Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood Around 1900
“Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.”
As one might expect from a diverse and elliptical thinker like Herr Benjamin, Berlin Childhood Around 1900 is far from a straightforward memoir. Though ostensibly about his experiences growing up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, it eschews the traditional focus on people and events in order to explore the idea of memory itself – this is, after all, the man who translated Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu into German. Nonetheless a sketchy portrait of the author as a child does emerge, as do snippets of the West Berlin he knew at that time, from markets and parks to streets and classrooms.
Käthe Kollwitz, The Diary And Letters Of Käthe Kollwitz
“I went to the Old Museum yesterday. The depressing amount of half-good stuff, even in sculpture, was such a letdown that I told myself I’d run over to the National Gallery and see something really good for a change.”
German artist Käthe Kollwitz kept a diary between 1909 until her death in 1945. She was 42 when she started it, and these collected entries chart her personal thoughts about art, life and war during some of Berlin’s most tumultuous times. Having lost a son in World War I and a grandson in World War 2 – not to mention the turn-of-the-century suffering she witnessed through the work of Karl, her doctor husband – Kollwitz was a renowned socialist and pacifist, which comes through in these pages. The diary entries are supplemented by correspondence between her family and close friends and a foreward by her son, Hans Kollwitz.
You can read about Berlin’s excellent Käthe Kollwitz museum here.
Princess Evelyn von Blücher, An English Wife in Berlin
“Exactly what was the real cause of the war no one seems to know, although it is discussed night and day. One thing grows clearer to me every day: neither the people here nor there wished for war, but here they are now being carried off their legs with patriotism, at seeing so many enemies on every side.”
Princess Evelyn von Blücher moved from England to Berlin before the outbreak of World War I and stayed right through until the end of it. While her (aristocratic) husband worked with the German Red Cross, she took care of English prisoners. Written ostensibly for her mother, her diaries capture the atmosphere in Berlin throughout the entire war period – as well as the drama of the subsequent uprising – with insights into the upper echelons of the German aristocracy as well as the immense suffering of the people on the streets.
Count Harry Kessler, Berlin in Lights
“The Emperor has abdicated. Revolution has won the day in Berlin. On the strength of my new papers, I passed the barrier on the Potsdamer Platz and walked in the direction of the Palace, from which the sound of isolated shots still came. Leipziger Strasse was deserted, Friedrichstrasse fairly full of its usual habitués, Unter den Linden opposite the Opera in darkness.”
Aesthete, art collector and diplomat, wealthy aristocrat Harry Graf Kessler kept a diary between the end of World War I through to his death in 1937. While he keeps his personal life fairly hidden, we get instead a decent historical and political analysis of the Weimar era’s most compelling events in real time. The writings are peppered with records of his meetings with of Berlin’s intellectual and artistic luminaries, including Einstein, Rathenau, Brecht and Grosz.
You can read an extract from the diaries in the New York Times here.
George Grosz, A Small Yes And A Big No
“The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine peddlers, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg. As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of a blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being.”
Published at the end of World War 2 (1946), A Small Yes and a Big No provides insights not only into the mind and artistic life of George Grosz – one of the 20th century’s most prominent satirists – but also the dramatic ups and downs of Weimar Berlin. His written observations often contain the same cynical acuity as his drawings and paintings as he rails against the emergence ‘brown menace’. But to no avail; his work was deemed ‘degenerate’ and resulted in his self-imposed exile in America.
Marie Vassiltchikov, Berlin Diaries
“All the buildings had been destroyed, only their outside walls still stood. Many cars were weaving their way cautiously through the ruins, blowing their horns wildly. A woman seized my arm and yelled that one of the walls was tottering and we both started to run. Then I saw my food shop Krause, or rather what remained of it. Maria had begged me to buy some provisions on the way home, as the one in which her coupons were registered had been destroyed. But poor Krause would be of no help either now.”
Princess Marie Vassiltchikov fled to Berlin following the 1917 revolution in her homeland. An employee of the German foreign office during World War II, she maintained a respectably bohemian lifestyle right up until around 1941, at which point she grew increasingly resistant against the Nazi regime. Some of the most intense parts of these diaries relate to her involvement with the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler, as well as her depictions of life in Berlin during the Allied bombing raids.
Marie Jalowicz Simon, Gone To Ground
“The area between the Oberbaum Bridge and Görlitzer Station, Stralauer Allee and Treptower Park became my main preserve…One night when we were all down in the cellar again we heard a frightful crash overhead. Soon it was obvious that our building had been hit by a high-explosive bomb. However, we hadn’t been buried. We had only to move a little rubble aside to get out into the open. The three buildings that comprised am Oberbaum were still standing, but the facade that the all shared had been torn away and fallen to the ground. You could look into the separate floors like so many stage sets. The stairway was hanging askew and one banister rail was missing.”
The latest in a long line of powerful memoirs by so-called ‘U-Boats’ – Jewish residents who survived the Holocaust by going underground, mostly in Berlin and other large German cities – Gone To Ground tells the story of local resident Marie Jalowicz Simon. After remaining silent about her experiences for over 50 years, she finally revealed all to her son Hermann Simon, a historian and director of the Neue Synagogue Berlin, just before her death in 1998, filling no less than 77 tapes. The pieced together transcript is a roller-coaster ride through her life as she managed to avoid the Nazis all the way through the war thanks to a combination of impressive youthful audacity, utter desperation and a lot of luck and helpful Berliners.
“A stranger’s hands expertly pulling apart my jaw. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth.”
One of the better known memoirs about Berlin life during World War 2, this book focuses specifically on the last few weeks – 20 April to 22 June 1945 – and the city’s liberation and domination by the Red Army. When the book was published in German in 1953 it received a generally negative reaction from a German society not at all prepared to come to terms with its recounting of mass rape, shame and near-starvation. Published again in 2003, a couple of years after the author’s death, it finally received the positive attention it deserved, and was even turned into a feature film in 2008.
You can read a full review of A Woman In Berlin here.
“It is an open secret that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilization, removal to the eastern territories . . . expropriation by the state of private inheritances, jewelry, and other valuables. The National Socialists are actually masters in the expropriation of private property, the exploitation of human beings, and other machinations.”
As the subtitle of this book makes clear, Franz Göll was in many ways a regular Berliner. Based in the same two-room apartment in Schöneberg’s Rote Insel district all his life, he worked in various normal jobs – clerk, post office employee, night watchman – while doing typical things like going to the movies and walking the streets and drinking beer at weekends. Yet in private he maintained not only a diary (1916-1984) but also a memoir (1941-1948), a detailed record of his daily expenditures and a collection of postcards. This remarkable legacy has been analysed by historian Peter Fritzsche, who paints us a picture of Göll while connecting him to Germany’s broader social and political history.
You can read a fuller review of The Turbulent World of Franz Göll here.
Christiane F., Zoo Station
“And then I had a thought: I was the one scrounging to get all that money together, so at the very least I should try some of it. Let’s see if that stuff really is as good as everyone always makes it out to be, with their dreamy expressions and blissed-out looks. That’s really all I was thinking. I didn’t realize that over the past few months I’d been subconsciously getting myself ready for H. I wasn’t aware that I’d fallen into a deep, dark hole, and that the song “Station to Station” had knocked me down and run me over. No other drug seemed like it could help me get out again, so all of a sudden, the next logical step down my path was obviously heroin.”
Over 30 years since its original publication, Zoo Station still has the power to shock – and also to give insights into the darker side of the divided city. After growing up with an abusive father, the author Christiane F. was already flirting with Berlin’s drug scene by age 11. Desiring acceptance, she fell in with a crowd of older teens and quickly found herself addicted to heroin and prostituting herself at Bahnhof Zoo. This book was also made into a movie that was soundtracked by one of her idols, David Bowie (who also makes a cameo appearance).
You can read a feature relating to Christiane F. here.
Maxim Leo, Red Love
“The stamp thuds on the paper and I go on to the metal door that only has a handle on the inside. The door slams behind me like a mousetrap. I’m home again.”
Prenzlauer Berg native Maxim Leo has drawn on three generations of family history to create a compelling East German narrative arc that begins at its birth after World War 2 and ends with its eventual collapse in 1989. The story is helped along by the fact his (Jewish) grandfather was a resistance fighter tortured by the SS and freed by communists, and then later became a spy for East Germany – though the contrast between his other, less dynamic grandfather, also creates a fascinating parallel.
Stuart Braun, City of Exiles
“I remember the first time I walked into the Kreuzberg Museum and discovered that it was dedicated almost entirely to the squatters and activists who stopped redevelopers from ripping down the district’s old tenement streets and putting freeways and high rises in their stead. The images represented not some kind of anarchic hippydom, but focused political action. And it often worked. It had been possible to shape this city from the bottom up, something that had seemed infeasible in Sydney, my home city where the developers always won—or where people just didn’t seem to care that much.”
Australian author Stuart Braun visited Berlin for the first time in the mid-nineties and relocated in 2009. His book draws on his own experiences in the city but is supplemented by dozens of interviews with Wahlberliners (Berliners-by-choice) and a ton of historical research. While the usual expat name-drops are present and correct (Bowie, Isherwood), the book is mainly focused on a colourful cast of contemporary locals ranging from drag queens and Palestinian refugees to drug dealers and café owners.
You can read an interview with Stuart Braun here.
Peter Schneider, Berlin Now
“I found myself alone in this vast field of graves under the rain, the chorus of all these voices, fallen silent so long ago, swirling around me like powerful music. All of them, everyone who was buried here, had once belonged to this city – had wanted to belong to it – had shaped, influenced and improved it through their work as doctors, publishers, lawyers, civil servants, workers, artists, scientists, bankers and entrepreneurs.”
Novelist and journalist Peter Schneider (The Wall Jumper, Eduard’s Homecoming) takes an interesting approach in Berlin Now, one that draws on his own long-term experiences and weaves them into a factual-historical structure that attempts to take the pulse of the contemporary city. The results can be dry and patchy, not to mention controversial when it comes to topics like women in the GDR and immigrants, but when he gets into his favoured topics or places – such as the quote related to Prenzlauer Berg’s Jewish cemetery above – his literary form returns.
You can read more about The Wall Jumper here.