The Litfaß Polka

A brief history of anti-clutter campaigns.

Cambridge Day

November 2005

On a bright summer morning in Berlin a century and a half ago, to the tune of a polka written for the occasion, Germans in top hats and tails turned out to watch a publisher and businessman named Ernst Litfass unveil his first batch of billboard-pillars, which were going to solve the problem of ugly ad posters and political pamphlets cluttering his beautiful Prussian city. Overnight, “in a concentrated action by police and volunteers,” writes Reinhard Wahren in a little book about the columns, “all remains of old bills and placards were torn and scrubbed from houses, fences, and trees.” Even local newspapers praised the new street furniture — a brilliant innovation to Berliners in 1855 — for its role in cleansing the streets.

This story is worth revisiting because a fashion for organizing newspapers into neat city-organized racks has been sweeping American cities. Not just Cambridge but Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Denver, and Dallas — never mind smaller towns from Florida to Hawaii — have all warmed to the idea of tightening control over newspaper distribution for the sake of prettifying streets. San Francisco has installed “fancy racks ” to replace the unsightly gaggle of different newsracks on every corner; Cambridge has a handful of proposed laws aimed at battling clutter. In every case, whether the mayors know it or not, the forefather of these prettification projects is Ernst Litfass.

His columns came to Berlin only after Prussian soldiers quashed a street revolution in 1848. The labor uprisings that erupted across Europe that year had been encouraged in Berlin by ugly fliers — sarcastic, sometimes rhyming anti-government posters that laid out complaints by the city’s poor and unemployed. The posters, like the revolution, disturbed the city fathers who thought their lower classes were content, and after a few rioters had been shot, a barking authoritarian named Ludwig von Hinckeldey ascended to the top police job with a mandate to clean up the streets. He gave a contract for ad columns to a printer named Litfass in 1855.

The columns — which still exist — are nice to look at: simple cylinders with green-painted iron flourishes around the top. They’ve become part of the streetscape and part of the city culture. For a while Berliners called them “Fat Ladies,” and during the war with France in the 1870s people gathered around them in the morning to read official news from the front. Circus, theater, and concert ads give the streets a controlled burst of garish color. Nothing wrong with that. But Litfass’ contract with Berlin amounted to a form of censorship: Suddenly posting anywhere besides a Litfass column was illegal, and Litfass’s firm had private control over what went on the columns.

This monopoly on fly-posting passed from Litfass’s heirs to the city itself in 1880, and the columns’ history is now as checkered as Berlin’s, which is to say they had a bad season under the Nazis, who used the inherited monopoly on fly-posting to spread antisemitism. Photos from the war years show the Fat Ladies misused as propaganda tools, urging Berliners not to shop in Jewish stores.

Of course, Hitler would have done just as well without Litfass columns. But the story is a stark example of how a free society erodes — one grain at a time, for silly reasons. “Anywhere you go in this city,” warned San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last year, speaking for busy bureaucrats across the nation, “you’re going to find news racks out in the middle of the street right there where people should be parking. Tipped over.”

Even though every U.S. mayor has sworn up and down that anti-clutter measures will never be used to control who gets to put out which newspaper where, the new wave of city-beautiful regulations represents another morsel of old-fashioned American freedom given up to local government — along with the freedom, say, to walk down the street without being recorded on city-controlled video, or visit the library without leaving a record for the FBI. Maybe no one’s misusing those powers right now (he said, doubtfully). But every time we hand an insignificant right to even a trusted liberal government we also pile more power into the lap of a nameless future politician, so that one day our descendants may still wake up to a rude surprise, like the grandchildren of those Berliners in top hats 150 years ago, who tapped their feet to a polka and looked forward to a new age of urban tidiness.

Michael Scott Moore

Politics

Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused

Culture

I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

Pirates

Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.

Nazis

Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.

Surfing

It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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