Consumer Culture and Street Politics in Berlin

On April 13, Molly Loberg, Associate Professor of History at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, gave a lecture on consumer culture and street politics in Berlin between 1914-1945. The lecture centered on the contents of Loberg’s book, The Struggle for the Streets of Berlin, whose release is set for December 2017. In the book, Loberg cites three important factors to consider when identifying sites of consumption: chronology, space, and perception. Her research approaches consumerism from a new lens, wherein consumerism exists as a byproduct of desperate economic times and political instability rather than it resulting solely from prosperity. Between 1875-1914, Loberg described, the number of retail outlets in Berlin increased by 500,000, with it evolving new focuses on interior design, fixed prices and chain stores. Ultimately, this transformation revitalized the streets as places of commerce, and hawkers began selling small quantities of wares. With increased foot traffic, hawkers were able to track urban dwellers’ movements and hone their wares so as to better befit the population. Officials saw “street-hawking” as a cheaper form of welfare, as most street-hawkers were immigrants or veterans. Shopkeepers, however, were infuriated, seeing themselves as honorable tax payers whose clienteles were lost to those who did not deserve them. Resultantly, violent outbursts ensued from mandated street raids, during which specific communities (often migrants seeking refuge from Eastern Europe) were specifically targeted. Following the end of these raids in the 1920s, streets became stages for the display of political propaganda. Correlating with Hitler’s rise to power, Nazi support groups utilized the public street as a publicity platform, with the shared geography of these streets quickly becoming a place that combined politics and culture. The Nazis were entranced by the possibility of city streets to become places of propaganda and saw conquering them as means for conquer the masses and, eventually, the state; however, they were disappointed because other organizations vied to purport their messages as well, crowding the streets with competing messages and eliminating the potency of any one cause.

To conclude her presentation, Loberg raised a number of questions regarding who the street belongs to in a democracy and where the line of regulation should be drawn when promoting ideas in public spaces. After the lecture, Loberg fielded questions from the 25 in attendance, one of which regarded the presence of this mass consumer culture in cities outside of Berlin. Loberg commented that other cities, including small towns, were fascinated by the consumer culture presence in Berlin, though their primary interests involved policing in the city. With the mass city viewed as the future, smaller towns in particular were simultaneously intrigued and terrified, leading to increased involvement in related conversations. One other question pertained to the Nazi view of mass consumption and consumer culture, leading Loberg to describe how Nazis, though not occupying a unified stance on the issue, entertained conversations about the allowance of foreign advertising and, at times, supported urban revitalization projects.