Ella Fitzgerald described her as „the best singer without a voice“. Her mother pronounced her “talent-free”. And during her test performance at the State Film School in Babelsberg her typical Berlinerisch pronunciation and the habit of swallowing word-endings made the examiners cringe. Yet despite all those apparent shortcomings, Hildegard Knef, who never claimed to be a talent or a beauty, became a head-turner, a star and a legend. And not only in Berlin.
The terror did not begin in 1933. The Nazis brought to the surface and unleashed something that accompanied the life of the young German republic from the start. When we think of the 1920s in Berlin today, we mostly have two things in mind: the – by now almost proverbial – volcano on which people seemed to have been dancing in abandonment and with gusto, and the billion-mark banknotes used to paper the walls after the raging hyperinflation made money lose all of its old meaning.
Careful observers back then knew it: nothing good can come out of this brand new world where the few, wrapped in pricey fur-coats and silk, were pouring champagne into their throats while the many faced daily struggle not to go under – only to lose in the end. With still others, operating in the background to jam the world around them – even kicking and screaming – into the old mould.
The atmosphere in the streets of Berlin was raw. Fighting political groups clashed regularly, not even trying to attempt a dialogue or a negotiation. This was not how they learnt it. Auf die Fresse hauen (smack their gobs) was the only “dignified” reaction – it was easy as required no mental effort and spared the involved the difficult process of decision-making.
But this knee-jerk reaction present on all sides of all conflicts but mostly, of course, between the Communists and the Nazis, reflected a deep-seated problem that people like the pacifist and publicist Carl von Ossietzky or the journalist Gabrielle Tergit (the latter wrote about these clashes and their outcomes as the Berliner Tageblatt court reporter in the Criminal Court Berlin-Moabit) could see. It revealed a dangerous potential for violence simmering and coming slowly to boil right under the apparently smooth surface of – admittedly confusing and confused – social norms of the Weimar Republic.
Ossietzky was a pacifist. He declared himself an opponent to militarism and the typical Prussian worship of violent conflict early on. Which did not prevent him from being drafted during the First World War and being sent west. Like another self-confessed opponent of war, Kurt Tucholsky, whom he would later succeed as the editor-in-chief to the Weltbühne magazine. Their texts – Tucholsky’s full of wit and just the right amount of sarcasm and Ossietzky’s equally sharp anf filled with extremely apt comments on “the state of the nation” – contain words of warning that were promptly ignored by those they were meant to alert.
Early in the 1920s Ossietzky wrote: “Where men fail, a call for the One Man can be heard. Fascism, which in different places always presents itself in different cloaks but is invariably wrapped in new nationalist colours, shares one common feature whatever the country: the longing for a dictator. The listless nations search for one brain to do the thinking for them, for one back to carry the load on their behalf,” („Weltreaktion – Ihr Unsinn und ihr Sinn“, the Berliner Volks-Zeitung, 13 May 1923; translation own). That was ten years before the Nazis could claim uncontrolled power.
Carl von Ossietzky paid a high price for his steadfast rejection of violence, militarism and anti-Semitism (be it in words or in deeds). His far-sighted approach and unwavering will to warn others about possible consequences of not speaking up when speaking up was called for (as perhaps the only way available to some to help prevent the violence and terror that were spreading) had him first imprisoned and then sent to two concentration camps once the terror and the violence prevailed.
Ossietzky’s first sentence of eighteen months in the Tegel Prison in Berlin followed his decision as Die Weltbühne editor-in-chief: he supported and published a text by an engineer, Walter Kreiser, who revealed that despite the strict armament limitations put on Germany in the Versailles Treaty (numbers within the army, including air force, were to be kept at a bare-minimum level), behind the victors’ backs the military and reactionary forces within the Weimar Republic were busy creating a “new model army”. In this case, a new Luftwaffe.
The article explained the mechanism behind the trick and revealed the locations were the secret plan was being put into life. The article was signed by Hans Jäger which you can translate as “Hans Hunter” or “Hans Fighter” (like in an air force fighter). Needless to say, Die Weltbühne publication rubbed many (openly and secretly) uniformed backs up the wrong way. As the man in charge of the magazine, Ossietzky was pronounced guilty of revealing national military secrets and thus threatening national security and was duly punished. Kreiser fled to France.
Upon Ossietzky’s arrival at the Tegel Prison crowds of supporters who had gathered before the gaol openly showed their loyalty. He never took the advice given to him by friends and foes to leave Germany and go somewhere where he would be less present in German politics, like Switzerland.
His last chance of a pardon by President Hidenburg was not taken either. On the contrary, Ossietzky, who already in 1927 defined the elderly statesman as a “Venerable Zero”, kept up his criticism of the weathered general and politician who by that time had turned into a fossilized legend.
Carl von Ossietzky was released in December 1932 but it was the Germany he was feared could happen that he was released into. Only two months later, in February 1933, and just days before the ultimate Nazi victory – the claiming of the state power – von Ossietzky was arrested again. This time, however, he was sent to a new kind of prison: a concentration camp Sonnenburg near Küstrin. A year later, together with other prominent prisoners – like Social-Democrats Julius Leber, Theodor Haubach and Friedrich Ebert (son of the first president of the German Republic) – Die Weltbühne editor found himself in the KZ Esterwegen (KZ stands for Konzentration Lager or concentration camp) at the German-Dutch border.
In Esterwegen, a notorious place on wide-spreading Eifel moors (the drying of which was the prisoners’ task and torture), his path crossed with that of one of the best German cabaret artists of the time, Werner Finck. Finck described their first encounter as a proof of Ossietzky’s wit and humour: even though he was gravely ill and bed-ridden at the local “hospital ward” (the chalkboard sign above his head read “Kollaps”), Ossietzky greeted Finck with the words, “I never even dreamt that one day the two us will be in the same camp again…” (Lager stands for both a camp as a place and as a group of like-minded people). Finck was both touched and impressed – the man before him was, after all, wasting away. A rumour had it (one repeated after the war by at least one of the man’s fellow-prisoners) that Ossietzky was free game and meant never to leave the KZ alive – he was said to have been injected with myobacterium tuberculosis…
In 1936, shortly before the Berlin Olympics, Carl von Ossietzky was released from Esterwegen and brought to a military hospital in Berlin-Spandau. The Nobel Prize Committee finally responded to appeals to help save him by awarding the renown pacifist with the Peace Nobel Prize and announced that the 1935 award (none was given the year before) would go to Germany. Along with the money that the winner was entitled to (money soon squandered by a crooked accountant hired by the unsuspecting Maud Ossietzky, Carl’s English wife). By the way, Carl von Ossietzky was the last German Nobel Prize winner 1936-1945: Hitler ordered that no Germans needed be considered as candidates.
Ossietzky’s active TB meant he was in need of specialised health care and the choice fell upon a private TB clinic in the north of the city – Krankenhaus-Nordend ran in Berlin-Niederschönhausen by Dr Dosquet. This is where two years later, despite excellent care and the loving presence of his wife (they shared Carl’s small and, following Dr Dosquet’s orders, quite chilly clinic room for the whole length of his stay there), Carl von Ossietzky would die on May 4, 1938. Killed by the disease and by the violence and torture he had been exposed to during his time in the Nazi KZ. A year later another world war broke out.
Few places in Berlin, especially those not in its very centre, are as popular among both locals and visitors as Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg. A climb up the hill, among towering trees, along meandering paths, with or without a short break to dip one’s feet into the cool water in the astoundingly life-like artificial waterfall, is a must. Once on top, a short stop to gaze down the flowing cascades and along Großbeerenstraße right into the heart of the city will give your lungs and leg muscles short but well-deserved rest – which you will need to go even higher: to the viewing platform of Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg, the National Memorial to the Wars of Liberation.
In fact, you might want to do some climbing today – the day the Memorial turns 200!
On March 30, 1821 – the seventh anniversary of the Prussian charge on the Montmartre and of the conquest of Paris, which unavoidably triggered Napoleon’s demise – King Friedrich Wilhelm III arrived on top of the Tempelhofer Berg (also known as the Weinberg or the Runder Berg). The highest natural elevation in what is now central Berlin but back in the days was still part of a district outside the city limits, known as Tempelhofer Vorstadt.
Accompanied by an illustrious guest, Russian Tsar Alexander I – Friedrich Wilhelm’s brother-in-arms in the conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte – Prussian monarch came to witness the unveiling of a monument commemorating their victories in what came to be known as the Wars of Liberation. By the way, being brothers-in-arms was not the only link between the two: Alexander’s younger brother and successor to Russian throne, Nicolai, had married Friedrich Wilhelm’s eldest daughter, Charlotte (or future Russian Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna – welcome to Europe’s royal name-carousel!)
As Prussia’s military ally in the wars against Napoleon it was Alexander who prevented the king – as well as the Austrian emperor for he was wavering, too – from making what could have been the biggest mistake in the history of the Sixth Coalition: he convinced them to take Paris instead of withdrawing the troops. Now it was time to celebrate these good choices.
The rather magnificent Nationaldenkmal für Befreiungskriege – National Memorial for Wars of Liberation – a 200-tonne cast-iron tapering structure installed on an octagonal stone base – was the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Johann Heinrich Strack (who was responsible for the stone base). Originally planned as a neo-gothic cathedral to be erected on Leipziger Platz, it was eventually reduced to what looked like a cathedral tower and measured “only” 19 metres instead. The location was also moved three kilometres south – to a sandy hill on the northern edge of the Teltow Plateau.
Schinkel, supported by several renown contemporary artists with Christian Daniel Rauch as the most prominent among them, created an artwork which truly had everything a memorial of this kind should possess: it was impressive, it was elegant, it was positively oozing with symbols which everybody understood and was happy to see included and, last but not least, it had twelve extremely good-looking statues with faces the crowds back then were often able to recognise.
The memorial’s leitmotiv was a cross: it was a direct reference to a new military decoration introduced by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1813 after the Battle of Leipzig: the legendary Eiserne Kreuz, the Iron Cross. The foot of the memorial itself is shaped liked one, too, and you will see the shape repeated from the memorial’s bottom to its very top. Literally, to the very top: the Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg is even crowned with one.
The (also cross-shaped) main section with four protruding arms created space for twelve niches, each of which is home to a Genius of an important battle. Twelve statues for twelve battles. Twelve faces that back in 1821 might still have been familiar. Like Queen Louise, the King’s prematurely deceased wife and probably the most popular monarch in Prussian history – even the villain of the story, Napoleon, seemed to have developed a kind of love-hate attitude towards her.
She, the woman who negotiated with Napoleon in person to ask him to show mercy to Prussia, became the symbol of self-proclaimed emperor’s demise – Luise is the Genius of the Battle of Paris (her daughter, Charlotte – later Alexandra Fedorovna – is the genius of Belle-Alliance, in Anglo-Saxon countries better known as the Battle of Waterloo). Christian Daniel Rauch, who created the genius of Paris not only gave it Luise’s face – he also presented her in a pose strangely alike that of Napoleon himself in his famous 1806 imperial portrait by Ingres. Coincidence? Highly unlikely. Here is why.
Whilst Ingres’s Napoleon has his hands busy holding a royal sceptre – known as the Sceptre of Charlemagne – and what is known as the Hand of Justice, Luise stands empty-handed. With one arm raised high above her head and with the other bent and slightly outstretched as if presenting something to the beholder. Something that seems to be missing.
So where is the similarity, I hear you ask. Where is the secret message smuggled in by Rauch? To see it, you must first know that Luise’s raised arm did not simply hang in the air the way it does today – it used to rest on a sceptre, too. A sceptre crowned, of course, with an Iron Cross and a Prussian Eagle.
Neither was her right hand empty. Balanced on the palm of her hand and the forearm was… a miniature Quadriga. Famously, in 1806 Napoleon had Berlin’s precious Schadow fourspan removed from the Brandenburg Gate and shipped in wooden crates to Paris. It was to be displayed later as symbol of Napoleon’s triumph over Prussia (and “German tribes” in general) on one of new triumphal arches which French emperor planned to have built in his capital. The plans for this particular Arc d’Triomphe glorifying Napoleon Bonaparte and his second wife, Marie-Luise of Austria, were eventually re-worked, re-shaped and re-designed and turned into Arc de Triomphe d’Etoile.
In the meantime, Berlin Quadriga was stored at Musée Napoléon, today’s Louvre. However, the idea symbolically to humiliate Prussia had to be abandoned once General Blücher entered the stage – Paris – in 1814 and had the precious chariot, henceforth known as Retourkutsche (return coach), promptly dispatched back to Berlin.
The disappearance of both the mini-Quadriga and Luise’s sceptre is a classic Berlin Nasser Fisch – “wet fish” stands in German criminalist jargon for an unsolved case. The two objects vanished during or soon after the renovation of the war-damaged memorial in the 1950s. They have been missing ever since. But once you know they used to be there, the deliberate and, let’s admit it, delicious Napoleon snub becomes quite obvious.
Other victories commemorated on Schinkel’s memorial in today’s Viktoriapark had equally famous patrons and Geniuses: General York who led the Prussian army against Napoleon’s forces at Wartenburg (the boat he rests his foot on stands for his success at organising the crossing of the river Elbe). The memorial could not have done without other great Prussian heroes of Napoleonic Wars: General Yorck, General Bülow and, last but not least, General-Marshall von Blücher (in his pre-moustache days as the genius of the Battle of Katzbach).
Tsar Alexander of Russia, the king’s guest that day and the man who became a namesake for a famous Berlin plaza, is also featured: as the genius of the Battle of La Rothière – the battle after which he forced the Austrian and Prussian monarchs to “pull their socks up” and go for Paris at full throttle. Friedrich Wilhelm III himself was, of course, immortalised, too: he became the Genius of the Battle of Kulm. His son and successor, future Friedrich Wilhelm IV, had his features turned into those of the genius of the Battle of Großbeeren.
The memorial, praised by the King and his guests, was unveiled to loud cheers from the gathered crowds. After the military parade Bishop Rulemann Friedrich Eylert blessed the Nationaldenkmal and a series of gun salutes followed.
On the same day the hill carrying the memorial shed all its previous names and – following the royal wish – was duly re-named Kreuzberg, the Cross Hill.
In 1878 the Kreuzberg Memorial, whose view by then threatened to be obscured by residential buildings growing around it at steadily increasing pace, was lifted and placed on an eight-metre-high stone base designed by Johann Heinrich Strack (the one of the Siegessäule, Belle-Alliance-Brücke, now Hallesche Brücke, and the long-gone Magistratsklaviere flanking the entrance to the equally extinct Belle-Alliance-Platz, or Mehringplatz today).
But how was it done? Clearly, lifting 200 tonnes of stone and iron was not a job to be left to amateurs – what was needed was an expert, the best of the best. For many the obvious choice was Carl Hoppe, German engineer, owner of an iron foundry and a machine designer who set up his first factory in Köpenicker Straße. He produced a custom-made hydraulic lift with water pressure of 30 atmospheres, capable of hoisting objects weighing up to 16 tonnes. With twelve such machines Hoppe allowed the Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg temporarily to defy gravitation. After the new base had been safely installed underneath it, the memorial took a 21-degree turn while being lowered onto the stone platform, placing it in a perfect line with the street at the foot of the hill: with Monumentenstraße, whose name soon after that was changed to Großbeerestraße (today’s Monumentenstraße used to be called Ziegeleiweg).
When in 1920 the Greater Berlin Act was passed by Prussian government – officially incorporating towns, villages and estates surrounding the capital city and turning Berlin into a metropolis with twenty new boroughs – one of them, Bezirk VI, was named “Hallesches Tor”. However, only a year later, to celebrate the Memorial’s hundredth birthday (albeit not to the day), the city elders decided to change it: on September 27, 1921 it was re-named Kreuzberg.
The 200-year-old memorial in Viktoriapark inspired the name of the hill, of the streets in the surrounding district (Yorckstraße, Blücherstraße, Wartenburgstraße to name just a few) AND was the namesake for the whole borough. Not to mention the fact that for the past 200 years it kept both Berliners and visitors happy and fit like a fiddle: the climb is, as Berliners are fond of saying, “nicht ohne“.
For we all know that Berlin has many beautiful viewing points but that you cannot beat sitting at the foot of the National Memorial on a May or July afternoon watching the Goldelse (Siegessäule) blink her golden eye at you right from the heart of the Tiergarten. And look at the Genius of Paris right in front of you – she might be empty-handed but still carries enough history for last at least two centuries or more.
Happy many returns, Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg! And never change.
The Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg is part of my Kreuzberg audio-tour available through Voice Maps – you can also listen to it through your computer or smartphone as a preparation for a great Berlin walk you might be taking soon. Enjoy it!