“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.
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).
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.
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…
When Friedrich Albert Schwartz, nineteenth-century Berlin photographer to whom we owe many absolutely invaluable images of the city, placed his camera at Friedrichsbrücke, spanning the Spree between what is now Museuminsel and Anna-Karsch-Straße, he quite likely knew he would be taking a photo of a building facing its doom. It is quite possible that the fact that the old Palais Itzig had been sold and would be demolished was exactly the reason for his commission.
Palais Itzig, once owned by one the mightiest men in Berlin, Prussian Hofjude, Daniel Itzig (“Court Jews” were privileged Jews who took care of royal finances on German courts), was one of the most impressive, elegant and largest residential buildings in the 18th-century Berlin.
Itzig had it erected in Burgstraße: it rose along the river Spree and in close proximity to the Royal Palace. In fact, its architect August Gotthilf Neumann did not start on a blank page. Apart from seven houses that occupied the plot, Daniel Itzig bought the never completed Palais Montargues – another elegant estate house designed by Philipp Gerlach (the one of Pariser Platz, Leipziger Platz and the Rondell or the predecessor of today’s Mehringplatz) for Prussian-French General Peter von Montargues. Think of it as a kind of an architectural Babushka: a house within a house within a house.
And so Gerlach’s design was altered, incorporated, refurbished and extended. The seven neighbouring houses had to go to make room for the spreading body of the new palace, which was after all to provide home to the royal mint-master, banker and head of Berlin’s Jewish community (as well as a great supporter of Moses Mendelssohn’s Haskala movement of enlightened Judaism). And to his family of 17: Daniel Itzig and his short of heroic wife, Mirjam Wulff, had 15 children. Ten daughters and five sons who themselves went down in history but that is another story.
Palais Itzig was a thing to behold – due to its very size it was definitely impossible to overlook. What made passers-by gasp when seeing it on the outside, made others go quiet with awe when invited to see it from the inside. Not only did it have a large private gallery full of precious paintings and a spreading garden with a fountain – the garden stretched between the generous main courtyard on the side of the Spree and the Heilig-Geist-Spital (whose chapel built in 1300 still stands in today’s Spandauer Straße). It also offered all possible comforts and even had its own in-house synagogue.
As always, this display of wealth and an ostentatious mark of success met with resentment. Which in this case was, of course, additionally amplified by anti-Semitic resentment and did not get any less later, after Daniel Itzig’s death. The Itzig family became the target of both concealed and public mockery as well as rude jokes and their surname was used by some as synonymous with “Jew”. It must be said that the resentment towards the Itzigs was not reserved for no-Jews only – the family’s break-up with traditional Judaism and support for its “enlightened” form became a source of deep bitterness within the Jewish community itself.
When the family’s fortune turned by the end of the 18th century, Palais Itzig became an asset which had to be dropped: in 1817 it was sold to Dr Nathan Friedländer. And 49 years later his son, Carl Jacob Friedländer, signed a sales contract himself. The old Palais Itzig/Friedländer became the property of a business group known as Korporation der Kaufmannschaft (Traders’ Corporation).
Their plan was simple: the old palace should be demolished to win the plot back for a new construction site – Palais Itzig had to go (we are now in that picture taken by FA Schwartz). The new building would symbolise the modern capital and modern capital markets: it would become the Berliner Börse – Berlin’s new stock exchange.
Berlin’s famous Stock Exchange in Burgstraße used to line the northern bank of the river Spree opposite Berliner Dom until the end of the Second World War (its ruins were demolished in 1958/59). It housed two largest hall rooms in Berlin and was regularly visited by tourists curious to see the building they could read about in the most renowned guidebooks.
Few of them knew Berliner Börse’s little secret. It was designed by a respected Berlin architect, Friedrich Hitzig – the same man who created, among others, the city’s first market hall in Schiffbauerdamm, the original Reichsbank building in Jägerstraße as well as Berlin’s first observatory, the Sternwarte (where he assisted his teacher, Karl Friedrich Schinkel). Now he was commissioned to design one of the largest buildings in Prussian capital.
And so Friedrich Hitzig’s stock exchange building was erected on the site of the old Palais Itzig. And the little secret? Well, Daniel Itzig, the palace’s original owner happened to be Friedrich Hitzig’s paternal great-grandfather. Berliner Börse’s architect’s surname was the altered form of the name Itzig – chosen by the family after converting to Christianity and to escape anti-Semitic jeers.
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