WELCOME TO The 1920s

The Golden Twenties

If you were given one chance to travel back in time, visiting Berlin 100 years ago in the Roaring Twenties, might be one of the best choices you could ever make — you could witness the rebirth of the defeated country in the German capital. Berlin’s thriving atmosphere drew the attention of many visitors, including the British. Whether thanks to the cultural bonds between the two nations or the perception of the city by British tourists, there is no doubt that Berlin was a centre of industrial and technological advancements. It was also known as a place of eccentric and unconventional standards.

Anglo-German Political Relations

Following the end of WWI (then known as the Great War), the relationship between Britain and Germany was unstable, but generally favourable. The end of the war and the defeat of Germany had given shape to two opposing lines of thought: Germany viewed “the First World War as a potential vehicle for fundamental political, economic, and social change,”¹ while the British were focusing on its immediate aftermath —reconstruction, rehabilitation and finance.²

Figure 1. Berlin traffic in Friedrichstrasse at Jaegerstrasse.

The British Ambassador to Berlin, Lord D’Abernon, oversaw Anglo-German diplomatic relations in the 1920s in what was “an era of hope”³ for the re-integration of Germany after the war “into European diplomatic affairs.”⁴ France’s role in the Anglo-German affairs was destabilising, especially during the Ruhr crisis and the occupation of the industrial German Ruhr Valley between 1923 and 1925 by French and Belgian forces. The occupation was retaliation for Germany’s failure to uphold its post-war obligations. Britain, who were on friendly terms with Germany, had to be careful “not to offend the French.”⁵ As a result, “British political opinion became increasingly divided about the Ruhr crisis”⁶ and there was speculation as to “who Britain’s ‘friends of the future were to be – France or Germany.’”⁷ Britain tried to remain neutral yet maintain influence over both parties, “acting as a buffer against the excessive demands of French extremism,”⁸ and shortly afterwards, in 1924, the “the British and French governments appeared willing to detach themselves from previous prejudices concerning Germany.”⁹

Figure 2. British Embassy in the Palais Strousberg.

With the financial assistance from the United States, Germany was able to start paying war reparations. Finally, in 1925, the Locarno Treaties were signed, and the redistribution and revision of territorial boundaries between the countries were at least theoretically agreed upon.

Between 1920 and 1926 the British Embassy of Berlin acquired the reputation of having successfully handled the situation, and indeed,“D’Abernon’s name is most usually associated with the study of Locarno diplomacy.”¹⁰ The British Embassy building—the Palais Strousberg—was situated at Wilhelmstrasse 70. The building was purchased by the embassy of Great Britain and Ireland in 1884, and was eventually was demolished in the 1950s. The current British Embassy in Berlin is also situated in Wilhelmstrasse 70/71, since the piece of land remains British property. In addition to the Embassy, and the diplomatic mission it embodied, there were other institutions in the 1920s which connected the two powers.

One such example is the religious embassy of the Quaker International Centre in Berlin, which was established in 1920 and remained until 1942. Quakers, also known as Friends, are a Protestant denomination of Christianity. The founder, Carl Health wanted to spread “the message of the Universal Christ and the humane and democratic spirit to every part of the new Europe that will arise out of the destruction of the old.”¹¹ The British Quaker Embassy in Berlin “was established early in 1920 in Berlin initially in cramped quarters in Mohrenstrasse”¹² , which is the same street where our own Centre for British studies is located. During the 1920s in Berlin, this religious institution contributed primarily to “relief operations”¹³ and feeding and medical programmes¹⁴ to help deal with the ramifications of the Great War.

Anglo-German Cultural Relations

Apart from the Anglo-German political and religious associations, the cultural connections between Weimar Germany and the United Kingdom were strong, and many British intellectuals and artists visited or moved to Berlin, during the 1920s. The metropolitan capital had a “peculiar fascination for young Britons born after 1900, but it also attracted the attention of British men and women”¹⁵ of older generations, since the destabilised post-war state was enticing for the British who had an “avid interest in the former enemy.”¹⁶ During that era, there was a strong desire for Britons to visit and experience “the perceived modernity and youthful exuberance of the Republic and its capital.”¹⁷ This association of Weimar Berlin with modernity was a commonly-held view in the British cultural sphere, in which “wartime prejudices against all that was (or sounded) German [had begun] to break down very quickly after 1918.”¹⁸ This modern element of Weimar Berlin was discernable in numerous facets of the city; in its architecture, in the “practical application of modern technology to its integrated transport system or places of leisure, and its [in] acceptance of modern social attitudes” all elements which are common in the writings of British observers.”¹⁹

“This modern element of Weimar Berlin was discernable in its architecture, in its transport system or places of leisure, and in its acceptance of modern social attitudes.”

Artists like Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden and their social circle soon became the epitome of Weimar Berlin intellegentsia for contemporary critics, since they often frequented “Berlin’s homosexual underworld, [..] dabbling with left-wing politics, [..] posing as proletarians [with] their self-conscious bohemianism.”²⁰ Their representation of the Berlin night-life and lifestyle has profoundly shaped the Weimar literary canon. Yet, there were other very prominent — albeit less documented—figures in Berlin’s artistic and political scenes, many of whom were women. Women of upper and middle-class British descent were particularly drawn to Berlin because of the relative sexual and social freedom it offered them. Berlin was considered to be a feminist city at the time, where a “woman could carve out a career for herself in whatever sphere she chose.”²¹ Examples of these career women include Jean Ross, who worked in Berlin as “a nightclub singer, actress and journalist,”²² and “writer Elizabeth Wiskemann, who began her journalistic career in Berlin.”²³ Many more women, including the ambassador’s wife Princess Blücher, were drawn to the idea of “the liberated ‘new woman’ who was fully in tune with the thrusting modernity and materialism of Weimar Germany.”²⁴

This perceived freedom and gender equality, however, did not extend to women of working-class background, and many of the expatriated British women were “deeply interested [in] the issues and difficulties confronting German women in the new and changing social, economic and political landscape of the Weimar Republic.”²⁵ This sociological interest in the women’s living conditions in Germany is one example of the feminist approach by British women who re-located to Berlin. In the late twenties and early thirties, these British women “saw modern women [who were] much more in control of their own lives,”²⁶ without failing to perceive for which women that control over their lives in this “free climate”²⁷ did not apply yet. The limitations of these new freedoms for women became apparent to the British expatriates, who noted that although Germany had more female parliamentarians than any other country²⁸ at that time, these women “confined themselves very largely to work relating to women and child welfare, housing and feeding.”²⁹ Nonetheless, from a contemporary point of view, Weimar Berlin afforded more liberties to women than almost any other place in the world, especially “in direct contrast to the stuffy and staid cultural and social atmosphere of interwar Britain.”³⁰

“Weimar Berlin afforded more liberties to women than almost any other place in the world.”

The Significance of Tourism for Berlin

It is possible to trace tourism back to nineteenth century and view it as “the attempt to realize the dream that Romanticism projected onto the distant and far away.³¹ In that sense, the roots of modern tourism can be associated with both Britain and Germany, where romanticism reached quite an audience as a movement, thereby creating a common philosophical ground for both countries from the very start. While it is possible to define tourism broadly as an act of spending time away from home mainly for pleasure, it can also be regarded as an alternative to everyday life. In fact, Enzensberger views tourism as “a gigantic escape from the kind of reality with which our society surrounds us.”³² In other words, the location which one chooses as the tourist destination offers the much-needed escape from routine. When we explore the Roaring Twenties, it is Berlin which offers this escapism. As the capital of a country defeated in the Great War, the political atmosphere of Berlin was enough to attract curious foreigners who wanted to experience “the very sense of instability and unrest” for themselves.³³ It was particularly the intellectual visitors that paid attention, hence it was no surprise to observe the British influx engaging in touristic activities in Berlin. In this regard, the chosen presence in this re-emerging city, which had a lot to offer, would help the tourists immerse themselves in a foreign culture, turning to “an explicit rejection of British bourgeois values.”³⁴ All in all, British visitors challenged the emphasis on order and tradition through their preference to stay in the chaotic and foreign Berlin. The city had become the “temporary getaway from one’s centre.”³⁵

An Englishwoman in Berlin

Berlin was complex and diverse enough to be able to appeal to most people, but perhaps most of all to women, due to the social and professional opportunities it provided them. The defeated Germany was at once rebuilding itself and also reimagining the role of women in society. Throughout the interwar years, travel was “regarded as quintessentially modern and rebellious,” and this was especially the case for women.³⁶ In this respect, the choice of women to visit the multifaceted capital can be seen as a bold rejection of the prevailing British bourgeois values.

Berlin saw the birth of the ‘new woman’ who challenged existing dress codes and patriarchal norms, by adopting a more androgynous appearance and participating in society independent of a male partner. Having experienced these new freedoms enjoyed by German women, British women chose Berlin not only for its political, cultural and economic opportunities, but because it demonstrated the very fact that the emancipation of women was indeed possible.

Figure 3. Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

1Gaynor Johnson, The Berlin Embassy of Lord D’Abernon, 1920-1926. (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2002), 12Ibid. 1-23Ibid. 14Ibid.5Ibid. 26Ibid. 637Ibid. 638Ibid. 799Ibid. 8410Ibid.11Roger Carter, “The Quaker International Centre in Berlin, 1920–1942,” Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society no. 56 (1990): 15-3112Ibid. 1513Ibid. 1614Ibid. 1615Colin Storer, Britain and the Weimar republic: The History of a Cultural Relationship. (London: IB Tauris, 2010): 116. Ibid. 517. Ibid. 418Ibid. 419. Ibid. 11320. Ibid. 521. Ibid. 11322. Ibid. 11323. Ibid. 11324. Ibid. 11425. Ibid. 11226. Ibid. 11327. Ibid. 11328. Ibid. 112-329. Ibid. 112-330. Ibid. 10331. Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “A Theory of Tourism” New German Critique68, Spring/Summer (1996), pp: 117-135. pp: 12532. Ibid. 13533. Colin Storer, Britain and the Weimar republic: the History of a Cultural Relationship. (London: IB Tauris, 2010) pp: 2034. Storer, Colin. “Weimar Germany as Seen by an Englishwoman: British Women Writers and the Weimar Republic” German Studies Review, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 129-147. pp: 13035. Cohen, Erik. “A Phenomenology of Tourist Experiences”.Sociology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 1979), pp. 179-201. pp: 18136. Storer, Colin. “Weimar Germany as Seen by an Englishwoman: British Women Writers and the Weimar Republic” German Studies Review, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 129-147. pp: 130. 

Figure 1: Berlin traffic in Friedrichstrasse at Jaegerstrasse © Creative Commons, sludgegulper
Figure 2: British Embassy in the Palais Strousberg © Wilhelm Wiecke – Architektonischer Bilderbogen, published between 1883 and 1902, scanned from Berlin zu Kaisers Zeiten, Harenberg 1983
Figure 3: Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel © Wikimedia Commons

Carter, Roger. “The Quaker International Centre in Berlin, 1920–1942.” Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society no. 56 (1990): 15-31Cohen, Erik. “A Phenomenology of Tourist Experiences”. Sociology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 1979): pp. 179-201Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “A Theory of Tourism” New German Critique 68, Spring/Summer (1996): pp: 117-135Johnson, Gaynor. The Berlin Embassy of Lord D’Abernon, 1920-1926. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2002Storer, Colin. “Britain and the Weimar Republic: the History of a Cultural Relationship.” London: IB Tauris, 2010Storer, Colin. “Weimar Germany as Seen by an Englishwoman: British Women Writers and the Weimar Republic” German Studies Review, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 2009): pp. 129-147.