A Mysterious Lone Comic Strip in the Fliegende Blätter

1924 was a big year for one of Germany’s longest-lived satirical tabloid magazines, the Fleigende Blätter (1844-1944; Blätter rhymes with “better”). The title literally means “flying leaves,” by extension “loose leaves, or sheets of paper.” Printed weekly by the Munich firm of Braun & Schneider, the Fliegende Blätter had a pedigree that included having published such renowned artists as Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908) and Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).

Fliegende Blätter, 30 Nov. 1923.

Fliegende Blätter, 30 Nov. 1923. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

The Fliegende Blätter was middle-class and middlebrow, and considered itself apolitical, though it embodied an essentially conservative—many Germans would say typically Bavarian—view of the world. This conservatism was still evident in the physical form of the magazine at the beginning of the 1920s, which would have looked very much familiar to Busch and Spitzweg. Many of the illustrations were still in the beautiful line-engraving style that dominated the latter half of the nineteenth century; and often even the fashions depicted, particularly in rural settings, could have come straight from the early days of the German Empire, though portrayals of women in page-boy hairdos and flapper dresses were starting to make inroads. Many of the jokes were also—to be tactful—“timeless,” because absent-minded professors, pretentious social climbers, silly gold-digging women, upper-class snobs, and ethnic stereotypes (whether domestic or foreign, and including various casually anti-Semitic tropes) were still the lifeblood of the magazine’s humour after eighty years.

In 1924, however, the magazine turned over something of a new leaf. The worst of the post-World War I economic hyperinflation had ended on 15 November 1923, when the new government of Gustav Stresemann introduced currency reform. At the end of November 1923, the Fliegende Blätter had a cover price of 20 Pfennig (one-fifth of one Mark), multiplied by the Buchhandlerschlüsselzahl, or the “bookseller’s key number” (i.e., the exchange rate); since Germany had virtually no gold to back its money, what people actually had in their pockets were Papiermark, “paper Marks,” which the previous government had printed to cover its costs.

So in fact a reader had to fork over 200,000,000,000 Papiermark to cover the twenty Pfennig; luckily, by this time banknotes had been printed up to denominations of 100 trillion (in German a thousand million is eine Milliarde and a million million—in English, a trillion—is eine Billion; so the largest banknotes were worth 100,000,000,000,000 Mark.) This problem, however, didn’t go away overnight when the currency was reformed. On 15 February 1924, the Fliegende Blätter could still make fun of this situation, in a cartoon by Max Fuhrmann (1891-1953), still showing the Buchhandlerschlüsselzahl pegged at 1,000,000,000,000:

Max Fuhrmann, “At the bookseller’s show window.”

Max Fuhrmann, “At the bookseller’s show window.” Fliegende Blätter, 15 Feb. 1924, p. 54. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

The bespectacled gentleman, who could as easily appear in a cartoon from thirty years earlier despite the topicality of the subject matter, thinks: “Schlüsselzahl today a trillion! – Say, what’ll they do with all those keys?” (thanks to the glory of German compound words, Schlüsselzahl can mean either “key number” or “a number of keys”).

Less than a month later, on 7 March 1924, the Fliegende Blätter, which often ran theme-based issues, devoted an entire number to the new currency, the Rentenmark (or “mortgage Mark”—since Germany had no gold reserves, the value of the new Mark was backed instead by the country’s usable land). On the issue’s fourth page, in a cartoon by an unknown artist whose signature is apparently “C.H.,” a happy German exults to an acquaintance, “A blessing, man, this stabilization! Fifty trillion, today that’s a measly fifty Mark—,” to which his wily interlocutor replies, “—which you could loan me right this minute!”

“C.H.,” “Stabilization.” Fliegende Blätter 7 Mar. 1924, p. 80.

“C.H.,” “Stabilization.” Fliegende Blätter, 7 Mar. 1924, p. 80. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

A text joke in the same issue runs as follows:

“So how was it in school?” Papa asked little Pepi.

“We had math today!”

“And did you learn anything new?”

“Yes, something totally new: there are numbers below a billion [i.e., 1,000,000,000]” (p. 82).

Fliegende Blätter, 7 Mar. 1924, p. 82.

Fliegende Blätter, 7 Mar. 1924, p. 82. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

In many ways, this Fliegende Blätter was a new, more up-to-date magazine. In response to a reader survey, the paper had engaged new artists with more modern pen-and-ink and brushwork styles (some veteran artists still hung on), adopted colour printing for the front and back covers, and promised to double the size of the tabloid from eight to sixteen pages weekly, while still keeping “the old heart…: the robustly cheerful affirmation of existence, the joy in the idyll, the easygoing gaiety” (22 Feb. 1924, p. 64).

"New! New! New!" Fliegende Blätter, 22 Feb. 1924, p. 64.

“New! New! New!” Fliegende Blätter, 22 Feb. 1924, p. 64. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

No doubt none of this would have been feasible without the promise of economic stabilization—though in fact, in the short term, the paper only grew to twelve pages. Further growth had to wait until the Fliegende Blätter began publishing advertisements in the body of the tabloid, starting with the 2 May issue of 1924 (ads had been relegated to a separate supplement from 1879 to 1920). The magazine was eventually able to increase to sixteen pages still later in the year; four of those pages, however, would be filled with ads.

Fliegende Blätter, 16 May 1924.

Fliegende Blätter, 16 May 1924. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

The Fliegende Blätter of 16 May 1924 took as its theme another novelty of the time: the radio. The first regularly scheduled medium-wave broadcasting service had begun only in October 1923, and was confined to the Berlin area. Thereafter and throughout 1924, other broadcasters were founded as regional monopolies throughout Germany. Thus, in May 1924, there were still a good many Germans who had never heard a radio program; long-wave national broadcasting to reach remoter areas would not begin until January 1926 (Ross 84-5). The cover illustration of the 16 May Fliegende Blätter, by Hermann Poeppel (1900-?), depicts radio as das neue Fabeltier, “the new fabulous beast”; as with computers or the internet in their early stages, many people had no idea what radio was good for, what it could do—or what it couldn’t do.

This set up another, very unusual innovation in the Fliegende Blätter: the unheralded and virtually unique appearance of a comic strip, complete with speech balloons and panels. Entitled “Spiritualistic Radio Session,” the strip consists of six panels and one unpanelled picture, featuring two characters who address each other as “Lux” and “Schnux.” The former is upright, clean-shaven and elegantly dressed in bow-tie, jacket and vest; the latter, bearded, is not poorly dressed, but slouches in his shirt sleeves, hands in his pockets, and wears his Melone or bowler hat indoors, giving a rather slovenly impression.

“Spiritualistic Radio Sesson.” Fliegende Blätter 16 May 1924, p. 213.

“Spiritualistic Radio Sesson.” Fliegende Blätter 16 May 1924, p. 213. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

The speech balloons read as follows:

Panel 1 – Lux: Here is my great new invention, Schnux! You can hear the spirits speak from the great beyond!

Schnux: Oh, that’s very interesting! That’s terrific, Lux!

Panel 2 – Lux: Tell me, who do you want to hear? Columbus, Bismarck, or Sternickel?

Panel 3 – Schnux: I’d have liked to hear Columbus! After all, he did that terrific thing with the egg!

Panel 4 – Lux (speaking through the radio): Columbus says, lay 20 Mark on the table, Schnux!

Panel 5 – Schnux: A terrific invention, Lux! Here are 20 Mark.

Panel 6 – Schnux: I wonder why Columbus needs 20 Mark?

Final Picture – Lux, alone: Columbus drinks to your very good health, my dear Schnux!

The dialogue, admittedly, is not particularly witty. The strip’s humour depends chiefly on Schnux’s gullibility, which certainly exceeds Lux’s craftiness; the bizarre selection of potential contacts: Christopher Columbus (1451?-1506), the great Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), and the beheaded multiple murderer and arsonist August Sternickel (1866-1913); and Schnux’s being more impressed by Columbus’s standing an egg on its end than his exploration of the Americas. Lux’s insouciant pose in the final picture is also rather amusing.

But “Spiritualistic Radio Sesson” raises a number of questions. The strip is unsigned, and the artistic style does not match that of any of the magazine’s other contributors (though of course most of these artists were capable of working in a variety of styles). Its naïve, rather childish appearance, particularly obvious in the clumsy layout of the panels and the compositions of the figures (and the erratic placement of the cuckoo clock), is unusual in the generally aesthetically more sophisticated Fliegende Blätter, though artists working in children’s magazines—such as the popular Der heitere Fridolin (“Merry Fridolin,” 1921-28)—often affected such qualities. Moreover, the strip treats Lux and Schnux as if they were established characters, though they had never appeared in the magazine before, and never did again (nor, as far as I can determine, anywhere else). And finally, “Spiritualistic Radio Sesson” is extremely unusual, not only for the Fliegende Blätter but indeed for magazines in general at the time in Germany (though slightly less so in Austria), because it has no captions—the speech balloons and pictures alone tell the story.

Why such a tradition-bound tabloid took such an unusual step on this occasion, and then practically never again, is a mystery. Speech balloons would begin to appear very infrequently from this point on in the Fliegende Blätter, finally becoming more common in the early 1930s, but almost never carrying the narrative without captions. But “Spiritualistic Radio Session” seems to be unique; and as well, it’s a remarkable tribute to the brief period when radio was a tantalizing, unfamiliar technology—and when, for the first time in ages, a mere twenty Mark could get you a few bottles of bubbly and a treat for your poodle.

The entire, century-long run of the Fliegende Blätter is available in digitalized form, and under a Creative Commons license, at the website of the University of Heidelberg Library.

Bibliography

Ross, Corey. Media and the Making of Modern Germany: Mass Communications, Society, and Politics from the Empire to the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

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