Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Happy birthday to Kurt Tucholsky, a brilliant writer, cabaret text author and critic!
Born on January 9th 1890 in Lübecker Strasse 13 in Berlin-Moabit, he wrote under many interesting pen names: Peter Panter, Theobald Tiger, Kaspar Hauser, Paulus Bünzly, Theobald Körner, Old Shatterhand and, last but not least, Ignaz Wrobel.
Here is one of his many, many unforgettable texts published in 1919 by the Berliner Tageblatt.
1919-07-21 Ignaz Wrobel for the Berliner Tageblatt
Quanquam ridentem dicere verum Quid vetat? (What prevents me from speaking the truth with a smile?)
Over this city there is no sky. One could even doubt if the sun shines round here at all; you only see it when it blinds you as you try to cross to the other side of Ku’damm. Admittedly, people complain about the weather but in Berlin there is no weather as such.
Berliners have no time. Berliners come mostly from Posen or Breslau and have no time whatsoever. They are forever busy doing something, making phone-calls or appointments, coming to meetings in a rush and a little too late – their schedule is very busy. You do not work in this city – here you drudge and you labour.
In Berlin even leisure and pleasure are a form of work: you spit in your hands before you begin and expect to have gained something by the end. Berliners are not industrious, they are always wound up. Sadly, they have completely forgotten why we are on this earth at all. In heaven – provided that this is where Berliners would go – they’d also have something to do at four in the afternoon.
Sometimes you see Berlin ladies sitting on their balconies. They are glued to those stone boxes which call they houses – the Berlin ladies sit there and enjoy their break. They are either between two phone calls or are waiting for their appointment or – which happens less often – were too early or too quick doing something and now sit there and wait. And then out of a sudden they shoot out like an arrow from the string to grab the telephone. Or to dash to their next appointment.
With a furrowed brow – sit venia verbo! – the city pulls its cart and never changes the tracks. It doesn’t see that it is moving in circles and never gets anywhere else. Berliners do not do conversation. Now and then you see people talk to someone but they are not having a chat – they just throw their monologues at one another .
Berliners cannot listen either. They are itching for the other one to stop talking and then simply weave in their own text. This is how many a Berlin conversation are made.
Berlin ladies are straightforward and sober. Also where love is concerned. Secrets they have none. They are dear, good girls, so gladly and often celebrated by the gallant poets of local beauty.
Berlin men do not enjoy their life, unless, of course, they have earned money. They don’t care much for being chummy an gregarious because it requires too much effort – they meet acquaintances, get a bit laced and get sleepy at 10 PM.
Berliners are prisoners of their Machine. They are passengers, theatre goers, restaurant guests and employees. Human beings much less so. The Machine pulls and picks at their nerve endings and they give in to it with no questions asked. They do whatever the city demands of them but live they, sadly, do not.
Berliners charge through their days in a humdrum rush and when the day ends, they believe it is Trouble and Toil that they leave behind. Nothing more. You can spend seventy years living in this city without the smallest benefit for your undying soul.
In the old days Berlin used to be a well-functioning Machine. A wax-doll of capital quality, whose legs and arms would move once you inserted 10-Pfennig coin through a slot in its head. Today, you can insert many 10-Pfennig coins yet the doll would hardly stir – the Machine got rusty and is torpid and slow. That’s because Berlin goes on strike a lot. Why? Nobody really knows. Some people are for and some others against. Why? Nobody really knows.
Berliners are completely estranged from each other. If they have not been introduced, they snarl at each other in the street and on the train and that’s because there is little that binds them. There is little that binds them and everyone lives their own life. Berlin combines the disadvantages of a big American city with those of a German provincial town. Its merits can be found in the Baedeker.
Every year, when immersed in the summer breeze, Berliners, too, notice that you can live on this Earth. They try it for four weeks and fail – they have never learnt how to and know not what it means to be alive. And when they make their happy landing back at the Anhalter Railway Station, they squint towards their good old street-tram line and are happy to be back in Berlin again. Life has been forgotten again.
The days clatter by, the routine of every-day fuss sets in. But even if we spent a hundred years living this life, we in Berlin, what then? Would we have achieved anything? Left our mark? Would we have filled our lives with anything that’s true, deep and that matters? Would we have grown, would we have opened, bloomed, would we have lived?
As the editor read this text so far, his brow furrowed a bit, he smiled a friendly smile and kindly said to the young man before him: “There, there! It is surely not that bad, is it? You seem to forget that even Berlin has its merits and achievements. Easy, easy! You are still young, young man!”
And because the young man was a really well-mannered young man, too; whose modesty and mildness of character brought him general sympathy and respect; who possessed slightly peculiar good manners of someone attending a dancing lesson and which he put to good effect in a circle of trusted friends, he took the hat off (which he kept on his head while in the room), cast a misty-eyed look towards the ceiling and said in a pious but firm voice: “God bless this city!”