Berlin: Life and Death in the City at the Center of the World, by Sinclair McKay
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Throughout the twentieth century, Berlin stood at the centre of a convulsing world. It alternately seduced and haunted the international imagination. The essence of the city seemed to be its sharp duality: the radiant boulevards, the cacophonous tenement blocks, the dark smoky citadels of hard industry, the bright surrounding waters and forests, the exultant pan-sexual cabarets, the stiff dignity of high opera, the colourful excesses of Dadaist artists, the grim uniformity of mass swastika processions.
Berlin is a city of many transformations, having held several very different roles on the world stage in the twentieth century and continuing to surprise in its evolution. It always makes for a compelling, if unwieldy, biographical subject.
British journalist (features writer for The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday) and author Sinclair McKay narrows the focus of this new biography of a city to the year 1919 and after. Having already read (albeit more than a decade ago) two bulkier, more comprehensive biographies of the city (Berlin and Faust’s Metropolis), both of which are good but are also a LOT, I appreciated this choice.
I suppose out of necessity for how much happened at that time and how crucial it was in shaping Berlin’s future, the majority of the book covers the last years of the Second World War and the years immediately following. As McKay puts it: “The fall of Berlin in 1945 is one of those moments in history that stands like a lighthouse; the beam turns and sharply illuminates what came before and what came after.”
I’d just read Harald Jahner’s Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, but even with that fresh in mind, this was still unendingly compelling to read. McKay’s analysis of the importance of key events like the infamous Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the American airlift at the Tempelhofer Airport that saved countless lives was fascinating: I knew the outline of this story but not how dangerous and technically impressive the airlift itself had been, as well as the significance of the act to the Americans in terms of how they wanted to be viewed.
Still, this time period does take up much more of the book than I would have expected, and this is at the detriment of covering other eras, like spending more time on Berlin’s pivotal role during the Cold War, which has just as meaningful stories to tell (see Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29, one of my favorites).
Like many histories of this era, he also draws heavily on the diary A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, published anonymously but largely believed to have been written by journalist Marta Hillers, which details the harrowing immediate post-war days and is the best document chronicling the climate of the city at the time, as the Red Army infamously terrorized and raped the surviving women.
But into this established historical framework he also weaves a lighter element, in the form of cultural portraits that show everything from Berlin’s unique importance as an artistic center and hub for theater, cinema, and music to its welcoming of Nacktkultur (public nudity) in the arts and public spaces to its safe spaces for sexuality. He also considers the nuances, as Jahner did, of the situation the population found themselves in: villains on the world stage, they were now faced with trying to survive and hold on to the bare minimum of food or possessions they could under apocalyptic conditions, which McKay evocatively captures.
I knew I would be in for something special with this, having read The Fire and the Darkness, his tightly focused look at the city of Dresden through the lens of its infamous firebombing, but this surpassed expectations. If only all history was written like this – he has such a richly lyrical, descriptive writing style. His prose is completely captivating. You can pick it up and turn to any page and find immersive, vivid storytelling. I kept paging back through sections I’d already read just to get lost in it again.
Despite appreciating the narrower focus this takes, namely that it only covers contemporary history, I do wish it had covered more postwar ground. But he writes with so much detail and from so many different perspectives, of both well and lesser known figures, that I guess anything longer would be way too unwieldy. It also seems a bit odd that the biggest recent transformation of Berlin through its role in the Wirtschaftswunder – the “economic miracle” of Germany’s reconstruction and development into an economic powerhouse isn’t covered. That feels especially relevant today, as Berlin is now a center of the tech industry in Europe and the landscape of the city continues to change because of it — famously a cheap, grungy place to make art, it’s now pricing out such residents, and housing stock is down but costs are sky-high. Where this will end remains to be seen, but I would’ve liked some attention to Berlin’s current state.
It’s one of those rare books that I didn’t actually feel ready to quit reading when it was done. I love his illustrative prose style so much that I would’ve read a book twice as long.
I hope he covers Hamburg next. More biographies of specific historical periods in German cities from him, they are perfection!
Published August 23, 2022 by St. Martin’s Press. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.