Chapter 2: Ultra-Dada Days

“A terrorist revolution under the leadership of Dr. Liebknicht, the Radical Socialist, will break out Friday evening, according to reports. Liebknicht, the reports say, has 15,000 men well-armed. The population of Berlin is at the mercy of gangs of marauders, and there appears to be no authority there.”

– December 5, 1918, The New York Times

“There comes a moment in the life of every man, be he good or bad, when appalled by the monotony and drabness of his daily life, his soul yearns for something different — he longs for the unknown, for the glamour and excitement he imagines to be the lot of the other man; the man in the street.”

– The opening text from the German melodramatic film, “The Street” (1923)

“Jedermann sein eigner Fussball.”

– Title of a German dadaist publication from the early 1920s, meaning “Everyman His Own Football.”

***

Badeker’s Berlin for 1905, written when the ancient city on the river Spree was coming into its own as one of Europe’s great cities, as well as Germany’s premier city (if not yet capital), draws an inviting portrait of a dynamic, light-dappled city, a young city, a city on the move.

Berlin’s transformation from a minor crossroads into the great metropolis of central Europe, with a population — then — of just over three million had been a quick one. As late as 1860, when the city contained less than 800,000 people, Henry Adams described Berlin, still laboring in the shadows of its more successful sister city, the port of Hamburg, as a “poor, keen-witted provincial town — simple, dirty, uncivilized, and in most respects disgusting.”

Not anymore. “Almost every part of Berlin offers a pleasing picture,” declared the guidebook writer. “Its streets enjoy model cleanliness. There are few dark lanes or alleys even in the oldest parts of the city. Nearly all the newer houses have balconies, gay in summer with flowers and foliage. The public squares are embellished with gardens, monuments, and fountains. The centers of traffic, with their network of railway lines, and the navigation on the river [Spree], offer scenes of remarkable animation.”

“It is a new city, the newest I have ever seen,” rhapsodized Mark Twain, the American writer, who visited booming post-Bismarck Berlin several times. To Twain, the Midwesterner, the bustling, new-fangled Berlin of the 1890s and early 1900s reminded him most of America’s then metropolis-on-the-move, Chicago, although he seemed to like Berlin even better.

Like many foreigners, Twain was most taken with the city’s enormous boulevards, like Unter der Linden and the Kurferstendamm, which Frederick the Great had ordered built wide in order to accommodate military maneuvers, but now like the Champs Elysee or Fifth Avenue, had taken on a life of their own. “Only parts of Chicago are stately and beautiful,” enthused Twain, “whereas all of Berlin is stately and substantial, and it is not merely in parts but uniformly beautiful.”

Clearly, Berlin had undergone quite a makeover since Henry Adam’s day. It would not be the last.

Above all, alongside the “new Berlin’s” contagious energy and “animation” (as Karl Badeker put it), there was peace and order and a respect for old values — eine eristliche Weltanschauung, as Germans say.

This was the beguiling — albeit still somewhat staid — pre-1914 Berlin, the Berlin of the Kaiserzeit, before the Kaiser and his armies, including several hundred thousand patriotic Berliners–and thousands of equally patriotic German-Jewish Berliners–promenaded off to war and the abyss.

THAT Berlin was quite dead in March, 1919, when George Renwick, correspondent for The New York Times, returned to the Grossestadt — the Great City — still dazed from the events of November and January, as well as suffering from the extended Allied food blockade and found a place utterly transformed.

“The civil strife in Lichtenberg” — an eastern district of Berlin, where thousands of left-wing “Spartacist” fighters had died fighting the right-wing Freikorps army units who (somewhat incongruously) had come to the aid of the shaky, five month old, Social Democratic-led republic, was, the American hopefully noted, “almost at an end. There [is] evidence of increasing order. The trains [are] working and the underground trains [are] running.”

Still, taking a taxi through the city, Renwick was taken aback by the contrast between the gloomy city he found and the upbeat one he once knew:

…Then began a ride through a phantom city for that describes Berlin today. The streets and long avenues were dimly lighted, and boys were dashing on roller skates. Shadowy people moved slowly about aimlessly, it would appear. Now and then I heard the hoarse call of some street vendor.

The benign, light-dappled, Wilhelmian Berlin had morphed into something altogether different, a dark, menacing place where many buildings still bore bullet holes from the recent street battles between the well-trained, well-armed Freikorps and the ragtag reds, whose leaders, Karl Liebknicht and Rosa Luxemburg, had been shot and bludgeoned in the Tiergarten (not far from where the Franks would shortly set up house) just a few weeks before (Luxemburg’s bloated, unrecognizable body would shortly turn up floating in the Landwehr Canal); a hungry, disease-ridden, city, where the cruelly extended Allied blockade had only just been lifted after the victors had extorted massive payments from the prostrate Germans in return for resuming emergency food shipments a precursor of the vindictiveness shortly to emanate from the Versailles Peace Conference; the frightening, macabre city that was the inspiration for the soon-to-be-released silent film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” in which Cesare, cinema’s first zombie, blindly follows his murderous master’s voice and kidnaps an innocent young woman — presumably a Berliner — and carries her over the city rooftops a la King Kong until, somewhat inscrutably, he drops dead from exhaustion. But there is no logic to these things.

Neither was there much logic to postwar Berlin, where the self-proclaimed “dada” artist George Grosz celebrated the void with his scabrous, unforgettable etchings of the apocalyptic scene in post-war Berlin, with power-hungry right-wing generals and monocled capitalists milling contentedly about while veterans begged for change, when he wasn’t himself around the mean Berlin under a banner that shouted: DADA UBER ALLES!

“Not now brightly lighted cafes and restaurants, brilliant streets and the crush of traffic,” bemoaned the stricken Renwick. “Overall was an underworld gloom. How different all this was when compared with the bright and busy lights of Berlin before the war!”

Just beneath Renwick’s depressing March 19th report was an equally apocalyptic dispatch from the Associated Press noting that Germany’s food stocks would be exhausted by the end of May.

Dark days indeed!

***

THIS, more or less, was the Berlin that greeted Myrtil Frank in December of that tumultuous first post-war year as he parked his roadster in front of his apartment on Bruckenallee, a leafy street just off the Tiergarten, and prepared to take up his duties as one of the newly hired managers of the all-important municipal food rationing office.

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