Gustav Böß, Portrait by Max Oppenheimer (1885-1954). The mayor’s professional ties to Berlin are indicated by the city grid in the background of the painting, formed by canyons of houses, watercourses and industrial plants.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Gustav Böß

On 20th January 1921, Gustav Böß was elected mayor of Berlin. In a time plagued with inflation, a global economic crisis and the instability of the Weimar Republic, he was faced with a major challenge. However, his achievements were eventually overshadowed by a scandal that abruptly ended his era.

Gustav Böß was born on 11th April 1873 in Gießen and was the son of an authorised officer. After secondary school, he studied law and economics at the Ludwigs-Universität in Gießen and obtained a doctorate. After graduation, he worked at the Hessian financial administration before moving to the administration of the Prussian-Hessian Railway Company.

The old Schöneberg town hall on Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, destroyed during the Second World War
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Max Missmann
In 1910, Böß was elected city councillor for transport in the city of Schöneberg, which was an independent city at the time. Then in 1912, thanks to his professional competence and organisational skills, he was appointed treasurer of the city of Berlin, which Schöneberg had become a part of the year before as part of the newly founded Zweckverband Berlin [Berlin administration union]. The office expected a lot from him, since the war and post-war years in particular had put a heavy strain on the city’s finances. Böß proved to be a dedicated and a skilful local politician who always felt committed to the young Weimar Republic.
The Rotes Rathaus [Red City Hall] and its surroundings at the beginning of Gustav Böß‘s term as mayor of Berlin (1921/22)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: unknown

The Böß era

Böß, who was a member of the German Democratic Party, was elected mayor with the votes he received from the Social Democratic Party in April 1921. As the successor to Dr. Adolf Wermuth, a pioneer of the “Zweckverband Groß-Berlin” [Greater Berlin administration union] and the first mayor of the newly created metropolis, it was Böß who set the course for the city’s development.

Until 1929, he led the city through troubled years. He organised the administrative structures for the newly created districts in order to create a standardised Greater Berlin administration and a common infrastructure for the gas, water and electricity supplies.
A hand-signed thank-you letter from Gustav Böß to the management of the Neues Volkstheater
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

The municipalization of the city’s infrastructure created some of the city’s largest employers. In addition, through his economic policy, he aimed to strengthen tourism and Berlin’s role as a trade fair city. The expansion of the transport network and turning Tempelhof airport into a European air traffic hub were also vital in transforming Berlin into a metropolis of international stature.

A trip to America and a scandal

At the invitation of the Mayor of New York, Böß set off on a tour of America in early September 1929. In addition to the hope of establishing Berlin as an international trading centre and tourist destination overseas, Böß wanted to improve Berlin’s finances by securing American external loans. After becoming an honorary citizenship of the city of New York on September 23rd, Böß received word of a corruption scandal involving himself in Berlin. Two textile traders, the Sklarek brothers, had been arrested for having secured a monopoly for supplying public institutions through bribery and for having obtained credit by false pretences. Gustav Böß was suspected of being involved in the scandal, because his wife had bought a discounted fur jacket. 

Cartoon of the Sklarek scandal: “If those crooks are to pull my fur over my ears, then I should at least have a suit from them!”
© Heidelberg University Library
His return to Berlin turned out to be a catastrophe: He was attacked at Zoo train station by an aggressive mob, which had been worked up by the media reports. In response, Böß initiated disciplinary proceedings against him and asked to be granted administrative leave.

The lengthy investigation ended with his acquittal, but after having been the victim of more massive hostilities, Böß finally decided to resign on November 7th 1929.

Nazi aftermath

Once the Nazis had seized power, new criminal proceedings against Gustav Böß were initiated. The charges against him were brought by the Nazi faction leader in the Berlin city council assembly Julius Lippert.

Böß was charged with misappropriation of state funds and the receipt of significant sums during his tenure.

He was arrested on 28th April 1933 due to “danger of collusion”, before being eventually released from prison in Moabit nine months later, because the allegations proved to be unfounded.

Böß left Berlin and moved to Bernried am Starnberger See, where he lived until his death on 6th February 1946. Today there is a street in the immediate vicinity of the Rotes Rathaus, sports facilities, as well as an open-air theatre in Jungfernheide Park named after him, all commemorating one of the the city’s most important mayors.