L'Allemagne Moderne: part 1

Description: L'Allemagne Moderne is a book published in 1912/1913 by French journalist Jules Huret who spent a number of years in Germany.


In Munich when they talk about someone born in Berlin, the Prussian capital, they say "He was born in Berlin...I guess you have to be born somewhere."

It's because Berlin is not at all considered by the Germans to be the true capital of Germany. Cologne, Leipzig, Hamburg, Dresden, Munich, all these great old cities refuse to give it primacy. Officials in other cities will remind you that there are hardly any old monuments in Berlin, merchants will list off one or two houses of commerce that go back maybe 100 years at best, while Bremen, Cologne, Mainz, Leipzig and ten other cities boast of firms going back two centuries.

“It's not solid,” they say. “Who knows if all these financial firms, these shops founded 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or yesterday, won't be bankrupt next year?”

I don't put much importance in these statements, and mixed within them I think there is a bit of envy for the capital's both quick and even somewhat insolent prosperity.

A resident of Hamburg sees Berlin as a boring and uncouth city.

"What can you really do for two months in Berlin?" he wrote me from Hamburg with an unfeigned astonishment.

As for me, I have found the Prussian capital to be most interesting. I love Berlin, I find it to be cheerful, lively, and welcoming, with its shiny and new look, its new streets, the white walls, golden balconies, flowers, newly built houses that are so pretty, clear, crisp, and varied, that make me like it so much.

Old cities are attractive in the same way dowagers are. We like to see them from time to time to get a break from the enthusiastic puerility of youth, but don't come back to see them again unless they are able to surround themselves with cheerfulness.

Paris has no problem doing this. As a multifaceted city it offers to its visitors, along with the attractions of history and art, the irresistible seduction of pleasure and fashion. But when it comes to cities that have nothing pleasant to offer but their age, visitors will pass but a few quick days of vacation there. They do not want to live there, except maybe the sick and the tired, who find a certain harmony between things that are aged and dead and their own exhaustion.

Berlin's sins are of the opposite nature. Cities that are too young are like seventeen-year-old girls, these “Backfische”* as they call them here, where their somewhat greenish charm doesn't make up for their insignificance. Art lovers quickly see everything in them and move on...but still, cities like this that are full of promise hold the interest of those that love life, and believe in the future.

* Literally “baked fishes”, which apparently originates in young small fish only being suitable for baking. Now dated slang, but can still be used for fun.

There are periods of calmness here for those that are only concerned with their own happiness. Berlin is not refined, and its somewhat too new and insolent luxury quickly shocks the delicate. However, for those who know how to give certain things the importance they deserve, the Prussian metropolis does have moments of quiet leisure. In cities like Paris you need a great deal of illusion to be satisfied with yourself and with others. At every moment in the crowd that rushes into the streets, the mocking air of the people, the grimly upturned mouths, the envious glances, these betray all the flaws of the rabble that, on a day of revolution, would be unleashed in drunken criminality. But in Berlin, as in general in all northern Germany, the faces are placid. The people agree to submit, as if this submission were a voluntary or provisional duty. The man at the café you talk to is not humiliated by his job and seems to want to show you that he knows how to serve. The worker, while very aware of his rights and who wants them respected, does not for all this have the air of a thug in revolt like some of ours in France. The people who contribute to your happiness do not seem to feel hatred for you, and, doing their part in this atmosphere of new luxury, they help you to appreciate it as well with optimism, to enjoy without bitterness this atmosphere of comfort, discipline, order, and progress.

Berlin is built on a vast plain of monotonous sand in the province of Brandenburg, exposed to all the winds from the north, west and east that sweep roughly, without obstacle, through this ungrateful land. Stone houses stand on the horizon. There are no comparable escapes to those of Place de la Concorde up to Place de l'Étoile*, no point of view reminiscent of the hills that mark Paris, Montmartre and St. Geneviève, no riverbanks similar to those of the Seine or the Thames. The Spree is a narrow, dark and winding river (during its passage in the center of Berlin, that is; beyond, it widens into a great river), and on its banks, melancholic like those of a canal, nothing appears for the pleasure of the eyes.

* This refers to the avenue of Champs-Élysées. The former Place de l'Étoile is now called Place Charles de Gaulle.

Those Berliners who are artists – and there are some – are well aware of what is lacking in their city. They say: “Berlin was developed by the feet and arms, extending to its ends. But the trunk – that is to say, the center – remains the same as it once was. You would need to give it some air, draw some wide boulevards and wide avenues that radiate from the center of the city in all directions. Ah, if we could just bring in six or seven hills...”

I know that this plan – besides the hills – has already sprouted in serious heads that will not abandon their idea any time soon. And maybe in under twenty years we will see Berlin completely transformed. For I believe the municipal administration to be capable of all the boldness and every sacrifice required in aiming for the prosperity and fame of the city.

I lived in Berlin for several months, surveyed all its districts, lived the life of different social groups, listened to the conversations of hundreds of people, and I am beginning to come to know the capital of the Empire. But I lost a lot of time searching for its characteristic.