Eisbergfreistadt, 17 November 1923
In 1923 a huge iceberg drifted into the Baltic sea and ran aground off the German port of Lübeck. The strength of the polar easterlies that year caused a number of bergs to drift unusually far south on the Spitsbergen current. Sea ice was seen in Bergen and parts of northern Scotland. Some German scientists postulated that the heat from factory smoke may have caused abnormally high break up of the arctic ice pack that year.
The burghers of Lübeck declared the iceberg to be a free trade area under the name “Eisbergfreistadt” (Iceberg Free State). It was hoped that the iceberg might become an offshore banking haven. Notgeld were issued as marks but tied to financial futures and currency arbitrage. Some municipalities such as Bremen and Lübeck attempted to tie their own notgeld to Eisbergfreistadt’s by overprinting and stamping their own banknotes, but this “Eisberggeld” fared no better the mark during the height of hyperinflation.
Despite the failure of Eisbergfreistadt to take hold as a viable financial institution, it did nonetheless capture the public imagination of the time. Many people traveled to Lübeck to view the berg? It was even possible to travel to the iceberg by zeppelin. Many souvenirs were created, including playing cards, serving sets, songs, etc. It was painted by a number of prominent artists, but most significantly became a major source of fascination to the utopian movement known as the Crystal Chain.
Founded by the artist and architect Bruno Taut, the Crystal Chain was a correspondence formed between the leading proponents of expressionist architecture in Germany, including Walter Gropius and Wenzel Hablik. The group was fascinated with the architectural possibilities inherent in crystalline structures and glass. When the giant iceberg washed ashore, the group seized upon it, designing utopian cities made of ice and issuing manifestos on behalf of its imaginary socialist government in absentia. Ironically, many of the group’s drawings were used on notgeld, Hablik in particular contributed some fine designs.
To celebrate the founding of the Eisbergfreistadt bank, a large masked ball was held on the iceberg in the autumn of 1923. Many attendees came dressed as polar animals and explorers, although a contingent led by Wenzel Hablik arrived dressed as pigs and rats. Unfortunately, the combined weight of the revelers caused the berg to split into two pieces. Once of these eventually collapsed and melted, causing considerable damage to Lübeck’s industrial zone; the other drifted back into the Baltic, where it was swept back to the arctic by the Norwegian current. Those unfortunate enough to be stranded on the latter were the subject of numerous search and rescue missions. Hablik was among them, and was eventually rescued near the arctic circle.