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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.