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Hidden in the “Far East”, the museum built by Berlin’s most famous trans woman

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf killed her father, spent time in a Nazi jail, and founded the Gründerzeitmuseum. It's quite a story.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf killed her father, spent time in a Nazi jail, and founded one of Berlin’s most fascinating museums. Photo: IMAGO / teutopress

Go out to Berlin’s “Far East”, to Mahlsdorf, on the outer edge of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, pushing against the border with Brandenburg. You will see a late baroque, apricot-coloured manor. This is not where you would expect to find a centre of Berlin’s queer movement.

Mahlsdorf Manor was built in 1815. Over the centuries, it housed different bourgeois owners, and also an orphanage. But by the late 1950s, it was empty, and the local government planned to demolish it — why pour resources into restoring old aristocratic palaces when workers needed housing? That was the thinking in East Berlin, at least.

The manor was saved by Berlin’s most famous trans woman* Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. She moved into the dilapidated building in 1958. She had previously lived in Friedrichsfelde Palace from 1946–8, similarly protecting it from demolition, decay, and looting. The surrounding park was transformed into the East Berlin Zoo in 1955, and the palace was for a time used to house chimpanzees. Now the palace in the middle of a zoo hosts classical music concerts.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was born in 1928 as Lothar Berfelde. The village of Mahlsdorf had just been incorporated into Greater Berlin. Even as a small child, she was always interested in girls’ clothes and “old junk.” As a teenager, she got a job with an antiques dealer clearing out old apartments, and kept interesting tidbits for herself.

Her father, a violent man and a fanatical Nazi, pushed her to join the Hitler Youth. When he threatened to murder her, her siblings, and her mother with his revolver, she took a massive wooden ladle and killed her father in his sleep. Sentenced to four years in juvenile prison, she was released early when Berlin was conquered by the Red Army.

After the war, she worked as a museum curator and antiques dealer, saving old furniture from bombed-out homes. She also began to dress in a more proudly feminine style, eventually becoming Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

She put her collection, including lots of grandfather clocks and gramophones, on display at Mahlsdorf Manor. This eventually became a museum dedicated to the ornate furniture of the Gründerzeit, the period of rapid economic expansion after the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, lasting until roughly 1900.

She even managed to save Berlin’s last traditional bar, located on Mulackstraße in the Scheunenviertel, the poor Eastern Jewish quarter north of Alexanderplatz. When the bar Mulackritze was torn down in 1963, she saved all its furniture and rebuilt it in the manor’s basement.

Starting in 1974, this basement bar served as a meeting point for the Homosexual Interest Group of [East] Berlin. This was a safe spot for queers from the German Democratic Republic to hold meetings and parties — until the Stasi put an end to queer organising.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was able to fend off government attempts to nationalize the growing museum. In 1989, she had a cameo in East Germany’s first gay film, Coming Out. That film premiered at Kino International on November 9 — the wall was opened during the premiere.

In 1991, the manor was attacked by Neo-Nazis — part of a wave of right-wing violence and terror which followed German reunification. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was granted Germany’s Order of Merit, but she felt she could no longer stay in the country. She emigrated to Sweden in 1995 and died on a visit to Berlin in 2002. The Gründerzeitmuseum was taken over by an association and remains open today.

The museum is a wonder in its own right: full or ornate furniture and portraits of Kaisers, it shows how a wealthy family would have lived in the 1880s. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf lived there for decades, as a maid for absent owners, without running water or electricity, as she restored the manor. What will blow your mind are the self-playing musical instruments from the late 19th century: put in an old Pfennig coin and they will blare out a tune that your great-great-grandparents might have enjoyed. If you ask the people working there, they might switch on one of the wax cylinder players, and you can hear scratchily recorded music from 150 years ago. 

Her wonderful autobiography, I Am My Own Woman, is available in English and numerous other languages. It’s one of my favorite books, showing queer life under fascism, in East Germany, and during capitalist restoration — good reading for an uncle who believes there didn’t used to be trans people. Her life has also been the subject of multiple plays. This is more than worth a trip to the “Far East”.

* The terminology has shifted over the decades. Charlotte referred to herself as a “girl in a boy’s body” and a “transvestite.” She said she was not “self-conscious about my male sexual organs” and therefore: “I am not a transsexual.” But today she would likely use the term trans.

Gründerzeitmuseum im Gutshaus Mahlsdorf — Hultschiner Damm 333 — not far from S-Bhf Mahlsdorf (S5)

This is an excerpt from Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin, available from Pluto Press and all bookstores.