Franz Hessel: An Apolitical Flâneur

Paul Sullivan on a classic of Weimar walking literature…

1929 was a consequential year for Germany—and not just because Rudolf Hell received a patent for an early prototype of the fax machine. For one, it was the year of the Wall Street Crash; as the U.S. recalled its loans, Germany became one of the crash’s biggest victims, plunging head-first into the Great Depression. Thousands of businesses declared bankruptcy and millions found themselves joining the unemployment lines.

As anyone who has seen the TV series “Babylon Berlin”—set in 1929—knows, trouble had also been brewing in the capital for much of that year. In May, illegal demonstrations held by the German Communist Party resulted in what became known as Blutmai (Bloody May) with over thirty people killed and more than two hundred injured. A few weeks later, the Young Plan for settling Germany’s World War One reparations was agreed; this became yet another source of public resentment against the wavering Weimar Republic, playing—like much of the era’s political turbulence—into the hands of the National Socialists.

Police dismantling a barricade during the Blutmai demonstrations of 1929. Bundesarchiv Bild 102-07707

Barely a trace of these events are to be found in Franz Hessel’s cult book Spazieren in Berlin (“Walking in Berlin”), which was also released in 1929—a great year for German publishing, incidentally, what with Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Tucholsky’s Deutschland, Deutschland über alles and Piscator’s Das politische Theater joining the usual (for the time) stream of articles, feuilletons and reviews emerging from Berlin by critics and intellectuals such as Joseph Roth, Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin.

Indeed, Hessel’s book was preceded by a glowing review by Benjamin entitled “The Return of the Flâneur.Benjamin was by then already good friends with Hessel, who at that point was working as an editor at Rowohlt Verlag, publisher of Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Origin of the German Trauerspiel (both 1928). It was Hessel who introduced Benjamin to Paris and the pair worked together on a translation of some of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Benjamin, in turn, connected Hessel with the likes of Ernst Bloch, Ernst Schoen and Kracauer. In his review, Benjamin claimed Hessel’s book had done more than any other to re-introduce Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur into Weimar society; he would later draw on Hessel’s approach for his own (posthumously published) works, Berlin Childhood around 1900 and The Arcades Project

Hessel was born, like Benjamin, into a wealthy Jewish family, in Stettin (now Polish Szcezsin). The Hessel family were well-assimilated—young Franz was baptised a Protestant—and they moved to Berlin in 1888 when Hessel was still a young child. He graduated from high school in 1899 and wound up studying law and then Oriental Studies in Munich, finishing neither. When his father died in 1900, he inherited a considerable amount of money and proceeded to write poetry, novellas and novels; his Der Kramladen des Glücks (“The Junk Shop of Happiness,” 1913) fictionalised the bohemian lifestyle he had established (and partly paid for) with friends such as Karl Wolfskehl and Stefan George (both poets) and cultural powerhouse Franziska zu Reventlow. A photo from around 1910 shows Hessel looking very much the bourgeois bohème: well-dressed and handsome, a cigarette dangling with Camus-esque casualness from sensous lips.

Portrait of Franz Hessel around 1910, via Wikipedia

In 1906, he embarked on a debut trip to Paris where he hung out at the Café du Dôme and met artistic celebrities such as Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso as well as the art dealer Henri-Pierre Roché. It was with Roché that he would later enter into a ménage-a-trois with a young painter named Helen Grund—a love triangle that formed the basis of Roché’s novel Jules et Jim (1953) and was later turned into an eponymous film by François Truffaut in which Jules, based on Hessel, was played by Oskar Werner. When Hessel met Grund, a Berliner who had studied under Käthe Kollwitz, he allegedly told her: “You have eyes like middle-aged Goethe.” They married in 1913.

Their first son, Ulrich, was born in 1914; their second, Stéphane, three years later. By this time they had moved back to Berlin but were also spending time in Switzerland and eventually moved to Munich. In the early 1920s the relationship was breaking down and the hyperinflation at the start of that decade meant that Hessel’s funds, like those of Benjamin and many others, were quickly becoming worthless. Hessel returned to Berlin in 1927 and took on work with Rowohlt as a reader, editor and translator. 

Alongside overseeing the publication (and part of the translation) of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Hessel translated the Memoirs of Casanova as well as works by Stendhal, Baudelaire, Julien Green, and others. He found time to edit a literary journal (Vers und Prosa), write reviews of books by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, André Gide and John Dos Passos, and churn out portraits of celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Elisabeth Bergner. He also published a short novel titled Heimliches Berlin (“Secret Berlin”) two years before Spazieren in Berlin.

Communist Party (KPD) leader Ernst Thälmann (person in foreground with raised clenched fist) and members of the Roter Frontkämpferbund (RFB) marching through Berlin-Wedding, 1927. Image via Wikipedia

Benjamin’s review of the latter book foamed with high praise: “A thoroughly epic book …  a memorization while strolling, a book for which memory was not the source but the muse… His steps create an astonishing resonance in the asphalt he walks over… The city as a mnemonic device for the lonely walker, it evokes more than his childhood and youth, more than his own history.” It’s difficult to argue with the thrust of this analysis: Spazieren in Berlin is not merely an enjoyable and erudite romp through the capital but an astute and ambitious journey through layers of personal and local history. 

Glancing over the chapter headings—“The North,” “The Southwest,” “Kreuzberg,” “Friedrichstadt,” “Hasenheide”—you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re about to read a conventional guidebook. But other sections offer intriguing titles such as “I Learn A Thing Or Two,” “Lust For Life,” “A Bit Of Work,” “The Animal Palaces,” and the opening chapter (“The Suspect”) sets a decidedly unusual tone as the author declares his love of strolling—and then complains about the suspicious nature of the locals as he walks around gazing at “firm, big city girls,” staring intently into the windows of general stores and loitering in tenement courtyards. 

Postcard featuring Schöneberg’s Nollendorfplatz in 1929

And then we’re away, hanging onto Herr Hessel’s coat-tails as he rushes breathlessly around, visiting factories, offices and theatres, ducking into restaurants and bookshops, and detouring into markets and fashion boutiques all over the city. We get sketches of locals along the way—“the hunched gent there at the circular saw, who grimaces imperiously each time the blade tears into the wood under his hand…”; a woman “with an enormous hairstyle from the previous century”; a man on the street hawking photos of nude women. We also get oodles of fascinating detail, often lyrically composed, that would never make it into a conventional guidebook: construction sites where “cement sacks shimmer springtime green on the autumn street,” lingering depictions of mannequins in shop windows, an esoteric exhibition about whales located inside a barge on the Spree. 

Part of the thrill for contemporary readers is recognising places that still exist today. These include the Landwehr Canal, Tempelhof airport, Viktoriapark, the Invalidenstrasse war cemetery, Ullstein House… But we also experience that peculiar sense of nostalgia known as anemoia for all the long-gone places that we have never known: the beer and coffee gardens in Hasenheide, Cafe Vaterland, Tiergarten’s Siegesallee, Monbijou Palace, Luna Park, The Scala and The Eldorado, Schinkel’s Bauakademie, the Hallesches Tor gasworks, the Bolle dairy, Kreuzberg’s Tivoli…

As Benjamin’s review emphasises, Berlin serves as a juicy Proustian madeleine for Hessel—a source of anamnesis, a Greek word that means to recall the past—and allows him to excavate his own childhood as he leads us through the city, remembering “palatial staircases where one climbed steeply to a mezzanine level with imitation marble and ostentatious stained glass” as well as “sweet dawns and dusks over the (Landwehr) canal’s spring and autumn foliage.” 

Not content using Berlin as a personal aide-mémoire, Hessel dives in deeper still. In “I Learn A Thing Or Two,” after being driven around by a local architect to explore future building plans for Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz and parts of West Berlin, we are suddenly—with no explanation or notice—inside the home of a well-heeled elderly lady, examining and admiring her keepsakes and curiosities (dolls, plates, agate tobacco tins, grand pianos, candlesticks) that transport us to a time beyond Hessel’s existence. He then browses one of his host’s books, Felix Eberty’s Childhood Memories of an Old Berliner (1878), creating yet another time portal within the past-within-a-past we’re already in.

He also draws on folk tales and historical anecdotes to carry us back farther than his memory can take him—back to the city’s fourteenth-century public baths, for example, to the white and black monks, and to stories like the man who nailed a winning lottery ticket to his front door and was then forced to carry the entire door through the city to claim his prize. He recounts how King Friedrich Wilhelm I, while showing off his new execution gallows to a visiting Peter the Great, indignantly refused the latter’s excitable suggestion to try them out on a random Prussian soldier—or one of his own. 

It’s curious, for a book purportedly about walking, how much Hessel enjoys whizzing around the city in fast cars and on public transport. For the book’s centrepiece, a longer section called “The Tour,” he hops on a tourist bus to take in some main sights (Potsdamer Platz, Gendarmenmarkt, Schlossplatz, Museum Island), supplementing the journey with his own insider insights. His apparently limitless enthusiasm for bridges, sculptures and architectural ornamentation—arabesques, catyrids, cherubs and atlantids—can become cloying but his disdain for stuffy Wilhelminian-era buildings offers some amusing moments; after huffily refusing to enter the Berliner Dom on the basis that it “offends every religious and humanistic sentiment with its sheer quantity, materiality and poorly applied erudition,” he expresses distracted, child-like delight at the appearance of an ice cream vendor.  

Berliner Dom and Friedrichsbrücke aeound 1900

Hessel’s penchant for all things Parisian and glamorous—from fast cars to lobster lunches—becomes as quickly obvious as his wide-eyed curiosity for the things around him, but we do also get tantalising glimpses of the city’s edgier side. Hessel takes us briefly inside The Eldorado, ballrooms with table telephones and all-night restaurants, and doesn’t shy away from describing outdoor sex workers purchasing linen undergarments to keep warm. In one disturbing scene, a woman is punched to the ground by a man in public and no-one (including the author) dares or bothers to intervene. And in another, an unemployed youth leads Hessel to an underground dancing area underneath Alexanderplatz and we get a sense of the murky Berlin underworld so brilliantly depicted by Döblin and Ernst Hafner.

But there are some curious omissions. For someone supposedly in thrall to modernity, it’s striking how Hessel gives repeated space to painters like Adolph von Menzel, Max Liebermann and Lesser Ury but, despite mentioning artist hangout Cafe Josty, ignores the subversive artistic revolutions that turned the city’s cultural life upside down throughout the early twentieth century: readers will search in vain for  Grosz, Dix, Brecht, Höch, Lang, Berber and Boldt, or mentions of Dada, New Objectivity, Epic Theatre or even Expressionism.

Hessel’s distaste for real poverty is also keenly evident. For all his attempts to be open-minded and visually ‘democratic,’ he cannot help but bring some of his aristocratic baggage along with him. While he praises Neukölln’s new “horseshoe estate”—part of the social housing movement led by urban planning chief Martin Wagner—as “the most important thing happening to Berlin now,” he shows snobby disdain for the shadowy tenements and crowded courtyards in the same district, as well as other working-class areas such as Wedding and Tegel. “There’s really no reason to visit Neukölln for its own sake,” he sniffs. “I’ve always ridden the tram through (it) to get elsewhere.” In Köpenick, he complains about how “you have to walk through the typical tedium of dismal housing blocks… ” Schöneberg makes him “extraordinarily sad.” 

The Berlin police, together with the National Socialist auxiliary police, searched buildings on Grenadierstraße in the Scheunenviertel, 1933. Image via Wikipedia. 

The political issues permeating, if not dominating, the city are barely present, though there are some light traces. National Socialists make a brief appearance during a visit to Schöneberg’s Sportpalast before being shrugged off. The brutal murder of Rosa Luxemburg is treated sympathetically—“They threw the dying body of a noble fighter into the water a few paces from here, a woman who had to atone for her goodness and bravery with her life”—and he recalls a Communist march where “grenades were flying through the air” during the Spartacus uprising, Hessel also notes how Mitte’s Jewish Quarter (the Scheunenviertel) is “about to be wiped from the face of the earth”—by Weimar urban planners rather than Nazis at that point, but he was doubtless aware that the latter were not far behind.

Less forgivable is how he describes, but fails to comment on, the blatantly racist phenomenon of “wild peoples” (Somalis and Tripolitanians) living among the animals at Berlin Zoo as tourist attractions—an oversight that translator Amanda DeMarco is compelled to address in a footnote, later explaining in an interview how the author “just doesn’t draw certain political or social conclusions.” This raises an obvious question about whether the figure of the flâneur could or should be political. Baudelaire, who coined the term in his long poem Les Fleurs du Mal, was a peripatetic dandy who blew hot and cold politically but was anyway writing during a relatively sedate time (Second Empire Paris). Benjamin’s version mixes in the Marxist concept of alienation but also remains passive—his disinterested browser is attracted to the strange and unknown but informed more by the cultural than the moral. 

Franz Hessel, date unknown. Source: Ullstein.

Some have argued that the concept of the flâneur actually predates Baudelaire, harking all the way back to the French revolution. Subsequent activists such as Guy Debord in 1960s Paris certainly demonstrated how the idea can be utilised to create political engagement. By all accounts, Hessel was generally oblivious to politics. In his own words: “To correctly play the flâneur, you can’t have anything too particular in mind,” which certainly suggests a deliberate attempt to remove politics from his worldview, or at least minimise them in an attempt at neutrality. 

There’s clearly something paradoxical about an author writing a book about seeing the city yet failing to report on what was happening right under his nose but Hessel wasn’t alone. Despite many of the era’s finest walker-writers—those already mentioned, as well as Christopher Isherwood, who moved to “sad” Schöneberg in 1929—expressing their (usually left-leaning) political views as they tried to capture the fast-changing climate, others were disappointed with the failed promises of socialism and the Weimar Republic just as much as they detested the racist bombast of the Nazis. Döblin was one such—his Biberkopf was a “man between classes,” and even briefly wore a Swastika on his arm—while Billy Wilder’s Menschen Am Sonntag (“People On Sunday”) follows a group of young people through the summer of 1929 as they flirt, swim and enjoy their young lives in the sunshine with nary a care for what’s happening around them. Not for them the Luxemburg mantra that “the most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening.” 

When the Nazis did come to power in 1933, Hessel was banned from working as an author due to his Jewish background. He continued to work as a translator for Rowohlt, however, right up until 1938, refusing to leave despite exhortations from his friends and family that he was in danger. He finally left for France in 1940, moving with his family to the Côte d’Azur. Shortly afterwards he was arrested and placed in Les Milles camp near Avignon with his eldest son Stéphane, who looked after him. He survived the prison term despite dysentery and an infectious intestinal disease but died shortly afterwards on January 6, 1941—just a few months after Benjamin committed suicide at the French-Spanish border.  

Franz Hessel’s final place of residence in Berlin, Lindauer Straße 8, is commemorated with a plaque. Photo by OTFW via Wikipedia.

His son, Stéphane Hessel joined the French resistance shortly after his father died. He was captured by the Gestapo and deported to the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, where he was tortured by waterboarding. Following a failed escape attempt, he went on to become a French diplomat after the war as well as a world-renowned human rights activist and writer, producing polemics such as “Time for Outrage!” and railing loudly against the dangers of indifference. He was not, as far as we know, a flâneur.

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