Posts Tagged ‘tenement barracks’

Heinrich Zille and his milieu

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Heinrich Zille was a German illustrator and photographer and one of the most famous Berliners of the first half of the 20th century. He was best known for his tongue in cheek portrayals of Berlin’s working class. He sketched during the late 1900s and into the roaring 1920s. At that time, a great majority of the city’s population (96%) rented.

Workers’ lived in Mietskasernen

Berlin grew rapidly during the industrial revolution. In search of prosperity, scores of people moved from the countryside to the cities between 1860 and 1914. Unfortunately, the move often pushed them into even deeper poverty. Although menial work was available in Berlin, housing was extremely difficult to find. Many of these transplants ended up living in deplorable conditions. The most common accommodation was a one-room apartment in a Mietskaserne (tenement barracks). These barracks were five stories high and had front, rear, and cross buildings surrounding several courtyards. The relative posh front building housed the middle class. The working class occupied all of the back buildings. These structures in the rear might consist of three to eight building groups, separated by small rectangular courtyards. The courtyards were only large enough to allow for a fire truck to turn around. Entire families lived in a few square feet and under conditions that seem unimaginable today. Many lived in damp basements, attics and spaces under stairs. The windows of lower-level apartments were often blocked by courtyard businesses. Many shift workers shared a room and the same bed. Some of the buildings housed as many as 3,000 individuals (20% of the apartments did not have running water, 34% did not have a toilet and 72% did not have a bathroom). Stoves burning charcoal briquettes provided the heat.

Heinrich Zille sketches his milieu

Heinrich Zille sketched the social settings in which the Berlin working class went about their everyday business. Because he sketched the unpleasant and often hopeless conditions of the common worker, German Emperor Wilhelm II referred to Heinrich Zille as a “gutter artist.”

Zille’s milieu could be found in the courtyards of tenement buildings, in the back alleys and in seedy bars. His illustrations showed children, ragged and unwashed, dirty and with bloody noses. He sketched the dark entrances of the tenements, the hanky-panky in courtyards and stairwells and families at weekly markets. He sketched kids playing in mud, basement businesses with signs “Buying rags and bones” and mothers ready to drown themselves to escape their hopeless life.

Heinrich Zille's "Blumenerde" - potting soil - (reproduction, part of the Axel Springer collection and presented to customers of the Berliner Morgenpost

Heinrich Zille’s “Blumenerde” – potting soil – (reproduction, part of the Axel Springer collection and presented to customers of the Berliner Morgenpost)

Many of Heinrich Zille’s works can be seen at the Zille Museum in Berlin’s Nikolai Quarter of Berlin, Provost Strasse 11.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.