Wealth in Berlin came mainly with "self-made men" who were successful during industrialization, says Potsdam historian Hanno Hochmuth.
Crazy Rich Berliners: Berlin’s rich always liked to live in Charlottenburg Photo: dpa
site: Mr. Hochmuth, it is always said that relatively little is known about wealth. How do you approach the subject as a historian?
Hanno Hochmuth: It’s true that historical research has devoted much more attention to the topic of poverty. In the urban history that I do, poverty research has been a firmly established subject for 100 years, while wealth often gets far too little attention. Yet it is precisely in urban history that socio-spatial analysis – in other words, where do the rich live and where do the poor live, and how do the neighborhoods relate to each other – plays an important role.
What do you know about wealth in Berlin, for example, as opposed to Hamburg?
Hamburg has been a rich merchant city since the Middle Ages, since the Hanseatic League. There was a rich bourgeoisie there whose power and influence on the city’s affairs was very much based on their trading success and their economic capital as merchants with worldwide connections. Berlin was also a Hanseatic city in the Middle Ages – and, incidentally, Hamburg’s most important trading partner in the 13th/14th centuries – but it had become so unimportant by the 15th century that the Hanseatic League did not come to Berlin’s aid when the Brandenburg electors, the Hohenzollerns, came here, built the palace and made Berlin their residential city.
43, was born in Prenzlauer Berger and is a historian at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam.
Why would the Hanseatic League have done that? So what was the problem for the merchants and traders when Berlin became a residential city?
The electors curtailed the civil rights of the formerly free trading city of Berlin. Incidentally, the people of Berlin didn’t find that at all funny, and in 1448 they flooded the construction site of the city palace. In the end, however, this so-called Berlin unwillingness was unsuccessful and the citizens of Berlin lost their privileges.
What consequences did this have compared to the history of Hamburg?
This is a crucial fork in the road in the history of both cities. Both were actually trading cities, both had rich and self-confident merchants. But Berlin, from the 15th century on, developed into a residential city with a court and nobility, and later, as the royal Prussian residence, even within the sphere of the great European powers. In Hamburg, the power of the merchant class and the self-confidence of the citizens continued unbroken.
What happened to the Berlin merchant families?
They could no longer develop their power in the same way. You can see that in the city’s coat of arms. It used to be a self-confident Berlin bear. But when the Hohenzollerns came, they put an eagle on the bear, which bores its claws into the bear’s back. The nobility was the eagle that curtailed the rights of the bourgeoisie – the bear. It was not until the 19th century that the history of the two cities converged again, when the age of industrialization in both produced people who came to enormous wealth.
So Berlin’s wealth came about more in the 19th century?
Yes, you could say that. In Hamburg, there are rich bourgeois families, some of which can be traced back to the Middle Ages or early modern times, and they have been passing on their family wealth ever since. You have to imagine it a bit like the Buddenbrooks in Lubeck. This was not the case in Berlin: Those who became rich here in the 19th century were mostly "self-made men.
One very important self-made man made his fortune 300 meters from today’s taz-Haus: Werner von Siemens. His real name was Siemens, but he was later ennobled. He had his first backyard rooms on Schoneberger Strasse, where he worked with electricity and became rich as a result. Later, he expanded his factories in Markgrafenstrasse, even closer to the taz building, and built Siemens into a global company – or rather, his successors did.
Who else was there?
The same goes for August Borsig, founder of the Borsig Works, or Johann Friedrich Ludwig Wohlert, who also became an important railroad builder. At that time, there was also a neighborhood in Berlin that was something like Silicon Valley in San Francisco today, where early industry had really concentrated: It was called "Feuerland. This is the area north of the Oranienburger Tor, east of Chausseestrabe: This is where Borsig, Wohlert and Schwarzkopff had their factories – and also their villas.
"Family networks that have grown over generations were never as important in Berlin as they are in trading cities, for example."
They lived next to their factory?
Yes, this early wealth was flaunted right next to the factory. After all, these were nouveau riche men, not rich heirs, but simple master craftsmen who generally didn’t grow old either, because they had a very unhealthy lifestyle. They took advantage of the freedom of trade and commerce in the 1st half of the 19th century. They built huge business empires on iron foundries and similar factories, which were very much supported by the Prussian state. There were also industrialists in Hamburg, but the trade guilds and offices remained dominant. I would even go so far as to say that in Hamburg, ancestry played a much, much greater role than in Berlin. Berlin has always been a city of newcomers, at least since the 19th century. Family networks that had grown up over generations were never as important here.
Berlin "dynasties" did not emerge from this?
These empires quickly became such large and international stock corporations that they soon had nothing to do with the founding families. But there were also industrial dynasties in Berlin, think of AEG with its founder Emil Rathenau and his son Walther, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, who was shot in 1922 in Grunewalder Koenigsallee. Walther Rathenau, after all, established his influence in the early republic not only with his statesmanlike gestures, his confident manner and his experience, but also with his money and with the fact that this empire was behind him. He was a politician and a big industrialist. People of this ilk certainly left their mark on the city at the turn of the century.
How then did Grunewald become a district of the rich, if the "new rich" lived next to their factories at that time?
Just as the factories moved out of the center over time because they became too big and there was no more room in the city, the owners also moved out. But there were not only these big businessmen, there was also an educated and propertied middle class of second-tier entrepreneurs. And for them it was very important to choose a place of residence that corresponded to their status. They also made a marginal migration.
So where did the middle classes live first?
"But the fact that the West was so popular with the rich bourgeoisie also had a very simple reason: the wind"
In the 18th century, there were the baroque "new building quarters" in Friedrichstadt west of the castle. The reason for this was that people lived here virtually on the way to the other residence cities, Potsdam and Charlottenburg. If you wanted to be close to the king and the nobility, because you needed their favor, it was wise to live in close proximity. Then, in the 19th century, everything was full in Friedrichstadt, and the bourgeoisie moved further west, to the Tiergarten district, where the embassies are today. When that was no longer enough, people went to the "New West" in Charlottenburg, in the direction of Charlottenburg Palace and, above all, to the new Kurfurstendamm, which was built at that time. The fact that the West was so popular with the rich bourgeoisie also had a very simple reason: the wind.
In Berlin and in Central Europe in general, at least before climate change, 70 percent of the wind is from the west, from Atlantic low pressure systems. That’s why, in the 19th century, when all the factories were built, the entrepreneurs who could afford them settled where the air didn’t yet stink, wasn’t yet polluted by industrial fumes. And that was in the West. In other words, the fundamental socio-spatial division of Berlin – into a bourgeois West and a proletarian East – has existed much longer than the division of the city after 1945. The same applies to Paris, by the way, where the West is also richer than the East, and to London with its rich West End and poor East End. In Berlin, this socio-spatial east-west axis was only broken after the fall of the Wall with the gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg: Now there is wealth in the east, too. But that’s only in passing. Back then, it was just nice in the West, it smelled good.
Sunrise at Grunewaldsee Photo: dpa
In the beautiful Grunewald.
Yes. At that time, there were so-called terrain companies, developers who developed the area according to plan and built villa neighborhoods there. These suburban communities, all of which were not yet part of Berlin at the time, specifically attracted the upper middle classes by keeping property taxes extremely low. Nevertheless, there was enough left over for communities like Charlottenburg because the people who lived there were so wealthy. This was how location policy was pursued back then – and the West became rich.
Today, people say that the problem with wealth is that the rich undermine democracy with their money, through lobbying, foundations, museum buildings, and so on. Was that also the case back then?
There was a strong patronage, to which we in Berlin owe many cultural institutions or even church buildings. In the west, you can see this very well, for example in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was not built by the state, but with money from a church building association and, above all, through lavish donations from very wealthy Charlottenburg citizens. In this way, they also tried to keep the favor of the Hohenzollern ruling house and perhaps secure the next state contracts. This amalgamation of willingness to donate, patronage and public commissions was extremely pronounced in the Empire, especially in Charlottenburg. This was the richest city in Prussia at the time! True, there were also proletarian corners, Heinrich Zille lived there and portrayed very simple people. But overall, the city was very prosperous.
That’s why Charlottenburg was against the unified municipality of Greater Berlin?
Exactly. Greater Berlin only became possible in 1920, when all of a sudden the entire Prussian parliament voted on it, which was dominated by Social Democrats and included deputies from areas from Konigsberg to Koblenz. The Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf opposition to the merger was simply wiped away. Those who belonged to the bourgeoisie there were of course aware that if they merged with the poorer, "proletarian" Berlin, they would lose influence – and would also have to give up some of their many nice taxes.