The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn lived the Berlin expat life for five months between October 1891 and March 1892. Despite his infamous distaste for the “ugly German language”, Twain was a big fan of the city, and the impressions he published in the Chicago tribune upon his return have an uncannily familiar ring to expat ears today!
Twain travelled to Berlin with his wife and three daughters, crossing the Atlantic on the steamship ‘Gascogne’ from New York. They first landed in southern France on September 30 and made the overland trip to Berlin through France and Germany within a week. This wasn’t his first trip to Europe – he had spent a lot of time in other parts of Germany, especially in Heidelberg, and made shorter trips to France and Switzerland. Twain was escaping debts but also on the lookout for adventure and inspiration, just like the numerous American writers (think Anglo-Americans Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Wolfe and Patricia Highsmith) to come after him.
“The European Chicago… but uniformly beautiful”
“I feel lost in Berlin,” admits Twain in his lengthy letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune, published upon his arrival back home on April 3, 1892. He composed the letter after leaving Berlin, putting most of his impressions of the winter spent in Germany into this one report. Although he expected to see “a dingy city in a marsh, with rough streets, muddy and lantern-lighted”, Twain was pleasantly surprised by the city he described as “the newest I have ever seen.”
His trip coincided with the amazingly fast-paced modernisation of the capital of the new German Empire, established in 1871, which probably had more construction sites than today.
“Berlin […] is newer to the eye than is any other city, and also blonder of complexion and tidier; no other city has such an air of roominess, freedom from crowding; no other city has so many straight streets; and with Chicago it contests the chromo for flatness of surface and for phenomenal swiftness of growth. Berlin is the European Chicago. The two cities have about the same population – say a million and a half. But now the parallels fail. Only parts of Chicago are stately and beautiful, whereas all of Berlin is stately and substantial, and it is not merely in parts but uniformly beautiful.”
The Prussian appeal – “A rule for everything”
Just like so many foreigners today, Twain was full of adoration for Berlin – but for completely different reasons. Whereas nowadays Americans rave about the bohemia and unruly feel of that famous Berliner Luft, Twain was thoroughly impressed by the Prussian Ordnung:
“Berlin seems to be the most governed city in the world, but one must admit that it also seems to be the best governed. Method and system are observable on every hand – in great things, in little things, in all details, of whatsoever size. And it is not “method and system on paper, and there an end – it is method and system in practice. It has a rule for everything, and puts the rule in force; puts it in force against the poor and powerful alike, without favor or prejudice.”
And, whether it be 1891 or 2020, it seems newcomers to Berlin have always had to prepare themselves for an immediate Anmeldung.
“In one respect the 1,500,000 of Berlin’s population are like a family: the head of this large family knows the names of its several members, and where the said members are located, and when and where they were born, and what they do for a living, and what their religious brand is. Whoever comes to Berlin must furnish these particulars to the police immediately.”
One aspect he enjoyed far less was the German taxes. Twain was particularly taken aback after receiving a Prussian tax bill for 48 Marks – notably made up of church taxes and the hefty income tax placed on foreigners. When a German reporter asked him how long he was planning to stay, Twain answered: “Until your taxes drive me out again.”
Twain hearts the Berlin police
While the Steuer might have been a pain, it seems he was impressed with the services it provided.
“The calm, quiet, courteous, cussed persistence of the police is the most admirable thing I have encountered on this side […] If there were an earthquake in Berlin the police would take charge of it and conduct it in that sort of orderly way that would make you think it was a prayer meeting.”
Housing: from “rag-pickers paradise” to Hotel Royal
Twain’s first home in Berlin was at Körnerstraße 7, now in the district of Tiergarten. It was here that he translated the legendary German children’s book Struwwelpeter for his own children (it was eventually published as Slovenly Peter in 1935). Twain’s favourite character was Kaspar, the boy who hated soup – sharing the writer’s own dislike for the German winter staple.
However, unimpressed with the damp living conditions in these digs, Twain moved out of this “rag-pickers paradise” and into the Hotel Royal on Unter den Linden. From there, he had a rosy view of Berlin, removed from misery of the time, even praising what he saw as the high-quality living conditions throughout the city.
“One is not allowed to cram poor folk into cramped and dirty tenement houses. Each individual must have just so many cubic feet of room-space, and sanitary inspections are systematic and frequent.”
In reality, Berlin had a much harsher housing crisis back then than now, only that Twain didn’t notice it in the Hotel Royal. It was common that families shared not only a flat, but a room full of beds and piles of clothes. From his view at the Royal, Twain also praised the “very clean” state of Berlin’s streets and, in particular, the work of street sweepers, whose “scrapers and brooms”, he noted, were far more effective than the “prayers and talk” used by those in New York. However, Twain being Twain, he did have one pet peeve when it came to the streets, which is something that even newcomers in 2020 will understand only too well.
“But the numbering of the houses – there has never been anything like it since original chaos. It is not possible that it was done by this wise city government. At first one thinks it was done by an idiot; but there is too much variety about it for that; an idiot could not think of so many different ways of making confusion and propagating blasphemy.”
“Brains are of no value when you are trying to navigate Berlin”
Strangely enough Twain doesn’t mention the S-Bahn that had opened nine years earlier, with his transportation adventures seemingly stuck to horse- cars.
“There is a multiplicity of clean and comfortable horse-cars, but when- ever you think you know where a car is going to, you would better stop ashore, because that car is not going to that place at all. The car routes are marvelously intricate, and often the drivers get lost and are not heard of for years. The signs on the cars furnish no details as to the course of the journey; they name the end of it, and then experiment around to see how much territory they can cover before they get there […] Brains are of no value when you are trying to navigate Berlin in a horse-car.”
While there are few remaining traces of Twain’s Berlin life still with us today – both of his temporary residences have since been demolished – he has certainly left behind a legacy in the city. There is a Mark-Twain-Straße in Hellersdorf, while the nearby state library of Marzahn-Hellersdorf also bears his name. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, not far from Tegel Airport, there is a Mark Twain elementary school – where the school paper is called the Mississippi Online.
All quotations taken from “The Chicago of Europe” (Chicago Daily Tribune, April 3, 1892).