OF WAR AND PEACE: GEORG LUGER – THE MAN BEHIND THE PARABELLUM
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”.
Berlin Companion Podcast Ep. 3: HANNA FLIES TO HELL
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.
EPISODE 8 DEATH AND RAILWAYS: THE CEMETERY AT POTSDAMER BAHNHOF – Berlin Companion Podcast
MISERABLE GOLDEN TWENTIES: HYPERINFLATION IN BERLIN 1923
“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 4,210,500,000,000 Mark 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.
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