Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that Berlin used to have a rather peculiar New Year´s Eve tradition that seemed to be so outrageous that it even made news in foreign newspapers?
In 1891 the Parisian “L´Illustration” – a popular weekly which in the same year became the first French paper to publish a photo instead of a drawn illustration – presented a text on various New Year´s Eve traditions followed in Europe and North America. The Berlin custom known as “Hut ab!” (“Respect!” But also “Off with the hat!”) stood out as particularly unappealing to the newspaper´s readers. No wonder, considering that had they found themselves in Berlin during the last night of the year, they would have been exactly the target group for potential attacks. Most likely, not only would they have had their hats knocked off their heads but the chance was that the pranksters would have also beaten the living daylights out of them. In reality, “Hut ab!” meant “Run for your life!”
“Hut ab!” tradition was born sometime around 1848 – a year of heavy social unrests in Berlin. The March Revolutions, as they came to be known, were also an expression of deep frustration of the underprivileged classes. And the hat – a top hat in particular – became one of the symbols of their oppression: it was a rather expensive item worn by the well-heeled gentlemen in the Berlin society. So knocking it off their heads gave those less lucky in life a nice opportunity to take the “arrogant rich” down a peg or two.
This is how the “Berliner Volks-Zeitung” of January 6th, 1870 described the brutal events of the Silvester night in Berlin: “Between 1am and 2am on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Leipziger Strasse a horde of some 100-150 young men, most of them between 16- and 20-years-old, kept attacking every single pedestrian who sported a top hat, by pelting them with snow balls and pieces of ice. They continued until they managed to topple their hats off, however, did not stop even after they had succeeded. They continued until their victims found refuge in one of the neighbouring houses. Women were torn off the arms of their male companions and insulted in every possible manner. Every coach was attacked and bombarded with pieces of ice: window panes got smashed and those sitting inside offended. The same happened around Dönhoffplatz but no police was to be seen anywhere.”
The absence of the police, or its lack of reaction when present, was hardly surprising: just like the fireworks ban and the absolute ban on shooting firearms on New Year´s Eve (both recommendable bans also these days), the pranks of the “Hut ab!” mob were simply ignored. It was impossible to punish all law-breakers so why bother? On top of that, some of the policemen might have secretly rejoiced in seeing the better-off get the worse end of the stick, even if only for one night.
In another short report from that Silvester night in Berlin, published by Tante Voss (published in the capital, the “Vossische Zeitung” was one of the leading German newspapers) and referring to the events of 31st December 1869, we learn that those who heard the Hut ab! call behind their backs, had every reason to run away fast. A doctor and his wife who travelled in a coach through central Berlin got attacked by a group of tradition-loving youngsters: they stopped them, smashed the coach windows, pulled out the couple onto the street and beat them up senseless. Even the horse got knocked around badly. The man and his wife were saved by the coachman, who carried them both away from the rabid crowd and towards safety. It is not clear whether he did the same with the horse.