ wrath at the unsupportable and disastrous property market situation in the city was absolutely understandable. What had been boiling underneath erupted now in Kreuzberg with an ever-growing force. And although the riots were surely also a playfield for the “scoundrels” and the “riff-raff”, those were desperate regular people who showed up around Moritzplatz first and foremost.

The riots did not die down yet. They continued with even greater ferocity for the next two days, Thursday and Friday the 2nd and the 3rd of July respectively. To win control over the crowd the house and shop owners around Moritzplatz were again ordered to lock the doors and keep windows shut (to prevent anyone from hurtling stones from the buildings). Any person stopping and thus “blocking the pavement or the road” was immediately fined 1 Thaler. The city gates remained bolted, too.

The bloody clash between the police and the angry people – who by then arrived from all over Berlin – that ended with new troops being summoned and as many as 250 rioters arrested – left very visible traces in the borough. Smashed street-lamps, shattered windows, burnt carts, broken doors (change “carts” for “cars” and welcome in 2009). The landscape was not much different from the one in May 1987 or on many other occasions in (mostly) SO 36.

Of course, today’s riots are in a way much different from those of 1863 or those of the 1870s. If only because of the different legal position of both sides and the legal bounds applying to them. The fear and the anger might be the same but no police troops would dream of using the same sort of violent force as Schutzpolizei AD 1863. “De-escalation” – a technique aimed at resolving a conflict by decreasing the tension – is the word. It took everyone almost 150 years to learn but it seems to work.

Well, in a way. At least on the side of the police and the city administration: the attempts to keep the stones on the pavement and the cars “un-burnt”, the time around the 1st of May in Kreuzberg is filled with peaceful and family-oriented events. Such as Myfest (no spelling mistake: “my” and “may” combined) organised since 2003 in Oranienstrasse and around the whole of SO36. It is this event – the concerts, the shows, the discussion pannels supposed to re-focus people’s attention on what the 1st of May really is about, namely workers’ or working-class people’s holiday – is thought to be the main factor to have dampened the violence in the borough.

On the other hand, Kreuzberg seems to have a new problem. Call it riot-tourism: groups of “trigger-happy” revolutionary wanna-be’s from all over the country and even from abroad arrive in Berlin shortly before May 1st with the sole purpose of participating in the “fun”. Many of them seem to think that Mai Krawallen are a Kreuzberg version of Spanish encierro or Valencian Tomatina but instead of running with bulls, you bash them (Bulle is a cop in German). And instead of throwing tomatoes, you go for stones and pavement blocks. That would be the 21st century equivalent of the “scoundrels” and the “riff-raff”. They steal the attention that would otherwise be paid to often valid political issues that other groups are trying to voice. But just as in 1863, once the fight breaks out in the midst of a crowd, the magnet starts pulling others in.

It remains to be seen what 2013 will bring with it. In 2009 the 1st of May celebrations ended up with 273 police troops injured, 289 protesters arrested and 44 arrest warrants issued (4 for fire-bomb attacks on police troops and 1 for attempted murder in a fire-bomb attack on a woman who was gravely injured as a result). In 2012, believed by many to have been pretty peaceful in comparison with other years, unexploded bombs were found later. Some of them where huge crowds of Myfest participants were enjoying the shows and the concerts. With their kids and a leisurely glass of beer in the hand. In a huge crowd the future is always uncertain.

As for the man who started the original Exzessen and profited from them so nicely, there can be no certain answer as for his fate later. However, a quick look at Berlin directories for 1863 and 1864 shows one Schankwirth Schulze who in 1864 lived and was running a Lokal in the so called Belitz’schen Haus (a house owned by one Belitz) at the no longer exisiting Platz vor dem Wasserthor. A year earlier Herr Belitz, a Büro Assistent, lived in Adalbertstrasse 81 as the address “Platz vor dem Wasserthor” didn’t exist yet – it was most probably under construction then. It seems that the quarrelsome innkeeper from Oranienstrasse 64 rented the rooms in a just finished building from him and that he did not have any starting his business anew.




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