Berlin by Rory MacLean

Rory MacLean gave his book on Berlin the subtitle “Imagine a City.” His American publishers changed this to “Portrait of a City Through the Centuries,” which is odd because it loses the ties to MacLean’s prologue “Imagine” and epilogue “Imagine Berlin.” Further, the book is not a portrait but rather a collection of almost two dozen portraits of particular people (most of them real) who stand as exemplars of particular periods in Berlin’s history.

Before commencing with his portraits, MacLean ventures a few words on the city’s meaning:

Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change, as wrote historian Alexandra Richie. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle. (pp. 1–2)

Moscow would like a word. As perhaps would Rome and Tokyo, and in terms of being twisted and torn across five centuries of European struggles, certainly many cities in the continent’s central and eastern regions could give Berlin a run for the title. At any rate, MacLean has not written a comparative treatise, and the book is much better when it is particular than when it is general.

MacLean also has a personal stake. He appears in later chapters involving Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie. His engagement with Berlin started earlier, as “a teenage traveller ‘doing’ Europe.” He continues:

During a happy, footloose summer I climbed the Eiffel Tower, tripped down the Spanish Steps and felt the earth move under the stars on an Aegean beach. Then on the last week of the holiday I saw the Wall. The sight of the heinous barrier shook me to my core. At the heart of the Continent were watchtowers, barbed wire and border guards instructed to shoot fellow citizens who wanted to live under a different government. …
Throughout that week I was drawn again and again to the Wall. I stood for hours on the wooden observation platform at the end of a bizarre cul-de-sac overlooking vanished Potsdamer Platz. I stared in silence across the death strip, stunned that a clash of ideas could be set in cement at the centre of a city. (pp. 2–3)

At the end of the week, he crosses to East Berlin on foot via Checkpoint Charlie:

I stepped over a white-painted line and slipped through a gap in the Wall. Gates lifted then closed behind me. Cars and pedestrians were corralled into a concrete chicane of sharp double bends. …
I surrendered my passport to an armed, buttoned-up officer, paid for a visa and stood in the drizzle under the gaze of a Volksarmee lieutenant dressed in field grey. He carried a loaded rifle. Beyond his squat lookout post, the doors of the surrounding buildings had been bricked up. The entrances to underground stations were sealed. Along Friedrichstraße — once the bustling Fleet Street of Berlin — stretched a bleak and narrow transit route of flat concrete-rendered façades, from which residents and memories had been sucked away. (p. 3)

My own first crossing, about 15 years later, was much the same, though it was at the S-Bahn station at Friedrichstraße rather than at Charlie. There was an underground labyrinth that ended in grey booths like cattle chutes. People were turned back because they were Asian, or for no reason at all. My questioner turned out, against type, to have a sense of humor (indeed more of one than I have seen US and UK border guards to possess). And then up into East Berlin’s streets to try to spend the mandatory currency exchange and discover what the other side looked like. I discovered bad beer, quite the achievement in Germany.

MacLean explains his purpose and method:

Now, after forty years of visits, I’ve settled here to try to map this place, divided as it is between past and present, conformity and rebellion, the visible and the invisible. … I start to walk away from [contemporary people], at once back and forth in time, spiralling out from [Alexanderplatz] and into the city. I know that no true map can be drawn by simply trekking across town and noting interesting facts. To chart both the seen and the unseen, and to navigate the potency of Berlin’s vigorous mythology, one needs to know its mythmakers: the artists, thinkers and activists whose heated visions have become no less real than the city’s bitter winder nights. It is Berlin that made them, as they made Berlin, transforming a mean and artless outpost into the capital of Europe. (p. 6)

He chooses 23 people to highlight, most real, a few fictional composites of people who very well might have lived the lives he sketches. MacLean weaves a few of the lives together; in other cases, history brought the people together or very nearly so. MacLean’s interest is in modern Berlin, so only three of his portraits show people from before the 19th century: one from the city’s earliest days, one from the Thirty Years War, and Frederick the Great. From there, the city grows rapidly and MacLean’s lives overlap as the 19th century gives way to Berlin’s fateful 20th century. The chapter on Walther Rathenau carries the date 1885, but although he was a great industrialist, he is best known for his political role during the Weimar Republic. Indeed, MacLean’s portrait describes his role as a minister, and closes with a detailed depiction of the day of his assassination in 1922. MacLean also devotes three chapters to developments entirely after the fall of the Wall.

Generally running between 10 and 20 pages, the portraits move along briskly, and MacLean takes care to try to say something new about each of his subject and to vary the styles and modes in which he writes. For example, he tells his chapter on Bertolt Brecht through a letter written by a theater person who has come to the capital and found work under Brecht during the apparently chaotic preparations for the premier of the Threepenny Opera. He hates the play and considers Brecht more than slightly crazy. This approach reminds readers not only of how Brecht broke with tradition but that the play was not universally seen as the perfect work that it is. The chapter on JFK’s visit to Berlin is written as a script and carries the title “John F. Kennedy, and Politics as Theatre.”

They are all vivid, and feel new, even in cases where I already knew the salient points. Käthe Kollwitz is here, her portraits of grief following immediately after the story of Fritz Haber, whose discovery of how to fix atmospheric nitrogen and make fertilizer has helped feed billions, and whose devotion to Kaiser and fatherland led him to develop poison gas as a weapon in the Great War. I find Haber more tragic than MacLean does.

Successive chapters on Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl show contrasting responses to the choices that 1930s Germany offered to stars of the screen. MacLean returns to the narrative in the Dietrich chapter. He was a director’s assistant in a forgettable 1970s movie whose director had persuaded Dietrich to return to the screen one last time by offering her a chance to work with David Bowie (the director reneged on this promise, as Bowie’s part had already been filmed separately) and to sing one of her songs from the Weimar days (this promise he kept). “The film … flopped because its producer and director had used Dietrich to authenticate a derivative project. Yet for the crew — German and foreigners like me who lived and worked in Berlin — the experience was among the most memorable of our professional lives. We were moved by the beauty and sheer vital presence of a star who both was and amplified her own legend; an artist staring down time, for the last time in her life.” (p. 214)

MacLean also turns up in the chapter on Bowie, who came to Berlin to leave much of his previous work and stardom behind. “I realised that what I had to do was experiment. To discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact a new musical language,” [Bowie] said, as if responding to the call of Brecht and Grosz. “That’s what I set out to do. That’s why I returned to Europe.” (p. 335) MacLean says that a California visit with Christopher Isherwood, who also has his portrait in the book, played a role in Bowie’s move to Berlin. It was a good choice. “Many come to Berlin on a search, often for themselves. Bowie found himself in Berlin. He pulled away from addiction and shed his false personas, unlike many of his predecessors who remained trapped in their self-generated myths.” (p. 343) MacLean witnessed the transformation first-hand. “But over the months that we worked together I saw only a gentle, articulare, warm and affable man, filled with self-effacing good humour, and on he cusp of finding his own self.” (p. 344) He closes the chapter with an account of Bowie’s 1987 convert in front of the Reichstag building, which in those days was about six feet from the Wall on its back side. As Bowie sang “Heroes,” he could hear sounds from young East Germans stuck on the other side “whistling and chanting, ‘Down with the Wall’ … rising together against the Party’s thugs in a rare moment of protest.” (p. 346)

For first chapter on the years after 1989, MacLean tells the story of a Vietnamese immigrant who had moved from South to North as a child in another formerly divided country, came to East Germany on a socialist work exchange, endured chicanery under the Party and exclusion after Communism’s collapse. He shows how some people with this background integrated while others never got past the smuggling and other shadow lives that had marked the immediate years after the changes. In his afterward, he says “The truth of the story — although not its facts was checked,” thus highlighting the uncertain nature of a life lived on society’s edges. The second is about party kids in Berlin’s club scene, a one-night stand with details filled in from plausible backstories, music, and Berlin film, not least Wings of Desire.

MacLean closes the book with a much more personal story, linking 21st century Berlin back to its darkest days in the 20th.

About a year after my arrival [in Berlin] I heard the tap-tap of hammers beneath my window. Workmen were re-laying cobblestones [of the sidewalk], leveling them by hand in the sand. I went down to investigate and a glint of brass caught my eye. I stopped, as had a dozen other passers-by, and read:
BORN 1896
DEPORTED 2.3.1943
Next to it were more brass-capped stones, recording the names of seven other Jewish residents who had been pulled from their homes in this leafy and peaceful neighbourhood, and murdered in the camps. (pp. 381–82)

The small brass plaques are known as Stolpersteine, stumbling stones. And indeed, one does stumble across them more or less anywhere. Cleaning them is also a common community service project for school classes. MacLean wrote about the Stolpersteine in his blog, and Miriam, the granddaughter of Flora Philips, had seen it. The writing persuaded Flora’s daughter Ilse to return to Berlin for the first time since she had escaped on a Kindertransport in 1939. “As a last witness to an older, colder Berlin [Ilse had] wanted to be a part of the act of remembrance. Miriam said, ‘We have a huge sense of a circle completed.'” (p. 383)

I would have enjoyed a few more chapters on post-89 Berlin. As of last week, the time that has passed since the fall of the Wall is longer than the time that it divided the city. It would have been neat to have a U2 chapter about Achtung Baby as a counterpoint to the Bowie chapter. The spirit that came to Berlin with the wrapped Reichstag in 1995, the Love Parades that brought millions to dance in the city, or the changes wrought by the soccer World Cup in 2006 would all have been fine settings for a representative portrait. It’s a good sign for MacLean’s book that my main complaint is that I would have liked more of it. His book is not a conventional history of Berlin, but it is a splendid one.

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