Berlin: Life and Death in the City at the Center of the World, by Sinclair McKay (St. Martin’s Press, 464 pp., $29.99)
I first visited West Germany as a student, during the height of the Cold War, but I didn’t make it to Berlin until shortly after the Wall came down. In fact, when I arrived there by night train from Munich in the spring of 1990, it was still coming down, both figuratively and literally. Chugging through what until very recently had been East Germany, we stopped at a station where the train remained closed—like Lenin’s on his 1917 journey to Saint Petersburg—while an elderly woman in a shabby, ill-fitting uniform made her way slowly along the platform, meticulously copying down the numbers of our passenger cars, obviously performing a decades-long but now pointless ritual. In the morning, we pulled into the Berlin Zoo station, where everyone got out except for yours truly, because I was too naïve to know that Berlin Zoo was, in fact, the main station for West Berlin and that the final stop, the Hauptbahnhof, where I ended up disembarking, was a cavernous, empty old pile of rubble—or close to it—in the former East Berlin.
So it was that, in what was then merely aggravating but now feels like a romantic adventure, I found my way through yet more rubble to a station of the S-Bahn—Berlin’s elevated rail system—and, in my very modest German, asked a uniformed metro worker how to get back to Berlin Zoo. Which, at that instant in history, was a stumper even for a metro employee, because, as he explained, they had reconnected the tracks between West and East only a day or two earlier. In any event, I made it back, and soon I was standing near the Brandenburg Gate taking in what was left of the Berlin Wall. Half a year or so after the border had opened up, people were still chipping away at it from all sides with little rock hammers—just like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption—and walking off with treasured concrete souvenirs. Though there were bits of the Wall lying on the ground all around me, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to snap any of them up. None of this, I felt, had to do with me, except in the very broadest world-historical sense. These mementos belonged to the locals.
How best to paint a picture of a city? Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris (2002), one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, is straightforward history. Ditto Geert Mak’s sober Amsterdam (1994). Geoffrey Moorhouse’s diverting but now hopelessly dated Imperial City: New York (1988) is organized thematically, while Peter Ackroyd, in his massive, convivial London: A Biography (2000), somehow pulls off a combination of chronological and thematic structure. And Berlin: Life and Death in the City at the Center of the World, British journalist Sinclair McKay’s new portrait of modern Berlin, is divided chronologically into three parts, each of which is, in turn, divided into a number of thematically organized chapters. In the first part, “Dissolution,” McKay uses anecdotes, statistics, and thumbnail portraits of Berliners like theater director Max Reinhardt, philosopher Walter Benjamin, and artist Georg Grosz to depict life in the German capital during the Weimar and prewar Nazi years, covering such topics as the immense appeal of nudism and of political radicalism (both exemplary of the city’s “taste for extremity”), to Berlin’s literary, film, music, art, and architecture scenes, to the virtually unprecedented degree of freedom enjoyed in the city, if only briefly, by Jews and gays.
In this first section, we experience the shock of the erudite Jewish author Victor Klemperer at the rise of the Nazis: “I was so confident about being a German, a European, a twentieth century man. . . . Blood? Racial hatred? Not today, not here—at the centre of Europe!” Why did top Nazis fail to appreciate the importance of developing atomic weapons? Because they looked down on nuclear physics—whose public face, after all, was Berliner Albert Einstein—as “Jewish science.” Reading Hannah Arendt’s observation, apropos of Rosa Luxemburg, that “intellectual Jews” in prewar Berlin felt that “their fatherland actually was Europe,” we may be reminded of today’s European Union enthusiasts.
McKay draws much of his strongest material, he tells us, from the archives of the Zeitzeugenbörse, or Contemporary Witness Exchange, which collects the testimonies of ordinary Berliners. One of them, Lothar Orbach, recalls how his family had a strong sense of being “Germans first, and Jews second,” and had disdain for fellow Jews who felt otherwise. Then the Nazis took power. On the day the Gestapo came knocking, Orbach and his mother managed to slip out the back and take refuge with an elderly Gentile neighbor who then put on a successful show for the Gestapo, slipping on a swastika armband and asking them, so convincingly that they went away without searching her flat, “Did you catch those damned Jews?” As McKay observes elsewhere in the book, “Prejudice is rarely a surprise, but kindness can occasionally feel extraordinary.” Courage, too.
The overall tone of the first part of Berlin is grim, but nowhere near as stygian as the second, “Necropolis,” which details the events of 1945 (a topic covered in even more depth by Antony Beevor’s 2007 work Berlin: The Downfall: 1945). We learn that, just days before Hitler’s suicide, Albert Speer, desperate to conjure a sense of normality, arranged a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, during which “boys from the Hitler Youth passed among the audience with wicker baskets filled with cyanide capsules.” After the Red Army marched in, one Soviet soldier encountered “a grave-looking German woman,” long in hiding, who “handed him a piece of paper upon which she had drawn a Star of David” to indicate her religion. “The officer imagined her to be about forty years old. She was sixteen.” Berliners had prayed for the Western Allies to reach Berlin first, fearing the worst from the savage Soviets. Alas, their fears came true: an epidemic of rape ensued, with many victims being butchered after their rapists were done with them. One girl was grateful to be ravaged by a “friendly” Red Army officer who afterwards left a note on her door telling his colleagues to leave her alone because she was his fiancée.
There were, of course, innumerable other differences between the Eastern and Western Allies, and thus—as recounted in “Possession,” the book’s third part—between life in East and West Berlin. While the USSR sought “long-term reparations” from the Germans, the U.S. introduced the Marshall Plan. The Western Allies went to great lengths to restore properties to their original Jewish owners; the Soviets didn’t. (Under Communism, after all, nobody owned property.) During the immediate postwar period, when the city was divided into four occupied zones, many Polish Jews crossed on foot through Czechoslovakia—and even through the French and British zones—to reach the U.S. sector, convinced that their hope for salvation lay with the Yanks alone. “The American authorities,” writes McKay, “could not and would not hold them back.”
Later, after the western zones were combined into West Berlin, the gulf between the quality of life in the city’s two halves grew steadily. The Berlin Airlift of 1948–1949, a heroic response to a Soviet attempt to cut off supplies to West Berlin, only intensified the feeling among West Berliners that Americans had their backs: “Where the Soviets moved with cruelty . . . the Americans were seen to be bringing joy to the children of their former enemies.” Yet for all the Americans had done for them, one of the chief complaints by West Berliners by the time the 1950s rock-and-rolled around was that “alien” and “vulgar” American pop music was poisoning their culture. Nor did they hide their racism toward black American performers. You would think they would have been embarrassed to express such sentiments so soon after the Holocaust, but no. It was almost as if, having been lifted by America back to a position of dignity and self-respect, they were returning to master-race form and looking upon their saviors with the same old arrogance and contempt. (This is a phenomenon I’ve often reflected on when visiting Germany; I wish McKay had devoted more time to it.)
While West Berliners were hating on Elvis, East Berliners were seething with envy over the West’s greater freedom and prosperity. As more and more of them—especially professionals—moved to West Berlin, East German leader Walter Ulbricht saw no alternative other than to build the wall that would, for almost 30 years, be the worldwide symbol of Communism. McKay seems almost schizophrenic on the eastern half of the divided city. On the one hand, he quite admirably observes that, “in 1968, when in Paris and other Western cities the student movement was parading the streets pushing for revolution, there were East Berliners seeking to escape revolution’s nightmare results”; he also tells the tragic stories of several of the 243 East Berliners killed trying to escape to the West.
On the other hand, McKay seems overly impressed by the rights accorded to gays and women in the East. He cites one woman who loved East Berlin because she was able to pursue a career there as a journalist—as if the German Democratic Republic ever had real journalism. He insists that, though “East Berlin was always portrayed as ruined and leached of colour other than brown and dark grey . . . it was never so simple” as that. Well, as noted, I was there six months after the Wall came down, and while West Berlin was a glittering prize, East Berlin was a vast gray sea of dilapidated, pockmarked rattraps. Incredibly, McKay even says that when Ulbricht’s successor, Erich Honecker, expressed fear of opening to the West, some East Berliners found it “understandable” because “they had witnessed the rise of the Nazis, and had no difficulty imagining them arising in some new form once more.” But weren’t the GDR and the Stasi a “new form” of Nazis?
There’s a lot of vivid, eye-opening material in this book. But it’s rather less than the sum of its parts, and it ends with a whimper, according perfunctory treatment to the wall’s fall and the reunification, a period of electric excitement that I’m forever glad to have witnessed firsthand. McKay’s acknowledgments end with a glib tip of the hat to Berlin, this “extraordinary and open-hearted city.” Sorry, but that won’t do. After having visited it several times over the decades, when both Berlin and I have been in very different phases of our lives, I have a strong and complex feeling for the city, but there’s a palpable historical weight to it, an ineluctable darkness, and, just beneath the surface, something chilling and perverse and stubbornly enduring, that’s absent even in other major cities with long, knotty histories, such as Vienna and Paris. McKay describes the Holocaust memorial near Potsdamer Platz—which consists of “a maze of monuments” resembling close-packed gravestones in a Jewish cemetery—as “exquisite” and “heartfelt.” To me, it’s yet another example of the creepy, cynical genre I call the architecture of atonement, and that seems to me to reflect something distinctive and disturbing in the German psyche.
So, no, McKay never dives too deep or gets too reflective. Yes, it’s an engaging read, but in terms of substance it doesn’t hold a candle to Rory McLean’s Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries (2014), which tells the city’s story through vivid portraits of Frederick the Great, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Speer, and 20 other prominent figures; or Barney White-Spunner’s comprehensive Berlin: The Story of a City, which opens in A.D. 1237. Even such entertaining quick reads as Tuvia Tenenbom’s I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany(2011) and James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany (2007) provide a historical context and insight into the German character that are sorely absent in McKay’s Berlin.
Photo by V. Pawlowski/ullstein bild via Getty Images