8. Marlene Dietrich made a name for herself as an icon of the Weimar era before she headed to Hollywood and global fame
Before she became a Hollywood superstar in the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich made a name for herself as an actress and socialite during the heady days of Weimar-era Berlin. As an extrovert and as bisexual, she thrived in the liberal atmosphere of 1920s Berlin. Indeed, one newspaper dubbed Dietrich “perhaps the busiest and most passionate bisexual in theatrical Berlin” – quite an accolade given the competition. Her exploits made her as infamous as she was famous, and soon she became almost as well known for her colorful private life as she was for her movie career.
Dietrich had just turned 20 when she started making a name for herself in Berlin. Like many future stars, she started out as a chorus girl, progressing to bit-parts in cabaret shows and then movies. Though she married fellow actor Rudolf Sieber in 1923, even having a daughter with him, this didn’t slow her down. In fact, Sieber was well aware of her nature and she was open about the numerous affairs she conducted with both men and women.
Even for Weimar Berlin, Dietrich’s behavior was often seen as shocking, especially her love of women. Klaus Kinski, one of Germany’s biggest-ever movie stars, recalled in his biography how Dietrich’s passionate affair with actress Edith Edwards was particularly scandalous. In his autobiography, Kinski writes breathlessly: “Marlene tore down Edith’s panties backstage in a Berlin theater and, using just her mouth, brought Edith to orgasm.” Such behavior certainly didn’t hinder her career. In 1929, Dietrich landed the lead role in Lola Lola and then starred in The Blue Angel. This brought her to the attention of Hollywood and, within a year, she had moved to the United States, where she soon became a genuine A-lister.
9. Child prostitutes could easily be found in 1920s Berlin – so long as you knew where to look and what codewords to use
As we’ve seen, Weimar Germany was a hotbed of sex, much of it of the paid-for variety. Both adult men and women sold their bodies in the streets and clubs of Berlin. But child prostitutes were also bought and sold here. In fact, there was a booming and well-regulated industry, with pimps happy to cater to almost any taste. Quite simply, if you knew where to go – and, just as importantly, what to ask for – the chances are, you could get it, no questions asked.
In downtown Berlin, some pharmacists peddled a side trade in child prostitutes. These boys and girls were prescribed as ‘medicine’. If you knew where to go, you simply told the chemist you wanted some ‘medicine’. You would also tell him how long you had been ill for. This was all part of a not-so-elaborate ruse; if you said you had been ill for 13 years, then the pimp knew you wanted a 13-year-old girl. Similarly, if you requested red pills, he would try and procure a redhead for you. In most cases, the pharmacist would know exactly where to take a prospective client and would deliver him to the appropriate club or apartment.
At the same time, young prostitutes could also be ordered like a takeaway pizza. Pimps would place advertisements in newspapers and magazines. If you knew what you were looking for, the code was simple enough to crack. Then all you needed to do was phone the number given and a ‘telephone girl’, that is a child between the ages of 12-to-17 would be delivered right to your home or hotel room. Such ‘telephone girls’ (almost always advertised as virgins, with their physical attributes hinted at through references to female movie stars) were often the most expensive prostitutes in all of Weimar Germany, with only rich businessmen or film stars able to afford their niche services.
10. It wasn’t all about the Kit Kat Club. In fact, Berlin alone had 900 nightclubs, many of them were hotspots of jazz, drugs and sex
For many, the Kit Kat Club was the epicenter of Weimar-era Berlin. The club is arguably the city’s leading entertainment venue and was made famous by Liza Minnelli in the hit musical Cabaret. But the Kit Kat Club was far from the only place Berliners could let their hair down. In fact, the records show that, by 1930, some 899 venues with a dancing license were registered in the German capital. Many of these were just as decadent as the world-famous Kit Kat Club, if not more so.
The Moka Efti nightclub, for example, was one of the crazier places in town. Now made famous again thanks to the massively popular Babylon Berlin books, as well as the TV series of the same name, the venue was completely over-the-top: it had its own barbershop, pastry shop and billiard hall, while there was also a room full of typists ready to take dictation for businessmen or journalists needing to take a break from their party to do some work. While there was no members-only brothel on-site, it’s believed that the Moka Efti was still a hotbed of prostitution, with many of the beautiful dancing girls – and boys – happy to go home with a client for the right price.
Other infamous Berlin venues of the time included the Haus Vaterland, a known hangout of gangsters as well as prostitutes, drug addicts and bohemians. Haus Vaterland was known as a “palace of pleasure”, with the interiors modeled on everything from ancient Egypt to Moorish Spain via the Orient Express. Clients would spend whole days there, sometimes even two or three days. Of course, there were plenty of ways they could keep awake – as well as the cocaine and other drugs, legend has it that the Haus Vaterland was selling up to 25,000 cups of coffee on a single day!
11. Soaring demand meant that the illegal pornography industry boomed during the Weimar years – with celebrity lookalikes especially popular
Along with drug use and prostitution, pornography also enjoyed a golden age during the years of the Weimar Republic. Making full use of the latest photographic technology, both amateur and professional porn producers struggled to keep up with the insatiable demand of the Berlin public. Much of this was produced by seemingly respectable photographers. By day, they would take family portraits, but by night they would switch their focus to making adult images. Similarly, the booming movie industry of the 1920s was also complicit. Directors and cameramen would often have a nice sideline making some of the first porn films after-hours in the big studios.
Of course, the quality of such pornography varied considerably. Some of it was obviously amateur, but some of it was slick and professionally done, with an eye on the aesthetics not just the erotic. The cheapest images could be purchased under-the-counter at most street new kiosks (strictly speaking, indecent images were still illegal) though for the more discerning viewer, more expensive images could be purchased, if you knew where to look, of course. Above all, pornography featuring models who bore a striking resemblance to the biggest movie stars of the day, such as Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, were in high demand. Such models could charge a premium for their services and producers would charge a small fortune peddling the finished product out of cabaret clubs.
However, pornography wasn’t just about sex. In many cases, it was used as a satirical tool, too. There was a healthy market for nude or suggestive pictures of models who looked like Kaiser Wilhelm II or certain leading politicians. While the authorities would often turn a blind eye to most porn, even images featuring underage models, pressure from their bosses meant that the police would often come down hard on producers who dared to associate the former monarch or the country’s political elite with such adult material.
12. The public loved to read all about a good homicide case, especially if the victim was young and pretty
Berlin in the 1920s wasn’t just a city of decadence – it was a city of violence, too. With crime gangs battling for control of the booming trade in drugs and prostitutes, murder was all too common. But gangster killings weren’t the type that really excited the Berlin public. Instead, the people of Weimar Germany developed a fascination for so-called lustmord, that is lust-fueled murders, ideally of pretty young women by spurned lovers.
If there had been a murder, especially a lustmord, then newspaper sales were guaranteed to soar. Not only would a report of such a crime include all the grisly details, it would also feature gruesome crime scene photographs and any other potentially titillating information, especially if it related to the sexual life of the victim. Far from fair and neutral, the press coverage of murders of young women was sensationalist and often downright misogynistic. So, when it emerged that a serial killer was at large in the west German city of Dusseldorf, the public were gripped.
The so-called Dusseldorf Monster (also known as the Vampire of Dusseldorf), committed a string of sexual assaults and murders in the city between February and November of 1929. People couldn’t get enough of the case. Newspapers devoted entire sections to the crimes, focusing on the sexual aspect of the attacks. Fictional accounts of the murders appeared on book-stands and these too sold like crazy. And then, when Peter Kurten was arrested, convicted and executed for the Dusseldorf murders in 1930, a movie version of the whole affair was in the cinemas within a matter of weeks. Needless to say, it was a box office smash.
Such a fascination with lust-fueled murder was also evident in the literature and art of Weimar Germany. Pulp fiction was big business, with most books featuring young, sexualized female victims. Similarly, the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz, two of the biggest artists of the Weimar era, often featured mutilated female bodies. Some modern scholars now see the art of the era as profoundly misogynistic, getting a kick out of sexual murders almost celebrating violence against women.
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.
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