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”.
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.
In April 1945, as the Red Army was closing its grip on Berlin, coming closer and closer to Hitler’s last refuge under the Chancellery gardens, one of his favourite pilots managed to fly a small aeroplane into the burning capital and land it near Brandenburg Gate. On board she carried a wounded future head of the Nazi Luftwaffe.
Aircraft Capitan Hanna Reitsch. Here is the story of her remarkable Berlin coup. And of her post-war denial.
In 2020, two years ago from now, our everyday lives were turned upside down by the worldwide COVID pandemic – a pandemic which still has us in its grip. Nothing is as it used to be: the virus threatens lives in both direct and indirect ways. Less than three weeks ago Putin’s army attacked Ukraine, beginning a new war in Europe – one which is on the verge of engulfing all of us as we helplessly watch the atrocities being committed, innocent civilians dying or fleeing to save their and their children’s lives.
Many of us are, quite understandably, so preoccupied with the new reality we have no time or energy to busy ourselves with the past. But perhaps now is exactly the moment to look over our collective shoulder and carefully consider what we think that we know. Maybe it is time to do what Mr Keating, the unforgettable college teacher in “Dead Poets Society”, tried to convey to his pupils: whatever you think you know looks different when instead of sitting at your desk, you stand on it and change your perspective.
Exactly a hundred years before the COVID-pandemic broke out, in March 1920, the city of Berlin found itself in the state of chaos. Reactionary militant groups marched in and threatened to upturn the new German republic using direct and indirect violence – 2020 marked the centennial of what came to be known as Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch.
Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch, also known as Kapp-Putsch, after the names of its two official leaders, Wolfgang Kapp and General von Lüttwitz, was an attempted armed coup organised by a group of German reactionaries. Their plan was to overthrow the post-First-World-War republican government of Friedrich Ebert and replace it with the “good old” Prussian order – which did not mean they wished for the Kaiser to return. In fact, Kapp is said to have held the former German emperor for a Weichei (coward).
The main cause for the attempted coup might have been less political than many were willing to admit: the putsch broke out because many high-rank German military were about to lose their jobs. Men whose whole lives turned around their army careers, who had been brought up to “serve their country” by waging or participating in military conflicts and wars; men who from very young age had been encouraged and supported in these pursuits by the state (like tin soldiers playing with their own tin soldiers), were about to be made redundant. The decision was made in Versailles and eventually accepted by the German government.
The disgruntlement of German troops and their leaders, still unable to accept their defeat with dignity, still kicking and screaming abuse at anyone who dared to deny them, still throwing tantrums and waving their flame-thrower hoses over the nation’s heads, almost led to another great catastrophe. In the end they failed – thanks to what should be hailed as one of the greatest moments in German history, one of the greatest examples of this nation – admittedly not exactly famous for such commendable examples of Aktionseinheit (unity of action) – closing its ranks to prevent an earthquake that could have swallowed them all. The Generalstreik (National Strike), called for right after the start of the putsch, brought the whole of Berlin as well as a great part of the country to a complete halt. And made the military and political machine behind the coup drive right against the wall.
But History is written by those who repeat their stories most often to the largest possible audience, not by those who simply record it. And so names and events are left out and begin to fade away from collective memory until hardly any trace is left.
Kapp-Putsch (perhaps also because of the catchy name?) had an easy job stealing public imagination – it had it all: Prussian military, political conflict between the old order and the new, class-conflict, Capitalism vs. Socialism and Communism, the von’s and the swastikas on German helmets.
Or maybe it is even less complicated than that? Perhaps it is this irresistible series of images – like an early form of Instagram not on computer servers but in people’s heads – that turned a failed assault carried out by disgruntled and/or traumatised men against a legal and official government of their state into a “classic”? Everybody loves a uniform. The shiny Prussian boots. The determined, stern look on moustachioed faces; the way they stand holding their weapons, the war machines they pull behind them or push before them like giant metal toys.
Sometimes, there is an element of disturbing fascination – it feels like fearful respect or quiet longing to have been part of it themselves – you often sense among those who keep re-telling Kapp-Putsch story with glee. But what do the story-tellers really think about their actions? Are those just filtered Instagram images, the ever-turning carousel of paroles, that they see and hear or do they really have a considered opinion? It is just a thought and by no means one limited to Kapp-Putsch only. But one aimed at making sure that the perpetrators should never get more (or better!) press than those they abused. Or even worse: that the abuse is turned around and consequently presented as virtue.
That is why when talking about the events in Berlin in March 1920 it is important to put the other side of this tale in the limelight.
The putsch, carried out by German Freikorps, voluntary paramilitary troops of strongly anti-republican hue, could have overthrown Ebert’s government: the army under General von Seeckt (even though some members of the Reichswehr supported the Ebert government) refused to follow president’s orders in order not to be forced to shoot at fellow soldiers (famous “Troops do not shoot at troops!”). This was most probably not the only reason for the army’s withdrawal – many powerful men would have welcomed Friedrich Ebert’s and the Weimar Republic’s demise.
Acting from so obviously lost a position, Ebert did the only thing he still could do: the cabinet left Berlin and got evacuated to Stuttgart. At the same time, he and the political parties supporting his cabinet called upon the People, mostly working-class citizens but by far not only (many entrepreneurs, company-owners and civic servants joined in), to go on strike. The masses responded and a general strike put everything to a halt: factories, railway stations, city transportation system, communications provided no goods or services. Berlin had no running water supply, no gas, no electricity, the public transport system froze. It should not be forgotten what that must have meant for regular people: their lives, already so horribly damaged by the sacrifices they were forced to bear for the First World War, were turned upside own again. Tens, hundreds of thousands of women and children who had nothing (bodies of their men strewn all over the war front lines); tens of thousands of war cripples with physical and/or mental wounds, old people with no-one to take care of them – they all waited in lines at the street pumps to carry some water into their dark, unheated rooms. Ironically, perhaps that is why they did not complain? Because this was nothing new – this was their life since the Kaiser, the kings and the generals decided to sacrifice the whole generation in order not to lose their face?
The Generalstreik was an incredible collective effort that deserves to be lauded – not pushed to the back of the national drawer in the hope that no-one notices before we are gone. Facing the shooting Freikorps troops (they proudly displayed and even used their machine guns on most main junctions in Berlin’s centre), flame-throwers and the armed vehicles sent against the city, people did an incredible thing: they played dead. The big machine, one whose control is necessary if you are planning violently to grab power over a country, refused to work.
Although official numbers quote 12 million participants, that number was most probably nearer 20 million. The twelve million were only the registered trade-union members – they were, by far, not the only ones who answered the call.
In fact, it went so far that high-rank members of the Reichsbank management refused to grant the putschists access to the funds (another indispensable element of any successful coup). And Albert Brecht, a man in charge of the state seals (needed to prove the legitimacy of the new “government” by being able to stamp the documents issued by them), packed them into his coat-pocket and left the building without any intention to help the authors of the coup.
Only 100 hours after the putsch began, Lüttwitz fled the country: first to Saxony and then Hungary. Kapp chose a different destination: he got himself flown out to Sweden. Both left Berlin on March 17, 1920 – 101 year ago today. Ehrhardt, commander of two Freikorps units involved in the occupation of Berlin, went into hiding in Bavaria.
With the putsch over, Friedrich Ebert’s government accepted the oath of loyalty sworn to them by those who only hours earlier tried to help set the world on fire and called for the ending of the national strike (“national” even though places like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg refused to join in). However, by then the events took a life of their own and Berlin was about to face another bloody but mostly forgotten chapter in its history: the 1920 March Revolution.
Now, if you were to stand on your desk to look at the events of March 17, 1920 from yet a different perspective, you would probably also see a small military aeroplane flying to German capital from Bavaria. Before the putsch came to its dismal end, the German capital was visited by a relatively unknown but aspiring politician. He arrived to show his support to Kapp and Lüttwitz as well as be there when the hated republic collapses.
Adolf Hitler’s pilot that night was Robert Ritter von Greim, whom Hitler would appoint as the last head of the Luftwaffe after Göring’s betrayal in April 1945. Greim would also become the man wounded by Red Army missiles while piloting a tiny Fieseler-Storch machine over the Tiergarten in the last days of the Third Reich: the machine was landed on Charlottenburger Chaussee (today’s Straße des 17. Juni) by his passenger and colleague, a Nazi pilot, Hanna Reitsch.
But back in 1920, after landing on a wrong airfield outside Berlin, Hitler allegedly disguised himself as a bearded accountant to make it past the checkpoints controlled by the workers.
The putsch, however, was of course over by then. This event – next to many others that followed – might have heavily contributed to Hitler’s future dislike of the city (despite his initial enthusiasm expressed in a letter to a friend sent during his first visit on a furlough from the front). In March 1920 he said about Berlin: “The Berlin of Frederick the Great has been turned into a pigsty by Jews.” Thirteen years later he would turn it into a Nazi hell. What was missing to stop him and his people was, among others, the Aktionseinheit.
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