Warmbrunner Straße, Grunewald – The Pension Bismarck is a typical example of a Berlin pension where private owners rented out individual rooms for foreign visitors and residents. These were cheaper than hotels. What life in a pension was like is a frequent motif in British texts about Berlin.
Alix Strachey, Elizabeth Wiskemann, Christopher Isherwood and many other long-term residents in Berlin stayed in a Pension. After the First World War, economic hardship had forced genteel owners to rent out separate rooms in their large private apartments, with residents sharing communal areas such as bathrooms and kitchens, sometimes also sitting and dining rooms. Landladies provided food, washing and cleaning. Pensions were a lot cheaper than hotels and did not require the resident to deal with household matters directly. John Chancellor explained the system in his travel guide How to be Happy in Berlin (1929):
‘One of the drawbacks of the city is that it’s almost impossible to get small, furnished flats. If you want two or three rooms to yourself, you have to go to a pension, and in most cases that means that there will be other people with you in the flat. For a stay of a week or two, the pension system is good enough, but if continued too long, it nettles the Englishman’s thirst for privacy.’
The Pension Bismarck could be found in leafy Grunewald, on Warmbrunnerstraße. This was an upper-middle class neighbourhood with easy access to both the lakes and the woods, but also close to Halensee, where the new amusement area Lunapark had recently opened. Numerous cinemas, cafés, bars and restaurants as well as the shops on Kurfürstendamm could be reached by tram.
Alix Strachey describes the typical Wilhelminian furniture, fittings, and food in one of her ironic letters to her husband James:
‘You need’nt worry about the food. A vasty ‘Deutsches’ steak with mast-kartoffel all drenched in oil, followed by bread butter & cheese, & washed down with tea – confronted me at 7:30. The meat was quite the most delicious I’ve had as yet in Berlin. The Klubsessel in which I’m sitting at present is’nt bad & the room is far more tolerable, you’ll agree, than Maria Franz [their pension in Vienna]. The light’s medium, the personnel charming, don’t you think?’
Elizabeth Wiskemann summarises the pension system, prostitution, and the lack of privacy succinctly: ‘I managed to find a pleasant bed sitting-room at Bismarckstrasse 82 opposite the opera-house in Charlottenburg; this was in a flat belonging to a middle-aged woman of aristocratic family. […] The Baronin had a son and daughter, both about 20 and both Nazis, and both very willing to sell their bodies for homosexual purposes. She had a sister who loved to ring up to tell her that one of her children was standing at some notorious street corner. Since the sister, like many of her type, always shouted on the telephone, and since the telephone was just outside my door, I could sometimes literally hear what she had to say – it came booming out of the receiver.’
Christopher Isherwood immortalised the stage-like set of his Schöneberg pension, his fellow residents and his landlady, Meta Thurau, in Goodbye to Berlin (1939). A further memorable description of this particular setting and some of its characters can be found in Stephen Spender’s 1951 memoir World Within World. Gesa Stedman
1—John Chancellor, How to be Happy in Berlin (London: Arrowsmith, 1929), pp. 39–40.
2—Alix Strachey to James 23 September 1924, in Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–1925, ed. Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick (New York: Basic Books, 1985), p. 66.
3—Elizabeth Wiskemann, The Europe I Saw, (London: Collins 1968), pp. 13–14.