Background

Who was Édouard Drumont?

 
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When it came to designing our next book, Antisemitism by Hermann Bahr (originally published in 1894), finding an appropriate image proved challenging. How best to depict this utterly ground-breaking set of interviews concerning anti-Jewish sentiment of the 1890s that encompassed much of western Europe in its scope? One alternative might have been to explore the grotesque antisemitic caricatures that appeared in a number of publications of the time, particularly in Germany and France. Parisian newspaper La Libre Parole, for instance, popularised the kind of imagery seen in the worst antisemitic propaganda to this day – big-nosed Jews grasping, pulling strings, bleeding nations dry.

But rather than perpetuating these images, wouldn’t it be better to put the focus on those who were actually peddling these tropes? French writer Édouard Drumont, for instance. Born in 1844, he was perhaps the most prominent antisemite of his time in Europe. In fact it was he who founded La Libre Parole, in 1892. This followed the ‘Antisemitic League’ which he established in 1889, and his most lasting contribution to the cause, the extensive and popular book La France Juive (Jewish France), which appeared in 1886. One of his numerous targets in that book was the French-Jewish journalist and newspaper proprietor Arthur Meyer – one of Bahr’s interviewees – who challenged him to a duel.

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Drumont was instrumental in arousing public outrage during the Panama Scandal that followed the first, failed attempt to build a canal through Panama in which France lost huge amounts of money, sometimes in deals of questionable legality. Drumont believed that Jewish conspirators were behind the whole affair, recklessly accusing public figures of underhand dealings for which he received a three-month prison sentence in 1892. The story was still dragging on as Bahr conducted his interviews, and while Drumont himself wasn’t among the 38 respondents, he was frequently cited by those who were, including French journalist Francis Magnard:

Antisemitism is an invention of Mr Édouard Drumont – by which I mean, of course there has always been anti-Jewish sentiment, prejudice and hatred, but it was only ever a purely personal matter. You liked the Jews, or you did not, as you saw fit – it had nothing to do with politics. It was Drumont who first created, discovered political antisemitism, and it was only with La France Juive that it came to life. Drumont turned his individual antipathy into a general principle …

 
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But elsewhere Magnard describes Drumont as ‘passionate, immoderate, yet gallant and honourable’, consistent with others who found admirable qualities in him even while deploring his monomaniacal hatred of Jews. They included another interviewee, French journalist Séverine, who described him as ‘brave, passionate, strong and chivalrous’.

So: back to the cover. We wanted the artwork to match our previous books, for which the imagery was largely drawn from postcards of the era (incidentally today marks 150 years since the first postcard was sent, in Bahr’s native Austria). And then we stumbled upon an extraordinary, deceptively playful postcard that depicts Drumont, which we presume to have been produced around 1890. The illustrator is Philippe Norwins, of whom little information survives, except that he worked for a number of journals around the beginning of the 20th century and seemed to specialise in caricatures of prominent French figures of the day.

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The caption for his image of the French writer reads ‘Drumont anéantit ses mites’, a play on ‘Drumont, un antisémite’ which literally translates as ‘Drumont annihilates his moths’. We see the writer with an outsized pen in one hand, dripping black ink, and in the other an implement with which he sprays what we can presume is a deadly chemical agent, targeted at conspicuously big-nosed insects, one of whom has fallen dead at his feet. The victims are depicted as dehumanised, as vermin, and decades before the gas chambers this single illustration takes us from word to deed, from the polemics of hatred to the obscenity of genocide. And it is this image of shocking if accidental prescience that now adorns our translation of Antisemitism, designed by Svenja Prigge (like the cover for our recent edition of The Nights of Tino of Baghdad by Else Lasker-Schüler).

The Dreyfus Affair erupted in 1894, just as Bahr’s 1893 interviews were being published in book form. It was a scandal tailor-made for Drumont, and in fact it was his Libre Parole that broke the original story which would come to engulf French society in a bitterly rancorous dispute for years. Drumont was the most vocal and fanatical of the numerous French public figures decrying Jewish ‘treachery’ following the (false) accusations against Captain Dreyfus. Drumont was later elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of Algiers, and tried (unsuccessfully) to repeal the law that had conferred French citizenship on Jewish Algerians. Failing to be re-elected in 1902 Drumont returned to his writing, and narrowly missed out on a seat on the august Académie française.

Édouard Drumont died in 1917; among the mourners at his funeral was Arthur Meyer.

Antisemitism by Hermann Bahr, originally published in German in 1894, is appearing in English for the first time on 21 October 2019 (translated by James J. Conway), Rixdorf Editions

Else Lasker-Schüler’s Berlin

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Writer Else Lasker-Schüler was born in Elberfeld (Wuppertal, in the Rhineland) in 1869 and died in Jerusalem in 1945, but her home for the majority of her adult life, as well as the stage for her creative personae and the crucible of most of her greatest works, was Berlin. She arrived in 1894 with her first husband, Berthold Lasker, but within less than a decade she had divorced and then married Herwarth Walden (né Georg Levin), by which time she was a fixture of bohemian Berlin. Before World War One she had established her uncompromising artistic vision and released some of her most important publications. From her hotel room in Schöneberg she was witness to the entirety of the city’s fabled Weimar period, before she was forced into exile in 1933. And it was in Berlin that she gave birth to her only child, and nursed him to his death just 28 years later.

Else Lasker-Schüler in 1907, the year she published  The Nights of Tino of Baghdad

Else Lasker-Schüler in 1907, the year she published The Nights of Tino of Baghdad

In this, the 150th year since her birth, prompted by my translation of Lasker-Schüler’s The Nights of Tino of Baghdad, and further inspired by Jörg Aufenanger’s recent book Else Lasker-Schüler in Berlin (in German), I set out to find the sites associated with the writer’s time in the capital and record how they looked in 2019. Many of the buildings in which she lived or spent time were destroyed during the Second World War, but these erasures themselves form a poignant memorial to a writer forced to absent the city she loved, eradicated from its cultural life at her moment of greatest renown.

Much of her activities in Berlin were encompassed within the bounds of what was then broadly termed the ‘New West’ – an expansive, orderly arrangement of largely bourgeois neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets which presented a stark contrast to the cramped and crooked laneways of the capital’s historic heart.

Here, in more or less chronological order, are some of the key stations of Else Lasker-Schüler’s life in Berlin.


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Brückenallee

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In 1894, Else Lasker-Schüler moved with her husband Berthold Lasker from Elberfeld and settled in Brückenallee in the central Berlin district of Hansaviertel. Lasker, a physician and chess master, hired a studio in the same street where his wife took art lessons. Nestled in a loop of the River Spree, the Hansaviertel was a prestigious neighbourhood at the time although it retained a creative edge, numbering both government ministers and artists among its residents, and offering two synagogues to serve its large Jewish community. Lasker-Schüler departed after the breakdown of her marriage in 1899, and gave birth to her son Paul that same year; Lasker was not the father.

This area was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War and the streetscape radically altered when it became a showcase of high-rise modernism including designs by the likes of Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvar Aalto – West Berlin’s response to progressive urban development on the other side of the Wall. The building that stands where Lasker-Schüler once lived on Brückenallee, now Bartningallee, inhabits a somewhat less exalted class of post-war architecture.


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Neue Gemeinschaft

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Leaving material security behind, Lasker-Schüler embarked on a new life in the new century and joined the New Community (Neue Gemeinschaft) in 1900, her first major contact with bohemian, literary Berlin. This idealistic group with anarchist tendencies initially met in an apartment in the Wilmersdorf district. Magnus Hirschfeld was associated with the Gemeinschaft, so too Hans Ostwald, the editor of the Metropolis Documents series for which Hirschfeld wrote Berlin’s Third Sex. Other members included Lasker-Schüler’s mentor Peter Hille, her future husband Georg Levin (Herwarth Walden), her beloved companion Johannes Holzmann (Senna Hoy), Hugo Höppener (Fidus), Erich Mühsam, Gustav Landauer and Martin Buber. The Neue Gemeinschaft operated a library and a meeting place here until 1902 when it moved beyond the (then) city limits, to the lakeside district of Schlachtensee. A number of Neue Gemeinschaft members (including Lasker-Schüler) contributed to Senna Hoy’s radical journal Kampf.

It is difficult to imagine a more purely middle class part of Berlin, with few of the eco-progressive trappings of Prenzlauer Berg or inter-generational wealth of the western perimeter. That the Neue Gemeinschaft met here merely confirms the long, symbiotic, mutually parasitic relationship between bohemia and bourgeoisie. Pro tip: nearby Tian Fu is one of the best Chinese restaurants in Berlin.


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CABARET PETER HILLE

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The existence of a cabaret culture every bit as audacious and transgressive as anything found in the Weimar era is just one of the underacknowledged achievements of Wilhelmine Berlin; Else Lasker-Schüler’s involvement in the very dawn of the city’s fabled cabaret tradition is less heralded still. In 1901 she joined Peter Hille and future husband Herwarth Walden for two evenings of cabaret presentations under the name ‘Teloplasma’ – one night ‘erotic’, the other ‘tragic’; the former was – surprise – the more popular of the two. And Lasker-Schüler was there again in 1902 when Hille opened a cabaret under his own name at Dalbelli’s Italian restaurant, a popular bohemian meeting place.

Following intensive wartime bombing that left little standing for blocks around other than the adjacent Matthäikirche (the tip of its spire is seen here), the site was cleared. Part of an ensemble of institutions designed to compensate West Berlin for the major museums lost to the eastern side of the city, the Neue Nationalgalerie opened here in 1968 in a late design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It was originally intended for Bacardí until it became apparent that a modernist temple to an international consumer brand might be off-message for revolutionary Cuba. The museum is currently closed as it undergoes extensive renovation.


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Café des Westens

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If there was one Berlin location indissolubly associated with Else Lasker-Schüler it was the Café des Westens. This was the main hub of bohemian Berlin in the early 20th century, with artists, writers, dreamers and camp followers hatching plans that earned the venue the nickname of ‘Café Größenwahn’, or Café Megalomania. Lasker-Schüler was a frequent visitor with second husband Herwarth Walden, whom she married in 1903, and her infant son Paul. Actor Tilla Durieux remarked disdainfully that ‘the little family lived, I suspect, on nothing but coffee.’

The café fell out of favour with artists and writers around the start of the First World War and closed in 1915; only the replica street lamp now suggests anything of the early 20th century streetscape. The space was later used as a cabaret, and in the 1920s ‘Dada Baroness’ Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven could be found selling newspapers on this corner after her return from New York. The building was destroyed in the closing stages of World War Two, and the post-war Café Kranzler that arose in its place is now history as well, leaving only its sign and its festive Wirtschaftswunder canopy as an incongruous adornment to a branch of the weekend custody dad’s outfitter of choice, Superdry. Because I largely get around the city by bicycle, and I value my life, I generally avoid this area. Heavy traffic, a concentration of buses and an almost total dearth of bike paths makes this the absolute worst place in central Berlin to cycle.


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Ludwigkirchstraße

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Lasker-Schüler and husband Herwarth Walden lived on this street from 1903 to 1907, first in a building at this location and subsequently an apartment diagonally across the road. Parts of The Nights of Tino of Baghdad were written here. This area of Wilmersdorf was almost entirely new at the time. The couple’s neighbours included Lasker-Schüler’s early publisher Axel Juncker, and architect August Endell, who operated his practice and design school around the corner, where he wrote his major critical work The Beauty of the Metropolis (1908).

Clearly not the original building, which fell victim to wartime bombing, unlike its fortunate neighbours either side.


Architektenhaus

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From the late 19th century until World War One, the Architektenhaus was a major venue for the avant-garde in Berlin. It hosted a scandalous exhibition by Edvard Munch, his first major showing outside Norway, as well as talks and readings; the ‘Commemoration for Fallen Poets’ hosted by Hugo Ball and associates here in 1915 was a Dada event in all but name (oh, and Aleister Crowley once attended a chess tournament here). In 1906 Lasker-Schüler first presented her Tino stories to the public here.

This is the only missing building on our tour not destroyed in the Second World War; the original (and numerous neighbours) was erased in 1935 to make way for Hermann Göring’s colossal Air Ministry, which ironically survived intensive aerial bombardment in the Second World War. Even for a Nazi-built structure in central Berlin there is an unusually dense set of historical associations around this building. The German Democratic Republic was declared here; one edge abutted the border later marked by the Berlin Wall. Later, in the newly reunified city, a commission operated out of here to divvy up East Germany’s spoils. This is now Germany’s Finance Ministry (see more here).


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Axel Juncker Verlag

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Danish-born Axel Juncker was a bookdealer who kept a store specialising in Scandinavian literature near Potsdamer Platz. He also operated a publishing house at this more sedate location, issuing works by the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, Kurt Tucholsky and Max Brod. Juncker published Lasker-Schüler’s first book of poetry (Styx, 1902), her first prose work (Das Peter Hille-Buch, 1906) and, in 1907 the third and last of their publications together – The Nights of Tino of Baghdad.

A war survivor on a quiet, tree-lined street.


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Katherinenstraße

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In 1909-11, Else Lasker-Schüler lived here with husband Herwarth Walden in a building that has since been destroyed. As a plaque on its facade recalls, in 1910 Walden established one of the most important avant-garde publications of the early 20th century here. Lasker-Schüler not only provided articles to this new venture but its name as well – Der Sturm. It featured artists and writers of uncompromising intensity and subjectivity working in an emerging style that Walden christened in a 1911 article for the journal: ‘Expressionism’. Later Walden would open a gallery, an art school and something akin to a salon, all under the name Der Sturm.

The site is now occupied by a long, low building of functional construction that houses a luxury car dealership. One great thing about Berlin is that its streets are largely devoid of Maseratis and the other crass tokens of performative douchery. But for how much longer?


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Jewish Cemetery, Weißensee

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Else Lasker-Schüler’s beloved friend Senna Hoy was interned by Russian imperial forces before the First World War; despite her perpetually miserable finances she scraped the money together to visit him in Moscow in 1913. He died there in 1914 and his body was brought to the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, in Berlin’s north-eastern reaches. This cemetery would also be the resting place of the writer’s son Paul Lasker-Schüler (1899-1927) and, less than a year later, her first husband Berthold Lasker (1860-1928).

The burial ground, subject of a 2011 feature-length documentary, is Europe’s largest surviving Jewish cemetery. Last year it was recognised by the UN as a site of outstanding biodiversity, and a long-running campaign is seeking to have it included on the UNESCO World Heritage register. Some parts are relatively intact, others left wild; when a tree falls and topples and smashes headstones, they stay toppled and smashed. Unsure if I am stepping on what had once been paths, stung by nettles, I abandon my search for the graves of Paul and Senna Hoy. Anyway, it seems perverse to battle with this profusion of life just to momentarily reveal the markers of death. ‘Schlafe gut!’ says one headstone ‘sleep well!’ I leave them to it.


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Hotel Sachsenhof

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The second plaque of this tour records Lasker-Schüler’s extensive residency of the Hotel Sachsenhof. However her association with this site was of even longer duration than the plaque suggests; she first occupied a room here in July 1918 when it was called the Hotel Koschel, meaning that she witnessed more or less the entire Weimar Republic from this busy street in Schöneberg. Oskar Kokoschka was another guest, and the hotel features in Emil and the Detectives.

The building not only survived the war impressively unscathed but continues to operate as a hotel, now painted in recent-divorcée-lipstick pink. Two doors down is the ‘Magnus Apotheke’, a pharmacy celebrating Lasker-Schüler’s friend Magnus Hirschfeld in the heart of Berlin’s main gaybourhood. Its window is full of protein powders.


Deutsches Theater

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Although originally published in 1909, it took a decade (and the more sympathetic cultural environment of the Weimar Republic) for Lasker-Schüler’s major dramatic work, Die Wupper, to be staged. The venue for the 1919 production was the prestigious Deutsches Theater, founded in 1850. This was the establishment temple of German dramatic arts, but Wilhelm II famously refused to return to the theatre after it staged Gerhart Hauptmann’s Naturalist drama The Weavers in 1894, an affront to the Kaiser’s reactionary tastes.

It took a while to get here as there was a marijuana protest marching down Unter den Linden. And they were s o s l o w. Once I got to the deserted theatre and started snapping a friendly man cycling up to the front door asked if he should keep his bike out of frame, but I felt it added a humanising touch.


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Paul Cassirer

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In 1919, Lasker-Schüler’s works to that point were reissued by Paul Cassirer, who ran a publishing concern across the road from his primary business – an art dealership which was crucial in introducing modernism to Berlin. The new editions (including the version of The Nights of Tino of Baghdad on which we based our translation) all featured artwork by the author herself. Cassirer was one of the targets of a bitter reckoning with her various publishers that Lasker-Schüler issued in 1925. The following year he committed suicide (the events are unrelated; Cassirer was engaged in a bitter divorce with Tilla Durieux – who we caught throwing shade at Else back in the Café des Westens – and shot himself in his lawyer’s office).

Viktoriastrasse, the street from which Paul Cassirer operated, was wiped from the map in the Second World War. Where his publishing house once stood, traffic now sluices into the tunnel under the Tiergarten in a tableau of unsurpassable banality. If you wished to mark this important site with a plaque you’d have to bolt it to the mast of a street sign mounted on a traffic island. And who’s going to see it?


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Jussuf Abbo’s studio

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Another target of Lasker-Schüler’s ire was Alfred Flechtheim, also an important art dealer and publisher. He operated a gallery on the Landwehr Canal, in a building that was also the venue for the first international Dada ‘trade fair’, in 1920. In her essay she mentions a little footbridge (memorably photographed by Marianne Breslauer) that stood before Flechtheim’s gallery, expressing the wish that it would collapse from the force of her indignation. The bridge led to a site on the opposite bank where Herwarth Walden once operated an offshoot of his Der Sturm gallery, where the Futurists exhibited in 1912. So Lasker-Schüler was more than likely familiar with the location when – around 1920 – she met Palestinian-Jewish artist Jussuf Abbo, who had a studio in the building in which he had erected a Bedouin tent. At a particularly low point, Lasker-Schüler moved in with Abbo to care for her gravely ill son Paul (pictured), who died here in 1927.

The site of Abbo’s studio is now occupied by a centre-left think tank. A plaque was recently unveiled on the building commemorating the artist with a quote from Lasker-Schüler (‘Artfully formed and carefully shrouded, Jussuf Abbu’s stone creations live pious lives’), from a poem written in 1923, the same year the artist depicted the writer in a lithograph. Jussuf Abbo was forced to leave Berlin in 1935, and died in London in 1953. It was actually the war rather than Lasker-Schüler’s rage that took out the bridge, but a replacement now adorns this picturesque bend in the canal. With willows weeping elegantly into the canal, this could be one of the most delightful corners of Berlin. But it’s not. Traffic once roared along the bank of necessity, when it was a key West Berlin thoroughfare. It now roars through here because urban planning authorities are evidently unaware that the Wall has been gone for thirty years. And remarkably, considering Berlin’s current development boom which has consumed just about every other city-centre vacant plot, the site of Flechtheim’s gallery and the Dada fair remains unfilled. It now serves as a depot for – how to describe these vehicles? They’re like canopied trucks with a beer barrel at one end, propelled by groups – bucks’ parties, in the main – who pedal through the city centre while drinking beer. From the sublime to the rebarbative.


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Theater am Nollendorfplatz

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In 1913, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz – a venue that hosted drama, concerts, and other attractions – became the first ever arthouse cinema, showing Hanns Heinz Ewers’ The Student of Prague which is considered the first auteur film. It also became a key location for the Weimar performance tradition under Erwin Piscator’s direction. Lasker-Schüler was a film fan, and a frequent patron of the venue which was just around the corner from the Hotel Sachsenhof. In 1930 she attended the premiere of All Quiet on the Western Front here, which ended in a riot started by Nazis affronted by the film’s pacifist message. Lasker-Schüler herself was injured by thugs who targeted anyone they suspected of being Jewish. After receiving the prestigious Kleist-Preis in late 1932, she gave her last Berlin reading in the theatre, just two months before the Nazis seized power. At least one other public assault followed before Else Lasker-Schüler left Berlin in April 1933, never to return.

The theatre survived the war and has had various functions since, including concert venue and porno theatre (see here). For Pride Week it was temporarily tricked out as another previous incarnation, the nightclub Metropol.


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Else-Lasker-Schüler-Straße

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After living in extremely precarious conditions in Zurich, Else Lasker-Schüler was on a trip to Palestine in 1939 when the war broke out, and she was refused re-entry to Switzerland. She settled in Jerusalem where she died in 1945. In 1998 a section of Motszstrasse, where she had lived throughout the Weimar Republic, was named for her.

The street is made up entirely of post-war buildings, and gentrification has made itself felt here, in the high-spec apartment block that has just gone up at one end of the street, and the gay sex shop which has closed down at the other. Sic transit glory hole.


 

available now

Else Lasker-Schüler   The Nights of Tino of Baghdad  Translated by James J. Conway Design by Svenja Prigge 29 July 2019 68 pages, PDF only ISBN: 978-3-947325-05-4 More information  here .

Else Lasker-Schüler
The Nights of Tino of Baghdad
Translated by James J. Conway
Design by Svenja Prigge
29 July 2019
68 pages, PDF only
ISBN: 978-3-947325-05-4
More information here.

Who was Senna Hoy?

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Our translation of Else Lasker-Schüler’s The Nights of Tino of Baghdad is prefixed with the words: ‘This book I give to my beloved playmate, Sascha (Senna Hoy)’. At least, this is the dedication in the 1919 second edition that formed the basis for our translation; the first edition from 1907 was dedicated to the author’s mother.

So who was Sascha, a.k.a. Senna Hoy? Behind these names was a man born in 1882 with the far less exotic handle of Johannes Holzmann. But it was as ‘Senna Hoy’ – a phonetic reversal of his first name bestowed by Lasker-Schüler herself – that the German-Jewish bohemian anarchist writer found a measure of fame, or at least infamy. The extraordinary image above appears to be the only photograph of him that has survived, but it offers a vivid sense of a man whose zeal, magnetism and rebellious spirit made a great impression on his contemporaries. It remains a mystery why no one has yet undertaken a biography of this enormously compelling character.

Senna Hoy was a member of the ‘Neue Gemeinschaft’, or New Community, which greeted the dawn of the 20th century with grand plans for society from their base in Schlachtensee, a lakeside district then south-west of Berlin’s city limits. It was here that Else Lasker-Schüler made numerous vital contacts as she embarked on a new life, having recently separated from her first husband, Berthold Lasker. She was particularly drawn to the handsome young Holzmann in a group that also included the reform-minded artist Fidus (born Hugo Höppener), the philosopher Martin Buber, radical activitist Erich Mühsam, anarchist pacifist Gustav Landauer, writer and part-time vagrant Peter Hille, as well Georg Levin, who would become Lasker-Schüler’s second husband and a vital catalyst for early modernism in Germany under the name Herwarth Walden – also an invention of his wife.

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In 1902 Senna Hoy became associated with the journal Kampf (or Kampf!), which began as a supplement to the Berlin newspaper, the Montags-Post. In 1904-05 it was a freestanding publication under Senna Hoy’s editorship and featured numerous contributions under his own hand and from his Neue Gemeinschaft colleagues, as well as Hanns Heinz Ewers, Paul Scheerbart and sado-maso cabarettiste Dolorosa. Senna Hoy was never shy of controversy, offering vocal support to workers, anarchists and homosexuals. He was one of the very first of numerous Western intellectuals to take inspiration from revolutionary Russia, eagerly following the 1905 upheavals in his journal. Apart from Kampf, Senna Hoy’s major literary work was an idiosyncratic 1904 novella entitled Golden Kätie, in which he makes direct reference to Lasker-Schüler and her alter ego of Tino.

Just about every second edition of Kampf was banned and in 1905 Senna Hoy left Germany, fearing arrest. He ended up in Warsaw and joined an anarchist gang who robbed the rich to fund their struggle. He was arrested by Russian imperial forces; the loyal Lasker-Schüler, who could barely keep herself in coffee, scraped together the money to visit him in Russia and desperately tried to gain attention for his plight. She referred to him as ‘Sascha, Prince of Moscow’, but it was not a palace that he inhabited there, but an asylum.

Efforts to free him were in vain. Having basically lived out the entire 20th century before World War One even started, Senna Hoy died of tuberculosis in 1914, aged just 31. He is buried in the Wiessensee cemetery in Berlin – a few metres from where Else Lasker-Schüler’s son Paul would be buried in 1927. Might the two young men have had a closer connection than previously assumed? Read the Afterword to our translation of The Nights of Tino of Baghdad and find out …

A 1914 edition of socialist journal  Die Aktion  dedicated to Senna Hoy, shortly after his death.

A 1914 edition of socialist journal Die Aktion dedicated to Senna Hoy, shortly after his death.

Where is Rixdorf?

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It’s an understandable question that arises whenever we venture forth with our books: where does the name Rixdorf Editions come from?

Rixdorf is and was an actual place, although its contours are not always easy to define, with the area to which the name is attached growing and shrinking over time. Its Medieval origins pre-date even the city of Berlin into which it was later incorporated, and it has cycled through the stages of chivalric outpost, village, district, city and back to village again. And its history is interwoven with successive strands of migration that continue to the present day, a tale of Bohemians and bohemians, riotous taverns and shisha bars, imperial censure and tabloid hysteria.

Bethlehemskirche, Richardplatz

Bethlehemskirche, Richardplatz

Our story begins about 800 years ago with the Knights Templar, who settled in – and gave their name to – Tempelhof. Later this would be very much a part of (southern) Berlin, with an enormous parade ground that was turned into an airport and now serves as a park. But at the time Tempelhof was a modest elevation above a largely unpopulated plain. It was about this point that the knights of Tempelhof established an outpost to the east. And presumably one of their number was named Richard, giving his name to ‘Richardsdorp’, as the first recorded mention has it in 1360 (‘dorp’ being an old Germanic designation for ‘village’, which survives in Dutch and Afrikaans) on the site of the present-day square, Richardplatz. Over time the village’s name contracted to ‘Rixdorf’ and at some point it was taken over by the rival order of St John, and a church, the Bethlehemskirche, was established. Around this time the village came under the control of the twin towns of Berlin and Cölln to the north, but it was some distance away from even this modest hub and kept largely to itself.

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The village fared poorly in the Thirty Years War, although it did come out the other side with its own blacksmith – a sign of its growing importance. One of the key moments in Rixdorf’s history came in 1737, when Protestants cast out of Bohemia settled there with the permission of Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I. Rixdorf was divided into ‘German’ and ‘Bohemian’ parts, the latter still remembered in locations like Jan-Hus-Weg, Böhmische Strasse and the Comeniusgarten named for 17th-century Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius. The grateful exiles erected a statue of their royal benefactor which still stands on Kirchgasse.

In the mid-19th century Rixdorf was devastated by fire and partly rebuilt. A horse-drawn omnibus connected the village with Berlin (which had long since devoured its twin, Cölln), and the rapidly expanding metropolis drew ever closer. The name Rixdorf was now applied to the neighbourhood north of the original village as well, which hosted a number of beer gardens and the huge Neue Welt amusement park which drew pleasure-seekers from all over the greater Berlin area. In 1874 German and Bohemian Rixdorf joined to form one community, known as ‘the largest village in Prussia’, but on the eve of the 20th century Rixdorf became a city in its own right.

Greater Berlin in 1900, showing Rixdorf in the south-east

Greater Berlin in 1900, showing Rixdorf in the south-east

Close up of Rixdorf in 1900

Close up of Rixdorf in 1900

As the new century dawned, Rixdorf had a rapidly growing proletarian population, and was fast developing a reputation. Music halls and other pleasure spots sprang up in this relatively out-of-the-way location, bringing thousands of revellers, along with prostitution, public drunkenness and (gasp) close dancing. A popular song of the time, ‘In Rixdorf is Musike’, hymned the pleasures of a night out on the lash in this louche, lively neighbourhood, sung in broad Berlin dialect. Soon the very name Rixdorf stood for unsavoury and insubordinate elements, and the consternation went right to the top.

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The more conservative city fathers, supported by the prudish Kaiser Wilhelm II, launched a rebranding exercise. With Cölln off the map they figured no one would mind if they adopted (and adapted) the name. And so in 1912 Neukölln was summoned into being by imperial decree (if you’re familiar with London and have ever wondered why Clapham Junction station isn’t actually in Clapham – it was the same problem; Battersea, where the station is in fact located, had become tainted by the area’s seamy reputation). Along with this renaming came a ban on close dancing. Neukölln had over a quarter of a million inhabitants but in 1920 it surrendered its short-lived city status to be officially absorbed into Berlin as a borough that also included neighbouring Britz, Buckow und Rudow.

Richardplatz

Richardplatz

Neukölln was always a working class district, and in 1933 the decidedly anti-Nazi council was forced to stand down, but throughout the Third Reich the district harboured a number of undercover resistance cells. In 1940, the last Czech-speaking inhabitants of Bohemian Rixdorf died. In contrast to central Berlin, much of Neukölln’s building stock survived the Second World War, but in the Cold War it found itself hard up against the Berlin Wall on its entire eastern and southern periphery. Immigration continued, and this corner of the American sector in West Berlin became a home to Gastarbeiter (guest workers), from Turkey in particular.

[Aside: a radical art collective emerged in the 1960s calling themselves Werkstatt Rixdorfer Drucke, although they were actually based in Kreuzberg; they combined interventions, poetry and highly innovative letterpress images and their work is well worth seeking out.]

Villa Rixdorf, Richardplatz

Villa Rixdorf, Richardplatz

After reunification, Neukölln was afflicted by high levels of unemployment and race-baiting populists pointed to the large number of foreign-born residents and claimed that it was a ‘no-go area’ — a recurring right-wing trope. But it never was, and the district’s crime rates always corresponded largely with those for Berlin as a whole. The northern part of Neukölln increasingly became home to Arab immigrants, particularly in 2015 when Syrian refugees were admitted in large numbers. Simultaneously, this area has followed a cycle of gentrification familiar from formerly down-at-heel parts of East London and Brooklyn.

Rixdorf Christmas market

Rixdorf Christmas market

Today the name Rixdorf refers – unofficially – to more or less the area of the old village(s), which still retains much of its historic flavour in the midst of the city, where you can still see the Bethlehemkirche, the blacksmith’s and a number of original houses. The borders of Rixdorf are difficult to define but are generally held to encompass the few streets surrounding Richardplatz, which each year hosts an extremely popular Christmas market, as well as a traditional Czech hay bale rolling competition in summer.

So that’s Rixdorf, but why Rixdorf Editions? Well, our office is located in Neukölln (in Germany’s most densely populated square kilometre, no less), a few streets from the historic village. But when it came to choosing our name we were particularly drawn to the period of iniquity, insurrection and illicit pleasures that so discomfited the authorities, especially as that period also produced the works that we are now bringing to a new readership. Once abandoned in disgust, the name ‘Rixdorf’ is one our books wear with pride.

Comeniusgarten, once the site of a perilously overcrowded apartment block which housed numerous left-wing residents; in 1931 the SA attempted to take over the tavern that stood at the front of the building but were driven out by the locals. The building was demolished in 1971.

Comeniusgarten, once the site of a perilously overcrowded apartment block which housed numerous left-wing residents; in 1931 the SA attempted to take over the tavern that stood at the front of the building but were driven out by the locals. The building was demolished in 1971.

Beauty in the metropolis

Ephraim-Palais

Ephraim-Palais

Berlin-born architect and theorist August Endell issued his most important text, Die Schönheit der großen Stadt, in 1908. And this year brings not only our English translation of this title (The Beauty of the Metropolis) but also an exhibition currently running in Endell's hometown that takes the name and content of the book as inspiration. Where the text drew numerous examples from the German capital in its celebration of the urban environment and the aesthetic riches it has to offer, the exhibition focuses on canvases capturing views of a city that has had numerous qualities ascribed to it, but rarely ‘beauty’.

On a bright, cold day with Siberian winds strafing the Spree (this was a while ago, you will note) I made my way from Jannowitzbrücke station to the centrally located Ephraim-Palais, a bijou Rococo palace originally built for the jeweller to the court of Frederick the Great, although deconstructed and reconstructed in the 20th century. The close identification of location and subject matter was confirmed by two works that offered views of precisely the route I had just taken, from differing historical perspectives.

The exhibition takes us from the Biedermeier era to the early 2000s, or as the subtitle has it ‘Berlin images from Gaertner to Fetting’, i.e., from someone you've probably never heard of to someone else you've probably never heard of. This is something of a misdirect, as the show actually offers work by the far more recognisable likes of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Jeanne Mammen. Wisely the pieces are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, but the selection sticks almost exclusively to oil on canvas, with no etchings, drawings or other works on paper. And no photography, although as I note in the afterword to The Beauty of the Metropolis, it is arguably in this medium that Endell’s vision of a citizenry in full aesthetic possession of its urban surroundings is most compellingly realised in the present day.

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Extracts from The Beauty of the Metropolis adorn the walls of the show, and both the work and its creator are at home in these surroundings. It wasn’t his building or design works that first brought Endell to public attention, but a rousing piece of art criticism published in 1896, entitled Um die Schönheit (On Beauty). It addressed a major exhibition in Munich that year, in which doughty offerings by seasoned academicians appeared alongside explosive new experiments in form and theme. The text announced Endell as a new and original thinker, one who proposed a radical submission to aesthetic input:

But those who learn to give in to their visual impressions completely, without associations, without secondary objects of any kind, those who just once feel the emotional impact of forms and colours, will find them to be an inexhaustible source of extraordinary, unimagined pleasure. And the moment when the understanding for these things first awakens should be an event in every person’s life. It is like an intoxication, a madness that comes over us. The joy threatens to destroy us, the profusion of beauty to suffocate us. Those who have not experienced this will never understand visual art.

These ideas in turn informed his perception of the city a dozen years later when he wrote The Beauty of the Metropolis. Certainly the variety of experience of which Endell speaks in the book is reflected in this selection. Sharing the same feverish, pre-World War One period with Endell’s text is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s well-known Nollendorfplatz, which depicts a relatively new district as the meeting place of almost irreconcilable axes of motion, while Ludwig Meidner’s desolate images of building sites show the city simultaneously claiming yet more of its sandy environs for itself.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

There are, it has to be said, a few works evidently selected for their affinity with the theme at hand, with artistic excellence a secondary consideration. Conversely, other artists are exposed in a new light. Jeanne Mammen's images of demi-mondaine city-dwellers may be familiar, but here she is represented by an unpeopled image of a church (thought to have been executed in the late 1930s), rendering the scene in a way that didn't at all conform to the Nazis' approved styles. And while I was dimly aware of the work of Impressionist Lesser Ury from reproductions, here they appeared as a revelation, one that brought Endell’s words vividly to mind. The most thrilling and evocative was a nocturnal study of the Landwehr Canal, and Endell’s depiction of this waterway in The Beauty of the Metropolis could be a transcription of Ury’s image (which unfortunately doesn't reproduce well):

The thick treetops prevent light from making its full impact. The quiet buildings rise darkly behind the shadowy clouds of the treetops. The gas lanterns seem like points of light attracting cabs and automobiles; a fine, blinking web of stars spreads out above this dark mass. The smooth, turgid water is completely dark, and this silent, spectral mirror below reflects the gentle life of the night above, shimmering at the passer-by.

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Night takes on a far more sinister iridescence a century later in Wolfgang Peuker’s imagining of the (old) Chancellery, a scene populated solely by outsized martial statuary at the entrance of Hitler's intimidating lair. This is a rare retrospective view, with most artists sticking to their own eras, as seen in Louise Rösler’s deceptively festive Marsden Hartley-esque study of Kurfürstendamm on the eve of the Second World War, and Karl Hofer’s desaturated view of the bombed-out city after its conclusion. Konrad Knebel’s Straße mit Mauer (1977) is one of numerous works to depict the divided city in the Cold War, but while it depicts the Berlin Wall itself, its perspective magnifies the adjacent apartment blocks with the odd effect of reducing the barrier to the status of an almost incidental plane. Meanwhile Stefanie Bürkle’s Weinhaus Huth (1995) brings us forward to the redevelopment of the post-reunification era. Here skeletal concrete behemoths dwarf a tenacious remnant of old Berlin in the form of the eponymous building, almost the last original structure left standing on or around Potsdamer Platz following wartime bombing and the construction of the Wall.

Perhaps the most surprising work here is Oskar Kokoschka's Berlin, 13. August 1966. For one, I had no idea Kokoschka was still active in 1966 (and was further surprised to discover he lived until 1980). Not just that, the work was created at the behest of Axel Springer, and depicts the view over East Berlin from the top of the publisher's new high-rise, built right on the course of the Wall. Springer’s conservative, staunchly pro-American tabloid provocations would soon make him one of the bogeymen of West Germany’s ’68 generation, so it is all the more unusual to find him here in association with a survivor of the Weimar avant-garde.

For anyone familiar with Berlin, it is difficult to avoid trying to identify locations and individual features, but here – again – Endell is way ahead of us. It is not the metropolis that we should be seeking, but the beauty within it:

But only in our present era have we slowly begun to realise that form and colour do not derive their beauty from the object, that there may indeed be a beauty that is not even perceived in the object when we observe it for purely practical purposes, and that it is only artistic vision that confers upon the object the beauty that resides in form and colour, independent of all material relationships.

Die Schönheit der großen Stadt continues at Museum Ephraim-Palais, Berlin, until 26 August 2018

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