Students at the Marienfelde garden academy of Elvira Castner photographed by Martha Wolff for the “Berliner Leben”, Oct. 1907. Image in public domain via Zentrales Landesbibliothek Berlin.

An old Chinese proverb says: „If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, become a gardener. “ When in 1823 first Royal Gardening Academy was set up in Potsdam at Prussian King’s, Friedrich Wilhelm III’s behest, no fewer than eleven young men entered the lush green path towards eternal bliss. There were, however, no women among them: gardening and especially garden design were a “man thing”. Even abroad (for Prussia was many things but progressiveness was never really its forte) females who ventured into their territory were few and far between. And nearly all of them suffered scorn, ranging from the good old avuncular “there-there-girls” to outright loathing. But they risked losing more than just their fair, porcelain teint – often their good reputation was at stake, too, as soon as they dared more than pick the roses. Not much had changed until late into the nineteenth century (of course, with commendable exceptions) – still, even before that more and more ladies began to grab spades and garden forks and tell others what to do with theirs.

Miss Dr Elvira Castner in the “Zeitschrift für Garten- und Blumenkunde” 63. Jahrgang, 1914. Photographer unknown. Image in public domain. Here via Wikimedia.

Elvira Castner was one of the first female dentists in Germany – unable to study medicine in Prussia, she gained her Zahnkünstlerin (literally, “tooth artist” as stomatologists were listed in Berlin directories at the time) diploma in Baltimore. She was also an avid gardener, having grown up with a mother who herself drew her happiness from caring for carrot beds and flowers. It was there, in the USA, that Castner saw a window of professional opportunity for women in Prussia: she took walks down to the Baltimore harbour where she watched tonnes of US apples being loaded onto ships to be dispatched over to Europe – to Germany.  Why not grow more of your own apples there? Why not leave this job to women? Wasn’t gardening a perfect way of earning your own money for middle-class females who cannot or want not to rely on their family to support them? For women who did not wish to be forced to choose between “married” or “widowed”? Or for those who saw garden design as a way of combining the Aesthetic with the Practical.

Once back in Berlin, Castner – whose dental career took off at once – began to work out the details. In 1894 in Fregestraße, in what is now Berlin-Friedenau, she opened her private gardening academy for women. Soon the first seven students were joined by the ladies from Hedwig Heyl’s Housekeeping Academy in Charlottenburg, where they had taken a course in pot plants and bouquet-making. Elvira Castner’s academy offered them a chance to venture beyond the pots and ribbons. Perhaps in the future they could even start their own gardens? Or – should that future be kinder to females – find employment as head gardeners? It did not take long for the academy to become of interest to many of the Höhere Töchter (literally “higher daughters” or daughters of upper-middle and upper class families) and the student numbers to grow.

Planting artichokes in Marienfelde school gardens. Photo by Martha Wolff for the “Berliner Leben”, Oct. 1907. Via Zentrales Landesbibliothek Berlin.

In order to expand the gardens as well as offer proper boarding to that growing number of students, Elvira Castner invested in 8.6 acres of land in Marienfelde in what is now Berlin-Tempelhof.  Her new academy could offer theoretical and practical education to 70 students each year; forty of whom lived in the brand-new boarding house paid for, to a great extent, by the academy’s mother. After two years of diligent work and passing the exams, the ladies (aged 16 to 50) left the academy with a professional diploma.

But that did not prevent their male colleagues from treating them with hostility and/or disdain. In their eyes, opening the market to female gardeners would lead to a dangerous “surplus in production”, “further price-drops” and – something that is still being preached in certain circles – to an actual End of the World as we know it.

That end, by the way, did take place – between 1914 and 1918 it changed Prussia, Germany and, in fact, the whole world for ever – but not because women marked garden paths, put up trellises or grew zucchini. They ploughed on, metaphorically and literally speaking: somebody had to feed the famished nation.

The school building and the dormitory of Castner’s Gardening Academy for Women in Marienfelde. Image via Archiv Arbeitskreis Historisches Marienfelde.

In 1919 Elvira Castner’s Gardening Academy for Women registered its one-thousandth student. The school continued for another three years until the hyperinflation and crisis raging in Germany because of the war and the government’s blinkered financial politics during the Ruhr Crisis, forced Castner and her co-workers to sell the school grounds and gardens. Elvira Castner, who had been awarded the silver Cross of the Order of Merit (with a white ribbon) and became a member of the German Gardening Society, died on July 13, 1923.

A hundred years later, in April 2023, the Königliche Gartenakademie (Royal Gardening Academy) in Dahlem – an academy established on the grounds of Berlin’s Botanical Gardens by two women, Gabriella Pape and Isabelle Van Groeningen – celebrated its 15th birthday. Gabriella Pape is the only German gardener to have been awarded a medal at the gardening event worldwide, Chelsea Flower Show. A true Dame of Spades that Elvira Castner would be more than proud of.

The text was originally written in German and published in my weekly column “Aus der Zeit” in Berlin’s leading newspaper, the “Tagesspiegel”. The column appears weekly on Saturdays in the section “Berliner Wirtschaft” (Berlin Economy).

A walk through Berlin’s historic district Luisenstadt down to the block around Ritterstraße might be refreshing but not exactly aesthetically pleasing. This neighbourhood has never ranked among the prettiest. It does make an effort but fails. The problem is not new. Back in 1903 the English edition of the renown Baedeker guide warned Berlin visitors: „The industrial Luisenstadt, to the South and South-East of the Spittelmarkt, is the most densely populated and least interesting among Berlin districts“. Again, from the aesthetic point of view – perhaps. However, the area around Ritterstraße has also been interesting, lively and cosmopolitan. But, of course, it wasn’t Unter den Linden or Kudamm.

Luisenstadt dies- und jenseits des Kanals (Luisenstadt on Thsi and On The Other Side of the Canal) on a Berlin map.

At the same time as Baedeker recommended its readers better head for the „Wintergarten“ and Stadtschloß, crowds of visitors from all over the world flocked to Berlin’s „Goldene Meile“ (Golden Mile). From the 1880s on a whole export district grew around Ritterstraße in what is today Berlin-Kreuzberg: textile industry, electro-technical workshops, bronze ornaments manufacturers, cardboard-box factories as well as printers and stationary product entrepreneurs had been settling there for decades. Soon the future SW68 (old postal code for the area, like SO36, traditionally used as its nickname) – which became not so much a postal code as a seal of approval – small and medium-sized factories began churning out screws, pipes, lamps, bath tubs, toys, gramophone plates and even wheel spokes for the first racing cars in Germany.

The industry ruled the Kiez (Berlin word for a neighbourhood) but it lived – even if not exactly smoke or noise-free – in the background.

Aerial image of the area along the old Luisenstädtischen Kanal (filled in in 1926) with Engelbecken and Wassertorplatz – then still an inner-city harbour – as well as Oranienplatz between the two). Source: 1925 book “Im Flugzeug über Berlin : 48 Luftbilder mit Text” by Erich Ewald.

The term Kreuzberger Mischung, or „Kreuzberg Mix“ (sometimes also referred to as Berliner Mischung), is almost forgotten today but according to many Berlin historians this is where its cradle stood: in the former Luisenstadt. Within the approximately 25-hectar area divided into more or less regular blocks, the city tested the new “living-and-working” concept on a larger scale: the plot fronts along the street were lined with residential buildings, many of which had at least one side-wing and/or what is known as a Quergebäude built parallel to and behind the courtyard separating it from the front house.

The back and the sides of the long plots were occupied by small workshops and factories, which with time expanded, swallowing most of the free space on the site. Gradually, the said plot became nearly completely built-over and the small gardens some of them had at the beginning became the song of the past.

But business boomed. Sample stores, warehouses and the famous show rooms – whose owners planning to set up shop windows in the 1890s had to apply for a special permit as shop windows were actually something for Unter den Linden or Leipziger Straße. Company agents set up their offices, door to door with shippers and carriers.

Names such as Butzke, Massary, Pelikan and Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft appeared. Advertisements, reps and sample stores, produced the air of a professional trade fair. The electrifying, pulsating atmosphere of the neighbourhood attracted crowds of business people, traders, inventors and even tourists.

By 1914 no fewer than 1,344 foreign companies offered their goods and services in and around Ritterstraße. In total the area was home to 1,391 factory owners, almost 3,000 agents, 92 export companies and 21 shipping businesses. The name Rollkutschenviertel (Haulier District) said a lot about the quality of living there.

Still, no-one really complained. Jeschäft (Berlinerisch for business) was good, money flowed and everything was going so well that in the first half of the 20th century almost every single building in Ritterstraße housed a show room or a factory or workshop.

In spite of the heavy recession during and after the First World War, in 1936 the Exportviertel Ritterstraße had a sales turnover worth over 100 million Reichsmark!

The ruins had been removed by 1954 when this aerial photo was taken – the round plaza is today’s Mehringplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg (photo by Hans Richter via FIS Broker Berlin; image in public domain).

And then the next war began and six years later, on February 3, 1945 it blew the whole district off the face of the Earth. The air-raids that night pulverised nearly the whole Luisenstadt and the southern end of the neighbouring Friedrichstadt (north of the Landwehrkanal and to both sides of Friedrichstraße). Gone were the crystal vases, the leather goods, the bathroom fixtures, wall carpets and telegraphs. Gone, too, were small munition factories that replaced all the school-furniture manufactures, steel wire and paper bags workshops which instead of offering their usual goods, had began to produce cartridge shells and explosives. What remained after the cannons stopped spitting fire and went silent in the end was a neighbourhood that never managed to pick itself up again. What also remained were the curious vases sold by Herr Weckmann, a businessman from Ritterstraße 37, after the war. He recycled the no-longer needed metal cartridge shells – you could take Ritterstraße out of business but you could not take business out of the street.

The text was originally written in German for my weekly column "Aus der Zeit" in Berlin's newspaper the Tagesspiegel.

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.

Old Ludwig Loewe & Co. “Briefverschlussmarke” used since mid-19th century by German companies to seal the envelopes of their business correspondence (Image via

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.

Borchardt C93 in a case (photo by Hmaag, via Wikipedia)

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😉).

Cutaway of Luger’s pistol in the 1904 patent

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”.

Photo of Luger’s grave taken my the author and her son, Franz, on January 15, 2023.