An Invasion of Fireflies

Berlin, U-Bahn viaduct at Landwehrkanal in October 1928 seen from the dir. Möckernbrücke (photo: Willy Pragher through Staatsarchiv Freiburg

Samuel Langhorn Clemens, an American writer and journalist, arrived in Berlin in October 1891. Not for pleasure, mind you. With the inland revenue office and the banks at home eager to receive their dues, the gentleman was eager to fill his purse with enough dollar banknotes to make both the former and the latter leave him in peace to do what he did best – write.

His five-month long sojourn in Europe and in the German capital would provide with him not only with a healthy distance to the US authorities but also with an interesting new topic. As well as with a source of money: the European journey inspired a series of letters sent by Mr Clemens to his home country and published as newspaper articles by several US titles. At a thousand dollars per text – sponsored by a New York title, the “Sun” – he as well as his travel companions (he was accompanied by his wife, three adult children, his sister-in-law and his servants) could rest assured they would not have to starve after their return to the other side of the Big Pond.

In April 1892 a Chicago newspaper, the “Daily News” published what must be his best-known text about Berlin. Mark Twain, who during his stay in the German capital had to get registered under his real name “S.L. Clemens”, wrote The Chicago of Europe (also known as The German Chicago) as his sixth and last letter from his European journey.

And here is my favourite paragraph from that text – the “invasion of fireflies” is a phrase to remember:

At night Berlin is an inspiring sight to see. Gas and the electric light are employed with a wasteful liberality, and so, wherever one goes, he has always double ranks of brilliant lights stretching far down into the night on every hand, with here and there a wide and splendid constellation of them spread out over an intervening “platz,” and between the interminable double procession of street lamps one has the swarming and darting cab lamps, a lively and pretty addition to the fine spectacle, for they counterfeit the rush and confusion and sparkle of an invasion of fireflies.

View westwards over the Landwehrkanal and towards “Hallesches Tor” U-Bahn station, with the old Tietz Department Store (former Jandorf Warenhaus, now “Poko Domäne”) in October 1928. Photo by Willy Pragher, via Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg at