An excerpt from a forthcoming book on Kurt Tucholsky’s time in Berlin…
There’s no sky above this city. Whether the sun shines at all is questionable; it seems like you only ever see the sun when you’re crossing the main boulevard and it’s shining right in your eyes. People complain about the weather, but there really isn’t any weather in Berlin.
A Berliner doesn’t have time. A Berliner is usually from Posen or Breslau, and he doesn’t have time. He always has plans, and he makes phone calls and appointments, and he rushes to his appointments—usually running late—and he has such an awful lot to do.
People don’t work in this city—they slave away. (Even entertainment is work here; they spit in their hands at the start and expect to get something in return.) A Berliner isn’t really diligent, just constantly agitated. He has completely forgotten, unfortunately, why we’re here on this earth. Even in heaven—assuming a Berliner could make it to heaven—he would “have things to do” at four.
Sometimes you see Berlin women sitting on the balconies that are stuck to the stone boxes they call their homes. The Berlin women sit there, taking breaks. They might be between two phone conversations, or waiting for appointments, or they may have arrived early— which rarely happens—so they sit there and wait. Then suddenly they spring, like arrows launched from bowstrings, to the telephone or to their next appointments.
This city is forever hauling its cart around the same track, brow furrowed—sit venia verbo! It doesn’t notice it’s going in circles and getting nowhere.
A Berliner can’t have a normal conversation. Sometimes you see two people talking, but they’re not having a conversation, they’re just reciting their own monologues to each other. Berliners can’t listen either. They just wait anxiously until the other person stops talking and then jump right in. That’s how Berliners converse.
A Berlin woman is practical and clear. Even in love. She doesn’t have any secrets. She’s a good, sweet girl, a type much celebrated by gallant town poets.
A Berliner doesn’t get much out of life unless he’s earning money. He doesn’t cultivate social skills, because he can’t be bothered; he gets together with friends, gossips a little, and gets sleepy at ten o’clock.
A Berliner is a slave to the machine—passenger, theatergoer, restaurant patron, and employee. Not quite human. The machine picks and pulls at his nerve endings, and a Berliner submits without reservation. He does everything the city requires—except maybe live.
A Berliner plows through each day, and when it’s done, it was all labor and sorrow, nothing more. A Berliner can live in this city for seventy years without the slightest benefit to his immortal soul.
Berlin was once a well-functioning machine. A finely crafted doll that could move its arms and legs when someone stuck a dime in it. Today, the doll barely moves; no matter how many dimes people throw in, the machine has rusted and grown sluggish.
Because there really are a lot of strikes in Berlin. Why? No one really knows. Some people are against it, and some people are for it. Why? No one really knows.
Berliners treat each other like hostile strangers. If they haven’t been introduced somewhere, they snarl at each other in the streets and on the trolleys, because they don’t have much in common. They don’t want to know anything about anyone else, and they live entirely for themselves.
Berlin combines the disadvantages of an American metropolis with those of small-town Germany. Its advantages are listed in Baedeker’s guidebooks.
During summer vacation each year, a Berliner sees that people actually live in the real world. He tries it for four weeks—unsuccessfully, because he hasn’t learned how to live and doesn’t truly know what it means—and when he arrives back at the Anhalter train station, he winks at the trolley line and is glad to be back in Berlin. Life is forgotten again.
The days rattle by, and the daily grind winds on; if we toil like this for a hundred years, we in Berlin, what then for us? Will we have accomplished anything? Achieved anything? Something for our lives, for our real-life actual, inner lives? Will we have grown, opened ourselves up, blossomed? Will we have lived?
When the editor had read up to this point, he wrinkled his brow, smiled a friendly smile, and said benevolently to the young man standing before him, “Well, now, it’s really not as bad as all that! You’re forgetting that Berlin also has its merits and accomplishments! Take it easy, young man! You’re still young!”
And because the young man was a rather polite young man, generally loved and respected for his modest behavior, possessing somewhat peculiar dance-class manners, which he passed off as etiquette among close friends, he took off his hat (which he’d kept on in the room), gazed, deeply moved, at the ceiling, and cried with pious conviction, “God bless this city!”
This story was originally written by Tucholsky in 1919 for the Berliner Tageblatt (under the pseudonym Ignaz Wrobel), and is the opening story for a new collection of the writer’s Berlin works. Also called “Berlin, Berlin”, the book is a satirical selection from the man with the acid pen and the perfect pitch for hypocrisy, who was as much the voice of 1920s Berlin as Georg Grosz was its face. It shines a light on the Weimar Republic and the post-World War I struggle, which foreshadowed the Third Reich. This book collects Kurt Tucholsky’s news stories and poems about his home town Berlin, never published in America before. With a foreword by New York author Anne Nelson and an introduction by Ian King, the chair of the Kurt-Tucholsky-Society. Available for purchase from Amazon.com