Pillars of Berlin society face uncertain future

Berlin Letter: Much-loved street advertising posts to be replaced after 164-year history

Graffiti on a  disused Litfasssäule on a  Berlin street declares “Save this pillar!”  Photograph: Derek Scallly

Graffiti on a disused Litfasssäule on a Berlin street declares “Save this pillar!” Photograph: Derek Scallly

 

There are some German words I will never forget. One is Litfasssäule. Pronounced lit-fas-soy-le, I first encountered it during a Berlin university test to gauge my level of German for language lessons. The reading comprehension was all about something called the Litfaßsäule and, knowing neither the word nor the context, you can imagine how I did in the exam.

As a result, I’ve never been sentimental about the Litfaßsäule – until now. For those still in the dark: the Litfasssäule is an advertising pillar, nearly four metres high and about one metre in diameter. Over 50,000 stand on German street corners, including 2,500 in Berlin, advertising concerts, exhibitions and more.

Of late in Berlin, the pasted advertising posters have vanished under plain, coloured paper. Walking around my neighbourhood the other day, I noticed how someone had added urgent, handwritten messages to pillars, such as: “Save this pillar!”

In front of one, Frederick, an elderly passerby, tells me sadly that the workmen will soon show up here, dig up the pillar and transport it off to be ground down for road-fill.

“And these pillars are as much a part of Berlin as I am,” he says, marching off angrily.

The pillar’s tongue-twisting name is a nod to its inventor: Berliner printer and publisher Ernst Litfass, who got the idea from Parisian pissoirs during a visit in 1843.

Propaganda weapon

He dropped the toilet inside and presented his advertising pillar as a way to rid the city of guerrilla advertising that littered the imperial Prussian capital. For the government, it was irresistible: bring back some German Ordnung, and earn money into the bargain.

The first pillars appeared in 1855 and soon the idea spread to other German cities – even back to Paris in 1868.

Not that the pillars were immediately popular. A 1856 Berlin travel guide explained to visitors: “This is where everyone who wants to get rid of their junk presents themselves in the most laughable, town-crier manner imaginable.” What sounds like the internet’s analogue grandfather was originally intended only for cultural advertising, but became a crucial propaganda weapon first during the Franco-German war of 1870.

Decades later, the pillars offered people news of the end of the Kaiser, presented the notorious “Vote for Hitler” posters in 1933 and, six years later, the declaration of war and troop call-up.

These pillars were where families gathered to locate loved ones and where, after 1945, the occupying forces informed Berliners of rubble-clearing duties here and the growing cold war chill.

But that is all history: last year a local company lost the tender and has until June to remove all 2,500 pillars, many from the 1950s and riddled with asbestos.

But the bad news for the local Cassandras is that there’s good news. Some 50 historic pillars will be preserved and 1,500 new ones will be erected, a vote of confidence for off-line advertising in the online era.

Taller and wider

The new pillars will be 3.6m high and slightly wider at 1.18m. Despite this, locals have found something new to complain about: after 164 years in Berlin hands, the new pillars will be operated by an advertising company from the southwest city of Stuttgart in the Swabian region.

The Swabians are known as a thrifty, hard-working folk – a pure provocation for Berliners, known around Germany for their creative ways of avoiding work. Allowing the Berlin tender go to the Swabians is a declaration of war, equivalent to putting Hill 16 under new management from Cork.

Despite the chilly welcome, the new Stuttgart advertising company, ILG, is hopeful it can overcome local Berlin sensitivities. Local manager Stefan Bauman insists he will continue offering advertising space to smaller Berlin companies and organisations without the budget of the big multinationals. But with a mischievous laugh, he adds: “My boss is very proud to have got the contract for the Litfaßssäulen in the city where they were invented.”

Out of respect for history, the new Swabian pillars of Berlin advertising society promise to retain the historic Litfaßssäule name. The alternative would be to adopt the industry standard for the pillars: Plakatanschlagssäule. At 20 letters, instead of 13, that’s a tongue-twister too far for a traumatised former German student like me.

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