Top five: books on Berlin in history


Berlin stories

By Christopher Isherwood (1945)

1. The 1920s are sometimes described as the golden age of Berlin. It’s hard to see why. For most Berliners, it was a time of poverty, hardship and loss sandwiched between two devastating wars. The decade, however, produced some of Berlin’s most powerful literatures, from writers like Alfred Döblin, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Grosz, Erich Kästner and Heinrich and Thomas Mann. But perhaps the writer who captures the era best is Christopher Isherwood, the British novelist who lived and worked in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. Isherwood, a gay man who found he was unable to live as he chose in London, wrote two short stories about his time in Berlin that are as witty and witty as they are ultimately sad. These are the works that inspired the musical “Cabaret”.

Berlin Childhood Around 1900

By Walter Benjamin (circa 1938)

Translated by Howard Eiland

2. Berlin has long had a thriving Jewish community. Some of the earliest graves found in the city are those of Jews who lived in the mid-thirteenth century. Despite periodic vicious persecutions, the Jews were, by 1900, well assimilated into Berlin society. Great dynasties like the Liebermann, Mendelssohn and Rathenau dominated industry and the arts. Walter Benjamin’s charming and evocative memoir describes his comfortable and secure childhood in a wealthy Jewish family in West Berlin. Both moving and haunting, it was written in the 1930s as the Nazis destroyed the very world Benjamin so lovingly describes. Published posthumously, it remains one of Berlin’s most evocative books.

Every man dies alone

By Hans Fallada (1947)

Translated by Michael Hofmann

3. Berlin was, politically, one of the least Nazified cities in Germany. Hitler never forgave Berliners that only 34% of them voted for his National Socialists in the 1933 elections; a quarter voted for the Communists. Joseph Goebbels, the main Nazi propagandist, described the city as a “melting pot of all that is bad – prostitution, public houses, cinemas, Marxism, Jews, strippers, dancing niggers. and all the ugly ramifications of so-called modernity. of art. “Resistance to Hitler’s regime took deep root in the city, claiming the lives of many brave Berliners. Hans Fallada’s dark but powerful novel tells the story of an ordinary Berlin couple who loses his only son because of Hitler’s war and decides, from that moment, to start working to overthrow his regime. Their campaign inevitably ends in a terrible end. Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen – a name taken from the talking horse, Fallada, in Grimm’s fairy tale, which continues to tell the truth even after his death. Author Fallada has spent much of his life entering and leaving asylums and had the chance to survive the Nazis. “Every Man Dies Alone” has been described as “the greatest book ever written on German resistance”.


By Anna Funder (2003)

4. In August 1961, the East German Communist government walled up East Berlin to stop the bleeding of its population, especially young people, to the West. It is estimated that by the time the wall was erected, one sixth of the entire population of East Berlin had already fled. For the next 28 years, the Berlin Wall will be the front line of the Cold War and, for many Berliners, a heartbreaking scar in their lives. As life in West Berlin, manned by American, British and French troops, grew increasingly prosperous in the post-war years, East Berlin stagnated as its government slowly collapsed. Anna Funder tells the stories of Berliners caught up in a life under a repressive regime. After the fall of the wall in 1989, some Berliners probably regretted the disappearance of East Germany, but not by much.

Iron kingdom

By Christophe Clark (2006)

5. Berlin’s history has too often been seen through the distorting prisms of Nazism and the Cold War. But it was in Berlin that the seeds of the Reformation were sown in the 16th century, where the Thirty Years’ War had its most terrible impact in the 17th century, and where Marx, horrified by the conditions of the poor industrialists, developed his belief in the 19th century. The story of Christopher Clark of Prussia, and therefore of the Hohenzollern dynasty which ruled from 1415 to 1918, is essential reading for those who want to understand the rise of Prussia and how its kings and kaisers came to dominate the ‘Europe. Although Berlin was their capital, it was never a Prussian city, preferring its own individual, rebellious and uncompromising style. Germans do not read many books on their history written by non-Germans. Mr. Clark’s is an exception.

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