‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change,’ according to Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City. In May this year I made my first visit to Berlin. Everywhere there was building, tramlines outside our apartment, construction on a grand scale on every street. I was rather disappointed that so much of its history seemed to have disappeared.
Checkpoint Charlie was a mock-up in the middle of a shopping street. I think the guards were actors. The Brandenburg Gate was swamped by foreign tourists, all aged about 20 and too young to remember the divided city, the Blockade, the Wall, escape attempts, JFK announcing, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and its breach in 1989 … Berlin is a city of history but its past is being made faster than in any other city I know in Europe. This evolving history is reflected in its restlessness, its rewriting.
Books about Berlin reflect this.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Written in a white heat in 28 days immediately after the end of the Second World War, the novel concerns the many ways in which the Nazi (and by extension totalitarian regimes of other kinds) distort life and appeal to base instincts and un-communitarian practices.
The Quangels lose their son early in the war and the father embarks on a small protest of writing postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages. These small acts of rebellion provoke different reactions among the people with whom he comes into contact: his wife, the Gestapo investigator, people who pick up the cards and others in prison. Even when the Quangels have been caught they are able to protest in their own way, although the system tries to hound them to the end. Small acts of kindness, organised resistance, decency of the people caught up by the regime but able to soften its effects from time to time – this is the source of redemption.
It is the conductor, with whom Otto Quangel shares a cell, who speaks to the title. So many acts of resistance but each one undertaken alone. If only they had been led, coordinated, then they might have amounted to something. And the novel addresses the issue of the purpose of struggle where the outcome is doomed. But Otto and his wife and others show that the struggle itself is worth it, to keep one’s integrity: you do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in. It may not change anything. But the point is to struggle.
Fallada based his novel on a true story, which was well documented, as so much of Nazi Germany was. He died soon after writing it.
A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20th April 1945 to 22 June 1945 by Anonymous
Translated from the German by Philip Boehm
A journalist begins her diary at the moment when the Russians advance on Berlin can be heard in the city at the end of the Second World War in Europe. She lives in an apartment block, and increasingly her life is limited to the block and then to the cellar. Her job has gone and safety is absent from the streets (US air raids are also a threat). The residents listen to rumours and the sounds of the advancing Red Army.
Within days the Russians arrive and everyone must decide how to respond to ‘Ivan’. The women are especially vulnerable to rape. The diarist is quickly raped, being fit and about 30. Fat women are also in demand (although there are few of them left). For several days as the Red Army celebrates the apartment dwellers must respond to the drunken and lascivious men. The diarist quickly decides that if she is to be raped repeatedly she should find a protector who will treat her decently. First Anatole, an officer with bear-like qualities and then the injured but cultivated Major become her protectors. Now the air raids have finished she stays with ‘the widow’ and her lodger in a first floor apartment. She records the visits of the many Russians who come through their apartment, most bringing supplies (especially alcohol), some bring interesting conversation.
As the conquerors begin to re-establish order lives, quickly change and then the diarist must do labour for the occupiers, mainly laundry and dismantling German factories ready for transport to the USSR.
Then there is the hope of job on a new publication, and finally her boyfriend returns, not seen since 1939. They try to connect. He is horrified by the complicity of the women in the rapes – as he sees it. He leaves and you get the sense that, as with so much else, they have to leave each other behind and move into the new post-war Germany.
The themes of the book are to do with how people behave in chaos, how order restores itself, especially for the conditioned German population. And how to deal with the fallout of rape for women – collectively and in writing.
In a post in September 2014 I called this a ‘hard to read book’. It was partly based on the comments of my travel companion, Fiona, who was reading it while we were in Berlin. It was hard, but the humour, courage and resourcefulness of the author made it worthwhile. I refer you to Clarissa’s comments on the post about this book and the author.
Three others to mention:
Magda by Meike Ziervogel
A novella, about Magda the wife of Joseph Goebbels, at various episodes in her life. One concerns Magda’s imagined time in Berlin under Russian rule – the period covered by A Woman in Berlin. The book is a psychological study of how abuse rattles down the generations and through institutions especially the family, the Catholic Church and National Socialism, which is presented as a religion. It’s vivid and raw.
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.
This collection of six sketches form a roughly continuous narrative. The book is ‘an ironic and compassionate picture of Berlin during the death throes of the Weimar Republic and of the foreign birds of passage who were drawn there temporarily for one reason or another,’ according to the Times obituary (1986) tucked into my copy. Isherwood lived in the city during the early 1930s. Cabaret is based on his memoirs. This was an exciting place, where the art was experimental, pushing boundaries, where excess and excitement lured the experimental and the young.
Stasiland by Anna Funder
After the fall of the wall and the end of the control of Eastern Germany and East Berlin by the communists, the citizens had to live with their past, and the way in which the Stasi had corrupted everyone, created its own state of secrets: Stasiland. Anna Funder is an Australian who researched and wrote about the lives of people who lived in the Stasi state, before and after the fall of the Wall.
What I notice about all these books is that they are all based on fact, even the novels draw on real events. It is as if Berlin’s history is rich enough, does not need to work much on its fiction.
Here’s a link to Ten of the best books set in Berlin chosen by Malcolm Burgess.
What would your Berlin stories be? I’m going to Amsterdam next week. What are the best Amsterdam books?
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