Käsebier Takes Berlin is a book about the power of the press. Not journalists or reporters, but the medium itself. Today, we might call it a tale of a story gone viral. In a week with no newsworthy stories, a journalist at a Berlin newspaper writes a short, throwaway article on an unknown popular singer, Georg Käsebier. But when the story is picked up by a famous poet and a young writer on the make, this nobody, whose name translates to “Cheese-Beer,” becomes Berlin’s new star, the everyman they’ve been looking for. Writers, photographers, moviemakers, and bankers flock to Käsebier, hoping to convert his fame into reichsmarks. Berlin becomes a Käsebier economy. Yet fashion moves on quickly in the overheated capitalism of thirties Berlin, and when Käsebier falls, many others fall, too.
Though this novel is ostensibly about him, Käsebier is almost incidental to the story. The real protagonists of the book are the well-meaning journalists who unwittingly set off this fiasco. The writers at the Berliner Rundschau are a scrappy bunch of sleuths, critics, and know-it-alls dissecting and reporting on the world around them (though they can never publish the “really good stuff,” as they like to complain). When the Käsebier boom engulfs their own newspaper, they can only watch helplessly as they fall victim to their own creation.
Gabriele Tergit wrote Käsebier in 1931, but its depictions of fake news, sudden stardom, and bitter culture wars between left and right feel unnervingly contemporary. As she wrote, the Weimar Republic’s fragile parliamentary democracy was tumbling into dictatorship and Nazi terror. In only two years, she would have to leave the country, and would never live there again.
Tergit was born Elise Hirschmann, in Berlin, in 1894, into a family of successful Jewish industrialists. Ignoring protests from her bourgeois parents, Hirschmann became a journalist, writing under the pen name Gabriele Tergit. Today she is remembered as one of the few female writers of the New Objectivity movement, whose aim was to depict contemporary culture and society with cool dispassion. Within the writings of New Objectivity Käsebier stands out because it is a novel about the news, turning its eye on those who write about and reflect on events as they happen. Tergit’s voice is brisk, acerbic, and witty as she tells the story of a metropolis in upheaval. This translation of Käsebier brings this story, and Tergit’s trenchant brilliance and humor, to English readers for the first time.
In 1931, Tergit was at the height of her career, working as a journalist for the influential liberal newspaper Berliner Tageblatt. With her trademark round glasses, dark bob, and serious gaze, Tergit was a fixture of the Berlin literary scene, and could often be found at the Romanisches Café, the Café Adler, and the regulars’ table at Capri on Anhalter Strasse. Tergit had spent most of her career as a court reporter, covering abortion trials, thefts, murders, bankruptcies, and political violence. Her interests ranged widely, though, and she wrote articles on women in the Weimar Republic, humorous essays on everyday life, and pieces for Carl von Ossietzky’s left-wing weekly Die Weltbühne. The publisher Rowohlt had just agreed to publish her first novel, Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm, which would go on to be a hit. A year earlier, the Tageblatt had asked readers which public personalities the newspaper should profile. Alongside notables such as the poet Gottfried Benn and the cultural critic Oswald Spengler, they chose Tergit—the only woman featured.
It had taken willpower and hard work for such an unassuming woman to establish herself in the cutthroat newspaper world. Tergit published her first article at the age of nineteen, on women in the workforce. When she went to collect her pay, the editor exclaimed, “If I’d known you were so young, I wouldn’t have run the piece.” Tergit joined the staff of the Tageblatt in 1925 after cutting her teeth at the Berliner Börsen-Courier. Modest and sharp, she eschewed literary bravado for careful reporting and had a skeptical stance toward ideology, both right and left.
By early 1930, the economic depression and political instability was taking a toll on her career and family. Tergit’s salary at the Tageblatt had been reduced, and her husband, the architect Heinz Reifenberg, could find only occasional remodeling work. Her coverage of the Feme murders, assassinations committed by far-right paramilitary groups, had brought her the undesirable attention of the National Socialists. At 5 A.M. on March 4, 1933—the day before the federal election that brought Hitler to power—SA officers knocked at her door. Reifenberg told the maid not to open it, a choice that likely saved Tergit’s life. She quickly phoned a colleague with Nazi affiliations who pulled strings on her behalf to make the SA leave. She fled the following day to Czechoslovakia, while her husband and son remained behind in Berlin.
Tergit and her family spent the rest of their lives in exile, settling in London after several years in Palestine. She continued to write and publish as a freelancer, but never again found the audience of her prewar years. During and after the war she worked on Effingers, a novel in the spirit of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, portraying three generations of a Jewish family in fin de siècle Germany. Tergit considered it her magnum opus, though the book found little acclaim when it was published in 1951. In 1957, she became the secretary of the PEN Center for German Writers Abroad. Between the fifties and the seventies, she also wrote several successful books on the cultural history of flowers. This led her to comment sarcastically to a friend, “It seems that flowers are more popular than Jews.” To Tergit’s great disappointment, her third and final novel, So war’s eben, a social drama that begins in 1898 and ends in sixties New York, never found a publisher.
Forgotten in her native country, Tergit was rediscovered in the seventies, when Germans began to show interest in works written by exiled authors. In 1977, Käsebier was republished and newly fêted by the press. At eighty-three, she reached her highest point of literary fame; her life’s work was celebrated at the Berliner Festwochen, a major annual cultural and literary festival, where she read from Käsebier to a captivated audience. Tergit died in London, at the age of eighty-eight, on July 25, 1982.
Käsebier Takes Berlin gives a view of the heady final years of the Weimar Republic from the inside of the newsroom. In 1930, Berlin had the greatest newspaper density of any European city: forty daily newspapers with a combined circulation of more than three million copies. (The city itself had around four million inhabitants.) Competition was fierce, and newspapers engaged in bitter feuds, journalists raced one another to break stories, and publishers sold multiple daily editions and dozens of special-interest supplements to attract readers. The sheer volume and diversity of Berlin’s newspapers was overwhelming, yet many Berliners felt they could not afford to lag behind the never-ending stream of news. As Kurt Tucholsky writes in his satirical “Newspaper Reader’s Prayer,” “Dear Lord, please hear my prayer! Behold this stack, layer on layer! Dear Lord, I can’t take any more; here I have just one week’s score! And I have to read it all … ”
Tergit’s Berliner Tageblatt was among the most important newspapers in the German capital and the country as a whole; as the flagship daily of Mosse, one of the big three Berlin publishers, it was the sixth-most-popular newspaper in Germany in 1930, with around 140,000 subscribers. During the Weimar years, the Tageblatt was also a significant voice of liberalism. Its editor in chief was Theodor Wolff, one of the “great men” of German journalism and a founder of the German Democratic Party, a left-of-center party committed to republican democracy. The GDP was largely made up of working professionals, and it was the party that most represented the interests of German Jews. The Tageblatt advocated for these politics and provided a strong voice in support of Germany’s fledgling democracy.
Tergit reported for the Berlin page of the Tageblatt along with two colleagues, Walther Kiaulehn and Rudolf Olden, with whom she formed a close-knit trio. The three friends embody the breadth and openness of the intellectual scene of Berlin in the twenties: Kiaulehn, who had worked as an electrician before joining the Tageblatt, came from a Prussian working-class family and held socialist sympathies; Olden had come to Berlin from Vienna, where he had already enjoyed a distinguished career working alongside Joseph Roth, Alfred Polgar, and Egon Erwin Kisch.
Tergit’s novel centers on the newsroom of the center-left Berliner Rundschau, a lightly fictionalized version of Tergit’s Tageblatt. Like the Tageblatt of the early twenties, the Rundschau has a vibrant newsroom with a lively exchange of ideas, perspectives, and barbs. Both newspapers espouse progressive free-market positions, and have reporters who largely believe in the value of social democracy. But like the Tageblatt, which would face severe political and financial pressures in the late twenties, the Rundschau ends up a splashy, slimmed-down version of itself—losing its credibility and public voice.
Kiaulehn and Olden, meanwhile, provided Tergit with inspiration for two of the book’s main characters: the cheery, sarcastic reporter Emil Gohlisch, and the verbose, intellectual editor in chief, Georg Miermann. Though Miermann was a composite figure, a paradigmatic example of the genteel, bourgeois intellectual, Olden spent weeks carrying a galley of Käsebier around under his arm, convinced he was its embattled protagonist. Like Miermann, Olden was a liberal editor with Jewish roots; unlike his fictional counterpart, who is steamrolled by political opportunists, Olden was outspoken, publishing strongly worded attacks against the German Right, including a 1932 book on conspiracy theories entitled Prophets in a German Crisis, and the damning 1935 biography Hitler the Pawn. Olden considered it his mission to be both an artist and a truth-seeker. He imbued every piece he wrote or edited with sharpness and clarity. In her autobiography, Tergit uses the same words to describe Olden’s editing that she had used decades earlier for the fictional Miermann: “He cut, reorganized, added punctuation, straightened out thoughts, lifted ideas out of the confusion of dim intuition and brought them into the clarity of enlightening prose, and only then did our articles become a good Kiaulehn, a good Tergit.”
When Tergit began writing Käsebier, the paper had undergone major changes. The newspaper had been significantly restructured by Hans Lachmann-Mosse, the son-in-law of the original founder, Rudolf Mosse. Lachmann-Mosse had taken over the reins of the Mosse empire in 1920, but lacked not only his father-in-law’s liberal convictions, but his business acumen as well. In the twenties Lachmann-Mosse had undertaken a series of speculative investments, including a real estate development on a parcel of land long held by the family, which failed spectacularly (a central plot point in Käsebier).
By the late twenties, staff salaries were low, as was morale. Theodor Wolff and Martin Carbe, the general director of the publishing company, frequently clashed with Lachmann-Mosse, who wanted to increase profits by taking direct control over the Tageblatt. By 1930, the Mosse empire was in peril. To save himself from ruin, Lachmann-Mosse drew money from employee pension funds and cut newspaper staff. Carbe resigned in protest and was replaced by Karl Vetter, a business-minded opportunist who reorganized the paper, added more illustrated supplements and lifestyle sections, and orchestrated large-scale advertising stunts. The Tageblatt became increasingly commercial, more entertainment than news.
In the federal election of September 14, 1930, the National Socialists increased their seats in parliament from twelve to 107. At first, many journalists doubted the Nazis would gain broader acceptance. The recognition of their error came too late, however, and soon the German liberal press lost its ability to intervene in the deteriorating political situation. After a string of failed cabinets, the German Democratic Party was dissolved, and a power vacuum emerged at the top of German government. Consensus on leadership was so difficult to achieve that by 1931 even newspapers critical of the Nazis had tempered their message, urging patience and cooperation with far-right politicians whom just two years earlier they had considered deeply repugnant.
The liberal press argued that Hitler should be included in the government, in the hope that this might temper his party’s extremism. At the same time, journalists became increasingly fearful of repercussions for criticizing the Nazis or the army in print. What a few short years before had been a diverse and vibrant newspaper landscape was collapsing from within. On top of these internal problems, the ultranationalist Alfred Hugenberg had taken advantage of the economic instability caused by the Great Depression to buy up flagging newspapers across the country, including one of Berlin’s most popular dailies, the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, and built a powerful far-right media giant. Hugenberg’s company became the largest media corporation in Germany, one entirely at the service of the Right.
In this environment, the bustling world described by Tergit in her novel—the newsroom chatter, publishers’ gossip, animated meetings at the Romanisches Café—ground to a halt. At the Tageblatt, Tergit’s beloved editor, Olden, was dismissed in 1931, along with many longtime staff writers. Tergit and Olden, both Jewish, and both politically undesirable, were forced into exile, where they continued to publish material against the Nazi regime. Kiaulehn remained, meanwhile, and while he initially received a professional ban from the Nazis, he later became a propaganda writer for the Nazis and an occasional announcer for the Deutsche Wochenschau, the newsreel of the Third Reich.
Along with the decline of the liberal press came a rise in anti-Semitism. The decline of the Berliner Tageblatt—tarred as a Judenblatt, or “Jewish paper”—was symptomatic of a broader cultural shift in which a liberal, cosmopolitan culture became displaced by a racist nationalist ideology. German Jews like Tergit, and her character Miermann, had made a home for themselves in modern Germany by adopting both German cosmopolitanism and a patriotism for the best of German culture. In Käsebier, Tergit shows the gradual exclusion of Jews from public life less through acts of overt anti-Semitism than through an increasing devaluation of high culture, or Bildung, of which Jews were a prominent and visible part.
Late in the novel, Miermann wonders whether his family’s efforts to assimilate had been worthwhile. After walking past two Galician Jews with long beards and flowing caftans, he turns to ask his wife, “Have we become that much more beautiful, you with your blonde hair and blue eyes, and I with my books on romanticism and classicism?” An inextricable part of Miermann’s—and Tergit’s—German Jewish identity is his love of Schiller, the liberal Romantic; Heinrich Heine, exiled Jewish poet and father of the feuilleton; and Anatole France, socialist progressive and defender of Zola in the Dreyfus Affair. Tergit believed that liberal thinkers were the spiritual fathers of the Weimar Republic, and remained the conscience of a nation that in the thirties had lost the measure of things. Quotations from Schiller and Heine intersperse the novel as pointed references to a more civilized, open-minded time.
The language of Käsebier is as colorful and varied as the world it portrays. Tergit’s book is not self-consciously experimental, but, as a product of New Objectivity, it easily moves between realism and Modernism through its inclusion of fragmentary street scenes, headlines, snippets of songs, advertising slogans, and newspaper articles, as well as extended reflections on architecture, housing, work, and fashion. With each of these comes another register of language and particular vocabulary. Translating the novel meant following Tergit’s shifts from literary language to the most colloquial: a short conversation peppered with slang will be followed by a genteel description of an upscale apartment; the negotiation of a business contract will be interspersed with bawdy humor.
And, like all natives of the capital, Tergit has a love for Berlinerisch, the German spoken by the city’s inhabitants. Berlinerisch is sometimes crude and often cheeky, like the novel itself. It mixes cosmopolitan sophistication with earthy humor, and includes words from French, Flemish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Rotwelsch, an argot used by beggars and thieves. Berlinerisch is well known for its creative insults and its characteristic sound, in which hard sounds become soft—gut becomes jut (pronounced: yoot)—and soft, hard—Ich becomes Icke. This translation attempts to convey the zip of Berlinerisch by using a combination of Anglo-American language of the era, everyday slang, and dropped consonants in colloquial speech.
An important term that has no precise English equivalent is Käsebier’s métier: Volkssänger. While the literal translation is “folk singer,” a German “folk song” can include anything from a beer-hall schlager to a hiking song to a military melody or a show-tune. Käsebier conquers the hearts of Berliners because his songs, far from embodying the high ideals of Weimar cosmopolitanism and Bildung, are shallow and nostalgic throwbacks to the song traditions of Wilhelmine Germany, but even simpler, for the unsentimental, industrial present. But while his greatest hits—including “Boy, Isn’t Love Swell?” and “How Can He Sleep with That Tin Wall?”—elicit an easy attraction for Berliners, they are finally too superficial to last in the chaos of the early thirties. They offer no solutions, just memories. Käsebier’s artistry is genuine, but it, too, gets swept away by events, and Käsebier ends his career in a shabby bar two hours outside Berlin.
Despite its ebullience and sprightly repartee, Käsebier is ultimately tragic. People lose their homes, their savings, and sometimes their lives. But along the way, the book also revels in the vitality and creativity of the people who made Weimar Berlin into a modern (and Modernist) city. None of this was enough to ensure the survival of the liberal republic, of course, something Tergit knew when she was writing the novel. While she understood that this open, cosmopolitan Germany was still an unfulfilled vision rather than a reality, she saw in its spirit the best her country had to offer. It is this spirit that Tergit’s writing upholds—that of Minerva atop the crumbling newspaper headquarters.
Sophie Duvernoy has translated work by Sibylle Berg, Sabine Rennefanz, and Zora del Buono, and has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Thomson Reuters, and other publications. She is the winner of the 2015 Gutekunst Prize for young translators and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University.
From the introduction to Käsebier Takes Berlin, by Gabriele Tergit, translated by Sophie Duvernoy, published by New York Review Books this week. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Sophie Duvernoy.