Elevation of the Neuköllner Rathaus in Berlin. Drawing by Reinhold Kiel. From Deutsche Bauzeitung, 1909 (43), p. 625. Wikimedia.
On the 1st of August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Declarations of war on France and Belgium followed on August 3rd and 4th. As the First World War broke out, Rudolf Koch was already 37 years old. Koch was a calligrapher and type designer in Offenbach am Main, a city just to the east of Frankfurt. He had been working at the Gebr. Klingspor typefoundry since 1906, and teaching at the local technical college, the Technische Lehranstalten, since 1907 (this became the HfG Offenbach in 1970). His first typeface – a heavy blackletter called the Deutsche Schrift – had been published by Klingspor in 1910.
It took a year before Koch was called up into military service. He was ordered to present himself in Darmstadt on 11 August 1915. Two days later, he was inducted into the army as a soldier. Koch would be subsequently be stationed in Serbia, France, and Russia. He saw action, too – particularly on the Western Front in France. Koch kept a diary of his experiences. After returning home, he wrote up a war account for his family. This was dated Christmas 1918.
After his death in 1934, that account was published by the Insel-Verlag in Leipzig. Koch had not been an unwilling soldier. In his writing, he repeatedly stated his desire to do his duty to Emperor and Country. He was much older than many of the soldiers he served with, and he felt that their youth enabled them to perform better. Koch strove to keep up. The book, Die Kriegserlebnisse des Grenadiers Rudolf Koch, is by no means a critical story of the war, as Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front was, or the West German graphic designer Otl Aicher’s Innenseite des Kriegs about the Second World War would be.
Rudolf Koch’s five days in Neukölln
In early 1917, on his way to the Western Front, Koch was stationed in Berlin. He was in Neukölln as well as Tegel for a time, and he must have marched down Neukölln’s Berliner Straße (today: Karl-Marx-Straße), because he saw the then new Neuköllner Rathaus [Neukölln city hall]. This impressed him so much that he noted the experience in his diary. Here is my translation of the passage from his account:
Neukölln, 24 February 1917
When we arrived here the day before yesterday and marched through the city under the weight of our heavy knapsacks, my eyes suddenly fell upon an example of the noblest architecture, among all of the metropolis’s indifferent buildings. It was newly constructed, and I later learned that it was the Neukölln Rathaus [city hall]. Everything was in the most beautiful of proportions, with wonderful work in the details. I could only just glimpse it, for we slipped with every step along the icy road. Yet the sight made a sublime, comforting impression on me. God bless the hand that brought me this consolation, which lifted me up in a turbid time. – I later learned that the man who created this work died in despair [i.e., the architect Reinhold Kiehl].
On the 27th of February, I departed with the 7th Guards Regiment from Neukölln, where I had been relocated from Tegel, to France. We arrived at Machault on 1 March, where we came to the deputy garrison of the Guard Ersatz Division.
The Neuköllner Rathaus was built between 1909 and 1914 by the architect Reinhold Kiehl. The project did not go well. Kiehl died of a heart attack in 1913, before it was completed.
Koch’s account can be purchased second-hand without trouble. The Letterform Archive in San Francisco has a manuscript edition of the text, prepared by Koch himself. Ask Rob to have a look at, it if you are ever there. In 2014, the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach purchased a collection of drawings made by Koch during the war. Like reproductions of Koch’s handwriting, these would be fascinating additions, should the book ever be republished.
Here is Koch’s original text, from Die Kriegserlebnisse des Grenadiers Rudolf Koch. Leipzig: Insel-Verlag (1934). Pages 126–127:
Neukölln, den 24. Februar 1917
Als wir vorgestern hier ankamen und unter der Last des schweren Tornisters durch die Stadt marschierten, fielen meine Blicke plötzlich unter all den gleichgültigen Bauten der Großstadt auf ein Gebäude edelste Architektur. Es war ein neues Haus und, wie ich später erfuhr, das Rathaus von Neukölln. Alles in den schönsten Verhältnissen und von herrlicher Arbeit im einzelnen. Ich könnte nur ein paar Blicke darauf werfen, denn wir rutschten auf der vereisten Straße bei jedem Schritt, und doch übte der Anblick einen erhabenen, ja tröstlichen Eindruck auf mich aus. Gott segne die Hand dessen, der mir diesen Trost gebracht hat, diese Auferbauung in trüber Zeit. – Später habe ich erfahren, er ist in Verzweiflung gestorben, der dieses Werk schuf.
Am 27. Februar kam ich von Neukölln, wohin ich von Tegel aus verlegt worden war, mit dem 7. Garde-Regiment nach Frankreich, und zwar langten wir am 1. März in Machault an, wo wir zum Rekrutendepot der Garde-Ersatzdivision kamen.