Best Berliners #3 – Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), aviation pioneer

Although the history of human flight really took off, as it were, when the Wright Brothers put an engine in a glider, they were always careful to attribute much of their success to the groundwork  done by another pair of brothers: Berlin aviation pioneers Otto and Gustav Lilienthal.

IMG_0058
Replica of one of Lilienthal’s flying machines, Technisches Museum, Berlin, photo: Robin Oomkes

The shape of an airplane as we know it today – two wings, longish body, horizontal and vertical stabilisers at the back – was developed by Otto and Gustav during their long years of observing birds, testing in wind tunnels and jumping off elevations in home made gliders. Berlin’s Technisches Museum has a great collection of Lilienthal gliders, including the type Otto built in a series of at least ten – making it the world’s first commercial aeroplane.

As Otto Lilienthal said in one of his lectures – there are three challenges in aviation: taking off, stability and landing. As clichéd as this may sound today, the principle is still valid. It was achieving stability during flight that caused him the greatest problems, and, in 1896, ultimately cost him his life. During a flight from the cliffs at Stölln, some 40 km north-west of Berlin, Otto’s glider suddenly stalled, plunged straight down, and broke his neck. There is a museum at the site.

IMG_0050
Photos of Lilienthal’s flying attempts at Stölln, Technisches Museum Berlin.

The Lilienthal brothers grew up in the provincial town of Anklam (another Lilienthal museum!) and had been fascinated by the flight of birds since they were children. The area is a well known stopover for migrating storks, and observing these large and heavy birds glide through the sky without much visible effort convinced the Lilienthal boys that human bird-like flight must be possible. They experimented by jumping off hills with wings of fabric attached to their arms, but of course never managed to even glide.

But their observations of birds put them, once and for all, in the ‘heavier than air’ camp. ‘Heavier’ or ‘lighter than air’ was a fundamental debate between aviation pioneers. Hot air and helium balloons (‘lighter than air’) had been available since the 1780s, but Otto Lilienthal wasn’t impressed. He had seen the French use them to escape the siege of Paris while fighting the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), but they usually drifted straight into the clutches of the German forces.

Balloons evolved into airships (the alternative word ‘dirigible’, means ‘steerable’), but the Lilienthal brothers’ ideal remained to unravel the mystery of the flight of birds. In a polemic with famous Berlin physicist Helmholtz, who had stated that human bird-like flight was mathematically impossible, Otto made the point that as no-one had yet understood how birds flew, it was also impossible to deny that capability to humans.

IMG_0074
Another Lilienthal flying machine replica at the Technisches Museum, Berlin. Photo: Robin Oomkes.

Returning to Berlin after the war, Otto, a mechanical engineer, set himself up as a manufacturer of compact steam engines to fund his flying experiments. He also got involved in the ‘social question’ – the plight of the hundreds of thousands of poor factory workers living in abominable circumstances. Unlike Gustav, he never became a communist, but he was the first employer to introduce profit sharing for his workers.

Gustav, meanwhile, trained as an architect and tried and failed at different careers – working in London as a builder, returning to Berlin to start an applied arts school for wealthy girls, and, most famously, inventing toy sets that would be the forerunners of today’s Lego. Together with Otto, he invented the famous ‘Anker’ stone building bricks, as well as the forerunner of Meccano, but due to dodgy business partners, failed to make much money from them.

Otto married Agnes, a girl he had met on an early project developing machinery for Saxon coal mines. They had four children, but Otto wasn’t much of a family man. As the years progressed, he developed an almost maniacal energy in pursuing a wide range of interests.

In 1892, Otto had accepted a share in a broke theatre (the Ost-End, located on what now is Karl-Marx-Allee) in lieu of payment for a heating system, and got fascinated with the art of theatre (and with a certain young actress). Otto would spend his days in the factory and evenings at the theatre, playing minor parts (to everyone’s embarrassment) and eventually publishing a play. Otto felt that workers should be able to enjoy a good play and staged the classics at low prices – offering the Volksbühne a stage before they eventually acquired their own theatre in 1914.

IMG_9580
Lilienthal’s “Fliegeberg” at Lichterfelde, today a monument. Photo: Robin Oomkes.

By 1896, the year when Otto fell to his death, he was able to glide distances of up to 250 metres. Near his home in Lichterfelde, in south-west Berlin, he built the ‘Fliegeberg’ (flying mountain), a 15 metre high artificial hill (today, a monument in a small park that is worth visiting). From here, he could take off in all directions, independent of prevailing winds, and it also meant he could do some flying between working at the factory and leaving for the theatre, instead of having to wait until Sunday to go to the cliffs at Stölln.

Otto pursued his dream of flying with ever greater tenacity, and both Agnes and Gustav unsuccessfully tried to discourage him. After Otto’s death, the factory soon went bankrupt, and Agnes had to raise her four children as a poor widow. When the Wright brothers found out, they mailed Agnes a $1000 check as a token of their respect for Otto, and visited his grave (in Lichterfelde, one of Berlin’s graves of honour) both times they gave flying demonstrations in Berlin.

IMG_1971
Berlin’s soon-to-be-closed Tegel Airport is named after Otto Lilienthal. In this 2014 photo, you can see an Air Berlin banner – an airline that used Tegel as its hub and went bankrupt in 2016. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Gustav, meanwhile, never gave up the idea of truly flying like a bird. At Tempelhof airfield, as late as 1928, passengers on Lufthansa flights to Vienna or Königsberg would see him working on a contraption with engine-driven flapping wings. All it ever was able to do was slowly roll across the tarmac – it never flew.

Best Berliners, #2 – A Woman in Berlin

Imagine yourself as a woman in a famished, besieged city. A rapacious horde of soldiers, hell-bent on revenge for the wrongs done to their country, is at the gates. When a drunken bunch of them grab you and take you to an empty apartment, what do you do? Do you resist, fight, and possibly get killed? Or do you resign yourself to your fate, and try to limit the damage by seeking protection from a higher-ranking soldier – who will still rape you of course, but might fend off the others and also bring you something to eat?

 

Book cover, courtesy of Virago Modern Classics

The anonymous author of “A Woman in Berlin” chose the latter. Although the internet knows who she was, here I will honour her wish not to disclose her identity, and stick with “Anonymous”, a woman in her early thirties, who, in her war diary, describes 1945’s Battle of Berlin from the ground. 

As the Red Army approached Berlin and the city braced itself for the oncoming onslaught, the civilian population – mostly women since the men had long been sent to war and most of the children to the countryside – had long been in survival mode. Every night, air raid sirens would summon them to their basement shelters, and they were also used to coping with food and fuel rationing; after all, Berlin had been being steadily bombed by the US Air Force and the R.A.F. since 1942. But a new, even more terrifying prospect now awaited them. 

Goebbels’ propaganda ministry had been spreading horror stories involving wholesale rape and murder about the advancing Soviet troops, which was probably meant to spur the remaining German defence troops into defending Berlin more valiantly; but when the Soviets arrived, some of those rumours proved to be true. 

An estimated 100,000 women were raped. Although Anonymous, and some other women, were able to cope by resorting to macabre humour – “how many times?”, they’d ask each other when they’d meet at the water pumps, many more suffered permanent psychological damage. When comparing notes after the worst of the Russian onslaught was over, Anonymous found that only a few women in her block had managed to escape, by hiding in upstairs apartments (very unsafe in air raids, but the Russians, most of whom were farm boys unaccustomed to cities, hated climbing stairs).

“Anonymous”, a professional journalist, had travelled widely before the war, which is how she learned some Russian – a mixed blessing , as it turned out. On the one hand, she could translate herself, and others, out of critical situations; on the other hand, she attracted attention to herself – she became popular as a sex partner with higher ranking officers, one of whom even tried to recruit her for intelligence work. 

When her diary, tracing the two months from late April to mid June 1945, was published in the 1950s, it attracted severe criticism in Germany. Although she took care to make specific persons and places unrecognisable (all you can tell is that she must have been somewhere around Berliner Strasse in the Wilmersdorf/Schöneberg area), her narrative was viewed as shameful to German women. It certainly was bad news for German men, who, like Anonymous’ own fiancé upon his return from the front, didn’t want to know about what their women had had to go through. Conversely, Anonymous describes how women had started viewing men differently: as the weaker sex, who after all their Nazi prancing, had lost the war and brought ruin upon themselves. In the after-war years German men were busy reasserting their manliness, and “A Woman in Berlin” brought an unwelcome message.

After the devastating criticism, “Anonymous” wanted to have nothing more to do with the book, and would allow a second edition only after her death. 

When the reprint duly appeared in 2003, with a new English translation, the world had changed. Many other previously taboo subjects (such as Nazi collaboration in countries like France and The Netherlands) were now open for discussion, and the book received the critical acclaim that it was due – a chilling, honest and perceptive account of the atrocities of war in general, and of the Battle of Berlin in particular. The only criticism levelled against the book this time round was that it “must be fake because it is too well written”. A group of eminent historians however dismissed this theory: the diary is real, and the author’s evocative writing only serves to make it even more of a recommendation.

This article was originally written for the forthcoming book 100 Favourite Berliners, and edited by Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican.

The Clara Zetkin Memorial near Berlin – a tribute to the founder of #InternationalWomensDay

 

C_Zetkin_wikipedia_public domain

Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), image via wikicommons

International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide every March 8th, apart from religious feasts, is the oldest internationally observed annual holiday. It came about via Clara Zetkin, a German writer, politician and public speaker who considered feminism a phenomenon for upper class women; to Zetkin, it was socialism that would set working class people free, women and men alike.

But that didn’t stop her proposing a special day to demand equal rights for women – universal suffrage specifically – at a Socialist Women’s International meeting in Copenhagen in 1910. The proposal was accepted and from 1911, Women’s Day was celebrated on March 19th, mainly in German-speaking countries.

Portrait of Zetkin painted by her husband Georg Friedrich Zundel. Photo by Robin Oomkes.

In 1917, as a reaction to the horrors of World War I, German communists added the concept of ‘peace’ to the day’s objectives. The date was moved to 8th March in 1921 as a tribute to the strike organised by female workers in St. Petersburg that triggered 1917’s February Revolution – Russia at the time was still on the Julian Calendar so March 8th in the West was February there – which in turn marked the beginning of Russia’s socialist revolution.

In Germany, Women’s Day is still very much regarded as a socialist as well as a communist phenomenon. After the 1917 split between Communists and Social Democrats, there were even two separate Women’s Days for a while, which the Nazis replaced with a single Mother’s Day to undermine the event’s leftist credentials and emphasise the importance of motherhood.

After World War II, the Soviet Authorities reintroduced Women’s Day in the Eastern Zone and it remained a state-sponsored socialist affair until the end of the GDR in 1989. The GDR memorialised Zetkin by putting her on their ten mark banknote and twenty mark coin and, in 1954, established the Clara Zetkin Medal (Clara-Zetkin-Medaille) to honour female women’s rights activists.

Its communist connotations meant that West Germany hesitated introducing its own Women’s Day until the broader feminist movement gathered pace there during the 1970s. Likewise, the United Nations only moved towards creating an International Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace in 1975, and it took until 1995 onwards to become a fixture on the UN calendar.

Zetkin’s Birkenwerder house, now a public memorial. Photo by Robin Oomkes.

In order to learn more about Zetkin and the day she created, I took a trip to Birkenwerder, in the north of Berlin, a 30-minute trip from Friedrichstrasse. Alighting at Birkenwerder S-Bahn station, I crossed the railway tracks and followed the signs to her memorial, which is set inside the last German house in which she lived.

After a ten minute walk I found myself outside the village library that now occupies the lower part of the house. The librarian, who seemed happy that someone was interested in the museum, took me upstairs and showed me around the two room exhibition. When I asked her if anything special was planned there for March 8th, she seemed sorry to say that there wasn’t. But she said that from time to time, women’s clubs from the ex-GDR do come and visit the memorial.

Inside, Zetkin’s sitting room is preserved as it was in the early 1930s, complete with writing desk and mementos from her life, during which she rubbed shoulders with famous socialists such as August Bebel and Rosa Luxemburg. She was even visited by Lenin himself in 1907, and she interviewed him in 1920 about the topic of women’s rights.

Another room documents her life and work via a series of German texts. I learned that she was born Clara Eissner in 1857 to a devout Saxon school teacher and his educated wife, that she trained as a teacher – the only career open to girls from her background in those years – and joined the Socialist Workers’ Party in 1878.

Moving to Paris to escape Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, she met Ossip Zetkin, from whom she took her name – despite not being married – and bore two sons, Maxim and Kostja. After Zetkin’s death, she married painter Georg Friedrich Zundel, also a staunch socialist. Throughout her life, Zetkin maintained strong ties to the Socialist International group. Following the party’s 1917 split from the SPD (due to its pro-war stance), she helped co-found the Spartacus League with her close friend and political companion Rosa Luxemburg.

Statue in the memorial's garden showing Clara Zetkin (l) and her friend and fellow communist Rosa Luxemburg, by Berlin sculptor

Statue in the memorial’s garden showing Clara Zetkin (l) and her friend and fellow communist Rosa Luxemburg.

While Luxemburg didn’t survive the Communists’ 1918 revolution attempt and the subsequent crackdown by the ‘bourgeois’ parties (including the social-democrat SPD) that followed, Zetkin managed to continue her political career. In 1919 she joined the fledgling KPD (Communist Party of Germany), representing the party from 1920 in the Reichstag and serving, between 1927 to 1929, as a member of the central committee.

After separating from Zundel in 1928, when he turned increasingly religious and mystic, Clara’s son Maxim bought her the house at Birkenwerder, which enabled her to live closer to her work at the Reichstag (the S-Bahn was as fast and practical then as it is now), and where she remained a member until the Nazis took power.

Gift plate received from Russian china workers

Gift charger received from Russian porcelain workers. The inscription says: “USSR – Workers of the World Unite – To The International Women’s Secretariat – From the workers of the Dulevo Porcelain Factory 8 March 1923 – May the union of male and female workers of the world flourish and strengthen”. Photo by Robin Oomkes, translation by Chris Hernon.

As the party’s most senior MP, she had the honour of opening the first parliamentary session after the 1932 election – in which the Nazis polled 33% – and used the opportunity for a courageous 40-minute speech against the dangers of National Socialism. Soon after the Nazis came to power, she fled her native country again, this time to Moscow, where she died the same year of natural causes. Stalin himself carried her urn to the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

Many streets in eastern Germany are still named after the “mother of German communism”. One of the most important disappeared however. Today’s Dorotheenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte, which Zetkin would have probably walked along as part of her commute between S-Bahn Friedrichstrasse and the Reichstag, was named Clara-Zetkin-Strasse in 1951 – but in 1995 it was restored to its prewar name, honouring Prussian Queen Dorothea.

 

Clara-Zetkin-Gedenkstätte (memorial)

Summter Straße 4, 416547 Birkenwerder

Tel.: 033 03 40 27 09

Opening hours: weekdays 11am – 4pm

Admission: free

Directions: take any regional (RE) or S-Bahn train towards Oranienburg, get off at Birkenwerder Station. Take the road bridge across the tracks and turn left on Unter den Ulmen, then right on Summter Strasse. Alternatively, walk along An der Bahn and take the magnificent footbridge (Rote Brücke) across the tracks and straight into Summter Strasse. It’s less than 1km either way.

Best Berliners, #1 – Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

As my time in Berlin is coming to an end, I’d like to share a series of portraits of Favourite Berliners that I wrote over the past few years on request of Slow Travel Berlin editors Paul Sullivan and Brian Melican. Here’s the first: Wilhelm von Humboldt.

W.v.Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt, on an engraving by Franz Krüger

The name “Humboldt” to most people brings up images of South American jungle expeditions and scientific breakthroughs in geography, botany and zoology. But that was Alexander. His brother Wilhelm, two years his senior, may have led a less spectacular life, but probably had a greater overall impact on scholarship, and universities in particular, than his more famous younger brother.

The Humboldt brothers grew up on their parents’ estate at Schloss Tegel outside Berlin. Their father died when Wilhelm was twelve, and the boys were brought up in relative isolation by their mother. They were home-schooled by a succession of tutors, who did a great job intellectually. However, both Humboldts later described the atmosphere as oppressive. To escape, extroverted Alexander explored the Tegel woods, but Wilhelm, who was quite an introvert, dug himself ever deeper in books, especially Greek Classics.

IMG_7149.jpg
Schloss Tegel, the family pile, after Schinkel’s remodelling. The four corner towers carry the names of the Greek winds (photo: Robin Oomkes).

When Wilhelm was 18, their tutor ended the brothers’ boredom by introducing them to the main characters of Berlin’s Age of Enlightenment. They met Henriette and Marcus Herz, and were immediately accepted into their philosophical and literary salons. Wilhelm probably had a crush on Henriette, but it was she who introduced Wilhelm, very much a womanizer, to the love of his life, Caroline von Dacheröden.

After finishing university at Göttingen, Wilhelm wrote to Alexander how much he was looking forward to a simple, bourgeois life with Caroline in Berlin. But Alexander, who may have been gay, was abhorred by such a boring existence. Both brothers recognized the way in which their characters contradicted and complemented each other. Alexander wrote about Wilhelm: “He is a wonderful person. But it’s easy to get him wrong. He can be very offensive, like Goethe, repelling, or forcibly civil. It all happens inside him, he’s too esoteric. And his marriage reinforces that apparent aloofness and coldness. Apparent, because it is not really what he is like … He is the strangest being I’ve encountered”.

Humboldt,_Caroline_von_(1766-1829)2
Caroline von Humboldt, née von Dacheröden (1766-1829). Litho by Wilhelm Wach.

Wilhelm and Caroline moved to Thuringia, where he continued his writing on the conflict between the spiritual and the sensual. Mankind’s objective was to achieve the Great and the Whole, and the individual should edify and educate himself. Only then would he be able to exercise any wider impact on the outside world. In Jena, Wilhelm was introduced to poet Friedrich Schiller. In 1794, Wilhelm (and Alexander, who was visiting), finally managed to get to meet famous writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The meeting of Goethe, Schiller, and the Humboldts is now seen as the kickoff of the Weimar Classics literary movement.

Weimarer_Klassik
Schiller, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and Goethe at Weimar

In 1802, Wilhelm became the Prussian King’s ambassador to the Vatican. Alexander, who had just returned from his South American expedition, had vowed ‘never to set eyes on the towers of Berlin again’ and set up house in Paris, but Wilhelm implored him to not relinquish his “Germanness”, return to the city, “even if it is a sandy waste”, and report to the King on his travels. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia had not only lost a great deal of territory, but also the universities that were located there. King Frederic William III had vowed “to replace lost territory with intellectual prowess”, and in 1808, he appointed Wilhelm, who didn’t want to leave Rome, as education secretary and asked him to reform the education system.

The system that Humboldt designed was true to his convictions and put the human spirit at center stage – not the needs of the state, or any specific profession. It consisted of elementary education, where the student learns how to express and understand thoughts, secondary education, where pupils gather linguistic, mathematical and historical knowledge, and at the same time learn to learn. At university, the third stage, students should conduct their own studies, guided and supported by professors. Wilhelm’s educational theory projected his own intellectual development on Prussia’s schools.

IMG_9603
Wilhelm von Humboldt’s statue (Paul Otto, 1882), outside the university building on Berlin’s Unter den Linden that bears his and his brother’s name.

The only thing missing in Berlin was a university. In 1809, Frederick William allowed Wilhelm von Humboldt to create one. Berlin University started operating only a year later, at the palace on Unter den Linden that is still its headquarters today. It was named after the King in 1828, and then after the Humboldt brothers in 1949. The combination of teaching and research, which made sure that students would always be taught cutting-edge insights, was a unique tenet of the Humboldtian education ideal. Berlin’s university may be relatively young, but it was so ground-breaking that its teaching system has made a major impact on universities worldwide.

After several stints as ambassador and minister, Wilhelm got disappointed with Prussian politics, discovering that, post-Napoleon, he couldn’t implement his Enlightenment ideals and his passion for a unified German nation. From 1818, he returned to life as an independent writer and scholar. He spent the rest of his life at Tegel, where he asked Karl Friedrich Schinkel to redesign his parents’ manor house, studying exotic languages but never travelling far from home again. His theories on languages and their “world views” (Weltansichten) still have their followers today.

IMG_9467
Wilhelm von Humboldt’s desk in his study at Schloss Tegel. Photo: Robin Oomkes.

Caroline’s death in 1829 caused Wilhelm immeasurable sadness. Fearing Humboldt would end up a total recluse at his Tegel retreat, the King called upon him to set up the collection of the new museum in Lustgarten (known as Altes Museum today), which would at least get him to travel to Berlin several days per week.

IMG_7156
The family graveyard at Schloss Tegel. The park and burial monument can also be visited when the house itself is closed to the public. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Wilhelm von Humboldt died at 68, at his home in Tegel. He lies buried there, together with Caroline and Alexander. The country house, with its memorial, is still the private residence of descendants of the Humboldts, but there is a small museum that opens on Mondays from May to September.

Further reading: Manfred Geier: Die Brüder Humboldt. Eine Biographie, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2009.