13. Behind all the decadence was organized crime, and almost all the major gangs of Berlin had the police on their payroll
Many Berliners may well have been having a good time in the 1920s, but there was a darker side to the city during the Weimar period. The German capital was a hotbed of organized crime. Above all, the so-called Ringvereine (or ‘Ring clubs) ruled the roost. While these criminal gangs had existed since the end of the 19th century, they flourished in the inter-war years, cashing in on the excesses of the Weimar period, especially through their control of drugs, prostitution and illegal pornography.
Historians believed that as many as 60 Ringvereine operated in Berlin alone during the 1920s. These were largely made up of First World War veterans, as well as petty criminals and former convicts. However, the gangs also had a significant number of corrupt policemen on their payrolls. This insider help meant that they were often left to go about their illicit business unmolested. Indeed, it was only really when the Nazis came to power and wanted to take control of every aspect of German society that the authorities started clamping down on organized crime in Berlin – up until that point, so long as the drugs kept coming, the pornography kept being made available and the backhanders were still being paid, little attention was paid to the city’s gangsters.
According to the local folklore, the Ringvereine honored a strict criminal code. While they operated protection rackets and fought to control the lucrative drugs trade, they never used violence against ‘civilians’, only against fellow gangsters. To keep the public onside, these criminal gangs also presented themselves as Robin Hood-type outlaws. They always made sure to give a portion of their ill-gotten gains to poor mothers and children. The Sass Brothers were local legends in this regard. Throughout the 1920s, they robbed banks, keeping most of the loot for themselves but also making a point of stuffing stolen banknotes through the letterboxes of homes in working-class neighborhoods. The Saas Brothers’ criminal racket came to a shuddering halt under the Nazis and the pair ended up being killed in a concentration camp in 1940.
14. Berlin’s decadence became a tourist attraction and the city even promoted itself as a den of vice
Berlin’s decadent nightlife was hardly a secret at the time. In fact, the city authorities were proud of the fact that their city was one of the most liberal, tolerant and indeed decadent places in the whole world. They embraced the reputation Berlin started to get at the beginning of the 1920s and, as the decade progressed, the scandalous underground scene became increasingly mainstream, with a major tourism industry growing up around it.
Alongside the official Berlin tourist board advertisements, a large number of guidebooks offering visitors an insight into the racier parts of the city were published during the Weimar period. One of the most popular was Curt Moreck’s Guide Through Depraved Berlin. As the title suggests, this guidebook shunned the usual palaces and parks and instead pointed the curious visitor in the direction of homosexual bars like the Topp, transvestite cabarets and places they could pick up a girl (or boy) for the night. Similarly, Ruth Margarete Rolling wrote a popular guidebook to lesbian Berlin, advising readers that there was something for everyone in the city: “Here, each can find their own happiness, for they make a point of satisfying every taste,” she said.
Even traditional guidebooks couldn’t help mentioning the seedier side of the city. And while some warned visitors to stay away from the many ‘dens of sin’, this would often have quite the opposite effect. By the mid-1920s, many were already complaining that the Berlin scene was over. Curious tourists were filling the tables of the main cabaret clubs, much to the annoyance of local artists and writers. Nevertheless, a true underground scene remained and thrived right until the start of the Nazi dictatorship.
15. The good times weren’t just for the rich; poor people also had their own bars where they tried to forget the trauma of the Great War
The popular image of the Weimar Republic is of well-dressed men and women drinking champagne and taking drugs in lush cabaret bars. And this is largely accurate. However, not everyone could afford champagne or cocaine. Nor would Berlin’s most infamous bars or dance halls let just anyone through the doors – often, clients would need either a full wallet or some useful connections in order to gain entry to the Kit Kat Club, for example. But that doesn’t mean that poorer Berliners couldn’t have fun, too. Quite the opposite, in fact. During the Weimar period, the German capital was full of bars and parties for all social classes, including the lowest.
Working-class hangouts were to be found right throughout the city. For a homosexual man, a bar close to an army barracks offered the best chance of a memorable night. Among these, the Mother Cat was the most famous – and infamous. Here, beer cost just a few cents a glass and off-duty soldiers mingled with manual laborers and bohemians keen to enjoy a different side to the city. In some, soldiers would sell their bodies for extra cash. In others, homosexual dalliances took place without any payment. Of course, when the authorities learned about what their soldiers were up to, they quickly shut down such offensive establishments. Within a few days, however, a new bar had opened up, with word of mouth or coded newspaper advertisements alerting the gay men of Berlin to its location.
It wasn’t just barred for homosexual men that were segregated along social lines. There were also lesbian bars to suit every social class, too. Some venues were largely the preserve of upper-class ladies and their friends. The Dorian Grey, for example, was notoriously hard to get into, as was the Eldorado. However, as with the men, women in the know knew where to go to find a working-class girl or perhaps a shop-girl or office girl looking to make a bit of extra money.
16. Berlin’s party people carried on drinking and dancing as the Nazis came to power, and some even supported the evil new regime
The Berlin cabaret scene of the Weimar period is widely credited with being a staunch opponent of the Nazi movement. And rightly so. From the very start, the stars of the stage would mock the Nazi brownshirts who roamed the streets of Berlin through the 1920s. Big-name acts would also routinely laugh at Adolf Hitler, poking fun at everything from his mustache and hair through to his mannerisms. But in many cases, the mocking was just that, a form of entertainment. Even when it became clear that the Nazis were no laughing matter, in Berlin, the party continued.
As some more recent histories of the Weimar Republic have shown, for all their mocking, Berlin’s clubs and dance halls continued to cash in even as the mood darkened in Germany. Many of the biggest stars carried on performing even as their Jewish colleagues started to leave the country in fear of their lives. Solidarity with Jewish musicians and artists was relatively rare. Indeed, even when it became clear to most people what a Nazi regime meant for Jews and other minorities, the clubs and bars of Berlin were as full as ever, as their guests partied, drank and took drugs like it was 1921 all over again.
Notably, for a short period, the Berlin club scene even fell into bed with the Nazis. In February of 1934, Moka Efti, regarded as one of the ultimate icons of the Weimar era, hosted a special party to celebrate the first anniversary of the Nazi party coming to power. According to the records, after a lavish banquet, the compere led the club’s guests in toasting Hitler, with “three Sieg heil for Germany’s Fuhrer and savior.” Similarly, over at the Eldorado, for many years one of Berlin’s main gay and lesbian venues, the owner closed the venue and handed the premises over to the Nazi SA. The once-infamous venue became the headquarters of the brownshirts in Berlin.
17. The decadence of the Weimar Republic would never be tolerated by the Nazis, and so the good times quickly came to an end
Even if some club owners tried to get on the right side of the Nazi regime from the mid-1920s onwards, the decadent, liberal lifestyle of the Weimar Republic would always be at odds with the authoritarianism of National Socialist ideology. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the writing was on the wall, not just for the Berlin nightlife but for many of its star performers and biggest fans. After all, a scene which celebrated homosexuality and where many of the biggest producers and stars were Jewish could never be allowed to continue under Hitler.
In fact, the end of the cabaret scene began before Hitler was named Chancellor. His predecessor Franz von Papen was a staunch Catholic. In the summer of 1932, he instructed the police to clamp down on all “amusements with dancing of a homosexual nature.” This meant that many of Berlin’s famous clubs and bars were subject to a strict curfew. Most were forced to close their doors by 10 pm at the latest. Soon after, same-sex couples were banned from dancing in public. This was only the beginning, however.
Within a matter of weeks of the Nazis coming to power, Hermann Goering was busying himself interfering in the private lives of German citizens. In February of 1933, dozens of Berlin venues were forcibly closed down. At the same time, gay men and transvestites were arrested and thrown into prison, often on trumped-up charges. Many more were subject to harassment and beatings in the street. The days of tolerance were well and truly over, and Germany was plunged into more than a decade of harsh and bloody authoritarian rule where even the slightest act of subversion might be punishable by death.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: