The roaring twenties
So far, we’ve been looking at Berlin from the pre-industrial era and beyond, where the city literally exploded in size and inhabitants. The German capital became a center of culture and arts – not only in Germany, but in all of Europe. Still, nothing quite compares to what was about to happen in the first half of the 20th century.
No other capital has undergone so much trial and tribulation as Berlin. With the outbreak of World War I and, later on, World War II, Berlin faced heavy damage and destruction. I won’t go into depths with WWI and WWII here, as I’m trying to keep the words to a minimum, but there’s no doubt that these events clearly changed Berlin for good. It was just after WWI, though, that things seemed to lighten up a bit. At least, for a while. Germany became a republic (from now on known as ‘The Weimar Republic’) and Berlin remained the capital city.
The Golden Era could begin.
The Greater Berlin Act
A new law by the name of ‘Greater Berlin Act’ divided the city into 20 boroughs, which we all know well today; Mitte, Tiergarten, Wedding, Prenzlauer-Berg and Friedrichshain. Furthermore, the seven towns surrounding the city (Charlottenburg, Köpenick, Lichtenberg, Neukölln, Schöneberg, Spandau and Wilmersdorf) were merged together forming one large capital. From here on, it was easy for everyone to see that Berlin was a modern capital one the line of Paris and London, not to mention the new cultural centre of Europe. In fact, Berlin was the world’s 3rd largest capital at this time!
For a few decades, Berlin was regarded a frontrunner in anything from science, music, film, education, government and industries. The city excelled in practically all areas.
In terms of art, German Expressionism had its heydays in the 1920s. An innovative and sophisticated (sub)culture emerged with architecture and design at its very heart. Bauhaus (the German art school) was formed just after WWI, Marlene Dietrich and other film stars started appearing on the big screen, Jung came forward with his philosophies and Bertoldt Brecht had great success with his theater plays. The word disruption is heavily used in all sorts of connections today, but the 1920s were truly an era of disruption! Considered to be decadent and cheeky, Berlin would slowly take on a new reputation; one, that still hangs in the air to this day. A big part of the new ‘talkies’ (films with sound) were in fact produced in Berlin – not in Hollywood! One could argue that Berlin was actually the forefather of the Hollywood we know today. If you’d like to know more about that, make sure to pay Filmpark Babelsberg in Potsdam a visit.
The rise of the decadent party scene
Lavish parties were thrown to please the growing crowds of amusement seekers; musicals and cabarets were part of the day-to-day life of Berliners in the 20s. And so was drug dealing and crime. When I was doing my research for these posts, I couldn’t help but imagine Berlin as a kind of ‘Gotham City’ (you know – Batman!) where moral and virtue was replaced by sinful behavior and a need for ‘a quick fix’. Like you, I can only imagine, but the books explains it pretty well. Today, we have Berghain and a number of other clubs famous for its rave parties. Back then, the number 1 hot spot was called Moka Efti. Perhaps you’ve seen the German TV success Babylon Berlin, which aired a few years ago? Well, that’s pretty much based on the escapades taking place at Moka Efti, which was located on Leipziger Strasse in Mitte and named after its Greek-Italian owner. It wasn’t even a night club to begin with, but a café. Hence, the real magic began when the owner purchased a palais on Friedrichstrasse in 1929. They say that the interior and atmosphere of this place was wilder than one could ever imagine. Even today. An elevator took guests from the ground floor to first floor, and this alone was so spectacular at the time that many guests came for the ride alone!
Inside Moka Efti, a beautiful setup of barbers, an Egyptian salon selling coffee and a white marble pastry shop (!) awaited the guests. The corridor connecting the pastry shop and the bar was designed as an Orient Express sleeping wagon, which made guests feel like they were actually traveling. Add to that a good dose of drugs, opium and alcohol – what a party is must’ve been!
Although there were many other establishments in Berlin in the 20s and 30s, Moka Efti was definitely one of the most prominent with exotic dancers and anything else you can (and can’t) imagine. The stock market crashed in 1929 and the effects of it forced the Greek-Italian owner of Moka Efti to sell it in 1933.
The party was officially over when the Nazi’s took over and WWII began; from then on, there were clear restrictions on public dancing, which was banned completely in 1942. Soon after, Moka Efti was destroyed by bombs.
A liberal and tolerant city
In the 1930s, Berlin had gained a reputation as a liberal and tolerant city, famous for its nightlife and free homosexual culture. This was the place to visit if you were looking for adventure and thrills. The capital even had a museum for sexuality during the Weimar years – and an erotic dancer named Anita Berber made the scene even more notorious with her provoking performances and cocaine addiction. If you recognize the name, it’s because there’s a nightclub in Pankow bearing the same name. When I went there for the first time three years ago with a group of friends, I had never heard about Anita Berber before, but I’m sure I could feel her presence lingering in the air.
The Tinder of the 1920s
Yes, you read it right. Tinder might be an invention of modern times, but the idea of finding and hooking up with ‘strangers’ that you find attractive certainly isn’t! The so-called pneumatic tubes is a proof of that. This system existed for decades and had (mainly male) tourists coming to Berlin – it simply sounded too good to be true. But it wasn’t.
In my research, I came across two nightclubs that had these tubes installed; the Residenz-Casino and Femina. Each table at these establishments had phones installed on them along with pneumatic tubes and a neon-lit number. If a guest found someone attractive, he or she could simply note down the number of the table and direct a call there – or use the tubes, which were built into the handrails. Last-mentioned was ideal for those a bit more shy. A piece of paper and a pen was left on each table for guests to write steamy messages on. And steamy they were, indeed! However, a group of female censors in a special ‘moderating room’ ‘were filtering the messages to make sure that nothing too hot to handle was passed on. If a gentleman really wanted to impress his female target, he’d send a little gift down the tube along with his hand-written note. It could be a bottle of perfume, cigar cutters and – rumors had it – cocaine!
Up until today, Berlin bears heavy influence from its golden era. Even though the capital is always changing, you can feel it in the wind, in the walls and in the people living here. Its destiny is to survive and it’s always been like that.
The next and last post of this trilogy will take you straight to the places in Berlin where you can still get a feeling of the roaring 1920s. The Weimar Republic didn’t exist for nothing! Click here to get a dose of that.
“Berlin” by David Clay Large