Berlin 2021 A Rendezvous with Charlottenburg Ghosts.
We Guides used to walk the street for money, but lockdown has turned that practice into just walking. The pace of lockdown walks has meant I’ve rediscovered my own neighbourhood, noticing things I’ve passed by in a hurry many times before. Commemorative plaques that remind of past neighbours.
I live in west Berlin’s Charlottenburg, a district that first grew up in the mid 18thCentury around a country palace to become the leafy suburb a mile or two from the crowded Imperial capital beyond the Brandenburg Gate to the east.
Its situation would attract the new bourgeoisie and Avant Gard of Berlin’s modern age. They wanted large apartments, a glitzy shopping mile and café society and restaurants, all with easy access to both the historic town and the freedom of the lakes and forests to the west. It was a modern district for a new modern Berlin of the early 20th Century and became home to some of Berlin’s most interesting figures.
# 1 Erich Maria Remarque has two commemorative plaques here. This one is from the Kaiserdamm, where he lived whilst composing his most famous work, his pacifist book highlighting the tragedies of WWI ‘All quiet on the western front’.
He himself served in WWI as a teenager and was badly wounded. This book spawned an industry of German language war and anti-war memoires.
His book, his Catholic faith and changing his last name to reflect his French heritage saw him become a target of the Nazis in the years before Hitler came to power. The 1930 premiere of the film version saw the Nazi propagandist Goebbels organise performance disruptions. Stink bombs were thrown, fights orchestrated, boxes of white mice released in the cinemas. He left Germany in 1931.
His books were banned and burned by the Nazis in 1933, his sister executed by them in 1943 for stating publically the war was lost. The owner of the cinema that premiered ‘All quiet on the western front’ was murdered in Auschwitz.
Remarque died in Switzerland in 1970. His memory lives on in New York University Remarque foundation for European studies, funded by his legacy.
#2 Down on the Kantstraße is Berlin’s oldest and perhaps best Chinese restaurant, Good Friends. Just above the sticky kitchen window full of hanging, glazed ducks is another plaque, to forgotten Else Ury who lived here until Hitler came to power..
Ury was a writer and pioneer of women’s rights to education and independent careers. In the late 1920s she was one of the most successful children’s authors in Germany. Her most famous character was Anna Maria Braun, a cheeky blond schoolgirl – nicknamed ‘Nesthäkchen’ – the last child to leave the ‘nest’.
After WWII, her books were reprinted and televised in the west. One book was however banned, ‘Nesthäkchen and the first World War’ a patriotic work, written by a patriotic author, deemed too nationalist by the occupying powers.
By the 1930s Ury had decided to stop writing the series that had made her wealthy as the main character hit her teens, but she was inundated with letters begging her to continue.
She did, telling of ‘Nesthäkchen’, herself as a mother and grandmother in an unknown future period of the 1960s, now a successful happy law graduate.
This world Ury could only imagine but never reached. She was banned from publishing in 1935. She was murdered in Auschwitz in January 1943.
# 3 Carl von Ossietzky’s office is visible just down the Kantstraße from Ury’s front door. Here he worked editing the ‘Weltbühne’ periodical, home to the thoughts of the intellectual left. Fearless and anti-war, Ossietzky was drafted unwillingly into the army and appalled by his experiences in WWI.
After WWI, he spoke out in print against the German Army policies against trying to circumnavigate the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, and he was jailed for treason in 1931 for exposing the Army’s illegal training of pilots on Soviet soil.
One of the architects of these Army ‘black ops’ was General Schleicher, the man who, in 1932, would press President Hindenburg to declare a ‘presidential cabinet’ style government in the early 1930s to avoid the parliament in the Reichstag, essentially creating a path to his dictatorship.
Schleicher became the last and short lived German chancellor before Adolf Hitler, his political manoeuvrings a major help to allow Hitler’s appointment to be realised.
Ossietzky was one of the few writers who didn’t flee during the Nazi regime, and continued to publish critical stories. He was arrested and sent to concentration camps. Whilst incarcerated, his fame grew, and caused controversy amongst international conservative circles by being awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1935. Was he not ‘treasonous’ was the establishment positon? Ossietzky died of TB in a Berlin hospital after years of abuse in the camps, still under Gestapo arrest.
# 4 Kommune 1 was a famous commune set up in 1967 not far from where we’ve just been, but in a very different world.
Stuttgarterplatz is next to the Charlottenburg train station and it was here after WWII one could catch the west Berlin transit bus to west Germany. Until very recently it was the red-light district of Charlottenburg. I once had to meet a terrifying man called Roman here, in the ‘Chocolat’ club, but that’s a whole other tour……
Kommune 1 was an expression of the post war baby boomers shunning their parent’s conservative (and often ‘Nazi’) societal norms and rebuilding a world that produced the ‘68ers demonstrations, red terrorists, anti – nuclear movements and the Green party of the present. One of the long-lasting members was Rainer Langhans, and his girlfriend Munich model Uschi Obermeier. They became a famed, radical and hot celebrity couple, a German John and Yoko.
Their fame lead to lucrative paid magazine work. Eventually the house was smashed up by thugs they themselves had hired to evict a couple of commune members who’d outlived their welcome. The thugs wanted some of the 50K Langhans and Obermeier had just been paid for a magazine photo story. The Kommune 1 broke up, but Langhans lived together with 4 other models for decades.
# 5 Talking of the earth moving- it did for this last neighbour –Alfred Wegener, who lived a mile up the road at the western end of the Ku’damm. He was an explore and meteorologist working in Scandinavia and Greenland.
He’s the man who first published the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics in the early 1920s. Nobody accepted his theory then and whilst on expedition he froze to death in Greenland in 1930.
By the 1950s, new science confirmed his ideas as correct. Today, his Greenland grave is buried under 100 metres of ice.