Hans Baluschek "Morgengrauen" (Stadtmuseum Berlin)
Hans Baluschek “Morgengrauen” (from the collection of Stadtmuseum Berlin)

The title of this 1930 painting by Hans Baluschek can be translated either as „At dawn“ or as “Morning Horrors”. It is one of the most moving documents of the era that came to be known as the Golden Twenties.

Die Goldene Zwanziger in Berlin, commonly understood as the time of endless fun, reckless abandon and testing the limits, were in fact one of the darkest chapters in city’s history. The 1920s saw the deepest financial crisis in the country’s history: the costs of the First World War followed by the crushing weight of war reparations which Germany had to pay in its aftermath destabilised its economy.

On top of that, the heavy industry as well as all other branches feeding the German war machine were gone. So were millions of men who were the only family providers. Suddenly deprived of their husbands, fathers and sons women were forced to seek other ways of supporting the families – of feeding their children and themselves. Born and bred as housewives or contributing to the family budget mostly by performing menial jobs, this unqualified army of single mothers or impoverished wives and daughters faced the cruel choice between sinking or swimming.

With a terrifyingly high number of suicides or even extended suicides (where mothers killed their children before killing themselves) reported daily by Berlin newspapers and with hardly any chance of finding a so-called “decent” job if not young, childless and unmarried, many women resorted to prostitution to survive.

There is nothing golden about the Golden Twenties: they were reckless and fun for but a few. And this is what Hans Baluschek captured so perfectly in this painting: the fat cigar in the man’s hand, his elegant coat and hat speak of money and comfort in life. While the pretty young woman’s face bears a slightly frightened and resigned expression of someone who knows there is no other way. These women’s lives were neither reckless, nor fun…

The painting was part of the 1920s Berlin exhibition organised in 2015 go by Stadtmuseum Berlin and entitled “Tanz auf dem Vulkan” (Dancing on a Volcano).

Hans Baluschek “Sommernacht”, 1929 (now in the collection of Berlinische Galerie, Berlin-Kreuzberg)

And I am thinking about how each return to Berlin made my heart beat faster. How blessed I felt as a child when after four weeks of holidays I finally saw from the train the tall buildings of Berlin’s East, the tenements. Yes, the grey tenements of my hometown, Berlin.

Or when, as a grown-up man, I had to keep my lips from trembling each time I came back from foreign lands after long months of absence. How tears rolled down my face when in December 1918 – having fled the bloody killing, that whole misery and chaos – I returned from France and saw the first houses of Berlin, at night, by moonlight.

From the introduction to Adolf Heilborn’s 1925 book Die Reise nach Berlin, first published in 1921 as a series of articles for the local newspaper, the “Berliner Morgenpost”. (Translation own)