The Beast in Berlin is a recently published book by Tobias Churton (previewed earlier this year), which examines Aleister Crowley‘s time in the German capital which began at Easter 1930 and continued through much of the fraught twilight of the Weimar Republic. I was curious to discover the places where Crowley dwelled in my adoptive city, equally curious to know how they look today. Yesterday I took advantage of one of those fine autumn days which reminds you that fine autumn days are a scarce and ever dwindling resource. It just happened to be the Great Beast’s birthday, as well, so armed with Churton’s book I set off on a roughly chronological tour of Crowley’s Berlin.
The name Aleister Crowley recurs frequently on Strange Flowers, although most often in the company of others. My fascination for the man himself is discernible yet finite. Being preoccupied with the outer limits of individual experience I find Crowley’s gospel of ecstatic self-actualisation intriguing, but as a personality he could be utterly repellent, with frequent flashes of cruelty and treachery. Churton, who has previously published a biography of Crowley, is clearly a sympathetic chronicler. The Beast in Berlin is a substantial book considering Crowley only spent two years, on and off, in Berlin. There is a wealth – a surfeit, perhaps – of background material on German occultism, Berlin in the Weimar era and the Great Beast himself, such that more than 100 pages have gone by before we really find out what Crowley got up to in the city. However it was never entirely apparent to me why Crowley was there. While Weimar Berlin was a vital hub for artists, and Crowley had been dabbling in painting for over a decade, it was, as Churton points out, largely immune to the kind of dark mysticism in which Crowley customarily traded.
Crowley’s status as the preeminent occultist of the last century is indisputable, and whatever you think of him, he is simply unavoidable when you start exploring the more interesting by-ways of the first half of the 20th century. Even if you make a detour around the man himself, you will find that numerous dimly lit paths lead back to him. Jack Parsons, for instance, who turned up just a few days ago, was entirely given over to Crowley’s world view, which to a lesser extent influenced another recent subject, Rosaleen Norton, on the other side of the world. All three of the Places we visited in our late winter odyssey related to people with personal connections to Crowley: Montague Summers, Evan Morgan and Tenbians Nina Hamnett and Augustus John.
Crowley’s gift for attracting the most interesting people of his age didn’t desert him in Berlin, as our first stop indicates. Like many of Crowley’s ports of call in the city, the Savoy Hotel lies within walking distance of the Kurfürstendamm. It is an establishment that has welcomed guests like Thomas Mann, Greta Garbo and Maria Callas over the years (and my marginally less eminent self on an early visit to the city when my luggage had been lost in transit and I decided that the Savoy’s old school charms would have to compensate). It was here in September 1930 that Crowley met up with influential psychologist Alfred Adler who came to prominence with his theory of the “inferiority complex”, a condition from which Crowley clearly never suffered. As unlikely as it seems, the two men’s widely disparate disciplines shared points of intersection, particularly in their radical concentration on the individual.
Naturally as a self-respecting networker Crowley spent time in the nearby Romanisches Café, then still the epicentre of Berlin arts and letters. The revival of this part of old West Berlin which I flagged three years ago has ramped up with the recent addition of the Bikini Berlin shopping centre. It is full of corporate retail outlets calling themselves “pop-ups”, because at the moment in Berlin everything which isn’t a freaking burger restaurant is a freaking pop-up. Or a pop-up burger restaurant. The venerable Gemäldegalerie even has an exhibition at the moment called – I shit you not – Pop-Up Cranach.
Crowley’s “Berlin Years”, it should be noted, were not spent entirely in Berlin, and in 1930 he found time to fake his own death in Lisbon with the assistance of writer Fernando Pessoa. Another intriguing encounter followed on his miraculous reappearance in Berlin. Just south of Potsdamer Platz, the sober, Neue Sachlichkeit lines of Deutschlandhaus confront the sorrowing remains of the once enormous Anhalter Bahnhof. At present the building is closed as it transforms into an information centre for the Bund der Vertriebenen, a conservative and at times controversial body which represents the interests of ethnic Germans expelled from their homes when Germany shrank to its current borders at the end of the Second World War. Now reverently free of frippery, the building would have been ablaze with neon advertising on the October night in 1930 when Crowley visited the ersatz Bavarian beer hall housed in the building, the “Münchner Hofbräu”, in the company of Aldous Huxley and the writer J. W. N. Sullivan, an associate of Albert Einstein whom Crowley had met through Nina Hamnett.
A few days later, on Crowley’s 55th birthday, in fact (and thus 84 years before I stood outside his window), Crowley found quarters overlooking the Lietzensee. Although surrounded, and indeed bisected by arterial roads, this park-fringed lake is one of the most charming locations Berlin’s west has to offer. Here Berliners are hungrily sunning themselves before the cover falls over the birdcage for the year.
Many of the street names on this side of town retain a Prussian, martial air. The next stop, Bleibtreustraße, might have been named for an artist, but it was for his enormous depictions of German military victories that Georg Bleibtreu won recognition. Certainly his works were very different fare to that owned and sold by one of the street’s most famous residents, the highly influential art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. Crowley called on him at home in June 1931, marvelling at what he called “the finest collection of modern masters I have seen anywhere!” (famed Viennese actress Tilla Durieux lived, incidentally, in the same building when she returned to Berlin after the war).
What Flechtheim made of Crowley’s work remains unrecorded, but another prominent dealer, Karl Nierendorf, thought enough of it to help the artist mount an exhibition. It opened on 11 October 1931; in the catalogue Nierendorf described Crowley as an “enormously vivid and eager Outsider, a real man of elementary, instinctive power”. The word “Outsider” was in English, a startlingly modern use of a term only applied in recent decades with the reappraisal of artists working beyond the confines of the art world, and society itself. Sadly I find it difficult to share Nierendorf’s enthusiasm for Crowley’s art, because I have eyes. His crude image-making serves to remind us that not every unschooled painter is an instinctive artistic prodigy.
The show took place in the PORZA gallery, now gone, which stood to the left of the building above, which at least offers some indication how its missing neighbour might have appeared. The gallery is a stone’s throw from the last home of author and filmmaker Hanns Heinz Ewers (pivotal to our last Berlin Place). There’s no indication that Crowley saw Ewers in Berlin, but they had met before, and Crowley hoped to have the German author work with him on a project, possibly a film, a fascinating idea which never came to fruition.
One of the works Crowley displayed in his 1931 exhibition was entitled Mali and Igel. It depicted two women but to the insider the title’s reference to a lesbian club (“Mali und Igel”), on busy Martin-Luther-Straße, would have been apparent. I’m not sure if the above location is correct for the vanished club but let it stand as an eloquent précis of the area’s present-day charms. This alluring gaming establishment shares its block with a brothel and a gay “cruising Kino”; the most fun this strip offers comes when you imagine what the mad shit-flinging monk who gave his name to the street would think of all of this – on a Sunday no less.
Crowley was far too engrossed in his own work and day-to-day concerns to take much note of the ever-worsening political climate in the city. At the time Berlin was nearing the end-point of an ongoing battle between opposing forces whose outcome was effectively sealed as far back as January 1919. That’s when left-wing activists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were interrogated at the Eden Hotel by a far-right regiment; the pair were assassinated nearby and their bodies dumped (the square which now occupies the site of the long-gone hotel is named for another slain politician, Olof Palme). Christmas Eve 1931 found Crowley at the Eden, ill and impoverished, pleading with fellow occultist Gerald Yorke to chase down money.
The following day, Crowley spent a memorable Christmas in the Cosy Corner, a Kreuzberg gay bar, in the company of regulars Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender. Crowley, evidently guided by one of his more quixotic demons, dug his nails into one of the bar’s bare-chested rent boys, forcing Isherwood to offer money to defuse the situation.
Isherwood’s novel Mr Norris Changes Trains was a few years away, but the inspiration for the titular Norris, Gerald Hamilton (subject of a recent Dedalus biography), was very much at large in Berlin. In January 1932 he joined Crowley at one of his last Berlin addresses (now replaced by a post-war building), just off Kurfürstendamm. At the time he was living with his lover Bertha Busch (“Billie”). She met Crowley on Unter den Linden and became one of his “Scarlet Women” (like another Berlin companion, Hanni Jaeger); their relationship was wildly physical, both in its expression of Crowley’s belief in “sex magick”, and its mutual abuse. Hamilton was known for his covert dealings with various intelligence forces, and it is this association which forms one of the key arguments – by no means uncontested – that Crowley himself was engaged in espionage during his Berlin years.
In June 1932 Crowley said goodbye to Berlin, initiating a long period of decline which included a disastrous libel suit against Nina Hamnett, bankruptcy, and further ill health, ending with his death in 1947.