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Purposive purposelessness – Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital

Franz Hessel’s 1920s guide to Berlin, translated into English for the first time, is a melancholy guidebook to a since vanished city

A guidebook to a vanished city is a melancholy thing. Hessel’s Walking in Berlin, first published in 1929 and translated here for the first time, is doubly melancholy, since the city he records is twice-lost. In a series of disconnected chapters recording walks through different areas of the capital, their compositional logic dictated by the drifting path of the flaneur, the author reminisces about old Berlin, by then largely obliterated by 19th-century developments. 

As well as palaces and parks, old curiosities – the trusty standbys of guidebook authors – are marshaled: variety theatres, old-fashioned pubs and street hawkers. The curiosities of the present are not neglected either, among them a gay bar, the huge theme café Haus Vaterland (a lower-middle-class favourite about which Hessel is characteristically sniffy), and the rallies of Communists and Nazis. Despite the latter, Hessel was optimistic about the new Berlin then coming into being. Soon that too would be lost. Hessel, who was Jewish, didn’t seem to anticipate this, nor did he live to see the denouement: he died in exile in 1941 shortly after being released from a French internment camp.

Today, Berlin is being lost once more, as the tides of gentrification wash away the last traces of its fabled countercultural heyday. A contemporary Hessel would no doubt lament E-Werk, the legendary 1990s techno club, and the countless emptied squats of Mitte, but, as Marshall Berman pointed out, the city is less substantial than it seems, and capital demands the constant renewal of its monuments. The ground shifts beneath our feet; the city of our youth is inevitably not the city of our adulthood. Treasures vanish, the slate is wiped clean – there is money to be made after all.

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Dp105547

7am (New Year’s Morning), taken by László Moholy-Nagy from the window of his home in Berlin c1930. Courtesy of Ford Motor Company Collection

However, Hessel reminds us that this process of ‘creative destruction’ needn’t always benefit the same people. Although he reveals his own privileged background when he laments the loss of certain landmarks of around 1800 – the period usually called the Biedermeier when the educated bourgeoisie were in the ascendant – and despite his occasional snobbery, Hessel is not a conservative, and certainly no ‘nimby’. Indeed, he positively revels in phantasies of destruction when it comes to the productions of the previous century. In this, Hessel shares the prejudices of the Modernists – prejudices which I must admit still seem pretty reasonable to me. 

Of the city’s overblown neo-Baroque cathedral he says: ‘It is completely unnecessary to enter it, for this massive structure offends every religious and humanistic sentiment … Maybe there will come a day when we impulsively tear down this building’. And the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is ‘nothing more than a massive traffic obstruction … if only this cathedral, with its long name, would collapse a little’ (perhaps he would have been pleased by its eventual fate). In a more moderate proposal, one that might have a fresh appeal today, he calls for ‘a museum for neo-Wilhelmine architecture and sculpture; this could ultimately serve as a repository for much of the irritating public and private ostentatiousness lying around the city’. 

While the gewgaws of the Gründerzeit appalled Hessel’s aesthetic sensibilities, the domestic counterparts of these pretentious monuments were even worse: the overcrowded tenements thrown up haphazardly by rapacious developers. The most notorious of these was Meyers Hof in Wedding, ‘a textbook example of the residential dungeon of yesteryear’ in which more than two thousand people lived crammed together.

By contrast, the works then being overseen by city architect Martin Wagner were rational and humane. Hessel’s second chapter begins with the self-admonishment, ‘I really must educate myself’. To achieve this, he visits the office of an unnamed architect, who takes the author on a tour of new projects. Neukölln, today the heart of hipster Berlin, was for Hessel merely a miserable slum barring the way to Britz, the estate with Bruno Taut’s famous horseshoe at its centre – ‘a happy sight’. The work of the new generation of architects, Hessel adds, ‘is the most important thing happening to Berlin now’.

Gettyimages 541070061

Gettyimages 541070061

Franz Hessel Source: Ullstein Bild Dtl / Contributor

Hessel’s vision of the future lies on the city’s edge, in the newer suburbs. Although this is a world of leisure, of golf clubs and cars – a world that was finally achieved after the war, albeit elsewhere and with dubious results – Hessel did not anticipate it being the exclusive property of the rich. Indeed, the housing estate at Britz, ‘this happy little city’, marks ‘the boldest foray into the limbo between city and country’. In his final chapter Hessel turns west, to the wealthier communities by the lakes. ‘This suburb is one of the areas where the Berliner of tomorrow lives, a breed in whom the exhaustion of their fathers, who “didn’t get around to anything” because they had too much to do, seems to be transformed into a carefree flexibility.’ 

Cultivating such douceur de vivre is the underlying aim of Hessel’s book, which was originally subtitled ‘a textbook on the art of walking in Berlin’. The necessity thereof is made clear in the enchanting opening chapter, a self-portrait titled ‘The Suspect’. What makes Hessel seem suspicious to his fellow Berliners is his apparent lack of purpose. ‘Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But … I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket’. 

Hessel was a confirmed Francophile who lived in Paris from 1906 until the outbreak of the Great War, and who collaborated with Walter Benjamin on a never-completed translation of Proust. He sought to import a sensibility cultivated on the other side of the Rhine to the Prussian capital, whose historic militarism and Protestant gruffness had instilled a mindless busyness in its populace. For Hessel, however, flanerie is not just a way of seeing: it is also a means of production. In the book’s final paragraph he advises: ‘let us learn a bit of idleness and indulgence, and look at the thing that is Berlin … until we become fond of it and find it beautiful, until it is beautiful’.

I think it would be fair to read this as a call for the development of a critical public cultivated via the method of the flaneur, rather than to a simple acquiescence to the extant urban fabric. The wanderer’s purposive purposelessness should teach the urbanite to find some other value in the city beyond mere bluster or utility (although Hessel was certainly not averse to utility: of Behrens’ AEG factory, he writes: ‘there is no lovelier building’). But as Patrick Keiller pointed out in his recent book The View from the Train, flaneurs turned out to be the shock troops of gentrification, making reconnaissance missions on the behalf of developers who would then extract the value created by the poor using more than merely literary means. Hessel had an answer for that too: ‘In the future, neither the speculator nor the architect will be allowed to mar the city’s style … Our building codes won’t permit that’. Berlin has recently weakened in that regard, and it will only avoid London’s fate if it returns to Hessel’s advice.

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital

Author: Franz Hessel

Translated by Amanda DeMarco

Publisher: Scribe

ISBN: 9781925228359