The emergence of Prussia as the dominant power in the new nation of Germany had a profound effect on 20th Century Europe. This first blog of 2018 is dedicated to Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), one of my all-time favourite authors and widely recognised as Germany’s most important 19th Century realist novelist. It was in his writing that the golden age of Prussian civilisation found its greatest chronicler – and formidable critic. Fontane also loved Berlin and Berliners – with all their faults. The title image for this blog, a well-known Fontane quote, translates as: ‘Before God, all people are actually Berliners’. .
Fontane’s parents were both from French Huguenot immigrant families and he was born in the small Prussian town of Neuruppin, about 30 miles north of Berlin where his father ran a pharmacy. In 1834, Fontane moved to the capital and, having trained as a pharmacist himself, he then spent most of his working life in Berlin as a journalist, travel writer, poet and novelist. He also worked in London for three years and was a notable Anglophile. Theodor Fontane pioneered the German social novel and wrote 17 novels after the age of 60, all set in Berlin and Brandenburg. The most well-known is ‘Effi Briest’ (1894), which was translated into English in 1964 and made into a film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in 2009 by Hermine Huntgeburth.
Fontane’s work depicts the lives of people across all classes in a society increasingly dominated by the militarism and materialism of Bismarck’s Second Reich. His novels are often compared to those of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen for their poetic realism, social criticism and subtle irony. His characters are closely-observed and often revealed through their conversations, drawing the reader into a world where individuals – often women – struggle against social codes. Fontane’s travel writing is equally skilful and well ahead of its time for combining narrative adventure with literary style and historical insight. His five-volume ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (‘Travels in the Province of Brandenburg’), describe the landscape and the people in the countryside around Berlin. Their rich, human detail prove that it isn’t only exotic locations that can capture the imagination. And that is precisely what it so appealing about Fontane; his ability to ‘transfigure’ everyday life into something magical and universal.
Fontane’s bicentenary in the year 2019 is fast approaching. In Berlin and Brandenburg, especially his birthplace of Neuruppin, a variety of cultural projects are being planned. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be accessible to English speakers. Fontane’s work is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as on the continent and it would be wonderful if his bicentenary provides an opportunity to showcase his work to a wider public. In the meantime, I offer you a stroll through streets in the old centre of Berlin where you can still find traces of Fontane. Many of the places where he lived and worked, or which are mentioned in his literary works, no longer exist, so this walk concentrates on sites which at least bear the same name or have been restored.
Plan of the ‘Fontane walk’
From Hackescher Markt bear left into Oranienburger Straβe. After 100 metres turn right into Groβe Hamburger Straβe and walk past the old Jewish cemetery and Jewish memorial. A little further on, set back between two buildings, is the Sophienkirche, a baroque church dating back to 1712. Building number 30/30a, where Fontane moved to in 1834 to live with his Uncle August and Aunt Pinchen, was demolished in 1904/05 but was replaced by the building which still stands on the same site. Fontane described the original tenement block as “half-crumbling, ugly and ordinary, like its inhabitants”. Yet one of his neighbours included the family of his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer!
Before they were married in 1850, Emilie moved with Theodor into 33, Oranienburger Straβe, “a rather pretty house, opposite the large post yard”. From Groβe Hamburger Straβe turn left into Krausnickstraβe, then turn right into Oranienburger Straβe past the Golden Dome of the Neue Synagoge (built in 1866) and opposite the grand Imperial post office building is where Emilie used to live.
Now head towards the River Spree down Tucholsky Straβe. On your left is the imposing Bodemuseum at the end of Museum Island. Turn right along the river bank until you reach the Weidendammer Bridge with a fine view of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, whose founder Bertolt Brecht was born eight months before Fontane’s death. The Weidendammer Bridge had a special meaning for Fontane, who “had the happiest thought of his life”, when he proposed to Emilie on this bridge in 1845.
Weidammer Brücke in 1881
Turn left into Friedrichstraβe, past the station to the ‘Dorotheenstädtische Apotheke’ on the corner of Mittlestraβe. This pharmacy used to be called the ‘Polnische Apotheke’ where Fontane worked in 1845/6. The current building was erected in 1898-1902. When you reach Unter den Linden, turn left again and you will pass the ‘Staatsbibliothek’ (State Library) which in Fontane’s time used to house the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fontane briefly worked there as Secretary in 1876, but as a free thinker, he found the job too stifling. A little further on, past the Humboldt University, is the Neue Wache, once a guardhouse and now the main war memorial in Berlin. Thirty-two years previously, in 1844, Fontane had performed guard duty here when he volunteered for one year as a Grenadier Guard.
Staatsbibliothek, Unter den Linden
Neue Wache around 1900
Diagonally opposite the Neue Wache is the newly-restored Staatsoper (State Opera House), dating back to 1741/43. Cross Bebelplatz to the right of the Staatsoper and head for Behrenstraβe, behind St Hedwigskathedrale (1747). Fontane’s great friend Mathilde von Rohr lived at 70, Behrenstraβe. Continue towards Marktgrafenstraβe and turn left into the Gendarmenmarkt with its twin churches flanking the Konzerthaus. This concert hall was originally built in 1821 as the Schauspielhaus (theatre) where Fontane was a passionate theatregoer; for 20 years, from 1870 onwards, he worked as theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung (newspaper).
Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in 1820
On the southern edge of Gendarmenplatz is Stadmitte underground station. Take the U2 for two stops to Potsdamer Platz and when you emerge, you will be very near the spot where Theodor Fontane lived from 1872 until 1898 and wrote most of his novels. The Fontane home was on 134, Potsdamer Straβe, about 85 metres south-west of Weinhaus Huth, the only building on this section of Potsdamer Straβe that survived the bombing and the construction of Berlin Wall. The family lived ‘three floors up’ in four rooms with a kitchen and larder. Fontane thought Potsdamer Platz was full of life and that “activity is the best thing that a city has to offer”.
Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz
I can recommend three other fairly central ‘Fontane sites’ in Berlin. A visit to the pretty Französischer Friedhof II (French cemetery) in Liesenstraβe is a must. The great man is buried here, together with his wife Emilie. Take the U6 from Friedrichstraβe station to Schwartzkopffstraβe. Walk northwards up Chausseestraβe as far as the junction with Liesenstraβe where the cemetery is on the right-hand side. The path to Fontane’s grave is clearly signposted.
In the Tiergarten, there is a fine statue of Fontane. From Zoo station take the Number 100 bus five stops to Nordische Botschaften/Adenauer Stiftung. Walk along Stülerstraβe to Thomas-Dehler-Straβe and on the right in the park stands the ‘Fontane-Denkmal’. This statue is a copy made in the 1980s – the original stands in the entrance hall of the Märkisches Museum. A curious fact to note: the buttons on his jacket are on the wrong side.
Fontane also left his mark on Kreuzberg. In 1848, he worked as an assistant in the apothecary of the Bethanien hospital on Mariannenplatz. The historic ‘Fontane Apotheke’ is on the ground floor of this fascinating building, now an arts centre, and is open to visitors on Tuesday afternoons.
The historic Fontane Apotheke in Bethanien
Finally, there are so many traces of Fontane outside Berlin in the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States that was locked inside the German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989. The towns and villages have now been sensitively restored and are being rediscovered by 21st Century visitors. It is well worth making a day trip to Fontane’s beautiful home town of Neuruppin, often referred to as ‘Fontanestadt’, with its well-ordered Prussian streets and stunning lake.
Aerial view of Neuruppin
And a few days in the Spreewald, about an hour south of Berlin, is a revelation. This historic area of wetlands and pine forests is criss-crossed by over 200 small canals called ‘Flieβe’. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers of the Spreewald region, the Slavic tribes of the Sorbs or ‘Wends’. In some villages, they have preserved many of their customs, as well as their language and traditional clothing. In 1991, the Spreewald, so wonderfully documented in Fontane’s travel writing, was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Barge trip through the Spreewald
One of many famous Fontane quotes is: “Das ist ein weites Feld” (from ‘Effi Briest’). It translates into English as, “that is a broad subject”, and suggests that something is far too complicated to discuss in brief. Gunter Grass used it to excellent effect for the title of his 1995 novel set in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This blog has only scratched the surface of Theodor Fontane and his Berlin/Brandenburg connections. If you are interested in learning more, I have listed a couple of websites below. And to finish, here is another favourite Fontane quotes, translated into English: