THE WORLD IN RITTERSTRAßE – BERLIN’S FORGOTTEN EXPORTS DISTRICT
A walk through Berlin’s historic district Luisenstadt down to the block around Ritterstraße might be refreshing but not exactly aesthetically pleasing. This neighbourhood has never ranked among the prettiest. It does make an effort but fails. The problem is not new. Back in 1903 the English edition of the renown Baedeker guide warned Berlin visitors: „The industrial Luisenstadt, to the South and South-East of the Spittelmarkt, is the most densely populated and least interesting among Berlin districts“. Again, from the aesthetic point of view – perhaps. However, the area around Ritterstraße has also been interesting, lively and cosmopolitan. But, of course, it wasn’t Unter den Linden or Kudamm.
At the same time as Baedeker recommended its readers better head for the „Wintergarten“ and Stadtschloß, crowds of visitors from all over the world flocked to Berlin’s „Goldene Meile“ (Golden Mile). From the 1880s on a whole export district grew around Ritterstraße in what is today Berlin-Kreuzberg: textile industry, electro-technical workshops, bronze ornaments manufacturers, cardboard-box factories as well as printers and stationary product entrepreneurs had been settling there for decades. Soon the future SW68 (old postal code for the area, like SO36, traditionally used as its nickname) – which became not so much a postal code as a seal of approval – small and medium-sized factories began churning out screws, pipes, lamps, bath tubs, toys, gramophone plates and even wheel spokes for the first racing cars in Germany.
The industry ruled the Kiez (Berlin word for a neighbourhood) but it lived – even if not exactly smoke or noise-free – in the background.
The term Kreuzberger Mischung, or „Kreuzberg Mix“ (sometimes also referred to as Berliner Mischung), is almost forgotten today but according to many Berlin historians this is where its cradle stood: in the former Luisenstadt. Within the approximately 25-hectar area divided into more or less regular blocks, the city tested the new “living-and-working” concept on a larger scale: the plot fronts along the street were lined with residential buildings, many of which had at least one side-wing and/or what is known as a Quergebäude built parallel to and behind the courtyard separating it from the front house.
The back and the sides of the long plots were occupied by small workshops and factories, which with time expanded, swallowing most of the free space on the site. Gradually, the said plot became nearly completely built-over and the small gardens some of them had at the beginning became the song of the past.
But business boomed. Sample stores, warehouses and the famous show rooms – whose owners planning to set up shop windows in the 1890s had to apply for a special permit as shop windows were actually something for Unter den Linden or Leipziger Straße. Company agents set up their offices, door to door with shippers and carriers.
Names such as Butzke, Massary, Pelikan and Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft appeared. Advertisements, reps and sample stores, produced the air of a professional trade fair. The electrifying, pulsating atmosphere of the neighbourhood attracted crowds of business people, traders, inventors and even tourists.
By 1914 no fewer than 1,344 foreign companies offered their goods and services in and around Ritterstraße. In total the area was home to 1,391 factory owners, almost 3,000 agents, 92 export companies and 21 shipping businesses. The name Rollkutschenviertel (Haulier District) said a lot about the quality of living there.
Still, no-one really complained. Jeschäft (Berlinerisch for business) was good, money flowed and everything was going so well that in the first half of the 20th century almost every single building in Ritterstraße housed a show room or a factory or workshop.
In spite of the heavy recession during and after the First World War, in 1936 the Exportviertel Ritterstraße had a sales turnover worth over 100 million Reichsmark!
And then the next war began and six years later, on February 3, 1945 it blew the whole district off the face of the Earth. The air-raids that night pulverised nearly the whole Luisenstadt and the southern end of the neighbouring Friedrichstadt (north of the Landwehrkanal and to both sides of Friedrichstraße). Gone were the crystal vases, the leather goods, the bathroom fixtures, wall carpets and telegraphs. Gone, too, were small munition factories that replaced all the school-furniture manufactures, steel wire and paper bags workshops which instead of offering their usual goods, had began to produce cartridge shells and explosives. What remained after the cannons stopped spitting fire and went silent in the end was a neighbourhood that never managed to pick itself up again. What also remained were the curious vases sold by Herr Weckmann, a businessman from Ritterstraße 37, after the war. He recycled the no-longer needed metal cartridge shells – you could take Ritterstraße out of business but you could not take business out of the street.
The text was originally written in German for my weekly column "Aus der Zeit" in Berlin's newspaper the Tagesspiegel.
OF WAR AND PEACE: GEORG LUGER – THE MAN BEHIND THE PARABELLUM
This one is a classic: every real movie villain needs a “Luger”. You can find it in Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”, in “Peaky Blinders”, in “Indiana Jones” and even in Disney productions. It was even featured on German TV yesterday – in another classic: the Ludwigshafen episode of the country’s longest-running and most popular TV crime series, Tatort.
A P08 or a pistol better known as Parabellum (from Latin Si vi pacem, para bellum or “If you want peace, be prepared for war”). A weapon that was a Berlin invention.
Brothers Ludwig and Isidor Loewe were neither the first nor the only nineteenth-century entrepreneurs who began by manufacturing sewing machines and ended up making weapons. The company, Ludwig Loewe & Co KG, set up in 1869/1870 was soon registered in Hollmannstraße 32 in Kreuzberg – the street no longer exists but you will find its traces in the form of a path running along the southern wall of today’s Jewish Museum between Lindenstraßa and Alte-Jakob-Straße.
To pick up the latest trends as well as know-how, Loewe visited the United States. Among the experts he most likely met there at the time was one Hugo Borchardt – soon one of the best German weapons designers, who was employed by Singer Sewing Machine Co. at the time and went on to develop weapons for Colt, Remington, Winchester and Sharps Rifles.
Back in Berlin, it quickly became clear that the real money was not in the sewing and needles but in warfare. After in 1872 the company signed a contract with the Prussian army for arms and ammunition deliveries, sewing machines slowly vanished from the menu.
Isidor and Ludwig contacted Hugo Borchardt, offering him a job in Berlin. He accepted and in 1893, together with his Austrian assistant, they could launch another weapon that enjoys cult status today: the C93. This semi-automatic self-loading pistol fired the starting shot for a revolution in weapon manufacturing.
Its eight-piece cartridge box and toggle-lock recoil action made reloading much easier. But the Borchardt-C93 was not perfect. Borchardt’s assistant, Georg Luger, thought so, too, and began to play with the design in order to improve the pistol’s performance. Born in Austria, Luger, who in addition to German spoke Serbian and Italian and joined Loewe’s enterprise in the early 1890s, perfected the weapon. After in 1896 Loewe merged with Mauserwerke and Metallpatronen AG and began to operate together as Deutsche Waffen und Munitionswerke (DWM), the Luger pistol became a sales hit.
Switzerland was the first to order a batch: in 1900, Parabellum became the ordnance weapon of the Swiss army. Four years later, it introduced in the German Imperial Navy as their “weapon of choice”. This particular model came to be known as P04 (Kriegsmarine introduced it in 1904).
In 1908, Loewe and DWM delivered their Luger as a standard weapon to the German army – that is how the “P08” was born. Several years later, Parabellum became the standard weapon of the German armed forces in World War One and occupied that position until 1938 when it began slowly to be replaced by its improved version, the Walther P38. However, in films, the two share the cult status until this day and are often mistaken for one another (like you truly, not being fluent in pistols, did in the German version of this text written in her weekly column for the “Tagesspiegel” – apologies to readers followed😉).
Mr Luger, Parabellum’s inventor, who had been a world champion in cost accounting and normalization long before DIN standards were introduced, made a small fortune with his invention: each produced Parabellum brought him 1 Mark and each trigger bar was worth 10 Pfennig. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the First World War Georg Luger was worth well over one million. Unfortunately, like many people at the time, he invested most of it in German war bonds. The fortune and its owner suffered a blow. And it got worse: Germany fell down the financial void known as hyperinflation. Fortunately for Luger, he had invested in the property market before that: he bought Villa Luise, a decent house in a small town just outside Berlin called Fichtenau. This is where Georg Luger, plagued by what felt like a never-ending legal tug-of-war with people who wanted him to surrender his rights to his inventions and patents, spent the rest of his life. He died there in 1923.
If you visit a small, tranquil Friedensau Cemetery in what is Schöneiche bei Berlin today (Fichtenau belongs to it now), his grave is not difficult to find. When there, keep a look-out for a knee-joint of a Parabellum pistol. Thanks to tireless research by a local interest group, the site of Georg Luger’s grave, levelled in 1945, could be found again. The group, supported by generous donations, could install a new tombstone for the inventor. One with a black stone “Luger joint”.
THE FLIGHT OF THE KOMET: BERLIN-LONDON 1922
It was still raining on October 30, 2008 as at 11.55 PM the last machines ever to take off from the Tempelhof Airport – a Douglas DC-3 “Raisin Bomber” and Junkers Ju52 “Tante Ju” – began their flight. The weather that day seemed to match the mood. But neither the leaden skies, nor the downpour seemed to bother any of the quietly mourning fans of the “Mother of All Airports”, who arrived to witness the last machines leaving Tempelhof. It was important to be there.
When the very first commercial aircraft from Berlin to London took off from Berlin-Staaken airfield on December 27, 1922, the weather was even worse. But, at the same time, the flight was just as important. Those who were present, knew it was a sink or swim situation. At stake was an official license permitting commercial flights between Berlin and London come 1923. And the machine waiting to take off could become the first civilian German aeroplane to land in England after the end of the First World War. Something that, considering Germany’s demise and the heavy sanctions that followed, would have been out of the question not such a long time before that.
The 5-seater (four passengers + pilot) Dornier Komet II monoplane, launched with the factory number 24 and granted the serial number D223, got approved and registered on October 9, 1922. It was chosen for this December mission after it had become clear that the initially selected Albatros machine would not do.
At the helm Captain Max Kahlow, German flight hero of the Imperial Air Force and a man awarded not one but two Iron Crosses (1st and 2nd Class), who – fortunately for the enterprise at hand – was used to bad weather conditions. Sat in his open cockpit, whipped by the wind and the rain, he felt, if not comfortable, then at least at home. On board were three directors of the Deutsche Luftreederei (the future Deutsche Lufthansa) whose contract with the British airline Daimler Hire Ltd, signed a few months earlier, was to become a springboard for a regular Berlin-London flight connection from 1923 onwards.
In order to be granted the necessary licence, both sides had to have their machines approved and registered by the local authorities at both destinations: the Brits had to fly to Staaken to introduce themselves and the aeroplane to the German experts (their De Havilland DH34 landed in Staaken on 19 December 1922) while the German aircraft was told to report in London as soon as possible. Which meant that DLR’s D223 had to reach the British capital before the year ended – before 1 January 1923.
Dornier Comet D223 was a rather magnificent but not very powerful machine. Following the post-war restrictions, the maximum power for German plane engines could not exceed
but in 1922 no passenger flight was in for plain sailing. Staying on course despite very poor weather conditions to reach the airfield and then to land without damaging the machine and/or hurting passengers was a small masterpiece. Unfortunately, on December 27, 1922, the weather in northern Europe was a disaster. Heavy clouds, stormy wind, relentless rain combined with thick, almost palpable fog. But Kahlow and his passengers had no choice. And so the Dornier airplane took off from Staaken. Captain Kahlow took the course towards the seacoast, heading for Bremen. This was where they had to take a break – the weather conditions went from disastrous to impossible.
Kahlow quickly realised that this would not be their last stopover. Forget the direct flight! It took them two days to get out of Bremen. It was December the 29th by now. In Amsterdam, where D223 landed next, the weather was no better. They were halted again. By the time the machine reached Rotterdam one day later, the tension became almost unbearable. Just like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days”, the heroes of this story – coincidentally heading for London, too – were under enormous time pressure. By that point they had only one day to reach their destination. So back on board they went and the Dornier Komet took off for the fourth time. Reaching the stormy sky, she fought its way through the elements raging along the Dutch coast.
Over the wind and rainswept beaches of Belgium and France, the fearless aeronauts reached Calais. In spite of the risks, pushed forward by the tight schedule and ambition, they dared the flight over the English Channel to Dover. Soon they could see the silhouette of the cliffs, heavily blurred like an overeager watercolour. It being the land of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper, what else could have awaited them there but thick, almost tangible fog? With the entire coast veiled in its ghostly garb, London suddenly felt as far away as Berlin. The Komet would not make it. It rained and drizzled, the fog did not subside, and weak winter light slowly began to dissolve within it. It was December 31, 1922.
After a short exchange between all involved, the decision was made: they had to reach and land on the nearest, now almost completely muddy, airfield in Lympne. They had to admit their defeat.
And then a small miracle happened: the next morning, on January 1, 1923, instead of giving up and finally enjoying a bit of rest, everyone involved got back on the plane and flew to Croydon. Their landing at the London airfield was greeted with much applause and admiration. Despite the delay, the thick-bellied Dornier Komet – whose low-hanging body that did not require steps or a ladder to enter the cabin was a reminder that its designer, Claude Dornier, was first and foremost famous for his incredible flying boats – was granted the badly needed licence by the British aviation authorities. The sky between Berlin and London was open again.
Eighty-six years later, on 30 October 2008 at 4.45 PM, in the pouring rain a plane took off from Tempelhof Central Airport for the last sightseeing flight over Berlin. It was a D-COSA, Cosmos Air Dornier. And we, Dear Reader, although soaking wet, hungry and cold, were there to witness that moment.
You must be logged in to post a comment.