Cap­i­tal TALE

Berlin’s his­tory comes alive through no­table per­son­al­i­ties

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jim Blan­chard

CANA­DIAN writer Rory Ma­clean is in­fat­u­ated with Berlin, where he has lived off and on over the past 40 years. He de­scribes the city as be­ing “all about vo­latil­ity,” with an iden­tity based 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.” Ma­clean is a re­spected, best­selling writer of travel books, the two best-known be­ing Stalin’s Nose and Un­der the Dragon, about, re­spec­tively, East­ern Europe as the Berlin Wall fell, and Burma as it tried to throw off the yoke of mil­i­tary govern­ment. In Berlin: Imag­ine a City, Ma­clean’s only travel is in time, tak­ing us back to the 1400s to be­gin his jour­ney that ends in the present. In each time pe­riod he chooses a Ber­liner whose story is meant to sym­bol­ize their era. Ma­clean uses “some of the tech­niques of the novel,” and lets “in­ven­tion co­habit with re­al­ity” and “jux­ta­pose fic­tion with fact” in or­der to tell his story. The first two chap­ters, for ex­am­ple, deal with me­dieval Berlin and the city dur­ing the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), re­spec­tively. They fea­ture char­ac­ters, di­a­logue and ac­tions Ma­clean ap­pears to have in­vented. While this may be jar­ring for read­ers look­ing for a proper his­tory of the city, the chap­ters con­vey a be­liev­able sense of what the city was like at the time. Other char­ac­ters from other times led more well­doc­u­mented lives. Fred­er­ick the Great made Berlin the cap­i­tal of Prus­sia, com­bin­ing great suc­cess as a states­man with a love of mu­sic and ideas. Af­ter his time came the hu­mil­i­a­tion of Napoleon’s troops march­ing through the Bran­den­burg Gate. Karl Fred­erich Schinkel, the Ro­man­tic pain­ter and court ar­chi­tect, planned a new city. While he only built a por­tion of the build­ings he dreamed of, many of them sur­vived, re­paired since the Sec­ond World War bomb­ings. His vi­sion can still be dis­cerned in Berlin. Ma­clean shows us the 20th century through the lives of sev­eral very dis­sim­i­lar Ber­lin­ers. Two mem­bers of the city’s large Jewish com­mu­nity help us un­der­stand the early years of that century. Fritz Haber, the bril­liant chemist, de­vel­oped syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers that made the agri­cul­tural revo­lu­tion of the next 100 years pos­si­ble. He also in­vented the poi­son gas that killed so many men in the trenches. Wal­ter Ra­thenau, the son of a wealthy man­u­fac­turer, or­ga­nized the Ger­man arms in­dus­try dur­ing the Great War, and was the Weimar Repub­lic’s for­eign min­is­ter. But many Ger­mans wanted Jews to play no part in run­ning the coun­try. Right-wing fa­nat­ics as­sas­si­nated Ra­thenau in 1922, and Haber chose to leave Ger­many in 1933, dy­ing while on his way to Pales­tine. Mar­lene Di­et­rich, film­maker Leni Riefen­stahl, Joseph Goebbels and Al­bert Speer il­lus­trate the tur­bu­lent and bloody Nazi pe­riod. Like Schinkel be­fore them, Speer and Hitler had a vi­sion of what they wanted to make Berlin into — in their case an im­pe­rial cap­i­tal dot­ted with huge, over­pow­er­ing pub­lic build­ings. Ma­clean com­pletes his his­tory with the more re­cent decades, when the city has again risen from its ashes and trans­formed it­self into one of the world’s great cap­i­tals. He uses David Bowie and John F. Kennedy as well as im­mi­grants from Viet­nam, Holo­caust sur­vivors and the man who built the Berlin Wall to com­plete his tale. Ma­clean com­mu­ni­cates his love for Berlin and sym­pa­thy with its people and gives us a fas­ci­nat­ing and en­ter­tain­ing book while he’s at it. His ap­proach of telling the city’s his­tory through the sto­ries of a broad range of people and time pe­ri­ods en­cour­ages the reader to see Berlin as much more than just the stage set for Hitler’s crazy regime and the scene of the bomb­ing and street fight­ing of the Sec­ond World War. By the fi­nal page the reader has a sense that this is truly one of the world’s great cities with sto­ries of sig­nif­i­cance for all of us. Jim Blan­chard is a lo­cal his­to­rian and is very ex­cited

about vis­it­ing Berlin this sum­mer.


Berlin: Imag­ine a City

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