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.
“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.
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.
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).
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 4,210,500,000,000Mark to 4.20 Rentenmark.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Weißensee – until 2001 an independent Berlin borough but now just a locality within the new super-borough of Pankow – is mostly known for three things: the Weißer See (a picturesque inner-city lake), the Jewish Cemetery (largest in Europe!) and the Delphi cinema (one of the oldest, still open Berlin picture shows, whose fabulously imperfect interior played the role of the 1929 “Moka Efti” café and dance hall in the TV series Babylon Berlin).
The lake has been a cooling magnet for sun- and water-hungry crowds for well over a century. It still is. On warm days you will find said crowds strolling around its shore, clinging onto the precious lawn- or sand-spot along the waterline or bobbing on the latter’s surface like an inflatable armada of pink plastic flamingos (or rubber doughnuts). And sooner or later nearly all of these people will have visited the Milchhäuschen, an elegant mid-1970s café on the western shore of the lake, straight across the water from the lido.
Ask anyone who grew up in Berlin-Weißensee and the Milchhäuschen is as certain to pop up in their long-forgotten tales of the sun-drenched days at the lake as the plastic inflatable flamingos are sure to appear on its surface today. You went to the lake, you went for a swim and after warming yourself up in the sun, you heard your parents say the magic words: “Ick schwitze wie ‘n Braten! Wolln wa Eis essen?“*
For generations of Berliners and Weißenseers this small place at the lake has been a thick thread in that warm worn-out cardigan known as childhood memories.
Interestingly, it is not the first Milchhäuschen that stood on this spot. Until 1965 that name belonged to a lovely half-timbered cottage with a closed wood-and-glass veranda. It was one of the only two buildings erected in the 1880s as part of a never-realised project, an amusement park “Kopenhagener Tivoli”. In 1905 local Weißensee authorities bought it along with the rest of the park and by 1913 had the cottage converted to a place where local families – and children in particular – could enjoy a glass of fresh milk and healthy dairy products.
Drinking good quality milk – fresh, free of pollution and, first of foremost, coming from healthy and TB-free cows (cows can pass tuberculosis onto humans) – was one of the basic measures to boost the health of the youngest city-dwellers (a practice which held in many places – like Poland, for instance – until late in the 1980s). That is why Berlin had more of such “milk bars” (one of the more famous ones stood in Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg).
The milk and dairy products sold at the original Milchhäuschen in Weißensee came not from the cowsheds and meadows of Brandenburg but from… the local hospital. The Säugling- und Kinderkrankenhaus (Infant and Children Hospital) in Hansastraße – the first municipal infant and children hospital in Prussia – kept its own herd to provide nourishing milk to its young patients. The excess of it could be sold at a small profit.
But it was not about money. The terrifying mortality rates among infants and young children in Berlin as well as its surrounding cities and rural communities – until 1920 Weißensee was one of the latter – made the local authorities act before it was too late. Just to give you a sense of how appalling and alarming the situation in Berlin was: in 1900 and 1901 around 30% of all new-borns died within the first year. Most of them in summer, in July and August, and mostly due to infections of the digestive system and diarrhoea.
Why were the numbers so high? And why in summer? The hygiene standards were only one factor. The other one was the plain fact that most mothers had no way of breastfeeding their infants: they spent most of their days working very hard indeed, forced to entrust their babies with relatives, neighbours or older children. Who fed them cow milk. On hot days even fresh milk went sour fast and bacteria spread.
Toddlers and older children were often undernourished, too, and cow milk was a source of many crucial nutritives for them. That explains the idea behind the Milchhäuschen – or Milchwirtschaften as they were sometimes called. They were one way of alleviating the dreadful situation.
The Weißensee Milchhäuschen did exactly that – it helped save and strengthen the children by improving their health. And it definitely made both them and their parents happy by offering fresh yoghurt, cottage cheese and sweet milk-pudding.
Neither the First nor the Second World War brought an end to that tradition. After Germany’s capitulation in May 1945 it did not take long for the place’s fans to return in the hope of finding a bit of normality and that taste of sun-drenched afternoons they remembered from before their world had fallen apart.
Slowly Milchhäuschen regained its old charm and used it to enchant both old and new guests. Until 1965, that is. That year brought its end: rot damaged the half-timbered structure beyond repair and the historic building had to be demolished. It came as a great loss to both the locals and visitors from other boroughs and for a while it was uncertain what would follow.
It took another decade for the new Milchhäuschen to take its place – even though plans for the new building were ready in 1966. From 1976 the bright pavilion with a terrace attracted crowds again – during the day they ate their ice-cream, sipped their milkshakes or iced-coffee and in the evening enjoyed strolling around the lake and the sight of the “Milchhäuschen” neon-sign installed on its roof.
The Wende (Reunification of Germany) in 1990 almost became its end. Luckily, after several years of post-Reunification limbo, when all cards were being dealt out anew, the popular lakeside café eventually found its new owners – before it was too late. Today’s “Master of the Milk Cottage”, Sebastian Wachenbrönner, took over from his father, Oswald, who leased and renovated the venue in 1995.
Before its re-opening in 1996, today’s Milchhäuschen had to undergo extensive restoration works. As a result the interior of the 1976 pavilion had to be made anew while the new owners retained the original outer shell. It was important to keep it – not only for sentimental reasons. Unbeknownst to many, that small pavilion at the Weißer See was designed by Ludmilla Herzenstein. Her name might not tell you much but go to Karl-Marx-Allee 102-104 or 126-128 where a row of poplar trees hides the slightly set back residential buildings known as Laubenganghäuser (Balcony-Access Blocks) – the very first two buildings built in 1952 along the planned Stalinallee – and you might see the common denominator. Clean-cut, practical, simple, accessible. And with a lot of light. “Too elitist”, “too modern”, “too pre-war-like”, said the Soviet-oriented Berlin authorities promptly and introduced a new ruling style along the Stalin Boulevard.
The Laubenganghäuser, however, could stay but that row of poplar trees before them is not a coincidence. And even years later, Ludmilla Herzenstein still believed that her design for new accommodation for the working-class Berliners would have been the right path to follow. Just as it was in 1929 when the Berlin legend of German modernist movement Neues Bauen, Bruno Taut, employed Herzenstein as the building site manager for what is known today as Onkel-Toms-Hütte or Papageinsiedlung in Berlin-Zehlendorf, one of Berlin’s Modernist heritage sites.
So that is why, thanks to an almost forgotten female Berlin architect, Ludmilla Herzenstein, right now somewhere inside the Milchhäuschen at the Weißer See there lives the spirit of Bauhaus. And is probably having a milkshake.
*Ick schwitze wie ‘n Braten! Wolln wa Eis essen? – literally: “I’m sweating like a roast! How about an ice-cream?
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