What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.” Elias Canetti Crowds and Power

On September 21, 1923 German government – the leaders of the Weimar Republic – issued first one-billion banknotes in Berlin. Overnight people turned billionaires and yet at the same time, just like in Canetti’s quote, they lost everything.

With German hyperinflation already in full swing, the number of noughts following the actual price became almost immaterial. All of a sudden a tram ticket in Berlin cost three million Marks – a small slip of paper allowing you to take public transport on a one-way trip was worth as much as complete life-savings of some of Berlin’s pensioners.

Headline in the “Neue Berliner 12 Uhr Blatt” in July 1923. Photo by Georg Pahl via Bundesarchiv.

Not surprisingly, exorbitant (and completely unpredictable) food prices were the most acute problem. They had the most direct impact upon people’s lives and occasionally even decided about life or death as such. The number of suicides – including what is known as “extended suicides”, where parents took their children with them to spare them suffering – exploded as well.

The despair is hard to conceive of – the despair and blank horror which were quite vividly described by Leonhard Frank in his 1963 book Links wo das Herz ist (“Left Where The Heart Is”):

Back then every day the Mark tumbled deeper and deeper into the abyss (…) The savings books of millions of little people, who for years saved penny to penny to live on in their old days – these savings books became nothing but paper. The devastating misery pushed thousands of these robbed, hopeless, old people into suicide.

And still the tidal wave of price-hikes seemed to take no end. By June 1923 one egg cost 800 Marks (a year earlier it was 0.22 Mark so the price went up by a mind-boggling number of percent!) but come November it further skyrocketed to 320,000,000,000 Marks per piece.

Notebook made of disused one-million Mark banknotes. (Photo by Georg Pahl, 1923; Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00193 / CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Just to give you a perspective: before the First World War people spent 2.6 Marks on one kilo of butter (the average price in Berlin). More or less a decade later, in November 1923, you were confronted with numbers which required a firm grasp of maths to deal with in the first place: the price of the same kilo of butter reached 5.6 trillion Marks.

November of 1923 was the month when German currency effectively hit the rock bottom – according to experts the old Mark lost 99% of its purchasing power. Since the Weimar Republic had no gold reserves to speak of (the Kaiser and the First World War literally bled Germany of most of its assets), the government of Gustav Stresemann – who took over from his predecessor, Wilhelm Cuno, in August the same year – chose to bind the new currency they planned to introduce as the saving measure to the value of real goods. To land property to be exact. Hence the new currency’s name: Rentenmark means as much as “Mortgage Mark” (Rente being a German term for “mortgage/rent” and the reason why a person living off property leasing is sometimes still referred to as a Rentier).

One-Rentenmark Banknote issued in November 1923. The banknotes, although replaced by the Reichsmark in 1924, were still in circulation until the late 1940s (the 1948 Soviet Occupation Zone used them as their currency having added new value stamps).

On November 15, 1923 this new currency, Rentenmark, made its debut. The exchange rate between it and the old Mark was 1:1,000,000,000,000 (1012) – one to a trillion. But by the next morning Berliners and the rest of Germany woke up to the Weimar Republic whose currency was suddenly worth something again: within 24 hours the price of one dollar went down from 4,210,500,000,000 Mark to 4.20 Rentenmark.

Covering the wall with disused (worthless) banknotes, Berlin in July 1923. (Photo by Georg Pahl, Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-00104)

The charade saved not only German economy but also the state as well as – dramatic as it might sound – people’s lives. When a year later the new legal tender (Rentenmark was introduced as a currency but not the legal tender of the Republic) and the Reichsmark, replaced the stand-in money, all seemed to have slowly calmed down. However, although unlike upon its arrival, the misery did not vanish overnight, life began to become more bearable.

Until only several years later, on October 29, 1929 the New York Stock Exchange came crashing down, pulling the rest of the world with it into an ever bigger abyss.

Max Hödel fires shots at Kaiser Wilhelm I on May 11, 1878 in Berlin.

To German Kaiser, Wilhelm I, the year 1878 was what the year 1992 was to be to British Queen Elisabeth II: annus horribilis. Between May and June two people tried to assassinate the monarch on two different occasions. Luckily for him, both attempts proved to be unsuccessful. However, whilst first time round no harm was done whatsoever, the second attempt left the 81-year-old Wilhelm incapacitated for months. In fact, had it not been for his thick military coat and his headwear – the typical Prussian Pickelhaube, or a hard-leather military helmet with a spike on top – he would not have made it at all. 

The trigger was pulled on May 11, 1878 by one Max Hödel, a 23-year-old plumber apprentice and alleged anarchist. The young man who attempted to kill the 81-year-old monarch, but failed to hit either him or the Kaiser’s daughter travelling with her royal father in their coach, became promptly stamped-off as a mental case and locked up at the city prison, the Stadtvogtei, on Molkenmarkt (Berlin’s U-Bahn station “Hausvogtei”, by the way, is named after an older city prison which stood on the northern edge of the plaza).

Stadtvogtei, the city detention centre, seen from the Spree bank (the small lane along the right side of the building was the legendary Berlin Krögel).

Charged with high treason, Hödel got sentenced to death only two months later. He was to be beheaded (traditional punishment for high treason back then) at Moabit prison on August 16th, 1878. For his executioner, Julius Krautz, who went on to become the most famous Berlin Scharfrichter (the later traditional executioner’s garb comprising a black tailcoat, white gloves and a top-hat was his invention), it was the very first job in his new role as a headman. Performing well was, therefore, paramount but Krautz faced a seemingly unusual problem.

Krautz, still new to the decapitation business, did not have his own executioner’s axe yet. Berlin’s prisons were unable to provide one either – the last beheading was already a while ago. The solution was a masterpiece of resourceful thinking: the state borrowed the executioner’s axe from the local museum.

The tool displayed at Berlin’s Märkisches Provinzialmuseum (today Märkisches Museum, Berlin History Museum) was a 1:1 replica of that used by famous German headsman, Friedrich Wilhelm Reindel, from Magdeburg (Reidel sold his axe, beheading block and sword to the Berlin museum but his son, also int he decapitation business, bought the said axe back). On August 15th the replica was pulled out of the wooden block it was fixed in, sharpened and together with the beheading block transported to Moabit.

After Herr Krautz did his duty and poor Max Hödel’s head rolled as it was meant to roll, both the axe and the massive wooden block were returned to the museum and, as if nothing had happened, put where they used to stand before.

Max Hödel (newspaper clipping image via Stadtarchiv Heilbronn).

After in 1908, Märkisches Museum moved from Palais Podewils in Klosterstraße to its beautiful, new, mock-gothic building in Am Köllnischem Park, both objects moved along with the rest of the collection. And this is where you will still find them today, 143 years later. However, they can no longer be rented…

In only two days the Berlin Wall would have turned 60 years old. Would have as luckily for all of us the monster was slayed and the deep cut that ran through the city, the wound that hurt millions, could at last begin to heal.

The scars it left are slowly fading, too, but nothing ever goes away without a trace. For years I have been taking amateur photos of the places where they still could be found. One of them reminded me of a certain spot in Kreuzberg: right off Oranienplatz (where I was once priviledged to share a fantastic, history-laden co-working space with a group of kind and witty people). Right around the corner, down Dresdner Straße and towards Berlin-Mitte where the Wall used to run right through the middle of the street. Corner Sebastianstraße and Luckauer Straße at what is today Alfred-Döblin-Platz.

Several years ago, while construction works for a new residential building on that historic street junction in Kreuzberg were picking up the pace, workers unsealed old cellars of the nineteenth-century tenements which had stood there before the Second Generation of the Berlin Wall was erected. As the wonderful photo by Willy Pragher taken on June 9, 1965 shows, the houses were still there when the First Generation Wall was built (Berlin Wall went through several stages of evolution and this image presents the early one).

Corner Luckauer Straße and Sebastianstraße photographed by Willy Pragher on June 9, 1965 (image through Landesarchiv Baden-Würtemberg W 134 Nr. 078754a).
Corner Luckauer Straße and Sebastianstraße photographed by Willy Pragher on June 9, 1965 (image through Landesarchiv Baden-Würtemberg W 134 Nr. 078754a).

Demolished somewhere around 1970 (the sources quote different dates but the most likely year is 1968), the buildings were not removed completely – the cellars remained. For years, after the Wall had been torn down, people walking down Luckauer Straße next to today’s Alfred-Döblin-Platz on hot summer days wondered about the strangely chilly draft sweeping their ankles as well as about the earthy, musty smell of the cellar in the air where no cellars could be. Several narrow gaps on the edge of the pavement where large stone steps typical of Berlin tenement entrance stairs led nowhere, proved the existence of the old basements which, contrary to everyone’s expectations, had not been filled.

Berlin_Sebastianstraße_Berliner_Mauer_009571 willy pragher 1961 baden würt LArch
Sebastianstraße in 1961: the southern side on the left belongs to Berlin-Kreuzberg (then in West Berlin) while the northern side was in East Berlin (now it is part of Berlin-Mitte). Photo by Willy Pragher, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The construction works I witnessed several years ago uncovered them again and brought to light what had remained buried for 56 years. It seems they had been used, at least parts of them, in the meantime, too: the tiles on the wall of one of the cellars were held by some sort of black foam that was neither nineteenth century nor pre-Berlin Wall. Perhaps the guards spent their time there? Or the place served some other Wall-related purpose? We will never know.

Within a week, maximum a fortnight, the old cellars were gone. It was a strangely satisfying feeling to be able to look into them after having known for years they were there, unreachable under the ground. They were another trace of Berlin’s past which had to go. But not all of it did. It never does.

The construction site in Luckauer Straße (image by notmsparker).
The construction site in Luckauer Straße in 2017 (image own).

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