Berlin is a place of awkward memories, there are still traces of the cultural cavalcade on every other corner, and the legacy of dreamers who fashioned an artistic, political and intellectual powder-keg is hard to ignore.
Capturing this mutability requires something more than ‘trekking across town and noting interesting facts.’ MacLean therefore opts to tell Berlin’s story through a series of figures who encapsulate the city’s baffling, intertwining trajectories. Some of his subjects are brutes, others are sources of inspiration. We meet writers, architects, lofty rulers, and people who represent ‘the countless others whom one has never heard of, whose lives can only be divined.’
There have, of course, been lots of memorable Berliners and many noteworthy visitors who spent long periods in the city. The majority of MacLean’s decisions about who to include are astute. I could have lived without the account of David Bowie’s days there, but I was utterly charmed by the chapter on Marlene Dietrich: three flops behind her and auditioning for the career-changing role in The Blue Angel.
The life and deeds of Karl Friedrich Schinkel are something I’d like to explore in more detail: his attempt to transform the Berlin city-scape in the early 19th century through the ‘coexistence of beauty and function, tradition and innovation’ is enthralling.
When writing about Berlin, it would be remiss to avoid the darker side of its history. ‘No other city,’ MacLean writes, ‘has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low.’ It has inspired both love and hatred, witnessing the best and worst of human endeavour. Accordingly, MacLean’s book routinely dwells on poignant and depressing topics. The Nazi era is reported in a series of haunting chapters. As well as the loathsome Joseph Goebbels we encounter Leni Riefenstahl pursuing fame, or infamy, through her films and Albert Speer dreaming of a city greater than Paris or Rome that might ‘eclipse Babylon’. Either side of this we visit the mayhem of Weimar and then communist East Berlin where the Stasi managed to find shelf room for 160 kilometres’ worth of documents on the citizenry.
MacLean is at his best when writing about the modern era. This perhaps explains a conspicuous imbalance in the book. By chapter five, out of 23, we are already up to 1858. The previous pieces, beginning with sketches of medieval Berlin (‘a dirty patchwork of squalid hovels and mean manors’) and continuing with an unsatisfactory chapter about Frederick the Great, are the weakest in the book.
There was potential to explore earlier eras with more care. Then again, its always wise to play to your strengths. I would certainly scowl at anyone who did not relish MacLean’s three best chapters. We meet Walther Rathenau: an industrialist, art patron, and a ‘dinner jacket philosopher.’ He was one of the first Jews accepted by the Berlin elite and worked hard, during the Weimar years, to cultivate a vision of German nationhood that had nothing to do with blood or race.
Less appealing is Fritz Haber, the ‘Kaiser’s chemist’ who, despite conjuring up noxious, troop-slaying gases, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his other achievements. And then there is Käthe Kollwitz who embarked upon a riveting artistic odyssey and was denounced by the Nazis as culturally degenerate.
The tales of such people are surprising, challenging and instructive and we should thank MacLean for bringing them to our attention. As a work of history, this book can be confusing. MacLean flits between accounts based on solid documentary evidence and moments of quasi-novelistic invention. Sometimes this works, sometimes it is wildly frustrating, but I assume that MacLean deployed such a method in order to reflect the chaos of Berlin’s puzzling past.
MacLean sees Berlin as a city of the imagination, a place of ‘fragments and ghosts,’ so there was sense in writing a deliberately odd but winningly passionate book about it.
BERLIN: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £9.99 (paperback)
This book review was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine