I love Berlin, it’s a great city with a real buzz about it. There’s plenty to see and do and no matter where you are there’s always a new piece of history to learn about just around the corner. It seems a bit indulgent then to pack a few books to read in he hotel, but from previous experience I knew my poor tired feet would welcome a few hours each day of snuggling up and reading. I had the added bonus of staying at the Radisson Blu, so I knew I’d be able to sit by the window and watch people walk by outside or fish swim by inside. Here’s what I read on my trip…
This was as far back in time as my reading list went, 1930′ Berlin, a decadent time when people from throughout Europe enjoyed living in Berlin. A writer on a budget, Christopher Isherwood writes a series of little vignettes about his life and times in the city. They may be factual, they may be fictional, I feel like they’re that wonderful space in between where a range of real things that happened with a variety of real people are stitched together to make an even more true story.
It’s not all a fun read. We know what he doesn’t as he moves from the early 1930’s through the decade, and I felt a growing anxiousness for his friends and lovers as time wore on. It starts to become clear to him that life in Germany isn’t going to be realistic for him as we learn about his Jewish friend who ran a department store, and his Englishness becomes an issue.
As I was staying close to Alexanderplatz which features throughout the book I enjoyed spotting the street names mentioned and imagining the lives that had been lived there over the years. Whilst you don’t need to be in Berlin to enjoy this book, it does add something to the experience.
The film Cabaret was loosely based on the book, so if you want to watch something rather than read it then try that, although as this is quite a short book, broken into smaller stories, it’s a good choice of read for the airport and the plane.
Fast forwarding a few years into 1940 the Second World War is underway and life has changed beyond recognition in Berlin. Ordinary people who bimbled through life as we all do suddenly find themselves forced into making moral choices with life and death consequences every day of the week. This classic by Hans Fallada is based on the true story of a couple in Berlin who set out on there own quiet yet determined life of resistance in Nazi Germany.
Having received news of the death of their only son in the trenches in France, they feel the full futility of the war, and their powerlessness in the authoritarian regime that has taken hold of their home. As I read this book I felt a growing sense of anxiety. Being British my understanding of the personal experience of the war came from what my grandparents told me about being in Coventry during the Blitz and what my parents remember of food rationing, being sent away to avoid the bombings and playing in bombed out houses. I’d never really thought about what life might be like for normal, law abiding, live and let live German families.
Fallada really does create an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and desperation, and at times I found that overwhelming. When I was out walking the city streets I thought of normal people and how their lives could be turned upside down, destroyed, or ended by a suspicious whisper repeated in hearing range of the wrong person. People hiding in tiny rooms, people unable to grieve for their lost sons. At the same time we learn about people squarely on the Fuhrer’s side of the fence, and how bullies will always be bullies, and just how bad people can be when there’s no-one there to stop them.
This is a compelling read, but not for the faint-hearted or squeamish, we are not spared the reality of the Nazi Secret State Police methods in this book which fictionalises the real case of the Quangel family and the Gestapo inspector Escherich detailed in their actual Gestapo files.
The Cold War years take on a slightly different tinge in this novel set in 1950’s Berlin. Ten years after the end of the Second World War and at a time when the world felt it was hanging in the balance between East and West, Communism and Capitalism even life and nuclear obliteration, a British Civil Servant sent to Berlin to work on a phone tapping system. Espionage was at its height, but our protagonist is no hero, this is not a James Bond character in the making.
The “innocent” young man finds his life becoming more interesting, but seems naive, which is perhaps unsuprising for a middle class youth from 1950’s England. He falls in love. A dangerous thing to do in spy novel. We truck along with his love story and you may want to add a stroll around West Berlin to your itinerary whilst you’re reading this. Take a look at Checkpoint Charlie and the underground car parks in the fancy shopping and office areas that were designed to double as long term nuclear fall out shelters.
Then the love story takes a few turns for the worse. Whilst the main thread throughout the book is love and espionage, again this isn’t for the lily-livered. I really enjoyed this short novel as much for what was unsaid as what was said. Did our innocent really get caught up in events accidentally, was he being led, even at the end I as a reader had the feeling I know far ore about what had really gone on than the man telling me his story ever did. Maybe he really is that innocent, or I’m really that cynical.
Skipping into the communist regime I picked Stasiland, a look back at the years when Western controlled Berlin was a walled city surrounded by the communist east. I remember in 1989 feeling real fear as I watched the Berlin wall being broken down by protesters and people running across the border to “freedom” in the west. My fear was that at any moment the border guards would start shooting them. I’d seen deaths before on the news, and worried that all it would take is for one Border Guard to panic and let of a warning shot and other guards could start shooting.
The wall is gone now, although some sections remain, and the East Side Gallery consists of a long strip of preserved wall with artworks painted on it. In other areas an off little piece of the wall remains here and there with grafitti on it, although they’re slowly decaying as the concrete is exposed to the elements.
Anna Funder writes accounts of life under the Stasi, the East German Secret Police gained in interviews with people carried out in the ten years after the wall fell. Again this book tells those stories in a novelist style, giving a feel for the real person behind the historic fact. It’s gripping, and gives you pause to think. One in every fifty East Germans was providing information to the Secret Police on their friends family and co-workers. How well would your life stand up to being reported on by your nearest and dearest?
If you prefer a filmic version to get you started The Lives of Others is a good primer, following the life of a surveillance officer as he goes about his work and questions what he’s doing.