NIGHTS AND DAYS AT BERLIN’S “CAFE NATIONAL”

Cafe National, Friedrichstraße 76 in Berlin-Mitte.

Among many postcards of what used to be one of Berlin’s main thoroughfares and most popular streets, you will find this image: “Café National” –  Friedrichstraße No. 76 corner Jägerstraße. Following the fashion of the time, the photo is quite obviously a collage – a composite or early cut-and-paste technique. Something you probably noticed at once, mildly disturbed by the oddly artificial, staged arrangement of people in the photo. And by the funny proportion-ratio between various objects.

Thanks to its location and cosy yet elegant furnishings “Café National” was quite a popular venue from the start. Its guests greatly appreciated the four Venetian glass mosaics decorating the interior walls: designed by Wiener, they symbolised four different nations and were made for the café by Dr. Salviati, a renown mosaic-maker whose own shop was located at No. 149. Salviati’s is largely forgotten today but one look at the fantastic mosaics decorating Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) in the Tiergarten and you know: this was no just any glass-beads game. Salviati was big.

Which would suggest that “Cafe National” did not open to cater to the taste of the “Great Unwashed”. Its target audience had to have reached a certain financial level, mid-middle-class and up, you understand. The place did quite a lot to win them, too: it gained its fame as the “largest billiard club in Berlin” (posters in the upper-floor windows bear witness to that). Billiard, as it is easy to guess, was not a working-class leisure activity.

But the glory days of Friedrichstraße did not last long. Soon enough it was the west of the city – or then still, in fact, completely different cities like Charlottenburg, Schöneberg and beyond – that became the desiderable addresses for the well-heeled Berliners. And when they and their families abandoned the city centre for the plush, leafy neighbourhoods of Grunewald, Lichterfelde or Dahlem, and began to do spend their time on Kudamm and at the KaDeWe, the fate of Friedrichstraße was sealed.

From then on this is where you went to have cheap fun. This is where you went you came from a provincial little town somewhere in West Prussia and wished to spend a couple of days breaking your marital vows and as many of the ten amendments as you possibly could without getting caught or thrown into Hell-fire at once.

After the First World War and in the early 1920s, with the hyperinflation raging in Berlin, destroying human lives and sinking businesses, Friedrichstraße became synonymous with abandonment and sin – it became the volcano on which all those lost souls seemed to have danced.

But our “Cafe National” paved this road long before the so-called “Golden Twenties” hit Berlin. Still before the Great War broke out this café was a favourite address for the Friedrichstraße prostitutes working between this street and Leipziger Straße: this is where they came to warm up and have some rest.

In his 1955 autobiography “Ein kleines Ja und Ein großes Nein” (A Small Yes and a Big No”) brilliant German painter, George Grosz, wrote: “Friedrichstraße was crawling with whores. They stood in the house-doorways like sentries, whispering their classics. ‘Kleiner, kommste mit?’ Those were the days of great feather hats, feather shawls and laced-up bosoms. A handbag swung back and forth was the guild’s trademark. The best-known whore-café was the Friedrichstraße ‘Cafe-National’.”

He was right. If you have another look at our postcard, you will see it at once: the cut-out ladies pasted into the photo might not be swinging their handbags but the way they reveal their ankles under exciting layers of frilly underskirts, says it all. We might safely assume that it is not to the “Cafe National” that they and their clearly interested cut-out partners would be going next…

The building which used to house the café is long gone – its site is occupied today by Berlin’s “Galerie Lafayette”.