Living in Berlin

The Rise and Fall of Berliner Schnauze

From the interior of Dicke Wirtin
From the interior of the Dicke Wirten (an old Berlin tavern)

Berlin rudeness is explained to newcomers as a charming local curiosity: like those enormous gingerbread hearts you buy at the Christmas markets that break your teeth. The Berlin metaphor for “Berlin sass” is the snarling “mutt” of a dog, the Schnauze or “snout”, and is seen as a fundamental part of the Berlin dialect, esp. as preserved in the former East. When you’re insulted in metropolitan parlance in Berlin by the surly wait staff (Trinkgeld sonst Schnauze, ‘tip or you get sass’) , the man who stepped on your foot (Mönsch, kannste nich uffpassen, Olle! Verstehn Se?), the shopkeeper who screams to shut the door behind you (Biste in de S-Bahn jebor’n oder wat?, ‘were you born in the subway or what?’), it’s not that they are being rude. No, they are exercising some inviolable aspect of their local character. And as a non-Berliner, you simply don’t understand it, or have not managed to catch the Herz (the “heart”), that is supposedly underlying the insult.

In 1936, just as the Nazi Olympic games were to open in Berlin, there was an official worry: would Berliners be friendly enough? State propaganda was already in full-gear promoting hospitality across the country. But Berliners were a particular source of concern, and  subject to a “week of mirth and happiness”. The German Labor Front urged, “Berliners should take stock of themselves, then with merry hearts and friendly expressions on their faces, receive their Olympic guests”. (Mandell, Nazi Olympics)

You need not to have lived in the Third Reich to understand why Berliners might be a liability. Novelist Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) penned the Berlin character as “something, in which arrogance and self-irony, strength of character and vacillation, mockery and cosyness, and, above all, criticism and sentimentality, shake hands”. But I think this is just an elegant way to say Berliners can come off as downright rude.

In a study at the University of Hertfordshire, psychologists claimed that Germans, rather than having no sense of humour, have indiscriminate humour. They find anything, no matter how unfunny, funny. (I actually find there are huge variations in Germany in terms of humour: Hamburg humour is very dry, almost English. The northerners think the people down South don’t have any sense of humour at all. But I digress). If Germans are, on the whole, indiscriminate in their sense of humour, is this an explanation for people considering a way to insult you, this Schnauze, as a kind of joke? Maybe they just don’t know better?

From the interior of the Dicke Wirten (an old Berlin tavern)
From the interior of the Dicke Wirten (an old Berlin tavern)

Often Schnauze feels like a test: can you can take it? You have to prove you can be ignored or insulted at the bar in order, finally, to get service. Perhaps this is to prove the autonomy of wait staff before the demands of capitalistic client culture. It’s a reversal on the saccharine smiles of the American service industry that Berliners, understandably, use words like “superficial” or “ridiculous” or “exploitative” to describe.

What a lot of Berliners don’t know is that Theodor Fontane probably never heard the expression Berliner Schnauze. According to historian Alexandra Richie, Berliner Schnauze, with its “coarse wit and repartee which endless commentators claim marks the ‘true Berliner’ from all others”, was an commercial invention from the 1920s, to promote the career of cabaret singer Claire Waldoff (1884-1957). It’s not that Berlin sass didn’t exist before Waldoff, it’s just that she enshrined it. Waldoff’s Schnauze became a saleable piece of the city, just like a glass of Berliner Weisse shot with woodruff syrup.

I’d bet a trillion 1923 Weimar marks that Lotte Lenya got a few ideas from this bar creature. Waldoff was to epitomise the Berlinerin. Listen to her sing “Fritze Bollmann” or “Wer schmeißt denn da mit Lehm?” and you hear a emphysemic voice forced out of decades of abuse in the smoky depths of the classic Berlin Eckkneipe or dive bar:

Die Berliner sind sehr höflich. Ein Herr trat neulich mal 
Einer Dame auf die Schleppe. Im Foyer war’n Mordsskandal. 
“Können Sie nicht sehn, Sie Ochse!” 
“Ja”, sagt der Herr, “ich kann’s, 
Aber warum haben Sie olle Kuh 
So einen langen Schwanz.”

Translation: Berliners are very polite. A gentleman stepped the other day on the train of a lady’s dress. In the foyer, it was like a murder scandal. “Are you blind, you ox?” He replies, “No, I can see. But why, you old cow, do you have such a long tail?” (And, remember, Schwanz is a charming word also used to describe male anatomy).

This nasty come-back is typical of Waldoff’s caustic lyrics. And I think it’s quite an accomplishment for her to be the basis of the myth of Berliner Schnauze. A tough act given Claire Waldoff wasn’t actually a Berlinerin, but came from Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhrgebiet. Not something a little study of the Berlin dialect can’t fix, the cultivation of hard luck, hard talk and a soft heart, to sell to bourgeois audiences whom had “never been to the slums”. In the words of Richie: “Claire Waldoff’s persona was an invention, and she had all Berlin fooled”.

In New York City, it’s often said that the locals are actually quite friendly. Provincials who arrive to New York are the ones who insecurely perform the stereotypical New York sass. Being in the City, in the anonymity of the metropolis, is an opportunity to insult your fellow citizens indiscriminately, when they get in your way or you don’t like how they look at you. After you’ve exhausted your creative vocabulary, you can really feel like you belong. The line between “acting like a local” and la violence gratuite can be awfully thin. I sometimes wonder how many of those Berliners who give you sass aren’t from here at all, just like Claire Waldoff.

This leaves us with a number of aperçus: Berliner sass is a problem of historic proportions, insult masqueraded as humour (ok, I might just admit it’s funny), a commercial invention packaged as a local speciality in the 20s, a stereotype sold by the provincials to the capital, yet somehow linked to the city’s local dialect. Berliner Schnauze is a sham, but it bites you in the ass all the time.

Or, it used to. The word on the street is that something’s happened to the water supply and Berliners are getting friendlier. Is it all the new tourism, the local reckoning with different expectations? A stealth program of “mirth and happiness”?  Is it that a lot of bad history is now behind us? Is it simply that summer is coming and Schnauze levels correspond quite closely to the number of hours of daylight? Or is the invasion of new Berliners from sunnier climes, like Italy and Spain, to blame? Foreigners who come here unsaturated with stereotypes about the capital, with no possibility of passing themselves off as an echt (ekt?) Berliner?

Everything’s possible, and I bet if you walk around Berlin on this sunny day, it’s more likely a local will be kind to you than call you an olle Schachtel. 

Na, allet in Butta?


Never miss a post! Subscribe:  


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

12 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Berliner Schnauze