Berlin’s history comes alive through notable personalities
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