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Ernst Dronke: Excerpts from Berlin (1846)

In the following excerpts from Berlin (1846), socialist writer Ernst Dronke presents a kaleidoscopic view of life in the Prussian capital at the very beginning of a period of substantial urbanization. Dronke describes contemporaries' contradictory views on the advantages and drawbacks of urban opportunities and anonymity, the inhabitants' wide range of social behavior, and the misery of the working poor in the context of expanding capitalism.

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The locomotive whistles. From Trebbin, the last station of the Anhalt railroad, it is about five miles of the same, uninterrupted shapes, but already here the area shows us the proximity of the large, sad ocean of sand in whose middle the city lies like an oasis. Behind us, though the landscape was very flat and monotonous, there were at least views of pleasant stream banks and green patches of forest. Here in front of us, however, is a stretch of gray, boring moors with the occasional yellowing potato plant and lonely stubs of neglected moor shrubs. The train is accompanied by thick clouds of fine, sharp dust that veil the sad view from travelers as if in sympathy. No friendly dairy farms, no pleasing fields, not even wagon trails or footpaths comfort you through the hours and hours of traveling through this area, which almost everyone is abandoning to look for something better in the city. It is deserted and quiet all around you, a sad picture; and yet it is characteristic, a fitting preparation for the nearby city. These flat, barren plains with their burning dust, into whose ground the hiker nearly sinks, may at first glance remind the foreigner of the spirit of Berlin. To him it is the image of barren criticism, in whose ground the poet's or artist's hothouse flowers have never been able to flourish or develop independently, where the dust of forgetfulness has blanketed much greatness until the most recent past. Whoever comes here from other territories, from Thüringen or the Rhine, will surely experience a feeling of sadness or melancholy. The sight of this desolate, yellow, and silent moor, where even in the peak of summer the poor birds can hardly find nourishment, leaves us with a strange impression. Maybe it is the sharp dust flying in our eyes [ . . . ] but patience! We are already getting closer and closer to the city, which through its own creations should offer us a substitute for the unkindness of nature.

At some distance we observe the roofs of cottages in neighboring villages, and to the right, the peak of a monument on a low hill appears: the Kreuzberg, where Berliners enjoy their beautiful nature in summer. Another long and shrill whistle, and the train rolls through a long row of buildings, past some hut-like tobacco houses and into the train station. This is how one arrives in the city of the intelligentsia. On the ramp are thick crowds of people of all stripes, at the head of which stand several policemen. This arrangement is very practical; the red collars that attract your sight at first are the liveliest warning signs of where you are. Behind these you notice civilized, educated gentlemen of dubious appearance, and you would be wise to keep your hands in your pockets as you pass by these people. After this you will see some dear, sweet faces of girls whose chaste appearance and elegant, tasteful clothing will stun the inexperienced; perhaps one of these deeply penetrating glances will be cast upon you, and you will be enthusiastically approached:

“Heinrich, Franz, Jonathan, Nepomuk! – you are finally here, I was expecting you!”

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