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  • The hidden history of the 1910 Moabit Riots


The hidden history of the 1910 Moabit Riots

Discover how, just over a century ago, a coal strike at a Moabit factory sparked one of the biggest riots in Berlin's history.

Illustration from the London News (October 8, 1910). Credit: Collection British Library / KHARBINE TAPABOR.

Let’s open this article by blowing your mind: Moabit is an island. Yes, the staunchly unhip and unassumingly proletarian neighbourhood north of Hauptbahnhof is completely surrounded by rivers and canals – the only way in or out is via bridges. The swampland north of what was Berlin back then was first settled by Huguenot refugees. The name, according to one theory, is a mispronunciation of “Moorgebiet”, or “swamp area”.

Just a week earlier…Rosa Luxemburg had been appealing for mass strikes.

The construction of factories in the second half of the 19th century turned the island into Berlin’s industrial centre. A number of those factories still exist, some refurbished as offices, while others, like the AEG turbine factory, continue the exact same production line as a century ago. It was on this industrial inner-city island that a protest took place. Though largely forgotten today, it was so turbulent that it made news around the globe. When we picture riots in Berlin, we tend to think of events like Kreuzberg’s May Day insurrection in 1987. But 77 years prior, Moabit saw much larger disturbances: the Moabit Unrest.

Stingy Stinnes

AEG turbine factory on Huttenstr. (c. 1900). Credit: IMAGO / Arkivi.

It all started at a coal depot. Today, Sickingenstraße 20-28 houses a small industrial park, but in 1910, the lot contained enormous piles of coal. The local company Kupfer & Co. had been bought by Hugo Stinnes, one of the most ruthless capitalists in the German Empire – the Wilhelmine version of Jeff Bezos. The coalmen of Kupfer & Co. hadn’t gotten a raise since 1906, and they demanded seven pfennigs more per hour. Stinnes, however, was determined to take over the Berlin coal market by underselling the competition. So, on Monday, September 19, 136 workers went on strike.

It began peacefully. The company found 18 strike-breakers to deliver coal. Everyone else picketed outside the gates, yelling at the scabs. On the second day, mounted police began accompanying the coal wagons. By Friday, management brought in professional strike-breakers from Hamburg, in essence drunken hooligans who specialised in terrorising unionised workers. As their leader later told a Berlin newspaper: “All my fingers tingle when I see a beating.”


Illustration from the London News (October 8, 1910). Credit: ullstein bild

On Saturday, the sixth day of the strike, a coal wagon was heading down Rostocker Straße, right past Friedrich Pilz’s tavern. Pilz was a local leader in the Social Democratic Party, and the strike committee had its headquarters in the back room. As the wagon slowly moved down the street, workers began hurling insults at the scab operating the wagon, until the driver pulled a revolver and fired into the air. The workers, in turn, disarmed him and pulled open the wagon’s flaps, letting the coal pour onto the street.

That evening, Stinnes telegraphed the chancellor of the German Empire: “The protection so far provided is absolutely insufficient.” Soon, 1,000 police officers were sent to Moabit to protect the strike-breakers. A week into the strike, the coal wagons had huge police escorts resembling military convoys. As they passed Moabit’s towering factories, Berliners on their lunch breaks would throw rocks.

Police escort a group of coal carts. Credit: Berliner Illustrations Gesellschaft/ullstein bild.

Bit by bit, landlords began refusing to rent apartments to the scabs for fear of being boycotted. Nearby department stores, knowing their display windows would otherwise be smashed, put up signs that read “We don’t sell to strikebreakers”. The German army provided tents so that police and scabs could move into the coal depot. After just a week, Stinnes’ intervention had transformed a mundane strike into a military confrontation.

Detectives were waiting in the local hospital to arrest anyone who came in for treatment.

Several international newspapers noted women in the front lines: “All the alarming signs of revolution are present. Shrieking women, with babies in their arms, made their way to the fighting line or raved like bloodthirsty amazons through the streets.” In reality, the women had the same motivations as the men. They were workers, enraged by the police occupation of their Kiez. The factory on Berlichingenstraße, which today houses the Jobcenter, once produced incandescent lamps. The workers, predominantly women, had to pass aggressive police just to get to work, and many couldn’t resist yelling and shoving back.

Diesel engines, possibly at a Berlin AEG turbine factory (c. 1900). Photo: IMAGO / piemags

In working-class Moabit, where apartments were hopelessly overcrowded, life took place on the street. Children especially spent their days out on the cobblestones. Men, when they weren’t in the factories, spent time in pubs, the ‘proletarian living rooms’ – a necessity in the early 19th century, where multiple people would share a one-room apartment. When police eventually ordered that bars close at 5pm, it had the unintended effect of driving yet more workers into the protests.

Onto the breach

By September 27, the ninth day of the strike, police had shut down Sickingenstraße and blocked intersections. In the evenings, residents would push right up to the police lines bellowing socialist anthems. The police, sure that this was a sign of a forthcoming attack, went on the offensive. Workers fled into their tenement buildings on Rostocker Straße, barricading the doors behind them, only to reemerge when the cops had passed. Street lamps were demolished and Litfaßsäulen, the advertising columns, set aflame. From the balconies, housewives threw trash, bottles and flower pots onto the policemen’s heads.

Police leading off a picketer (September 1910). Credit: ullstein bild.

By now, Berlin’s hardline police chief, Traugott von Jagow, had come to Moabit to assume command. He later reported that Rostocker Straße had been “so covered with broken glass and porcelain, as well as other thrown objects, that mounted police could not be sent into it.” He ordered his officers to shoot – over the course of this one night, police discharged 173 rounds. The Battle of Rostocker Straße was the highpoint of the riots. Police estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 people were on the street – every seventh person in Moabit. The anarchist poet Erich Mühsam was particularly happy when he heard that the windows of the Reformation Church had been smashed. “Clear proof,” he noted in his diary, “that even German proletarians no longer put up with everything.”

Workers at an AEG lamp factory in Moabit, Christmas 1915. Credit: IMAGO / Arkivi.

After three more days and nights of street fighting, police gained the upper hand. The damage: one officer had been stabbed in the belly, but survived. Two striking workers had been killed by sabre blows to the head. It’s impossible to know how many Moabiters were injured, as detectives were waiting in the local hospital to arrest anyone who came in for treatment, but it’s likely hundreds.

Credit: Archiv Gerstenberg / ullstein bild

The strike ended in defeat: the coalmen of Kupfer & Co. returned to work on October 10, without a raise. Union officials had been desperate to extricate themselves from the fighting. Stinnes later donated 10,000 marks to the Berlin police for their help. Ironic when you remember that the whole conflict began because he refused to give an extra seven pfennigs apiece to his workers.


Germany’s rulers refused to believe that they had provoked this spontaneous uprising. Just a week earlier at a congress of the Social Democratic Party, Rosa Luxemburg had been appealing for mass strikes. In the eyes of Prussian officials, the Moabit Unrest had been a dress rehearsal for an insurrection.

During the fighting, four British and American journalists had been observing from their automobile, idling in Kleiner Tiergarten (a tiny Moabit park not to be confused with the much larger Tiergarten). Police ran up to these well-dressed men and beat them mercilessly, sending one to the hospital. But why beat up journalists and ensure negative coverage? They were convinced these were socialist leaders pulling the strings from a safe distance. In reality, SPD leaders wanted nothing to do with the riots. They declared that they would have been happy to assist the authorities reestablishing order – if only someone had asked them. In the Reichstag, one SPD member blamed the riots on the “Janhagel”, or Lumpenproletariat – quite an insult for Moabit’s working-class population, considering that 80% of them had voted SPD.

Diesel engines, possibly at a Berlin AEG turbine factory (c. 1900). Photo: IMAGO / piemags

In the end, just 14 people were convicted of disturbing the peace. Their two-month trial, with over 700 witnesses, turned into a marathon exposé of horrific police violence. They were sentenced to a total of 67.5 months in prison, averaging less than five months each.

One newspaper drew a comparison to Berlin’s previous revolution: “Since the troops shot down the mob before the Palace in 1848, Berlin has known nothing so terribly like a revolution as this week’s rioting.” Little did they know that this was much more similar to the next revolution – the November revolution that would depose Germany’s monarchy – which was only eight years away.

  • Nathaniel Flakin is the author of Revolutionary Berlin: A Walking Guide (London: Pluto, 2022, €20). Click here to find out more.

Berlin by Foot: Unrest in Moabit walking tour

Join The Berliner’s history writer and author of Revolutionary Berlin (London: Pluto, 2022, €20) Nathaniel Flakin on a walk through Moabit. We’ll visit some of the real locations where the riots unfolded over 100 years ago. The tour is free, but donations are welcome! Reserve your spot now.

  • Meeting on the corner of Beusselstr. and Sickingenstr., in front of Hotel Sickinger Hof (14:00, leaving by 14:15).