Sawdust and Spangle-Land – a Brief History of the Circus in Germany
It is a popular misconception that the modern circus originated in Roman times. In fact, the only thing the modern circus has in common with the Roman circus is the word itself, which means circle. The Roman circus was a large open-air venue used for chariot and horse racing, and if it is the forerunner of anything in the modern era, it would be the modern racecourse or athletics track.
Circus historians almost all agree that the modern circus was first created in England in the eighteenth century by Philip Astley, a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman. On his discharge from the army, Astley, a talented horse-breaker and trainer, settled in London and opened a riding-school near Westminster Bridge teaching the feats of horsemanship for which he himself became famous.
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Astley’s dedicated building featured a circular performance arena, the circle, which would subsequently come to be known as the ring. Riding in circles in a ring had a number of advantages for both audience and performers. Whilst it enabled the audience to have a perfect view of the action in the ring from all angles, the natural centrifugal force generated by riding in circles enabled riders to keep their balance while performing on the back of galloping horses. Initially the ring was approximately sixty feet in diameter, but by trial and error the optimum size was eventually settled on at forty-two feet, a size that has since become the international standard for all circus rings.
Whilst Astley enjoyed a considerable amount of success with his equestrian acts, after two seasons he decided his show lacked variety. So in 1777 he decided to introduce a number of additional attractions to the ring in the form of acrobats, rope dancers, jugglers, and the now almost compulsory clown, who would fill in the gaps between acts with general cavorting, fooling and tumbling. Soon almost every major European city had its own permanent circus, with architecture rivalling some of the most famous theatres on the continent.
The circus concept soon spread to America, and it was here that the tented travelling circus and menagerie first emerged. Just as America had enthusiastically embraced the circus model, so Europe returned the favour, and by the turn of the twentieth century, the travelling circus had become equally popular in Europe, reaching its peak between the two World Wars.
By 1918, there were 43 travelling circuses in Germany, mainly family-run enterprises, each vying with the others to produce ever more exotic acts, involving animals, clowns, acrobats and theatrical pantomimes. And with the emergence of the extravagant travelling circuses of Krone, Sarrasani, Circus Busch and Hagenbecks, the German circus became renowned the world over. Before long these legendary names had all built their own stationary circus buildings in major German cities – Circus Krone in Munich, Sarrasani in Dresden, Circus Busch in Berlin, Breslau and Vienna and Hagenbecks in Hamburg.
Jews and the German Circus
Despite the success of the stationary circuses, the travelling circus remained extremely popular in Germany, and whilst not exclusively the case, it is an interesting fact that the stationary circuses were mainly run by Gentiles and the travelling circuses were predominantly owned and run by Jewish families, most famously Circus Blumenfelds, Circus Lorch and Circus Strassburger. At first sight this fact might seem irrelevant, given the intrinsic diversity of the circus with its multilingual and multicultural nature. And indeed, it might have remained irrelevant had it not been for events in Germany between the two world wars.
The Nazi regime’s ascent to power in 1933 was in many ways very beneficial for the circus and ‘variety’ in Germany in general. Unlike many other art forms such as painting and the written word, Hitler did not regard the circus as potentially subversive and by and large left it well alone. Indeed, the Reich’s powerful propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, busied himself very early on with organizing international tours for circuses like Hagenbecks, which, as a symbol of national pride, was good for German propaganda. However, for Jewish circuses the situation was not so healthy, and as Hitler’s dictatorship gained a stranglehold, the freedom and commercial opportunities Jewish circus families had previously enjoyed came to an abrupt end as Jewish circuses were closed down and Jews banned from employment. Not only did Jewish circuses begin to disappear but many Gentile circuses, coming under increasing fire for employing Jewish performers, threw in their lot with the Nazis. Leading lights of the German circus such as Carl Krone and Paula Busch, along with many other well-known German impresarios, chose to join the Nazi Party rather than be forced out of business due to an unwillingness to comply with Nazi anti-Semitic demands. Hans Sarrasani was a notable exception. When in 1934 the Gentile Circus Sarrasani was labelled a Jüdenzirkus, for the crime of employing Jewish performers, its proprietor decided to return to South America with his troupe, thus helping many Jewish performers and their families to leave an increasingly inhospitable Europe.
Unlike their Jewish colleagues in the acting profession, at first Jewish circus performers seemed relatively well positioned to escape Nazi persecution. Since the circus did not rely on the spoken word, its performers could potentially ply their trade anywhere in the world. Spurned and unemployable in Germany, they were not yet trapped. Many fled the country as soon as they were able, their itinerant years having provided invaluable contacts and language skills that enabled them to move around the world with relative ease. Many Jewish circus performers were able to find employment and protection in Gentile-owned circuses abroad, even in the parts of Europe that had fallen under German rule. With some notable exceptions, the European circus community took care of its own. The bond of the ‘circus family’ seemed a tighter one than ties of race and nationality. In Holland, for instance, circus impresario Franz Mikkenie served as a front for the Strassburgers and their re-emerging circus activities. But even the protection afforded by other European circuses did not always save the Jews. As German troops marched into neighbouring countries, many Jewish performers who had thought themselves relatively safe in exile, were captured and deported, imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Theresienstadt. It is difficult to place a number on exactly how many Jewish circus artists were killed by the Nazis, but what facts we do know are a devastating testimony to the almost complete annihilation of Jewish circus families. About 150 members of the Blumenfeld family perished in the Holocaust and the Lorch family was equally decimated.
One story from this tragic period in the history of the Jewish circus during the Nazi era merits particular mention as a tale of extraordinary courage. Adolf and Maria Althoff ran what was considered to be one of the most technically perfect Gentile circuses in the world during the Second World War – one of Germany’s most popular shows. During the war, Gerda Blumenfeld and her son mainly survived because of the help they received from Maria and Adolf Althoff. By employing Alfred Blumenfeld as their director and press agent, Alfred was consequently able to support and shelter his brothers Willi and Fritz. The story nonetheless had a tragic ending. Feeling that they would be safer outside Germany, the three Blumenfeld brothers later emigrated to France, from where they were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz in 1942. However, although the Althoffs could not rescue the Blumenfeld brothers they did succeed in saving members of the Lorch family from deportation and certain death.
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Throughout the 1940s the Althoffs continued to hide a number of Jewish circus performers with the help of their willing employees – fellow members of the tightly knit circus community. One summer in 1941 whilst performing in Darmstadt, Adolf Althoff was approached by a young local Jewish acrobat named Irene Danner. He offered Irene a position in the circus, provided her with a pseudonym and false identity papers, and disguised her Jewish identity for the duration of the war. Though Irene’s grandmother was deported from Darmstadt and perished in a concentration camp, her mother, Alice, and her sister, Gerda, escaped to the safety of the Althoff circus.
Adolf and Maria Althoff knew that the circus could be searched at any moment and that their employees could potentially betray them. Fortunately, Adolf had contacts in nearly every city where they travelled who would usually warn him when the routine inspections conducted by the Gestapo were due. Irene Danner remembered that Adolf would tell them to ‘go fishing’ at these dangerous moments, and they would either take a picnic into the forest or go off fishing on the lake, or sometimes, if time to hide was short, conceal themselves behind a double panel in one of the circus wagons. Apparently Adolf Althoff would engage the Gestapo in conversation, show off his beautiful circus and invite them for a glass of cognac until he had successfully distracted them from their search. Against all the odds, Irene Danner and her family were not discovered and they survived the Holocaust hidden amidst the spangles and greasepaint of a large travelling circus.
On February 20, 1995, Avi Primor, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, honored Adolf and Maria Althoff, with the title of Righteous Among The Nations, the highest honor bestowed upon a Gentile by the State of Israel—an indirect tribute, too, to Adolf’s brother and sister, Carola and Franz, who also helped hide their Jewish comrades. Adolf Althoff died in 1998 at the age of 85.
The Romani Circus
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A Travelling Menagerie
There is far less written about Romani involvement in circus life than about the contribution of Jewish families. However, for anyone interested in the history of the Romani circus, there is a very interesting book: Fahrendes Volk (1983) by the sociology professor Hermann Arnold that covers extensively Romani involvement in circuses and show business. Unfortunately, it is only published in German.
During the war years, small clans of the Romani community travelled with shows all over Europe, but mostly in France and Germany. Often travelling without a tent or big top, they were generally small groups of musicians with a few ponies, performing dogs and birds, accompanied by acrobats and tumblers. Many of these family shows performed with larger circuses when they could get the work. My fictional circus, Circus Petalo, was, in my imagination, one such small travelling band when Lili’s grandfather Guno Petulengro first started it. As I describe in my novel, it grew and developed before the First World War, and by the time my story opens Circus Petalo is a larger concern, but still a smallish travelling circus compared to some of the enormous travelling bands in Germany at that time.
Perhaps the most famous real life circus in the ownership of members of Romani community was Cirque des 4 Frères Bouglione, run by the Bouglione brothers.
Cirque d’Hiver Poster (c.1935)
They were a family of Sinti (a branch of the Roma) who took Paris by storm in the 1920s. Having toured the provinces under canvas, they took over the Parisian building Cirque d’Hiver, opening there on November 17th 1934, preceded by a spectacular parade with their own menagerie of exotic animals and elephants, a few of which were borrowed from Paris’s zoological gardens and the Althoffs in Germany. Although the Nazis took possession of Cirque d’Hiver upon the German occupation of Paris in 1940, the Bougliones were soon allowed to repossess their building and continued to perform during the Second World War. That said, however, there is good evidence that there were many Romani musicians, performers, clowns and acrobats incarcerated and killed in the Zigeunerlager, the Gypsy Family Camp, in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Indeed, the chapter in my book where Circus Petalo gives a show for the SS guards in the Birkenau camp is based on a number of contemporary diary entries I have read by people who were imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1944 at the time when the Gypsy Family camp was ‘liquidated’ – the term used by the Nazis as a euphemism for the inmates being murdered in the gas chambers.