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George L. Mosse on his Berlin Childhood in the Last Years of the Weimar Republic (Retrospective Account, 2000)

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The villa which my grandfather Mosse had built for his daughter and her husband—my parents—in Berlin’s west end was quite different, more modern and nondescript. Here is where I spent part of my early childhood. Upstairs every one of us three children had a bedroom and a playroom (or sitting room as my brother and sister grew older). Here too I lived in my own little world. The public rooms and the dining room were downstairs, together with my father’s study. I remember the two large and ornate sitting rooms only as public rooms because of the many gatherings which took place there; after them came a large dining room decorated with Medici tapestries. A concert hall had been built behind the sitting rooms: there well-known musicians performed both as soloists or in quartets. The tradition of musical performances given in the home lived on in these circles. We, in turn, were invited to such concerts, and to this day I remember one given by a quartet in the house of the prominent banker Carl Melchior, perhaps because for once I was allowed to accompany my parents.

I was considered much too young to take part in the cultural life of Berlin at the time, and it is ironic when today students ask me what it must have been like to experience the excitement of cultural life in the Weimar Republic. To be sure, like other children, I was taken to the opera (usually those like Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha—my own first opera—or Gustav Albert Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann—my second), but never to the theater. My childhood was lived almost entirely in Schenkendorf or within my parents’ villa on the Maassenstrasse, situated in one of Berlin’s most elegant districts. There we were surrounded by the homes of other members of the Jewish elite, most of whom knew each other. A certain reghettoization, though far from complete, had taken place in the pattern of settlement. Even at Schenkendorf we were surrounded by estates which had been purchased by other acquaintances, bankers or industrialists for the most part. Most of this splendor even survived the Second World War. But then these villas were torn down in the 1960s to make room for urban renewal in the shape of ugly prefabricated apartment buildings.

In addition to the Berlin house, the second environment where I spent much time before I went to boarding school and later, on holidays, was the estate at Schenkendorf in the flat countryside surrounding Berlin, with its birch trees and sandy soil. Schenkendorf in its origin had been a feudal Rittergut, or knight’s estate. The proprietor of such an estate could in Wilhelmian times carry the title of Rittergutsbesitzer—important in a world where title guaranteed status. The building itself dated only from the 1890s; it was surrounded by a large park, and beyond that by sizable farmlands. The actual farmyard which adjoined the park, with its stables and a disused sugar beet mill, always provided an attractive playground.

The village of Schenkendorf itself, by the 1890s, had lost the coal mines which had provided its livelihood. The mine workers’ housing was left standing, however, and gave the village of a few hundred people its character. The drab houses built by the mine owners were called „Siemens houses“ after the famous German company which had owned the mine. To this day the arms of the mine workers’ union decorate the village’s largest house, which had been their social center. But all of this was merely background as far as I was concerned. I do not remember mixing with the village children, although I was told recently that at times children were asked to the manor house for cakes and sweets in order to provide playmates for me. On my birthday the village band regularly serenaded me, beneath the manor’s large terrace, a homage which, once more, I took for granted.

The village was extremely poor, and it was said that by 1933 one half of its inhabitants voted Nazi and the other half Communist. My parents, for all that, acted and were regarded as something like the lords of the manor. In 1928, for example, they donated the village church bells: one was inscribed with my sister’s name and one with my own (I don’t know why my brother was apparently omitted), and I vividly remember the ceremony of installment presided over by the Lutheran superintendent (Bishop) of the region. Today this bell is the only concrete link that still ties me to the village; for while my sister’s was melted down during the Second World War, I myself continue to ring out over manor and village. The church itself had impressed me earlier only because it contained in the cellar the bodies of the children of the Count von Löben, who had owned the estate during the seventeenth century. The eighteen half-opened coffins which held their bones presented a fascinating, if gruesome, sight. (The interior of the simple church, after its restoration by the German Democratic Republic, turned out to be a seventeenth-century jewel well worth visiting.)

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