Maintaining the army at such a high level was, of course, extremely expensive. So, too, was the reconstruction of the battered state and its buildings. To pay for it all, Friedrich imposed even higher taxes and excise duties. The state monopolies in tobacco, coffee, and salt, were three of his biggest milch cows--he raised both the prices and the duty. Illicit coffee drinkers were denounced to the authorities by official 'coffee sniffers'. Citizens were obliged to buy large quantities of salt, and every household had to keep a 'salt book', to show that it had bought the required amount. Searching desperately for ways of using the salt, Berliners created several culinary innovations that have become staples of Berlin cuisine: the pickled gherkin, sauerkraut, and Kassler Rippchen--smoked pork chops cured in a salt solution to a recipe created by a butcher named Kassler--are just three examples.Friedrich took a cynical attitude to the Berliners' reputation for disrespectful talk and subversive humour. 'They can say what they like, as long as they let me do what I like,' he declared. And he was not averse to bolstering his reputation as 'Alte Fritz', 'Old Fritz'. Once, riding through the city, he spotted a crowd laughing at a placard on a rooftop. On discovering that it was a cartoon of himself with a large coffee-grinder between his knees--a satirical protest at the tax on coffee--he ordered it to be hung lower, 'so that the people should see it properly'. The delighted crowd cheered him as he rode away. As he grew older, he became increasingly eccentric, going about in stained and patched old clothes, receiving the worship of war veterans and citizens with his customary skepticism: 'They would cheer just the same for an old monkey in a uniform.' he observed.- Anthony Read and David Fisher, Berlin: The Biography of a City (1994)
While this book is for the most part quite adequate to its purpose, its insistence on using formulas like the one above--Berliners are this, Berliners are that--quickly becomes surprisingly grating. They all boil down, effectively, to one idea: that some abstract entity known as "Berliners" has the personality of a Jewish folk hero and never thinks of anything besides sassing people in authority and concocting zany schemes to survive in its zany city. "Berliners" never undergo any change over time; they react in identical ways to Frederick the Great and Erich Honecker, yet somehow manage to have feelings of surprise and pleasure (measured how?) at things like the cruciform sun-reflection in the Fernsehturm.
I don't mean to be po-faced--of course a mass-market history book has to have a character to whom people can relate. But I'm in Berlin now, and I've seen not a trace of the fabled Berliner Till Eulenspigels. Berliners, as far as I can tell, are artsy and political--yes; neat and "ecological"--certainly; likely to eat blini at my funeral--undoubtedly. But sarcastic and irreverent? Not really. And this isn't even a Berlin question: not many of the New Yorkers I've met fit the even more preening and pernicious "New Yorker" stereotype either. Only Parisians, in fact, have even come close.
That self-serving stereotypes can often be untrue is hardly big news. What is perhaps more interesting is why we insist on formulating and then perpetuating them. Even people who hate Berliners, apparently, make use of the Berliner stereotype, and likewise with New Yorkers. It would not be difficult to find analogies, like the medieval penchant for making up stories about the folks from the next village over (this is amusingly discussed in the New York context in the beginning of Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace's Gotham). How, though, can such a thoroughly local fragment of culture find its way into so many international mass-culture artifacts? Towns all over the US (e.g.) think the nearest town is full of snotty preppies or white trash, but to find such information in a book would probably be a rather eerie experience.
The process is more complex than it appears at first glance. I would propose a roughly two-stage model. In Europe, at least, only the largest and most culturally-significant cities (Berlin, London, Paris, for instance) have truly well-defined and distinct sets of associated stereotypes. It is no coincidence that many of these stereotypes have cognate characteristics: commercialism, restiveness, political unreliability. These characteristics came to be linked with them, it seems to me, because of the leading role these cities played in the development of capitalism and the urban resistance to feudal and royal power. (Massive city-versus-state revolts, for instance, took place both in Berlin and Paris at the end of the Middle Ages.) In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, these tropes were then dug up and repurposed by various literary figures as they attempted to portray the pulse of life in the new urban environment--and the concentration of labor activism in large cities only reinforced these ideas.
This is in many ways an uncompelling explanation, but at least it demonstrates my point: that urban stereotypes cannot be treated either as homely experiential truths or nasty ideological lies. They are as old as the city they belong to, and should be seen as facts susceptible to explanation. If we don't at least make an attempt, we'll never know what we mean by "Berliners."