The 1920s in Berlin
a historic decade in German history
First World War and Revolution
The First World War, which arose from alliance commitments soon engulfed the whole of Europe and, before it finished, brought death to 17 million soldiers – the war debts imposed upon Germany at the Treaty of Versailles were only finally paid off in 2010. As the conflict lasted far longer than anybody had anticipated beforehand, Germany was forced to switch its previous liberal economic system completely over to a planned war economy. As a result of the falling agricultural productivity, from 1915 onwards Berlin experienced increasing supply shortages in basic foodstuffs. War-weariness, the breaking up of existing family and social structures, poverty and hunger were all factors contributing to a growing dissatisfaction and reluctance in the population. Under the banner of “Peace and Bread”, over 400,000 desperate people took part in demonstrations organised by the Spartacus League in Berlin in the spring of 1918. Their protests peaked in the 1918 November Revolution, when on 9th November Philipp Scheidemann (SPD) proclaimed the Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag.
In the Weimar Republic: The Spartacus Uprising
The war had been lost, the Kaiser had abdicated and the young republic was frantically searching for stability. The newly founded Communist Party of Germany (KPD) led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck proved unable to enforce its pursuit for a socialist soviet republic. The Spartacus uprising instigated by them in parts of the city centre as well as the newspaper publishing quarter from 5th to 12 January 1919 was bloodily suppressed by Freikorps (right-wing volunteer militia) units loyal to the government. The SPD emerged as the strongest party in the elections to the National Assembly that took place on 19th January. Friedrich Ebert (SPD) was elected as Reich President, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered by Freikorps members of the Garde-Kavellerie-Schutzen (Cavalry Protection Guard) Division in Tiergarten.
The Kapp Putsch
On 13th March 1920 extreme right-wing conspirators led by the Landscape Director General of the province of East Prussia, Wolfgang Kapp, rose up in revolt against the drastic reduction of the Reichswehr (German Army) imposed by the Versailles Peace Treaty. Reichswehr General Walther von Lüttwitz, (who had already put down the Spartacus uprising) commanding the Ehrhardt Naval Brigade, occupied the Government Quarter in Berlin and appointed Kapp as Reich Chancellor. The Government fled Berlin, and together with the SPD issued a proclamation calling for a general strike. The ministerial bureaucracy refused to obey Kapp’s orders and the strike caused the breakdown of public services – and after five days the putsch collapsed.
(Cultural) Metropolis of Berlin
As a result of the “Greater Berlin Law” of 1920, Berlin became the largest industrial city in Europe. The fundamental human rights anchored in the Weimar Constitution, combined with personal freedoms, enabled the city to flourish as the cultural metropolis of the 1920s. Art and culture experienced a hitherto unknown boom. The most important artists of the time met in the Romanisches Café on Kurfürstendamm (Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Max Liebermann, Erich Kästner, Joachim Ringelnatz, Billy Wilder and many others) and Josephine Baker introduced the new Charleston dance sensation to Germany with her performance in 1926 in the Nelson Theatre on Kurfürstendamm. 1928 saw the premiere of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, from where it went on to sweep the world. Alongside the boom in Berlin’s nightlife with entertainment shows and music hall, the city also made great strides by day. In 1921 the AVUS (Automobile Traffic and Practice Course) autobahn (a world first) was built through the Grunewald forest, in 1923 Tempelhof airport was opened, and in 1926 the Funkturm (Radio Tower) was opened to the public for the Third Radio Exhibition. The first “Green Week” trade fair was held in 1926 and attracted the enormous number of 50,000 visitors.
World Economic Crisis
On 23rd June 1919, the National Assembly, which initially met in Weimar instead of Berlin as a result of the internal political turmoil, was forced to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty under massive pressure from the victorious Entente powers, thus accepting the assignment of sole German responsibility for starting the First World War. The reparation payments resulting from this, amounting in total to 132 billion Reichsmarks, imposed a severe burden on the German Reich and provided extreme right-wing elements with a welcome pretext to combat the Weimar Republic. The world economic crisis, which hit Berlin in 1929, led to 664 bankruptcies and the unemployment of 450,000 people. By 1932, industrial production in the city had been reduced by half, and unemployment had grown to 30.8%! The only hope for 600,000 Berliners affected was the support of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (Workers’ Welfare Association - AWO), unless they were covered by state unemployment insurance that had been introduced in 1927.
Rise of the Nazi Party
The Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back myth), the question of responsibility for the war, the world economic crisis, poverty, hunger and a lack of prospects – all these factors contributed to making the populace receptive to the propaganda of the NSDAP (National Socialistic German Workers’ Party), who had been striving for the destruction of the Weimar Republic since 1920. Following the lifting of the ban on Hitler speaking in public in Prussia, he first publicly spoke in an address in the Berlin Sportpalast in 1928. The hall and street battles, which had been taking place towards the end of the 1920s between the Nazi Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers - SA) and the communist Roter Frontkämpferbund (Red Front Fighters’ League) with increasing ferocity, culminated in 1929 in the Berlin “Blutmai” (Bloody May) with 30 dead, 200 injured and 1,200 arrests. The elections to the Berlin City Council resulted in a share of the vote for the Nazi Party of 5.8%, giving then 13 seats in the city parliament. In 1932, the Nazi Party won both the elections to the Reichstag: in July with 37.4% and in November with 33.1% (figures for Berlin 25.9%) – whereupon on 30th January 1933 Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor, a post he had long coveted, by Reich President Paul von Hindenburg.
Historic places in nowadays Berlin
The Berlin twenties in media
Babylon Berlin - it's THE TV series from Berlin. It portrays the Berlin of the 1920s - the exciting city of sins and the emerging metropolis. Star director Tom Tykwer together with Henk Handloegten and Achim von Borries have elaborately set the stage for the most expensive German TV series. With a lot of attention to detail, the Berlin of the era comes alive.