#OTD, January 25th, 1881 the “red countess” Sophie von Hatzfeld, mother of the German Social-Democratic movement died in Wiesbaden.

She was born into an aristocratic family, the counts of Hatzfeld-Trachtenberg. To smooth a long-running feud between another branch of the Hatzfeld family Sophie was married aged 17 to her cousin, Edmund von Hatzfeld-Wildenburg-Weisweiler. He was a wealthy but debauched man who maintained a harem of mistresses in his castle in Kalkum. The marriage hit the rocks almost immediately. Sophie claimed to have been mistreated and assaulted by her husband.

In 1833 Sophie left her husband and began a life of travel. She entered into new love affairs that rarely lasted. When her family insisted she should behave with more decorum, she answered that “what is suitable for her husband, the count, she should be allowed too”. By 1846 she demanded a divorce. Most unusually she demanded her husband to pay maintenance sufficient to maintain her standard of living.

Sophie hired the then 20-year old Ferdinand Lasalle as her lawyer. What followed was a 5-year epic trial fought in 36 different courtrooms. Lasalle was an early socialist who got prominently involved in the 1848 revolution. He would later found the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, the first socialist/social democratic party in Europe. The ADAV would later become the SPD, today one of Germany’s major political parties.

Sophie supported his efforts. She famously arrived to a revolutionary meeting in Dusseldorf in a carriage flying the red flag alongside the black-red-gold flag of liberal Germany.

Sophy was already 41 when she met Lasalle who was in his 20s. Whether they had an amorous relationship has been subject of gossip for a long time. When Lasalle died in a stupid duel in Geneva in 1864, Sophie inherited his archive and continued his legacy until her death aged 71.

She was a beautiful woman, who would appear in low cut dresses, smoking a cigar and saying – “why shouldn’t I, because I am woman?”

For more interesting German women, check out the History of the Germans Podcast on all major podcast platforms or on this website

On this day, December 3rd, 1942 the great German meteorologist and balloonist Arthur Berson (1859-1942) died of a stroke. Berson is credited with the discovery of the Stratosphere. His work on the structure of the Troposphere as well as his Climatology research were major advances in his field. But he was most famous for his feats as a balloonist. He participated in over 100 scientific high-altitude ascents.

The great Bolloon rides

In 1894 he reached the level of 9,155m where temperature had dropped to -49° Celsius and breathing was only possible by using pure oxygen.

On July 31st, 1901 he and his colleague Reinhard Süring boarded the Balloon “Preussen” filled with 5,400 cubic metres of Hydrogen. After just 40 minutes they had reached a level of 5,000 m. After 4 hours they had reached 9,000m and the temperature had fallen to -32°. Though they were breathing pure oxygen, the reduced atmospheric pressure resulted in both men beginning to faint. Their last recorded measurements were made at 10,225m. After that Süring fell unconscious and Berson pulled the valve for the descent but became unconscious almost immediately afterwards. Both men were now unconscious and probably lost their oxygen masks. They only came to when the balloon had dropped to 6,000m. They were still extremely weak, and the balloon dropped very fast. Only by about 2,500m did the descent slow down and the two men could gain control of the situation. They landed after 7.5h flight in a field near Cottbus.

Their ascent remained the highest balloon flight until Auguste Piccard reached 15,000m in a fully sealed Balloon capsule in 1931.For more detail check this article (in German):


Expeditions to Africa

In 1908 Berson made an expedition to Tanzania (then a German Colony) to investigate the stratosphere around the equator. He did plan various other expeditions, namely to the Arctic as well as schemes to better understand the weather systems over the Atlantic. Most of those failed due to the lack of funding or the onset of World War 1. Despite these constraints, his work has been a milestone in the history of meteorology.

Private life

Berson had an international outlook and spoke 6 languages fluently. His first wife, the German-American Helen Feininger died after just five years of marriage. He had five children with his Swedish second wife, Ruth Bergstrand. their son, Arthur Felicjan Berson was part of a team of meteorologist that planned the allied landings in Normandy.

I could not figure out what happened to Berson senior during the second World War. Given his Jewish ancestry he would normally have been persecuted.

I find the more you look into German history the more interesting things pop up.