Berlin Travelogue – Early 1900’s

The classic Town Palace of Potsdam is receiving its compliments, as usual, and no less the artistic Lustgarten, opulent in marbles and fountains; and many will be wandering even out to the cool and spacious park that lies about the charming Babelsberg Chateau. But old Frederick remains the local hero, and there is sure to be a crowd at the venerable lime-tree where petitioners used to stand to catch the eye of the king, and a kind of procession will be passing reverently before the garrison church, where lie his remains in the vault before which Napoleon outdid himself in eulogy the while he pilfered the old warrior’s sword. And the leaping column of the Great Fountain will be the centre of an admiring throng, and scores will be going up and down the vista of broad stairs and fruited terraces that lead to the long, low palace of Sans Souci. As to the latter, a stranger might be pardoned if he were to mistake it for a casino, which it strikingly resembles, with its flat-domed entrance, line of caryatids like pedestal busts, and the row of stone urns on the balustraded top of the facade. At this hour there is no admission, but one may peer through the low French windows and, in fancy, people Voltaire’s room with a miserly ghost of the crafty old philosopher, see him fraternizing and quarreling with the king, imagine a royal soiree in progress with Frederick playing skillfully on the flute, recall the brilliant talk of the Round Table, and think with pity of the cheerless, childless old soldier toiling wearily on those histories that Macaulay praised, and winding his big clock, and yearning all the while to lie buried among his dogs out on the terrace. To many will come visions wrought from the extravagant fiction of Luise Muhlbach. What moral observations and theatrical posings fell to poor Frederick’s lot in her “Berlin and Sans Souci,” sandwiched in among the woeful loves of Amelia and Baron Trenck and of the dancer Barbarina and the High Chancellor’s son! But perhaps such literature helps one to understand the application to Frederick of the celebrated characterization of a very different personage, the “wisest, greatest, meanest of mankind.”

In Berlin proper there are two fine squares that best serve the well-advised as start-and-finish places for the most interesting evening walk to be had in the city – the Lustgarten before the Royal Palace and the Konigs-Platz at the Tiergarten corner. By this notable route one arrives, within the smoking of two cigars, at something like an intelligent comprehension of Berlin and Berliners.

The gracious expanse of the Lustgarten is so appealing in the melancholy light of sunset that one almost feels, at the very beginning of the stroll, like going no farther for fear of faring worse, but rather remaining where he is among the trees and fountains and artistic shrubbery and watching the children playing Hashekater around the colossal Granite Basin, or Ringer-Ringer-Rosa at the marble stairs of Frederick William’s lofty statue. Soft splashes of deep colors warm the long rows of blinking windows in the Royal Palace on the left, and flush the domes of the cathedral and the columns of the Old Museum’s Ionic portico. Hundreds of Berliners are idling along the asphalt walks that entice to the Palace Bridge that arches the Spree in a double line of marble groups and so opens up the long, tree-shaded perspective of the Linden. To see it at this hour one would not guess that this fair Lustgarten had once been a neglected palace-close and even a dusty drill-ground; no more than one could believe that the occasional decrepit church or twisting, narrow street in the district in the rear is all that marks antiquity in the whole of the city. For the furious tempo of Berlin’s development has swept everything before it. Three out of every four buildings, all over town, are garishly modern. Indeed, it is all so utterly of the present moment that it is hard to believe that even a group of fishermen’s huts could have stood here beside the Spree so long as seven hundred years ago. Were one to see no more of Germany than its capital he might very easily imagine a Chicago or two somewhere in the empire, but certainly not a Nuremberg.

Sunset imparts an air of cordiality to the ponderous, baroque, seven-hundred-roomed Royal Palace, whose four stories of regular window lines suggest an ornate and elaborate factory that had been diverted from its original purpose by the addition of the chapel dome on the west wing. However, for those who cross its low terrace and enter the sculptured portals there awaits a revelation of pomp and majesty, of throne-room splendors and saloon magnificence, that rivals the best of Versailles and Vienna. Unhappily we cannot here see the windows of the royal family’s apartments, for they are on the second floor of the opposite wing; whence the Kaiser looks out on the Neptune fountain of the SchlossPlatz and the elaborate facade of the royal stables when the purple banner that denotes his presence flies from the palace standard. ‘

In the gloaming the high portico columns, “Lion Killer,” “Amazon,” and shadowy sculptured groups of the vestibule of the classic Old Museum gleam through the dark branches of the trees with charming grace and effectiveness. Not all the imposing galleries on Museum Island, just beyond, can displace this well-beloved old temple of the arts in the affectionate regard of Berliners. The commanding Dom, or cathedral, dominates the Lustgarten and all the city besides, but in the modest and inoffensive manner that is becoming in an architeetural debutante of only six seasons – though that is quite long enough for a building to become passe in Berlin. Its granite walls, copper domes, high-vaulted portals, elaborately carved cornices, and profusion of statuary stand out in beautiful relief against the darkness of the trees beyond.

At this hour the sturdy, besculptured Palace Bridge is thronged with loiterers leaning over the broad balustrades to admire the festoons of lichen on the opposite masonry embankment or gaze down into the languid blue Spree. These waters have journeyed wearily all the way from distant Saxony, and with little enough to delight them along the road, excepting, perhaps, the scenes of the romantic and picturesque forest- Venice of Spreewald, where the strange Wendish people in outlandish garb pole flat market-barges through the labyrinth of canals and jabber to each other in a foreign tongue. Even on reaching the capital, the career of the Spree continues uneventful and dejected; and shortly after clearing the city it gives up in discouragement and empties itself into the Havel at Spandau. One finds a pleasant evening-life along its masonry banks, however, in spite of the personal indifference of the stream itself, and sometimes even of a brisk and important nature, thanks to the shipping from the canals. Beside these urban embankments one sees, here and there, a narrow sidewalk between the wall and the houses that instantly recalls the delightful little rivas along the Venice canals. It is interesting to watch the swift, pert little steamers that dash up and down the stream and to take note of the air of bravado with which they plunge under the low bridges. Then, there are the soldiers washing their linen service uniforms on floating docks. But best of all are the canal boats. These invariably have a fat woman at the tiller and an excited dog dancing from end to end, while a sturdy husband propels a snail-like passage by means of a long pole which he sets to his shoulder like a crutch and inserts the other end into niches in the walls and so plods the entire length of the deck, with the boat advancing slowly under his feet.

Entering Unter den Linden from the Schloss-Brucke, the imposing array of splendid public buildings on either hand of the expanding vista suggests the middle of the street as the only adequate viewpoint – and the majority take it, in the evening. The visitor is bound speedily to conclude that, unless it be Vienna, no European city can boast a more beautiful or impressive double line of structures. They have dignity and solidity in appearance, richness and taste in decoration, and spaces to stand in of princely proportions. The agreeable effect of shade trees has been freely made use of, and on all sides one sees that profusion of sculpture and statuary in which Berlin is as rich as London, for example, is poor. As if impressed with such surroundings, the evening crowds move along slowly and observantly, looking up admiringly at the dark gray fronts – the statue-set facade of the Arsenal, the stately palaces of Crown Prince and Crown Princess, the Opera House, the rococo Royal Library, and the palace of old Emperor William I, from whose famous corner window the conqueror of Sedan used to look out affectionately on the street life of his people. With no less of satisfaction must the old emperor have looked over the heads of the crowds at the University across the way – the proper toast of all Germany. One notes its open square and wide triple story and thinks of the ripe scholarship suggested by the surrounding statues of its savants, Helmholtz, Mommsen, Treitschke, and the great William and Alexander von Humboldt, whose ashes lie out at Tegel under Thorwaldsen’s beautiful “Hope.” Here six hundred teachers and ten thousand students work in the inspiring memory of such masters as these, and of such others as Fichte and Hegel and Schelling. From contemplations over the intellectual achievements of Prussia one turns to martial glory in the form of Rauch’s immortal equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, about which the crowds are now swarming, and observes the hero’s head cocked in characteristic defiance and his hand lightly resting on the hilt of his ready sword. Berliners make great ado in studying and identifying the numerous eminent men of that period whose’ reliefs are exquisitely executed on the four sides of the lofty pedestal.

And now we pass under the limes and chestnuts of the five-streeted Linden, keeping to the broad gravel promenade in the centre where the children play all day and their parents fill the benches half the night. On its outer streets one may see the finest hotels, theatres, cafes, and shops of the city. It is amusing to watch the people at this hour, in settling their arrangements for the evening, cluster about the poster pillars that they call “Litfassaulen,” and the newspaper kiosks, scanning announcements and theatre bills. Familiar to them, but suggestive to a stranger, are the iron standards at important street intersections supporting placards of the red cross of the hospital boards to indicate the locations of emergency surgeons, who are always on the spot. You may rest on a Linden bench a moment, if you like, but expect thrifty Berlin to tax you for it; and read carefully the conspicuous placards, so redolent of this systematic city, to learn just where you may sit; for some are “reserved for women,” some for “nurses with children,” others for “adults,” and what remain for mere “men.”

But the well-advised will break the walk when they reach the corner of Friedrichstrasse for a few minutes of refreshments at the celebrated Cafe Bauer, where open house is held for all the world, and where you may take your ease under the frescoes of Anton Werner, or, at a balcony table, look down on the cosmopolitan congestion of the streets and observe ladies having ices across the way at Kranzler’s after the fatigue of shopping at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s.

The animated scenes of the Cafe Bauer are those of busy restaurants the world over, with the possible difference that Berliners make more of cafe life than many others, as being an institution essential to temperaments that crave social diversion, simple enjoyment and friendliness. So we hear much laughter and find the air vital with’ the vociferous rumbling thunder of this deeplunged speech, and with continual explosions of “So!” and “Ach!” and “Ja wohl!” and “Bitte!” and “Entschuldigen ! ” and ” Wunderschon ! ” and, expecially, “Prosit!” There is an incessant clamoring for waiters by handclaps and shouts of “Kellner!” to which those distracted functionaries respond with “Augenblick!” – “in a wink of the eye,” – and dash off in haste, to return at leisure. The gold that falls in Trinkgeld passes belief; but tipping is like breathing all over Berlin. It is said that the head waiters pay handsomely for the positions. You will see few people in the Cafe Bauer uncompanioned, for sociability is a national characteristic. The man in the corner reading the “Fliegende Blatter” or “Illustrirte Zeitung” or any other of the eleven thousand publications of the city will shortly be joined by some friend for whom he is waiting and raise his voice in the general “Prosit!” chorus. Should you address the waiter in English, you will be answered at once in that language; as you would, for that matter, in any Berlin business house. The formality on every hand, the bowing and eternal thanking, is of the Berliner Berlinesque. It is a trick that is soon picked up, and it is no time at all before you can enter a store with the best of them, remove your hat and wish the clerk “Mahlzeit,” remain uncovered until your purchase is made, again bow and say “Mahlzeit,” replace your hat, and go about your business.

From a balcony table at the Bauer you may study, as you elect, the diners within or the crowds without. If it be the latter, you doubtless observe at once the extensive presence of the military element that so preeminently dominates the empire. There goes a stiff-backed, narrow-waisted, tight-coated officer jangling his sword and fussing at his gloves. His chin is tilted at a supercilious angle and his mustachios are trained to look fierce, like the Kaiser’s. As he approaches a brother officer he begins a salute a quarter-block away and keeps it up as far again after passing. He would perish before he would unbend in public to give the most unofficial of winks at the pretty, barearmed nursemaid who is tripping demurely by, and yet it is whispered that in private “Die Wacht am Rhein” is not the only song he knows. And lo, the humble man of the ranks, – facetiously dubbed “Sandhase,” – who is saluting and “goose-stepping” to some superior or other the greater part of the time. You perceive him now to be roaming about with evident relish; and a familiar bit of local color is the dark blue tunic and gray trousers and the brassbedecked leather helmet with its Pickelhaube top spike. You learn to distinguish the corps, in time, by the color of the shoulder knots.

Parenthetically, it will be remembered that these husky fellows are paid just nine cents a day, and out of that go two and a half cents for dinner. Their only free rations are coffee and the famous black bread. They carry their “cash balance” suspended about the neck in a bag, and any time an officer wishes to make sure the “sand-rabbit” has not been squandering his money too fast, he opens the bag at morning inspection and examines the contents. Pay is small, all the way up; a second lieutenant, with heavy and unavoidable social obligations, receives twenty dollars a month – like an American sergeant. Higher officers must live in town and keep their horses. “Marry money ” becomes the first requirement of the “silent manual.” But Germany’s exposed borders must be lined with bayonets, and she has not forgotten that the French war cost her a hundred thousand men in killed and wounded; so she maintains an army of a peace-footing strength of six hundred thousand, at a cost of $175,000,000 a year. The “Defenders of the Fatherland” become, in consequence, the pets of the court and the social arbiters of the empire.