All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts.
– Ivan Chtcheglov
When people of my generation travel to Berlin they arrive with their heads stuffed already with images of the city soaked up from decades of newspaper and newsreel coverage and from books – both non-fiction and a plethora of spy fiction and novels that have created the city that haunts our imagination.
This summer we spent a few days in Berlin, and before we left I read a few books either about or set in the city, revisiting some old favourites and catching up on some more recently published works. Here then is a quick survey of some of the books that allowed me to walk the streets of Berlin before I even went there.
I’m going to begin with Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner, kindly lent to me last month by my old friend Dave who, as the courier deliveries continue to arrive, will soon be unreachable behind the piles of books which tower around him, ever higher by the day.
This novel, the story of a gang of young boys getting by on a life of crime in the mean streets of pre-Nazi Berlin, was originally published in 1932 but has a very curious history. But when, only a year after its publication, Hitler came to power, Blood Brothers was one of those books burnt on the pyres of the ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’.
But it wasn’t only the book that disappeared: so did the author. This summer we walked in Berlin’s great expanse of green forest, the Grunewald. There, as Rory MacLean explained in a review of Blood Brothers for the Financial Times, is a cemetery where, in graves marked simply by headstones engraved ‘Unbekannter’, ‘Unbekannte’, ‘Unbekannt’ (‘Unknown man’, ‘Unknown woman’, ‘Unknown’) lie the bodies of thousands of victims of the Allied bombing raids on Berlin during the Second World War – so disfigured or torn apart that their identities could not be determined. ‘In such a grave,’ writes MacLean, ‘may lie the remains of Ernst Haffner, a journalist and social worker whose life had been erased from memory until the recent discovery of his remarkable book.’
All that is known of Haffner is that he lived in Berlin between 1925 and 1933 and was ordered to appear before Goebbels’ Reich Chamber of Literature in 1938. After that he vanished. There is no record of him dying on a battlefield or in a camp. All correspondence between him and his publisher was destroyed in a raid. Haffner and his book were forgotten until a small German publisher reprinted the book in 2013. Bild am Sonntag called it ‘the most mysterious book of the year’.
‘Like a karate chop: hard and direct, but true’, was Der Spiegel’s verdict on the book, which is pretty accurate. Set in working-class Berlin, Blood Brothers tells the story of a street gang made up of homeless teenagers, many of them runaways from juvenile detention centres. Haffner’s prose is simple, straightforward and direct with echoes of American pulp fiction, Chandler or Hammett. He must have drawn upon his experiences both as a journalist and as a social worker, since he tells the boys’ story with sharp documentary detail, such as the opening chapter’s vivid evocation of endless waiting and bureaucratic rituals at the labour exchange, plus descriptions of cafes and dives inhabited by these denizens of the street.
These boys live on the city’s margins, in cellars or in wretched bug-infested lodgings, almost invisible to the city’s respectable residents, and constantly trying to remain that way from the police. They endure hunger and bitter cold, in extremity prostituting themselves to earn enough for a bit of bread, a sausage or a bowl of pea soup.
Strikingly, politics and the street clashes between the Nazis and the Communists which were so much a feature of these years play no part in Haffner’s novel. In this, Haffner’s viewpoint differs from that of the novelist who has done more to define the Berlin of 1930-33 than any other – at least for English-speaking readers. In Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood – who always had a return ticket to home comforts in London in his pocket – gave us similarly vivid impressions of Berlin low life. He, too, presented himself as a documentarist (though, as he admits, his snapshots were carefully worked over later:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.
I re-read both of the Berlin novels while in Berlin this summer, and both seemed as fresh as the first time, and even more important as crafted works of literature. They remain essential for anyone who want to understand Germany’s capital a little better. On the Slow Travel Berlin website, Wyndham Wallace writes:
You don’t read Isherwood’s tales to pinpoint the city’s heart: streets may be named, but it’s not the locations that are important. You read the Berlin Stories to get to grips with the city’s soul, the habits and personalities that define it, the celebrations it’s enjoyed and the horrors it’s endured.
Isherwood views the political turmoil of the times through the eyes of locals struggling to make a living as the city is transformed from the free-wheeling decadence of Weimar to the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich.
All along the Tauentzienstrasse, men, women and boys are hawking postcards, flowers, song-books, hair-oil, bracelets. Christmas trees are stacked for sale along the central path between the tramlines … In the side streets, lorry-loads of police are waiting; for any large crowd, nowadays, is capable of turning into a political riot.
Isherwood’s snapshot of the fated city has something of a dreamlike quality, and ends with these words:
No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this really happened…
Blood Brothers was translated by Michael Hofmann, highly-regarded amongst those who translate from German into English. He was also responsible for the translation of another rediscovered novel of Berlin’s 20th century nightmare – Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, the subject of an earlier post on this blog.
Alone in Berlin was published in German in 1947, only a few months before the author’s death. However, it was only in 2009 that the English translation by Michael Hofmann appeared. Centre stage in a large cast of characters are Otto and Anna Quangel, a Berlin working class couple initially not hostile to the Nazis.
But that changes in 1940 when their son is killed while fighting in France. Otto, a foreman in a furniture factory that is soon switched to manufacturing coffins for the front line, turns to resistance. He spends his Sundays writing anonymous postcards against the regime and dropping them in the stairwells of city buildings: ‘Mother Don’t give to the Winter Relief Fund! – Work as slowly as you can! – Put sand in the machines! – Every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!’
Alone in Berlin is a compelling read, and in the tragic closing chapters gives us an unsentimental portrayal of quiet courage in desperate circumstances: life may be terminated but human decency is not entirely extinguished. Indeed, Primo Levi declared that Alone in Berlin is ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’.
I read the Penguin edition which reveals in an Afterword the true story that lay behind Fallada’s novel. He based it on the case of Elise and Otto Hampel, a poorly-educated working Berlin working-class couple who had both originally been Nazi supporters. Like the Quangels they conducted a campaign against the Nazi regime, distributing bleaflets in Berlin-Wedding for two years before they were betrayed. They were executed by guillotine in the Plötzensee Prison on 8 April 1943.
Two British writers have produced sequences of well-written thrillers set in Berlin during the Nazi years. Three books – March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem – make up Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir series, each story centred on a Berlin private investigator Bernie Gunther solving crimes in Berlin during the Nazi regime (March Violets is set in 1936, Pale Criminal in 1938 and German Requiem in 1947). As the title of the series suggests, Kerr’s Berlin is a dark place full of corruption and moral ambiguity.
The stories are tight, complex page-turners – first-rate, hard-boiled noir, with twisting plots full of surprises. But Kerr also succeeds in conjuring up a chilling portrait of Nazi Germany before and during the war, elevating the stories beyond crime fiction into moral literature.
John Russell is the main protagonist in a series of spy thrillers with carefully-researched historical and political backgrounds by David Downing. The series began with Zoo Station, and the five subsequent novels all take their title from a Berlin railway station of the period and follow the fortunes of John Russell, an American-born journalist with strong English ties working in Berlin in the Nazi years, writing bland human-interest stories for American newspapers, avoiding the investigative journalism that could get him deported.
John Russell is an appealing character who is divorced and lives with Effi Koenen, a feisty German actress who stars in state-approved films filled with Nazi propaganda though she despises the Nazis. His son, Paul, is an active member of the Hitler Youth, and John tries to navigate a world that is becoming more dangerous for Effi and him, and his German family by the day.
Zoo Station, the first in a series that will track the fortunes of Russell and Effi to the end of the war and beyond, begins as 1938 draws to a close. People are uneasy in what the new year will bring to Germany. John has stumbled across a spectacular story: Hitler’s government is euthanizing disabled children. Somehow he must get the story out to the American newspapers, and soon John is offered an assignment that will lead him into spying for both the Russians and the Americans.
All five novels offer gripping reads, well-written and based on sufficient historical research to make for credible plots and deft explorations of the moral gyrations that bystanders like John and Effi must negotiate.
It was spy novels that first introduced me to Berlin – specifically (no doubt, like most of my generation) Len Deighton’s quartet of novels that began with The IPCRESS File in 1962. My personal favourite is Funeral in Berlin, a novel in which the city of Berlin is as much a lead character as the unnamed agent who narrates the story.
First published in 1964, Funeral in Berlin seemed as up to the minute as the headlines in that day’s newspaper. The story revolved around the Berlin Wall, then barely three years old and a constant flashpoint in the Cold War. Deighton’s unnamed secret agent (known as Harry Palmer in the film version) was an anti-hero who resents the class-ridden incompetence of the British establishment as much as he does the devious machinations of the Soviets. It was Deighton who started the ball rolling – picked up by Philip Kerr, David Downing and others – of having a central character who grapples with the moral issues of his dark trade, and the its wider political ramifications.
As Deighton explains in the introduction to the Penguin reissue in 2009, he gained an in-depth knowledge of the city before writing the book:
Berlin was soon a second home to me. I became obsessed by Berlin. I studied its history and collected old photographs of its streets, street life and architecture. I talked to many who had served and many who had suffered under the Third Reich. I still can wander through its streets and alleys and see the past, even when there is little evidence of the past remaining. I learned about its electricity, gas and sewerage systems, much of which could not be divided and had to be shared; a fact kept secret by both sides. The whimsical way in which the town was divided made it even more bizarre. It was a microcosm of a divided world.
The Berlin Wall was the most tangible symbol of the Cold War as two mutually antagonistic and lethally armed blocs faced off against each other. We lived with nightmares in our heads. The Wall was both an absurdity and a tragedy. Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper was written towards the end of the Wall’s life, in 1982, but I didn’t read it until after a new edition of the book was published by Penguin in 2005.
At first The Wall Jumper seems like reportage, since the narrator seems as if he might be Schneider, who is a journalist himself. But the book is fiction. By the time Schneider wrote the novel, the barbed-wire rolls and hastily erected breeze-block wall that Conrad Schumann easily jumped across in 1961 had been replaced by more permanent structures. For Schneider’s characters, the Wall is no longer an outrage and an affront to freedom, but a boring fact of life. ‘I really don’t see the Wall any more,’ Schneider’s narrator says. ‘Time doesn’t heal wounds; it kills the sensation of pain.’
The book is structured around a series of encounters between the narrator (who lives in West Berlin) and a group of East Berliners who are the ‘wall jumpers’ – who move or regularly cross to the West. There is Robert, who misses the rigid predictability of life in the GDR; Pommerer, who spends his time trying to outwit the system; Lena, a woman infected by suspicion and paranoia; and the unnamed narrator, who spends a lot of time crossing the border to visit family and friends:
The best time to cross the border at Heirich Heine Strasse is between twelve and two in the afternoon. The checkpoint is almost empty: just one other traveler, with a shepherd dog on a leash, waits under the loudspeaker for his number to be called. I could simply drive up to the shed from which a border official will soon emerge to hand me my numbered ticket. But I know the consequences of crossing the white line unasked: the officer, even if he is there and ready, will wave me back and make me wait until he gives me a sign. I can’t follow impulse: I have to wait for his beckoning hand, and I can’t afford to miss it. The message in this ritual is clear and seems deliberate: I am entering a state where even things that will happen anyway require authorisation.
The Wall Jumper written at a time when the end was nowhere in sight, is a portrait of a city and a people trapped by mental as well as physical walls. At one point the narrator expresses the real significance of this psychological divide:
It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.
Most vividly, Schneider’s narrator tells of a visit he recently made to the home of his aunt in East Germany. As he is talking to her, he becomes aware of footsteps overhead. He learns that it is a cousin who is determined to keep himself out of the way, since he has just joined the military and is therefore forbidden to speak to foreigners. The two men must never meet.
But why, wonders the narrator, can’t his cousin just pop downstairs and exchange greetings? Who would ever know? He realises that there is an ‘internalised cop’ at work. His cousin is a product of the system he has grown up in. But, what if the narrator had been raised in the East, would he too have been so cowed? ‘Would I have turned out so differently . . . ? Where does the state end and a self begin?’
Before we left for the city I read Peter Schneider’s most recent book, Berlin Now, a collection of 30 short essays on the city’s architecture, its immigrant communities, its redevelopment since the Wall came down, its night life and more.
He begins by trying to fathom why Berlin has become such a popular destination for tourists and young creatives and entrepreneurs. Berlin is not one of Europe’s most beautiful cities by a long chalk, so what’s the attraction? His tentative answer is that it is ‘the weirdness, perpetual incompleteness, and outlandishness – and the liveliness inherent in these qualities’.
One aspect of Berlin’s appeal, Schneider suggests, is its mutability: in a century and a half, Berlin has been the capital city of five different Germanys (and before that, of Prussia): the Reich that Bismarck forged from the German states, elevating the King of Prussia to Kaiser; the Weimar Republic, founded in the wake of that Reich’s catastrophic defeat in World War I; the ‘thousand year’ Third Reich, which lasted only 12; the communist German Democratic Republic in the East, under which Berlin was first blockaded and then split in two; and, since 1990, the undivided capital of the reunified Federal Republic of Germany. ‘Berlin, he suggests, ‘has been many different things to many different Germans, and this gives the city a feeling of unlimited possibility.’
The opening essays in which Schneider discusses the debates about the redevelopment of Berlin’s buildings and public spaces is the best part of the book, revealing how they inevitably become debates about Germany’s history. For example, the Palace of the Republic, a Stalinist glass-and-steel cube that housed the East German parliament, was built on the site of the Berliner Schloss (palace), the winter residence of the Prussian kings, that had been badly damaged by Allied bombs and finally demolished in 1950. When, after reunification, the Palace of the Republic was found to be riddled with asbestos, it was proposed that it be demolished and the Schloss rebuilt.
Berliners quickly took sides in a debate which was essentially about the German past. Why rebuild a symbol of Prussian militarism? In the end, the Bundestag voted by a two-thirds majority to rebuild the Schloss at a cost of €600 million and the Palace of the Republic was demolished in 2003. The rebuilt Schloss, now to be known as the Humboldt Forum, will open in 2018.
Schneider also recounts the debates over how to rebuild the Potsdamer Platz, a wasteland divided by the Wall for a quarter of a century but in pre-war days the commercial heart of the city. Now it’s dominated by a cluster of corporate steel and glass towers which Schneider admits is ‘not a masterpiece of modern urban architecture. But, it thrives and it’s lively.
Unfortunately the rest of this rather scrappy book is less satisfactory, deteriorating into a series of random musings, rants, and riffs on various social issues in the city. Some of the opinions expressed by Schneider – on subjects ranging from the sexual differences between East and West German women to the perils posed by Muslim immigrants – are decidedly unsettling. In an essay entitled ‘The New Barbarism’ he quotes a study that he suggests revealed ‘a clear relationship between Islamic piety and the propensity toward violence,’ and he quotes the assertion of the mayor of Neukolln that the reason many Turkish and Arab pupils seem stupid is because of their home life. Schneider praises his straight talk, calling him a ‘natural-born tribune.’
Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean (whose first book, Stalin’s Nose I remember enjoying in the 1990s) is entirely different. Turn past MacLean’s opening epigraph (from Christa Wolf) ‘The past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past’, and you are soon swept along by his short portraits of more than twenty individuals – famous and infamous, high and low – whose lives combine to create a biography of Berlin.
The portraits are preceded by an introduction in which MacLean addresses the question as to why Berlin haunts our imagination. He writes:
Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle.
Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives more powerfully in the imagination. Long before setting eyes on it, the stranger feels its aching absences as much as its brazen presences, the sense of lives lived, dreams realised, and evils executed with an intensity. […] Yesterday echoes along today’s streets and the ideas conjured up by Berlin’s dreamers and dictators seem as solid as its bricks and mortar. The hypnotic and volatile city comes alive in the mind.
I can’t think of a better explanation for the allure of Berlin. The portraits themselves form a gallery of individuals who have helped create that city of the imagination (or of our nightmares). Some of the individuals are, in fact, imaginary, while some of the portraits of real persons are sprinkled with imaginary moments.
MacLean’s historical scope is a broad one, reaching right back to 15th-century Berlin. He begins with the story of a poet in 1469, whose public recitation of an outrageously innovative poem causes him to be beheaded. The character is fictitious, but MacLean’s justification for this occasional device is that these are composite characters in the book who are real but are based on deep research: in this case, the figure of a singing fool on the medieval Dance of Death mural in the Marienkirche, a small church now dwarfed by the television tower on Alexanderplatz. If it hadn’t been for MacLean’s story I would never have ventured inside and seen the mural, much the worse for wear from the passing centuries, and having been whitewashed during the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Some of the characters we meet are heroes; some are pitiful; while others, such as Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl are monsters. There are notables such as Frederick the Great, Schinkel the architect, Walther Rathenau, Christopher Isherwood, Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, and John F Kennedy. All have been chosen to represent the Berlin of their time.
Anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazis haunts many of the portraits, in particular, a compelling piece about the industrialist and Weimar foreign minister Walter Rathenau. MacLean portrait points up the contradictions of a man who was ‘an industrialist who dabbled in the arts and philosophy, a pacifist who kept Germany at war … a Jew who helped to arm Hitler’. It is drenched with premonitions of the nightmares of the thirties and forties and there’s a telling moment when Rathenau tells his fellow German Jews that they are as native as ‘the Saxons, Bavarians and Wends’ and ought to revel in being ‘a living part of the nation’. The chapter focused on Joseph Goebbels reminds us that he once damned the German capital as a ‘repulsive accumulation of pirates, pederasts, gangsters and their like’ and did not want to ‘kneel in its filth’ (which probably explains why Haffner’s Blood Brothers was added to the book pyres in 1933).
The portraits very in their success; one of the very best is MacLean’s portrait of Kathe Kollwitz which begins with her 1903 drawing, ‘Mother with Dead Child’ and eventually closes with her sculpture of a grieving mother and her son that, fifty years after her death, on the reunification of Germany, was placed in the Neue Wache guardhouse as a national memorial to the victims of war and tyranny. Between these two moments, MacLean sketches a concise and deeply moving account of the tragedies in Kollwitz’s own life that echo her country’s tragedies.
MacLean first arrived in Berlin as a teenage backpacker, returning later to work on films with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. He worked with David Bowie in the 1970s when the Thin White Duke went to Berlin to recover from cocaine dependency. That was when he created ‘Heroes’, perhaps the greatest song inspired by Berlin. Sadly, the Bowie chapter is one of the weakest in the book.
If I was pressed to recommend one book for a traveller to read before they go to Berlin, I think it would be MacLean’s. He imagines a city that ‘was never an ethnic German city’. Its poor land and isolated location has made its survival dependent on incomers – he cites waves of Franks, Flemings and Rhinelanders, Danes, Jews and Poles. He notes that Frederick the Great ‘even mooted building a mosque to attract Muslims, 250 years before the arrival of the first Turkish Gastarbeiter.’ But, in a final chapter he writes of the morning he heard the noise of workmen relaying cobblestones below his window. Going down to investigate, he discovers that outside his door a fresh stolpersteine has been laid:
HERE LIVED FLORA PHILIPS
Later, he meets Ilse, Flora Philip’s daughter who, as a 16-year old in 1939 was rescued on a Kindertransport. As they part he searches for the right words of farewell:
All I could say to Ilse’s family – my own voice croaking with emotion – was ‘It is good to have met you, here in Berlin’.
And if there is one book about the history of Berlin that I would recommed, it would have to be Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, Alexandra Richie’s mammoth, magisterial and highly readable account which begins at the end of the last Ice Age and ends with the Bundestag vote to once again make Berlin the capital of reunified Germany. (You can read the first chapter here.)
I read Richie’s book before my first visit to the city on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall in 1999, and revisited parts of it before this summer’s trip. The book runs to more than a thousand pages, but is rich in detail and an inspiring history. Richie’s focus is strongest on how, from the pomp of Imperial Berlin, and the frantic modernism of Weimar to the brutality of the Nazis and the collapse of communism as the Wall came down, Berlin has played host to all the movements that have uplifted and afflicted German and European history. She offers a scholarly, thematic analysis of the city’s role, but also writes with humour of the ways in which the city has reinvented itself through the age
In her introduction, Richie refers to the works of Goethe, Grosz, Brecht and Weill, and most tellingly quotes the words of the 19th century art historian Karl Scheffler:
Berlin is a city that never is, but is always in the process of becoming.
She acknowledges how hard it can be to truly capture the essence of a place ‘whose identity is based not on stability but on change’:
It is a volatile place, and many have found to their cost that the veneer of normality can vanish as quickly as yellow Mark Brandenburg sand slips through the fingers.’
These lists of recommended Berlin books make me realise how much more there is to read about the city:
- Ten Great Books About Berlin (Slow Travel Berlin)
- 10 great books about the Berlin Wall… (Slow Travel Berlin)
- Rory MacLean’s top 10 Berliners in literature (Guardian)
- 10 of the best books set in Berlin (Guardian)
- 10 Books that Will Make You Fall in Love with Berlin (The Culture Trip)
- Berlin Book of Lists Excerpt: Top Five Novels Set in Berlin (Huffington Post)
- The best books on Berlin (Toronto Globe & Mail)
And when I’ve finished reading, I’ll watch some films (Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is one of my all-time favourites):
- 10 of the best films set in Berlin (Guardian)
- 10 Films That Will Make You Fall in Love with Berlin (The Culture Trip)
- 10 great films set in Berlin (BFI)
- 10 Great Films Set In Berlin (Slow Travel Berlin)
7 thoughts on “Berlin: books that created the city that haunts our imagination”
I’ve just come back from a few days in Berlin (partly motivated to go there on the basis of your post on the Imex show – 95 minutes queueing but worth it) and so I really appreciate this reading list. We stayed in a house just off Bernauer Strasse and so immediately next to the line of the Wall. We were also next to the outdoor exhibition of the Berlin Wall Memorial – very impressive and very moving. The iconic wall jumper image, painted large onto a gable end, dominates the scene. Incidentally I recommend that anyone interested in Käthe Kollwitz visit Cologne where there is a gallery dedicated solely to her work. There is also excellent art to see in other Cologne galleries e.g. Museum Ludwig, and don’t miss the Kolumba Museum – a fabulous modern building by architect Peter Zumthor.
Thanks, Philip. I intend to get to the Kollwitz museum in Cologne as soon as I possibly can. I once spent a week with students in Cologne, but never got a chance to visit the museum. I assume you visited the one in Berlin? There’s also a pretty good one at Koekelare in Belgium, near to the cemetery where her ‘Grieving Parents’ stands (http://wp.me/poJrg-5lS).
Thanks for sharing these different works for fiction and memoir related to Berlin and its history. Am going to check out some of them.
Thank you for the overview of books about Berlin, and your great recommendations. I recently enjoyed. ‘Berlin Stories’ (translated by Susan Bernofsky) stories by the Swiss writer Robert Walser, with unconventional observations of Berlin’s social and cultural life during the early twentiest century. W G Sebald views Walser as the ‘clairvoyant of the small.’ By 1933 Walser was confined to a sanatorium.
Thanks – that sounds really interesting. Another one to add the continuing Berlin reading list!