Berlin Blog

Gallery weekend

Berlin not only has 175 museums but a lot of small and private galleries you can explore and get insights into the work of artists from all over the world who have come to Berlin because of its fantastic vibe. Once a year this diversity is celebrated with the gallery weekend which happens to be this weekend.

http://www.gallery-weekend-berlin.de/info/

Posted in Berlin Blog | Leave a comment

The Stasi’s End or The Beginning of a Career: The Stasi files

When the wall tumbled on November 9th, the political future of East Germany was far from certain. Change was needed, but which one exactly and where to? Inspired by the example set by Poland and following the request of the people on the street, since December 7th, 1989, 15 representatives of the old regime and its partiessat down for ‘Round Table Talks’ with 15 representatives of the opposition. Three church men served as moderators. However, unlike their older sibling in Poland, what was actually called ‘Zentraler Runder Tisch’ (Central Round Table) was not a round but a square one.

Source: Bundesarchiv, Picture 183-1989-1207-026 (First meeting of the ‘Round’ Table on December 6th)

The Round Table talks served as an intermediate agency meant to prepare for the first free elections in the GDR. For the time being, the intention was to serve as a controlling body for the current government, to gather information about the country’s actual economic and financial state, to develop strategies of crisis management and to discuss future opportunities.
The Round Table Talks were symbolic for the opposition’s victory but the equal share of seats, however, belies the actual non-symmetry between the participants. One side still owned the state apparatus, had offices and access to crucial information, the others whose power indirectly was based on the protesters and whose success depended on Western media, still worked from their kitchens. The Central Round Table was televised since January 8th and in its wake hundreds of smaller ones were initiated all over the country.
One of the opposition’s main concerns was the dissolution of the Ministry of State Security (MfS or Stasi). Officially the “sword and shield of the party”, the Stasi was the main agent of repression, considered the invisible core of the regime, and as such it was the target of the greatest anger and hatred. To get hold of its apparatus and archives was deemed crucial for change.
But, again, the GDR’s future was still completely unknown. Even though the unification with the West was one of its possible choices, not too many participants of the Round Table were keen of it. Only in the elections they prepared, the majority of East germans proved to be for it. For the time being, members of the opposition worried that the Ministry of State Security might not be dissolved but merely transformed into an agency of the new state to come. And this was indeed the plan of new minister president or premier Hans Modrowin mid-December and the hope of the remaining officers. A name change ordered by Modrow served as mere cosmetics. While many employees were dismissed in the weeks after, often with high gratuities, the Stasi was still as

Hans Modrow, November 17th. 1989, giving his first government address. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1117-019.

good as in full function by mid-January. This was against the repeated requests from the Round Table asking for public control.
The public’s unrest grew again. The ‘Neues Forum’, one of the opposition groups present at the talks, called for a demonstration at the Stasi headquarters in Berlin-Lichtenberg for January 15th, in order to increase pressure. They asked demonstrators to bring along bricks and mortar and asked a brick layer to perform the symbolic act of walling the Stasi in, as a sign of stopping any of its future actions. Admittedly, this seems a rather unfortunate and helpless choice for a movement that could applaud itself to have brought one wall down. And, furthermore, what purpose could it serve to wall in an already secluded agency? But this was, after all, not what would happen. Rather the opposite.
For now, the government, unwilling to accept the Round Table’s control, felt the pressure from the streets mounting. On January 11th,

The Palace of the Republic (1986), seat of the Volkskammer and address of protest in January 1990. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-0424-304.

construction workers walked in protest to the Volkskammer, the East German parliament, and voiced their support for the opposition at the Round Table. The next day, the scenery in the heart of Berlin seemed absurd. While the Volkskammer met inside, East-Berlin’s taxi drivers, supported by hundreds of private car owners drove around the Palace of the Republic, all joining each other in a long chorus of honking.As a result, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Liberal Party (LDPD) joined the opposition in demanding the Stasi’s dissolution. Modrow gave in. He promised that there would be no development of a reformed or renewed secret service up to election day.
As a sign of his compliance, Modrow showed up on time for the next Round Table to give a report: 4 pm, January 15th. At the same time, the Neues Forum’s call for a demonstration was still on and many protester’s main concern was that sensitive files might be destroyed. While the full extent of what was destroyed is still a point of discussion among historians, there is no question: documents were indeed destroyed. Already in October, the Stasi had given orders to destroy documents. Branches all around the country started shredding evidence by mid-November. The existing shredders would not work sufficiently fast. Stasi employees resumed to tearing the papers into pieces and mixing up the snippets several times – around 15000 bags of them have now become the task of a specifically designed computer program to identify matches. Anger at the Stasi and worry about the evidence lost had tens of thousands gather in front of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin-Lichtenberg in the East right at the time that the Round Table met in Berlin-Pankow in the north.
The actual circumstances of what was labeled a storming actually remain a bit mysterious. The area was protected by a gate made of

Source: BStU, MfS HA II/Fo/32 (The Stasi Headquarters in Berlin-Lichtenberg)

steel. Instead of a wall built in front of it, at some point, when tens of thousands pressed against it, it opened from the inside and the demonstrators poured into the nearly 8 hectares (19 acres) at the Stasi’s heart with its 29 buildings and offices for 7000 employees. They shouted ‘Stasi, out!’. It seems most likely that members of civic committees were already present and were the ones opening the gate. The involvement of the Stasi and Western secret services pursuing their own agendas was discussed later and considered highly likely because no places with operative functions were raided.
However, sometimes, not always, the symbolic message matters more than its actual content. The storming’s symbolic message actually became possible because East German TV suspended its program in order to report from the event – and, most importantly, in order to call for moderation and non-violence. A call and worry which indeed was to a certain point shared by the opposition. After all, it had been made clear by the government that the Stasi disposed of significant amounts of weapons and ammunition – which were dangerous in any hand. And, if raided, the opposition feared the weapons to become instrumental in setting off a different kind of revolution, a sellout of what they had achieved so far. When the news came on, the Round Table stopped its proceedings and Modrow and others rushed to Lichtenberg. When they arrived, however, they entered a rather deserted and desolate place where protesters were spread out all over. Stasi employees had been dismissed hours ago. While they saw that windows and doors had been smashed, documents, more standard forms than actual files, scattered all over, no person was harmed in the process. Therefore, this day again, no violence against people occurred. West German TV reported this way the same night:
But the news did not only go around the world but also had a signaling effect for East Germans: the Stasi was history, its headquarters’ seclusion was ended. Already this night a committee was formed which was meant to supervise the Stasi’s dissolution. Two weeks later, a group of archivists followed the Round Table’s order to properly archive the remaining files.
This archive still holds one of the most debated set of files ever. While its peers are often sought out only by specialists seeking documents who catch dust if anything, this archive is still highly and publicly discussed and its documents hold a fascination to more than just historians or the Stasi’s victims – also because such files usually are and remain under lock for decades. In the end, research and memory of the Stasi serve a purpose which goes beyond the fascination with the scandalous and infamous ways of a most intrusive secret service of modern times. As Roland Jahn, himself a former Stasi victim and now Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records, puts it: “The better we understand dictatorship, the better we can shape democracy.”

For those speaking German, have a look at the published sources from the Stasi files in the recently opened online-Mediathek

Posted in Berlin Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

25th anniversary of German Unity

Germany celebrates 25 years of German Unity today. Less than a year after the fall of the wall, after the Allied powers relinquished their claims on the city of Berlin on October 2nd 1990, at midnight October 2nd / October 3rd, in the light of fireworks, as the first sovereign act of the new German state, the German flag was raised. Last year, we joyously celebrated the same anniversary of the fall of the wall. That was the date easier to relate to. The images of THAT night’s joy and amazement did and do not lose their emotional impact after a quarter of a century. Today’s silver anniversary does not have the very same emotional appeal – maybe that is unfortunate but maybe that is good.
Today, for some the act of reunification seems more of an event crafted by politicians and economists than by the people who a year before had courageously kept chanting “We are the people” on the East German streets. Or it is perceived as the start of the difficult “Aufbau Ost” – Program, the investment in and construction of a free market economy in the East. Let us not forget that 90 % of Germans on both sides of the wall supported reunification at the time and shared an enthusiasm which wore off for some when unemployment hit, when they realized that the integration of both Germanies proved more difficult than thought and the promised successes didn’t come as easy. And yet, it is an overall success story. East Germany, while struggling to catch up to the productivity of West Germany, still has stomached the transformation much better than any other country formerly on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain. And that is not just due to West German investment or the solidarity tax as many West Germans keep complaining – East Germans have contributed to that program as well. And, yes, the unification process has been tough on many on both sides of the wall, particularly those on the East.
But one achievement seems particularly important: 25 years ago, President Weizsäcker said in front of the Reichstag building that “In a united Europe, we wish to serve peace in the world”. Afer all, at the time, other European countries were worried if they had just woken up a sleeping giant in the heart of Europe.
This day may not be the day to bring everyone to his feet, may not have the potential to raise the roof. But with a rather continuous stress on what has been called “Verfassungspatriotismus”/ constitutional patriotism, rather than a patriotism based on ethnicity or national culture, Germany as a whole, so far, has avoided falling back into old habits. We wish that the shortcomings of the unification process will not serve a change towards a different kind of patriotism, one which is not inspired by the will to inclusion and integration but wishes to exclude any ‘others’. Let us hope that the attitude, informed by history, to NOT wallow in ideas of German superiority, will keep on prevailing in the future – and that a happy smile about what happened 25 years ago is just enough to keep going.
Here is the CNN broadcast of 25 years ago:

Posted in Berlin Blog | Leave a comment

70 years ago: A glimpse from the sidelines – A diary entry during the Battle of Berlin

On Saturday, April 21, 1945, the Red Army reaches the headquarters of the German High Command (OKW) at Zossen, 30kms south of Berlin. According to an old SPIEGEL article, instead of Allied pilots it is the German Luftwaffe who drops bombs on the High Command’s last members fleeing towards Potsdam, mistaking them for a spearhead of the Red Army.  A more acute civilian observer, Erik Reger(*1893), journalist and author of books banned since 1933, at the time living in a village bordering on Berlin, writes in his diary on April 21st:

Erik Reger

“Since the middle of the week, the roar of guns from the front to the South and Southeast of Berlin has become louder and stronger. […] You do your day’s work mechanically. The noise of the front constitutes its threatening but, given the numbness after so many turbulent incidents of war, rather unreal backdrop. I still take care of the garden with all the caution necessary given that I have continuously been reporting sick for the Volkssturm  [home guard, conscripting males between the ages of 13 to 60 years who were not already serving, CM]. I do the garden work being sure that every lettuce leaf will be important this coming summer but also aware that I am not sure who will reap what is sown here. […]

German flak radio stations are trying to keep up the illusion of precise announcements and warnings. […] In its windows, in the hollow windows of a hollow façade , Goebbels sends out his usual rants [his last press conference was April 21st]. The morbid burlesque feel of a panopticon. Danse macabre of propaganda.

Since the early evening, train service has been stopped. On the roads from the south, there are columns of refugees with horses and wagons headed towards Berlin. When it got dark, we saw a bunch of foreigners come up the road. For the night they settled down in the ruin next to our house. Today, there was no air raid warning any more.” (Erik Reger, Zeit der Überlebens, Tagebuch April bis Juni 1945, Transcript, Berlin, 2014)

Posted in Berlin Blog | Leave a comment

German Resistance

Before we can celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Allied Victory of World War II in early May this year, we are called to commemorate the crimes committed by the Nazi Regime when spiraling towards its end.
On April 9th, 1945, several courageous German men who had tried to put an end to Hitler’s ambitions were executed, only weeks before they would have been liberated, all of whom you can learn a bit more about in the photos below. Eventually, Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer became the most famous among them because future generations, among them Martin Luther King, would be inspired by the man who lived as he preached. Together with Bonhoeffer, at the concentration camp Flossenbürg admiral Wilhelm Canaris, judge Karl Sack and general Hans Oster were executed for their involvement with the plot of July 20th,1944.
Another man killed on April 9th was Georg Elser, a cabinet maker who had singlehandedly attempted to assassinate Hitler in November 1939 and whose bomb plot worked perfectly – if Hitler had not had his schedule changed last minute.
Bonhoeffer’s name graces schools, churches and streets all over the world, Elser who was executed in Dachau has been honored by a centrally located memorial in Berlin and is lately receiving more recognition due to a film that just had its premiere on this year’s Berlinale. There is plenty of chances to talk about those men some other time. But today we would like to introduce you to Hans von Dohnanyi, an often-ignored resistance fighter with no memorial to his name. In closeby Oranienburg, however, a street leading up to the Sachsenhausen Camp Memorial carries his name. After all, it is the very location where the lawyer and father of three was executed 70 years ago at the age of 43.

Dohnanyi (*1902) grew up in Berlin. He actually went to school with the Bonhoeffer boys. They became friends and Hans fell in love with their sister Christine. They married in 1925. Four years later, Dohnanyi earned a job at the Reich Ministry of Justice. In 1933, as chief assistant to conservative Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the “law” remained in non-Nazi hands, Hans became aware of the Nazi’s crimes and was now privy to information about them. By 1934 he started keeping a chronological record of those crimes and collected documents in order to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime. Shortly before the war broke out, Dohnany was asked to join the counter-espionage bureau (Abwehr) in Berlin. For a reason: Contacts had been forged among regime critics still in government positions. While safe from conscription, their resistance operations against the regime were now concerted under the guise of intelligence work for the regime. While the bureau was led by general Hans von Oster and admiral Canaris, Hans recruited his brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “liaison officer”. It was claimed that his ecumenical contacts could be of service for counter-intelligence for the regime. Furthermore, Dohnanyi was vitally important for establishing links to members of the resistance outside the bureau, among them social democrat Julius Leber, another inspiring man about whom we have written earlier this year: http://bit.ly/1Oa8a0P .
In September 1942, Dohnanyi saved fourteen Jews from deportation with an ingenious plan. In an action called “Operation 7” he designated them as Abwehr agents. As a result, they traveled to Switzerland into safety with the Gestapo’s full consent.
In March 1943, Hans von Dohnanyi transported a bomb to Smolensk in Russia. It was then disguised as a bottle of Cointreau, given to Hitler as a gift and joined him on his flight back. But Hitler landed safely and unharmed. The bomb had failed to ignite….
While the Gestapo never learned about this attempt, Dohnany, his brother–in-law and his wife were arrested on April 5, 1943 on suspicion of treason. While Christine was relieved after some weeks and both men were spared from physical torture, the men’s next two years of imprisonment were filled with endless interrogation sessions, abuse and sickness – which did not keep either from sending letters and secret messages to family and fellow conspirators.
In August 1944, Dohnanyi was brought to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Already sick, he contracted scarlet fever. Together with his lingering diphtheria it paralyzed his feet and legs. Starting to play on time, he wrote to his wife that he practiced walking at night in order to get better while trying to feign the condition even after he improved. But eventually, the failed plot of July 20th 1944 (Operation Valkyrie) put not only an end to the last dream of overthrowing the regime, in its aftermath more and more documents were discovered which now proved Dohnanyi’s involvement in resistance activities. The most harmful find was made on April 5th, 1945, at the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces in Zossen. The finds tipped an already infuriated and increasingly paranoid Hitler over. An SS drumhead court martial was ordered for April 6th which sentenced Dohnanyi to death. On April 9th he was carried to the place of his execution at Sachsenhausen on a stretcher and hanged.

Hans von Dohnanyi stands for courageous and sincere acts of opposition from an early moment on.But unfortunately, the jurist was not only a victim of the Nazis but was further betrayed by the justice system of postwar Germany.
After the war, the lawyers and officials of the drumhead court martial had to appear in front of West German courts. The legal proceedings against Dohnanyi seemed to be a travesty of justice anyway, neither was a defender granted nor a proper protocol taken. Originally, the Federal Court of Justice in West Germany felt obliged to reverse the sentence of a jury court who had found the defendants not guilty – twice. In their notes, the Federal Court jurists remarked that a law that does not aim for actual justice and does not respect the value and dignity of man would not represent justice and therefore acting according to such laws remains injustice. In a third round the defendants were sentenced to prison for complicity in murder. But after that, in 1956, the Federal Court changed his mind profoundly, acted the other way around and freed the defendants of the accusation. One defendant remained in prison only because of having failed to follow proper legal procedure. Otherwise, the court martial was attested to have proceeded properly and legally. The legal concept behind the statute in question was not considered as unbearably injust. That it was in deliberate disregard of human equality before the law was not taken into consideration either.

This Federal Court’s sentence, passed by judges of whom at least one had served as a judge during the Nazi regime, had disastrous consequences: No single judge or prosecutor active during the Nazi regime and complicit in its thousands of crimes was ever prosecuted for it.

A shame for the Federal Court which was publicly admitted only in 1995. When dealing with the more recent past of the next German dictatorship a more dissecting look also fell on how postwar West Germany had dealt with the first one. Therefore, in the wave of sentences against judges complicit in the East German party dictatorship’s crimes, Dohnanyi was rehabilitated in the legal sense only in 1995 when most people had forgotten about him. One of Hans von Dohnanyi’s last letters to his wife Christine written in late February 1945, written on tiny cardboard at the bottom of paper cups, read: I estimate it is eight to ten weeks now that the war will be over. After Stettin has fallen, offensive on Berlin. Take good care of yourself, my heart! Kisses. Hans.” He was right, 10 weeks later the war was over. However he did not live to see it any more.

Posted in Berlin Blog | Leave a comment

Hans von Dohnanyi – No Ordinary Man

Before we can celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Allied Victory of World War II in early May this year, we are called to commemorate the crimes committed by the Nazi Regime when spiraling towards its end.
On April 9th, 1945, several courageous German men who had tried to put an end to Hitler’s ambitions were executed, only weeks before they would have been liberated, all of whom you can learn a bit more about in the photos on our facebook page. Eventually, Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer became the most famous among them because future generations, among them Martin Luther King, would be inspired by the man who lived as he preached. Together with Bonhoeffer, at the concentration camp Flossenbürg admiral Wilhelm Canaris, judge Karl Sack and general Hans Oster were executed for their involvement with the plot of July 20th,1944.
Another man killed on April 9th was Georg Elser,

Georg Elser (1903-1945)

a cabinet maker who had singlehandedly attempted to assassinate Hitler in November 1939 and whose bomb plot worked perfectly – if Hitler had not had his schedule changed last minute.
Bonhoeffer’s name graces schools, churches and streets all over the world, Elser who was executed in Dachau has been honored by a centrally located memorial in Berlin and is lately receiving more recognition due to a film that just had its premiere on this year’s Berlinale. There is plenty of chances to talk about those men some other time. But today we would like to introduce you to Hans von Dohnanyi, an often-ignored resistance fighter with no memorial to his name. In closeby Oranienburg, however, a street leading up to the Sachsenhausen Camp Memorial carries his name. After all, it is the very location where the lawyer and father of three was executed 70 years ago at the age of 43.

Hans von Dohnanyi (*1902) grew up in Berlin. He actually went to school with the

Hans von Dohnanyi
Via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HansvDohnanyi.jpg#/media/File:HansvDohnanyi.jpg

Bonhoeffer boys. They became friends and Hans fell in love with their sister Christine. They married in 1925. Four years later, Dohnanyi earned a job at the Reich Ministry of Justice. In 1933, as chief assistant to conservative Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the “law” remained in non-Nazi hands, Hans became aware of the Nazi’s crimes and was now privy to information about them. By 1934 he started keeping a chronological record of those crimes and collected documents in order to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime. Shortly before the war broke out, Dohnany was asked to join the counter-espionage bureau (Abwehr) in Berlin. For a reason: Contacts had been forged among regime critics still in government positions. While safe from conscription, their resistance operations against the regime were now concerted under the guise of intelligence work for the regime. While the bureau was led by general Hans von Oster and admiral Canaris, Hans recruited his brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “liaison officer”. It was claimed that his ecumenical contacts could be of service for counter-intelligence for the regime. Furthermore, Dohnanyi was vitally important for establishing links to members of the resistance outside the bureau, among them social democrat Julius Leber, another inspiring man about whom we have written earlier this year: http://bit.ly/1Oa8a0P .
In September 1942, Dohnanyi saved fourteen Jews from deportation with an ingenious plan. In an action called “Operation 7” he designated them as Abwehr agents. As a result, they traveled to Switzerland into safety with the Gestapo’s full consent.
In March 1943, Hans von Dohnanyi transported a bomb to Smolensk in Russia. It was then disguised as a bottle of Cointreau, given to Hitler as a gift and joined him on his flight back. But Hitler landed safely and unharmed. The bomb had failed to ignite….
While the Gestapo never learned about this attempt, Dohnany, his brother–in-law and his wife were arrested on April 5, 1943 on suspicion of treason. While Christine was relieved after some weeks and both men were spared from physical torture, the men’s next two years of imprisonment were filled with endless interrogation sessions, abuse and sickness – which did not keep either from sending letters and secret messages to family and fellow conspirators.
In August 1944, Dohnanyi was brought to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Already sick, he contracted scarlet fever. Together with his lingering diphtheria it paralyzed his feet and legs. Starting to play on time, he wrote to his wife that he practiced walking at night in order to get better while trying to feign the condition even after he improved. But eventually, the failed plot of July 20th 1944 (Operation Valkyrie) put not only an end to the last dream of overthrowing the regime, in its aftermath more and more documents were discovered which now proved Dohnanyi’s involvement in resistance activities. The most harmful find was made on April 5th, 1945, at the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces in Zossen. The finds tipped an already infuriated and increasingly paranoid Hitler over. An SS drumhead court martial was ordered for April 6th which sentenced Dohnanyi to death. On April 9th he was carried to the place of his execution at Sachsenhausen on a stretcher and hanged.

Hans von Dohnanyi stands for courageous and sincere acts of opposition from an early moment on.But unfortunately, the jurist was not only a victim of the Nazis but was further betrayed by the justice system of postwar Germany.
After the war, the lawyers and officials of the drumhead court martial had to appear in front of West German courts. The legal proceedings against Dohnanyi seemed to be a travesty of justice anyway, neither was a defender granted nor a proper protocol taken. Originally, the Federal Court of Justice in West Germany felt obliged to reverse the sentence of a jury court who had found the defendants not guilty – twice. In their notes, the Federal Court jurists remarked that a law that does not aim for actual justice and does not respect the value and dignity of man would not represent justice and therefore acting according to such laws remains injustice. In a third round the defendants were sentenced to prison for complicity in murder. But after that, in 1956, the Federal Court changed his mind profoundly, acted the other way around and freed the defendants of the accusation. One defendant remained in prison only because of having failed to follow proper legal procedure. Otherwise, the court martial was attested to have proceeded properly and legally. The legal concept behind the statute in question was not considered as unbearably injust. That it was in deliberate disregard of human equality before the law was not taken into consideration either.

This Federal Court’s sentence, passed by judges of whom at least one had served as a judge during the Nazi regime, had disastrous consequences: No single judge or prosecutor active during the Nazi regime and complicit in its thousands of crimes was ever prosecuted for it.

A shame for the Federal Court which was publicly admitted only in 1995. When dealing with the more recent past of the next German dictatorship a more dissecting look also fell on how postwar West Germany had dealt with the first one. Therefore, in the wave of sentences against judges complicit in the East German party dictatorship’s crimes, Dohnanyi was rehabilitated in the legal sense only in 1995 when most people had forgotten about him. One of Hans von Dohnanyi’s last letters to his wife Christine written in late February 1945, written on tiny cardboard at the bottom of paper cups, read: I estimate it is eight to ten weeks now that the war will be over. After Stettin has fallen, offensive on Berlin. Take good care of yourself, my heart! Kisses. Hans.” He was right, 10 weeks later the war was over. However he did not live to see it any more.

Posted in Berlin Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

People vs. Ruler: 400 years ago, the Berliners fought for what they believed in

What happened in Berlin 400 years ago, usually does not catch much attention. Interest in the city is so much driven by the historical drama of the 20th century that an incident so long ago is easily overlooked. Or it simply just does not seem to matter. I myself might be inclined to politely turn my back on some buff who gets started on 17th century Berlin and its 10000 inhabitants.

But on the night of April 3rd to the 4th, 1615, Berlin’s inhabitants took to the streets and the outcome of what became known as “Kalvinistentumult” or Calvinist riots had long-lasting consequences for Berlin’s constitution and confessional setting. Hard to understand from today’s point of view and in a city where the Christian religion matters to few and has become a private affair if at all, this incident indeed impacted much of the city’s history up until the 20th century. How come?

We are talking about a time when confession mattered. Wars were waged about them and a certain confession and belief did often serve not only personal edification but certain political ends, too: the religious choices of the rulers and anyone with power impacted the European political landscape. But at a time when freedom of religion constituted a futuristic fantasy and early forms of it were to be found in any other part of the world than in Christian Europe, those choices also affected the religious everyday of the rulers’ usually pious subjects. This was true for Catholicism and Protestantism, but also applies to the different confessions within Protestantism: most notably Lutheranism and Calvinism.

The name “Kalvinistentumult” is actually quite misleading as we are actually talking about anti-Calvinist riots in which the Berliners – of Lutheran confession – protested against their ruler’s, Elector of Brandenburg Johann Sigismund’s conversion to Calvinism.

Johann Sigismund had converted to Calvinism on December 25th,1613, together with 55 members of the court. He did so out of personal belief, but also in order to have the confession needed to get support for his claim on dominions in the Rhineland.

Johann Sigismund
„Johann Sigismund Grunewald“ von Anonym – Preußen – Versuch einer Bilanz. Ausstellungskatalog in 5 Bänden hrsg. von Gottfried Korff (Berlin 1981), Bd. 1, S. 88. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sigismund_Grunewald.jpg#/media/File:Johann_Sigismund_Grunewald.jpg

In the far West from Brandenburg’s perspective the dominion called Jülich-Kleve – today one is maybe more familiar with cities in it such as Düsseldorf, Bochum or Bielefeld- would give Brandenburg a hold in a strategically relevant region, neighboring a now often forgotten world power, an empire indeed: the Calvinist Netherlands. Johann Sigismund’s conversion indeed gave him the chance to claim at least half of the contested territory in question, a territorial gain crucial for the backwater region of Brandenburg’s astonishing rise to power in the decades and centuries to come.

A politically sane choice, it seems. So why get angry about it? After all, Johann Sigismund had actually allowed his subjects (and his wife) to stay Lutherans and thereby chose not to apply the common law (cuius region, eius religio) of having the subjects take over the confession of the ruler. But the subjects were not so sure and indeed detested their ruler’s creed.  The breaking point was that Calvinism was more ‘puritan’ than Lutheranism and even more prone to ripping out any idols and paintings from the churches. Paintings, altars and the like were regarded as too much splendor, their representations as too worldly, too much a distraction from proper piety. During the sovereign’s absence, his more radical brother, left in charge, ordered “any idolization purged” from the Cathedral.

The Berlin Cathedral of the time (here in 1736), located south of the palace
„1736 Domkirche“ von Johann David Schleuen – “Die Königl. Preuß. Residentz BERLIN nach ihrem accuraten Grundriß u. zweien Prospecten, auch Abbildung der sämtl. Kirchen und vornehmsten Königl. Gebäuden derselben, im Verlag J. D. Schleuen, Kupferstecher in Berlin. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1736_Domkirche.jpg#/media/File:1736_Domkirche.jpg

Altar pieces, a large crucifix and other items were extracted from the Berlin Cathedral and two days later, a newly-arrived Calvinist pastor asked for the same regarding the closeby Petrikirche, the Church of St. Peter’s. The church’s deacon heard him and became furious about the new iconoclasts. From the pulpit he called out that if the dynasty wished to reformate, they should hit it and do it in the new Western dominions.

The Berliners who worried that their faith, how they prayed and how they celebrated their services was endangered showed their support for the deacon’s views, gathered around his house and attacked the house in which the Calvinist court chaplain lived. They violently took to the streets, threw stones and more. Shots were fired, houses plundered and both sides suffered injuries, among them Sigismund’s brother. The uproar died down on April 4th.

In the investigations and trials that ensued, 12 journeymen were blamed to be the instigators of the riot. The Berliners were asked to distance themselves from their actions while the twelve men were sentenced.  But they had already fled the scene with stolen goods. The deacon was expelled from the city.

So what, one might say.…But the fact that the Berliners made their voices heard and defended their individual convictions against the ruler was one reason for Brandenburg and later Brandenburg-Prussia to remain bi-confessional, a rather singular situation among the German regions. For the sake of political stability there was no complete “second reformation”, the sovereign yielded to public pressure and a certain tolerance became a constitutional factor of Prussian statehood – as was conflict, a result from the regional and confessional diversity. To find a bi-confessional modus vivendi became a political obligation for any ruler to come. And to unite Protestants under their leadership was a wish for every next Hohenzollern.

Prussia never achieved a country-wide unity of confession, only a unity of administration in 1815. But the choice between a Reformed (i.e. Calvinist), Lutheran or United confession and liturgy was eventually relegated to the individual communities. At the same time, the sovereign remained the summus episcopus, the highest bishop and head of the Protestant churches. An ambivalent situation, to say the least.

The riots of 1615 played out in the streets which today, though centrally located,  are tucked away between where once the cathedral and St. Peter’s stood. These are inconspicuous streets between the southern end of the Schlossplatz, now a massive construction site where the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern palace continues to take shape and the noisy traffic artery Gertraudenstraße.  If we look for places in today’s Berlin which most obviously exemplify the diversity of confession preserved in those days, it is  the Deutsche Dom (German church) on Gendarmenmarkt.

A view of the German Church’s actual church building (with the tower facing Gendarmenmarkt added in 1780)
„Gendarmenmarkt Berlin, Deutscher Dom“ von Manfred Brückels – Eigenes Werk. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gendarmenmarkt_Berlin,_Deutscher_Dom.jpg#/media/File:Gendarmenmarkt_Berlin,_Deutscher_Dom.jpg

The very first church on site, built in the first decade of the 18th century, was the first church serving as a so-called Simultaneum, i.e. public worship was conducted by adherents of both religious groups, Calvinists and Lutherans.

But plurality is never just easy bliss. And you do not have to look far for signs of it. On the other side of the square, the first Huguenot church in Berlin, the Französische Friedrichsstadtkirche was opened nearly at the same time as the Simultaneum, now Deutscher Dom. Great, one might think. Another sign of plurality and examplary for the religious tolerance of the Hohenzollern. And it is. Huguenots persecuted in Catholic France found a new home in Brandenburg since 1685. But there is more to it. After all, the Great Elector Frederick William I., Johann Sigismund’s grandson (1620-1688) would do everything he could to outweigh the Lutheran majority and achieve strict state control of any church.

French Friedrichstadtkirche on Gendarmenmarkt, opened in 1705
„Französische Friedrichstadtkirche – Berlin – Gendarmenmarkt“ . Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz%C3%B6sische_Friedrichstadtkirche_-_Berlin_-_Gendarmenmarkt.JPG#/media/File:Franz%C3%B6sische_Friedrichstadtkirche_-_Berlin_-_Gendarmenmarkt.JPG

He invited Calvinists from the Netherlands and (sic!) from France to his land, known for their industriousness and their loyalty to the ruler. He started a practice of favoring Calvinists in higher state functions, creating a so-called “Court Calvinism” which worked in favor of the monarch’s absolutist powers and the centralization of the state against the power of the often Lutheran estates and lower nobility. Tolerance, yes, but with a not so hidden agenda.

Further example of the ambivalence of administrative unity vis-a-vis confessional diversity is the Berlin Cathedral on museum island, the latest version of the Hohenzollern court church which opened its doors in 1905 and whose pomp and splendor would have had any Calvinist of the 16th century drop dead of anxiety and shame.

Berlin Cathedral today
„Dom Berlin abends (jha)“ von Arne Hückelheim, optical correction by Johann H. Addicks / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral actually claims that differences of Protestant confession don’t matter and thereby hides any diversity: Inside, eight statues catch your eye. Four different reformers, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Melanchthon stand eye to eye with four Protestant sovereigns of the 16thcentury: Philipp of Hessen and Friedrich I. of Saxony, relevant for the Reformation as such, together with two Hohenzollerns crucial for the Reformation within Hohenzollern territories. Johann Sigismund is not among them, though.Therefore, any confessional conflict internal to the Hohenzollern lands and Protestantism is denied. Instead, the great common project of Reformation within the German lands is highlighted – and William II.’s, the German emperor’s claim to leadership underlined. The Berlin Cathedral stands most obviously for the close connection of altar and throne, William’s self-understanding as an emperor by the grace of God and the Hohenzollern’s continuous search for a grip on all their Protestant subjects, of whatever confession.

But it is also testament to many of the Berliner’s distance to such claims that critics showed up early to call the oversized and ornate neo-baroque church  “William’s Punch Bowl” (Wilhelms Punschterrine) or the Hohenzollern’s “Propaganda Fortress” (Reklame-Zwingburg). In the early twentieth century, their  traditional distance from the ruler’s religious program was now furthered by distance from religion as such. The views and sides seemed switched, though: now it was the egotistical Hohenzollern ruler with a wish for greatness who bathed his church in an overload of gold, stucco and décor and the Berliners who thought it was all a bit too much of everything. But they could not be angered by such choices any more. While their forefathers had been rattled by the discretion into their ways of religious practice, most Berliners of the early 20th century just happily made fun of it.

Posted in Berlin Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Free elections in East Germany on March 18th, 1990: The revolution devours its children or How to abolish a state

Today is the 25th anniversary of the very first free and democratic elections of East Germany. One of the major demands of the protesters of fall 1989 materialized 25 years ago and noone makes a big fuzz about it any more The Berliner Zeitung rather choses to commemorate the devastating airraids of March 18th, 1945 on today’s front page. Really?

„Palast der Republik Berlin DDR“ von Lutz Schramm from Potsdam, Germany. See http://www.lutzschramm.de/ – Palast der Republik. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 2.0 über Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palast_der_Republik_Berlin_DDR.jpg#/media/File:Palast_der_Republik_Berlin_DDR.jpg

Writer Stefan Heym commented on the election results of March 18th, 1990, back then already: “There will be no GDR any more. She will not be any more than a footnote of world history.” In hindsight, 25 years later, this major event and achievement is indeed perceived as a mere stepping stone. The GDR indeed is gone, and with it the Volkskammer’s assembly hall in the now demolished Palace of the Republic (photos). A process which was further catalyzed 25 year ago today.
Back then, either because of the excitement about the newly gained freedom or because of a learned obligation to attend, a stunning 93 % of all citizens called to vote participated. After a short election campaign of 7 weeks, the vote was more explicit than anyone had expected. Nearly 50% voted for an electoral alliance of conservative parties, most prominently the East-German Christian Democrats (CDU), closely connected to the ruling party of West Germany, the CDU with chancellor Helmut Kohl. The alliance’s slogan was “Freedom and Wealth – Socialism Never Again” and favored a fast unification process.
All those who had called for a slower process, had even warned against moving too fast or had shown concern about a new nationalist euphoria, were on the losing side. While polls had seen them as the winner, the Social Democrats only achieved a bit more than 20 % of the vote. Liberals won 5%. The successor party of the former ruling party SED which over decades had “won” the election travesties which pretended there was a choice, was still supported by 16%.
But the biggest losers of them all that day were the democratic rights activists

Die Volkskammer der DDR 1990 © BArch, Bild 183-1990-0419-418, Schindler

and the opposition parties that had constituted themselves before or during the street protests of 1989. Those who had fought for free elections most obviously, also lost them most obviously. Possibly, the old phrase remains valid: “the revolution devours its own children”. With the vote as explicit, the first free elections of East Germany would also be its last. The new government’s task was unusual: not to lead the state, not to maintain and secure its power but to abolish the state whose citizens it had been elected by. The next election in December 1990 already took place ‘nation-wide’ in a re-united Germany. The question still remains if there is no wider commemoration because an exclusively East German story finds little room in the discourse of a united Germany or because the achievement of free elections just seems little of an achievement these days. It also remains for future generations to judge if it was too fast, after all. There is no doubt, however, that an overwhelming amount of people voted for it that day.

Posted in Berlin Blog | Leave a comment

Augusta, the unloved majesty who died 125 years ago.

These days you find a bright pink pedestal with the name ‘Augusta’ on it in the park of Charlottenburg, with only a little note saying ‘Augusta should stand on this base’. The lady concerned is the first German Empress who died 125 years ago today. Several of those pink eye-catchers with different names on them herald the upcoming exhibition Frauensache / Women’s Business opening later this year in the palace, supposed to become a highlight event for this season. It will shed light on those usually overshadowed by their husbands: the Hohenzollerns’ wives, their role, their ambitions, their successes and their defeats throughout the centuries.
Augusta is one of the most tragic figures among them. Many have described her as difficult if not downright arrogant and cold. But she didn’t start off that way. She was born 1811 into one of the then more liberal states in Germany and into Germany’s ‘capital of literature ’: Weimar. Goethe, its poet master and a grandfatherly figure to young Augusta had joked that it had thousands of poets and few inhabitants. It was a comparatively cultured and educated court at which she grew up but also one which gave her no wrong ideas about what would be expected of a princess. At a young age, she was perceived as strong-willed and defiant but also as very cheerful and bright. And at the age of 17 she was married to William of Prussia. He was not only 14 years older than her but he had been in love with Polish princess Elisa Radziwill for more than a decade. Yet, she lacked the right pedigree. He only gave in to marry Augusta after his father had urged him to and after several efforts had failed to make Elisa a legitimate bride. While Augusta knew about his love for Elisa, she was sincerely in love with him and hopeful to take Elisa’s place. William was happy if the thing turned out alright. But neither expectation was met.
Augusta had moved into a city and country which was larger than her home but its cultural horizon much smaller and had married a man who was ahead of her in age and experience but, so people said, inferior in wit. Her sharp intellect, William complained to his sister, would give her an “undesirable touch of femme d’esprit.” If we read the couple’s letters and follow the interpretation of Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, also emotionally and sexually they never found to each other. Augusta had two children, then two miscarriages, then no more. She and William found ways to manage: He with his duties, some flirts and short affairs, she with her kids, yet more with her daughter than with her son, and a new-found interest in politics. Brought up in a country which already had granted a constitution, her position was rather liberal, yet mostly in line with enlightened absolutism. She was hopeful that her talented brother-in-law and crown prince, Frederick William IV., would change things. But in the end, he was reluctant to grant more power to the people and saw himself caught up in riots and civil commotion. Gun shots into the crowd during a speech of his to the people set the revolution in motion – and Augusta’s husband, William, was considered the major culprit. Endangered by the people’s anger, he had to flee the country.
After the revolution had been silenced, he was made governor-general of Rhineland and Westfalia. These were rather recent territorial additions to Prussia and few of its inhabitants were particularly glad about it – no one less than the Rhinelanders who, furthermore, were predominantly catholic. Augusta and William moved to Koblenz. Finally, her turn had come. Here, far away from Berlin, she could set up a court more to her liking. The Princess drew liberal scholars to the court. And, most importantly, she showed no of the common Prussian reservation in her dealings with Catholics. So, probably for the first time ever, she was popular among the people. In hindsight, she helped to better integrate those areas into the kingdom and, also later, intervened to alleviate some of the pressures on Catholics in Protestant Prussia.
Her luck lasted for 8 years. Then she joined William in Berlin where he had to serve as Prince Regent for his sick brother. After his death, in 1861, she became Queen of Prussia. Indeed, in the beginning, his reign was called a ‘new era’, his cabinet was filled with liberals, some of them from his time in Koblenz. Many conservatives feared that it was her influence which showed. Yet, he just did what he thought right as he always thought her advice an annoyance – which she tended to give like a schoolmistress, and usually in written form in order to avoid misunderstandings or a fight. But when William I. faced a massive setback with the parliament and was even considering to hand the power over to his son, the one who came to his rescue and would be his most important partner from then onwards, she would consider her biggest enemy: Otto von Bismarck. His pragmatic Realpolitik with ‘blood and iron’ for her, the humanist Christian who believed that there were more ideal ways to rightful rule, was the most terrifying and wrong way to gain more power for Prussia. The hatred was mutual. As she showed her disdain not only for him but also his rather timid wife, Bismarck was in for payback. He did not shy away from giving journalists material on her and publicly called her old bat or nag.
She hoped for Prussian leadership in Germany. But what Bismarck eventually gained after three wars and what earned her the title of an Empress, to her remained a mixed blessing. It was not the kind of moral conquest which she had considered not only ideal but possible, instead the wars waged for her just bore the seed for further conflicts. Most Germans caught in nationalist euphoria would not see it that way. As something of a pacifist there were, after all, some few ideas which she could successfully realize. They happened to be within her official role and female ‘job description’. She started a charity organization to take care of the war wounded and a school for girls orphaned by the war.But for her, that was not enough. At some point, her will to discuss and shape politics got obsessive. She eavesdropped on William’s political meetings and in order to do that, her maids had to make her hair while sitting on the stairs closeby to his office. What she told her few confidants about her moods, can only be read as massive signs of manic depression. To the people, she seemed inaccessible and her behavior contrived and insincere. The natural charm that she had been attested with in her youth, seemed all gone. Her husband and others commented on her lack of sensuality and femininity. Few would see it like her French reader Jules Laforge in the 1880s: “As simple and somewhat palish the personality of the emperor is, so complicated, distinct and impressive is she, the empress.” She died on January 7th, 1890, and was put to rest alongside her husband in the mausoleum of Charlottenburg. The pink pedestal is standing only meters from the mausoleum they are both buried in, the chapel they were married in and the first school for orphaned girls she started. In the mausoleum she also rests alongside the famous Luise, her sweet and beautiful mother-in-law who was deceased long before Augusta arrived in Berlin. While Luise’s beautiful image was further sugar-coated and idealized since her death at the age of 34, the serious and 78-year old empress was forgotten by most.

Posted in Berlin Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Julius Leber, executed by Nazis 70 years ago – who was the man behind a bridge’s name ?

70 years ago, on January 5th, 1945, Social Democrat Julius Leber was executed in Plötzensee prison for his involvement in the resistance against the Nazi regime. The note he left behind for his friends read: “To put one’s own life at stake is the proper price for such a good and just cause. We did what was in our power. It is not our fault that it turned out like this and not differently.“
Many Berliners know his name due to a bridge in Schöneberg and the respective S-Bahn station. But the man behind it? Leber, editor-in-chief of a social-democratic newspaper in Lübeck, held a seat for the SPD in the Reichstag since 1924. While editor, he was less a political intellectual than a robust man and clear-sighted politician who could give up on sophistication but never his principles. In 1933, Leber was among the first victims of the brown terror. Right after Hitler had seized power, Leber was attacked by SA members. During the fight which left Leber severely injured, a member of the pro-democratic paramilitary unit ‘Reichsbanner’, serving as Leber’s bodyguard, stabbed one of the SA men down. As a consequence, Leber was arrested, in complete disregard of a Reichstag member’s immunity. Later chancellor Willy Brandt for whom Leber had become a mentor by the early 1930s, recalled the last time he saw him: Due to workers’ protests, Leber was set free and joined a demonstration against the Nazis with his head in bandages and while he was not allowed to speak, he could not help but utter a defiant “Freedom!”
He would lose it soon again. With the claim of having been the instigator of the deed leading to the SA man’s death, in March, the Nazis sentenced him to prison for 18months. But he was only dismissed from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp more than four torturous years later. And now, how to make a living? Party friends organized him a job at a coal dealer in Schöneberg in the shadow of the gasometer, in walking distance from the street and bridge which bear his name today. He soon made co-owner. But he was not the man to shy away from the Nazis and to withdraw into a private, apolitical niche. As Theodor Heuss, later German president recalled: “The two little rooms in the dodgy cottage between the hills of coal were quite a conspirator’s hangout. Sometimes the bell rang at the outer door, so Leber had to leave for the front room to put a client off. But the back room was a home for political passion.” Among others, officer Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg sat down in his worn-out armchairs, discussing with Leber the ‘Operation Valkyrie’, the plot to assassinate Hitler and a coup d’état which famously failed on July 20th, 1944. Leber was himself a war veteran and lieutenant colonel and had always argued against too great a distance between the left and the Reichswehr. Hence, the otherwise surprising sight of an aristocrat and high-ranking officer in the backroom of a socialist coal dealer who actually came along very well. But they agreed that only a wide-cast net of resistance groups could lead to success. In the service of reaching out to further groups, Leber contacted a communist resistance circle but one of their meetings was spied upon by the Gestapo. Leber was arrested on July 5th, 1944. Stauffenberg decided to go on as planned, also in order to get him out. After all, Leber was listed to become minister of the interior in the cabinet they wanted to create. But two weeks later, the dream was over. In October, Leber had his trial at the Volksgerichtshof (photo). Led by slavering and yelling President Judge Roland Freisler, known for his love to humiliate defendants, they were a mere travesty of justice.But Leber stood his ground, did never appear to falter and even the obnoxious Freisler later would remark that he was the ‘strongest presence’ among the resistance. A presence which he paid for with a death sentence, executed 70 years ago today. When the war was over, his wife Annedore started a little editing house for books about the resistance, fighting against the wide-spread belief that nothing could have been done.Julius Leber indeed did everything he could.

Posted in Berlin Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment