Samuel Langhorn Clemens, an American writer and journalist, arrived in Berlin in October 1891. Not for pleasure, mind you. With the inland revenue office and the banks at home eager to receive their dues, the gentleman was eager to fill his purse with enough dollar banknotes to make both the former and the latter leave him in peace to do what he did best – write.
His five-month long sojourn in Europe and in the German capital would provide with him not only with a healthy distance to the US authorities but also with an interesting new topic. As well as with a source of money: the European journey inspired a series of letters sent by Mr Clemens to his home country and published as newspaper articles by several US titles. At a thousand dollars per text – sponsored by a New York title, the “Sun” – he as well as his travel companions (he was accompanied by his wife, three adult children, his sister-in-law and his servants) could rest assured they would not have to starve after their return to the other side of the Big Pond.
In April 1892 a Chicago newspaper, the “Daily News” published what must be his best-known text about Berlin. Mark Twain, who during his stay in the German capital had to get registered under his real name “S.L. Clemens”, wrote The Chicago of Europe (also known as The German Chicago) as his sixth and last letter from his European journey.
And here is my favourite paragraph from that text – the “invasion of fireflies” is a phrase to remember:
At night Berlin is an inspiring sight to see.Gas and the electric light are employed with a wasteful liberality, and so, wherever one goes, he has always double ranks of brilliant lights stretching far down into the night on every hand, with here and there a wide and splendid constellation of them spread out over an intervening “platz,” and between the interminable double procession of street lamps one has the swarming and darting cab lamps, a lively and pretty addition to the fine spectacle, for they counterfeit the rush and confusion and sparkle of an invasion of fireflies.
In 1892 Franz Skarbina, one of Berlin’s leading nineteenth-century painters, captured a scene close to every Berliner’s heart: the city’s annual Christmas Market – an event as eagerly awaited and as important to the city’s tradition then as it is today when despite COVID-related restrictions duly vaccinated and carefully masked crowds flock to the few still open locations.
The Christmas Market painted by the artist eight years before the end of the nineteenth century was located in Berlin’s Lustgarten: in the background on the left you can see the western edge of the old Stadtschloß, the Royal City Palace, while the buildings on the right form the line of the soon-to-be-demolished Schloßfreiheit.
Schloßfreiheit was a small street which used to run along the city palace’s western front facade, separating it from the Cöllnischer Stadtgraben (now the Spreekanal). Built in 1672, it comprised ten buildings whose owners, having carried the exorbitant costs of constructing houses on very unstable, marshy grounds, enjoyed a series of financial privileges such as freedom from many forms of taxation practised in Berlin at the time. They were also free from obligation to put up royal troops at own costs -until first proper Kasernen (barracks) were built in the Prussian capital, providing accommodation to soldiers was one of the most hated, burdensome duties faced by Berliners. The very name of the street indicated its special status: Freiheit stands in German for “freedom”.
By the end of the nineteenth century this small but very central street, built by the order of the Great Elector who wished to see more life around the palace, became a permanent thorn in his distant Hohenzollern successor’s, Wilhelm’s II, side. The last Kaiser often complained about its unsightliness and its unfortunate location blocking the view from the palace towards Schinkel’s Bauakademie on the other side of the canal. Eventually and rather unsurprisingly, despite protests the tenacious emperor got his way. Demolished in 1892-1894 the street had to make room for Wilhelm’s tribute to his Grandpapa: to Kaiser-Wilhelm-Denkmal, a humongous memorial installed in honour of Wilhelm I.
As a side-note: the fact that this oversized melange of stone and bronze giants and endless collection of animal figures (Berliners referred to it as the Kleine Zoo von Wilhelm Zwo) obstructed the view just as much as the Schloßfreiheit did, did not seem to bother His Imperial Majesty much.
Lustgarten, a large plaza between the Royal Palace, the Berliner Dom and Altes Museum (flanking it from the north), was the site of Berlin’s largest Christmas Markets since 1873. Before that they traditionally took place in Breite Straße – a location used since approximately 1750 until Rudolph Hertzog, the owner of the vast department store in Breite Straße, complained about the market’s negative impact on his pre-Christmas profits. The very first ever recorded Christmas Market in Berlin opened, by the way, in 1530: it stretched between Petriplatz, Mühlendamm and today no longer existing Heilige-Geist-Straße. But mentions of Weynachts-Marckt (historic spelling) could be found in the city records of Cölln – one of the sister-cities that formed today’s Berlin – already in mid-fifteenth century.
Lustgarten Christmas Markets were a Berlin institution and a highlight of every winter. Until the end of 1893 when the construction of the new Berliner Dom brought a temporary end to the annual fair on this spot. Luckily, the idea to do away with the tradition for good – presented by the Polizeipräsidium in 1891 – found enough prominent opponents.
The Weihnachtsmarkt did not return to its central location until 1934 – a change enthusiastically welcomed by Berliners who missed the Lustgarten event. No wonder then than as soon as the Second World War ended, the first post-war Christmas Market opened right there, too.
Despite ice-cold wind, ruins, hunger and luck of nearly every thinkable facilities, it began on December 9, 1945. For many survivors, especially for children, it was the first opportunity to have a cup of hot barley-malt-coffee and a warm sausage in a a very long time. Despite Berlin’s division into East and West, the Lustgarten remained the market’s venue for the next thirty years, albeit only for East Berliners (West Berlin’s main Christmas Market occupied – and still does – today’s Breitscheidplatz). The last one closed in January 1974.
* Blätterwald – literally: “Leafy Woods” or “Page Woods”; synonym for newspapers, press.
On November 30th 1907 Berlin’s newspaper, the “Berliner Börsen-Zeitung”, bemoaned the seemingly unstoppable demise of the city’s once favourite tipple, the Berliner Weißbier. Up to the arrival of Bavarian-type beers, this slightly sour, top-fermented brew used to be the local beverage of choice.
Traditionally served in extra-large but flat glasses, whose handling required use of both hands, this sort of beer was offered in most Berlin bars – or Kneipen – which were licenced to sell no stronger alcoholic beverages like Schnaps (Weißbier is a comparably harmless drink as it contains around 2.8 % alcohol). You mostly found them on the edge of Berlin or even outside the city limits – places like Choriner Straße in Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg (now central Berlin, then outside the city walls) or Lindenstraße in Mitte-Kreuzberg.
The advent of low-fermentation beers from Bavaria – beers which unlike the Berliner Weiße could be stored for a longer time (hence the name “lager” from German lagern) and contained bottom-fermenting yeast – eventually pushed out the top-fermenting sort which used to be brewed in higher temperatures. But not before Napoleon and his troops – a crew whose palates were used to some of the most refined flavours – had a chance to appreciate its taste, calling the drink the “Champagne of the North”. Around 1800 Berlin had around 700 Kneipen serving “the Spree bubbly”.
Today less than ten breweries produce Berliner Weiße and in a city whose veins seem to be pumping beer at any given time of day of night, it has become fiercely difficult to buy the brew. Which is a pity, as loss of a local speciality always is, so let me raise my extra-large and flat glass to the return of Champagne of the North! Prost!
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