Berlin as a city has a storied identity – as a canvas for art, entertainment, hedonism, evil, political rhetoric, a place that created world events and has reinvented itself after two World Wars. This week Germans – and the world – pause on November 9 to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall on its 25th anniversary.
A lone East German border guard named Harald Jager changed Europe and the world when he opened a gate to the west the night of November 9, 1989, and let East Berliners walk through freely. Among those who crossed that night was East German-born Angela Merkel, who was leaving work at a chemical plant. The “liberation” became a street party that went on for days. People from both sides streamed onto the streets, danced, drank champagne, and converged at The Wall just to be part of history. The much-younger NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw reported live on the joyous hours, when – after the the gates opened – people on both sides began tearing down the wall. (See great 1989 video at the wall, below.)
The City as Quicksilver: Books on Berlin
“Why are we drawn to certain cities?” asks writer Rory MacLean. No single book captures the complex and changing identity of Berlin – a city “built of brick, stone and eccentricity,” explains historian Gerard De Groot – but several new and recent works are worth your attention.
Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries by Rory MacLean (St. Martin’s. 421 pp $27.99)
MacLean uses some 24 characters, most real and several composites, as Berlin residents across the centuries, with a combination of analysis, fiction and impressionistic writing. Here you’ll find Fredrick the Great, brilliant Jewish economist Walther Rabenau, Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, artist Käthe Kollwitz, playwright Christopher Isherwood, and Marlene Dietrich, along with the almost-archetypes of evil –Fritz Haber (developer of poison gas), filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbals.
Esteemed travel writer Jan Morris notes in her Telegraph review, “This grandly ambitious work has a noble intention: to re-create through art and imagination the whole historic presence of a great capital, from its beginnings to the present day….” Read the review
Berlin Now: The City after the Wall by Peter Schneider (translated from the German by Sophie Schlondorff) (Farrar Straus Giroux. 326 pp $27)
In 1982 German-born Schneider published a novella, The Wall Jumper, about the divided city. In this new work, like MacLean, Schneider looks at people and the creative forces – is it a vortex? – attracted to Berlin. Schneider “seeks to explain why the city became ‘the capital of creative people from around the world today,’ attracting artists, D.J.s and software developers from Tokyo, Tel Aviv and all points in between.” (New York Times review)
He also addresses the perplexing physical environment too – sometimes in ruins, places that must be recreated or removed (The Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, the former East German Parliament) and sometimes left untouched. “The landmarks of Berlin,” says Schneider, ”are old gasometers and water towers, deserted hospitals, disused airports, onetime docks, vacant train stations, abandoned C.I.A. surveillance facilities and Stasi prisons…moldy bunker and tunnel complexes from two dictatorships and warehouses of all kinds.” New York Times review
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte (Basic, 291 pp $27.99)
Sarotte focuses, says reviewer Gerard De Groot, on “the little people who, through collective but uncoordinated action, changed [the] city.” It is Sarotte, a historian, whose “sensitivity to human drama” creates a unique and timely book. It is Sarotte who recounts the tale of crossing guard Harald Jager and of how Merkel’s stroll to West Berlin on that eventful night changed her life and Germany’s as well.
Berlin. Portrait of a City, Taschen hardcover 9.8 x 13.4 in., 560 pages$ 69.99
Taschen’s chronicle of the city’s history uses photographs, portraits and aerial views to capture 150 years of Berlin’s history in 560 pages . Here you’ll find the Roaring Twenties, the Reichstag in ruins, and later wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Among the photographs are works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton, René Burri, Robert Capa, Thomas Struth, and Wolfgang Tillmans as well as well-known Berlin photo-chroniclers such as Friedrich Seidenstücker, Erich Salomon, Willy Römer, and Heinrich Zille.
Video from 1989 of the Berlin Wall with Tom Brokaw
What makes Berlin Berlin — Washington Post review by Gerard De Groot of 3 books
Sunday New York Times review (11/02/2014) of books by MacLean and Schneider
Telegraph review by Jan Morris of Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Portrait of a City