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 so outrageous that it even made news in foreign newspapers? The tradition is dead, not the least because of the fact that hardly any Berliners wear hats these days and if they do, their head-dress rarely indicates their social status. It used to be different, though.
In 1891 the Parisian “L’Illustration” – a popular weekly which in the same year became the first French magazine 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 magazine’s readership, nearly all of them members of middle or upper classes, were particularly appalled by a Berlin custom known as “Hut ab!” (“Respect!” But also “Off with the hat!”). No wonder, considering that had they found themselves in Berlin during the last night of the year, they would have belonged to 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 Berlin 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 unrest in Berlin. The March Revolutions, as they came to be known, were first open expression of the city’s underprivileged class’s deep frustration with their plight. And the hat – a top hat in particular – became one of the symbols of their oppression: it was a rather expensive item worn nearly exclusively by well-heeled gentlemen in the Berlin Gesellschaft (society). So knocking it off their heads gave those less fortunate in life a nice opportunity to take the “arrogant rich” down a peg or two.
This is how the Berliner Volks-Zeitung of January 6, 1870 described brutal events of the Silvester night in Berlin that year: “Between 1 AM and 2 AM on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Leipziger Straße a horde of 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 slow reaction time when present were hardly surprising: just like the fireworks ban (badly missed in the city these days) and the absolute ban on shooting firearms on New Year’s Eve, the nasty 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 until the Second World War) and referring to the events of December 31 1869, we learn that those who heard the Hut ab! call behind their backs, had every reason to flee fast. A doctor and his wife who travelled in a coach through central Berlin got attacked by a group of tradition-faithful youths: 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.