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).

Georg Bartels’s photo of the Lodging House “Center”, the first address for many East-European Jews arriving in Berlin at the end end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

“Some hundred and twenty Jewish refugees from the East lived in that lodging house. Many of the men were soldiers who’d just returned from Russian captivity. Their clothes were a grotesque melange of Rag-Internationale. In their eyes thousand years of suffering. Women were there, too. Carrying their children on their backs like bundles of dirty linen. And the children, crawling through the rickety world on bowed legs, sucked on pieces of dry bread-crust.”

Joseph Roth about the Lodging House “Center” in Grenadierstraße 40 corner Hirtenstraße 11 in October 1920. The lodging house stood in what used to be Berlin’s old Jewish district, Schuenenviertel (Barn District), partly demolished in 1905-1907 and further refurbished int he 1920s.

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)

Berlin, U-Bahn viaduct at Landwehrkanal in October 1928 seen from the dir. Möckernbrücke (photo: Willy Pragher through Staatsarchiv Freiburg http://www.landesarchiv-bw.de/plink/?f=5-94931-1)

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 http://www.landesarchiv-bw.de/plink/?f=5-94930-1)