Book Review: Berlin by David Clay Large

Paul Scraton takes a closer look at David Clay Large’s comprehensive history of the city…

‘What Potsdamer Platz resembles is an edge city; one of those private, development-driven urbanoid clusters that have sprouted up across the American landscape in recent years. It is reassuring that the new Potsdamer Platz is notably without nationalist expressions. The downside of this is that the place could be anywhere. Like other edge cities, it occupies a kind of nebulous international airport space.’ (Herbert Muschamp, quoted in Berlin by David Clay Large, p.590)

As the heart of the ‘New Berlin’, I certainly found Potsdamer Platz decidedly underwhelming when I first arrived in the city in 2001. The various columns of concrete, steel and glass, rising up over a space that had been planned down to the last inch, left me cold.

But over time, and as I thought about it further, Potsdamer Platz came to fascinate me as a representation of Berlin, not for what it was but for what it had been. The very fact that the world’s most celebrated architects had been given this chance was a consequence of history; the destruction of World War Two, the division of the city, and the building of the Berlin Wall.

For the traveller searching for the broader and deeper perspective, history provides the context for our experiences. Our impressions are shaped by the food, the culture, the nightlife, the people, the architecture… but all those different elements are themselves shaped by the multitude of events past that led to the here and now. Whether we visit the Acropolis or the Forum in Rome, the battlefields of Flanders or Auschwitz-Birkenau, we are asking not only the question ‘what is here,’ but also, ‘what happened here?’

In Berlin history is everywhere, much of it painful. But those painful memories make the city what it is, for better and worse. The vibrant artistic and music scene that developed out of the squats and cheap housing of post-Wende Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain were at least partly created from such past traumas.

The Mauerpark full of people on a Sunday, searching through the flea-market or singing karaoke on that stretch of land that had once been the death strip, accessed only by border guards and their dogs. The playground where my daughter swings, sandwiched between two Altbau houses, the space cleared by a falling World War Two bomb. Many of the great historical events of the past 150 years played themselves out on the streets of this city, and they continue to shape the lives of the people to this day.

So much history, in fact, that you need a lot of pages to do justice to the story. Published in 2000, David Clay Large’s Berlin uses 700-odd to tell the story of the city. The framework of the book is that of the time between two unifications; 1871 and 1990, covering Berlin’s rise as a European metropolis at the end of the nineteenth century to the renewal of the 1990s as the city began to piece itself together to become, once again, the capital of a united Germany.

In between, Large covers all the grand historical and political narratives, from Bismarck and industrialisation, via the Third Reich and World War Two, to the Cold War division of the city and the dramatic events of 1989 and beyond.

Potsdamer_Platz in 1900

Where the book needs the pages, and what makes it stands out from any number of Berlin history books available, is the time and space Large devotes to aspects of the history of the city that are often unsatisfactorily covered or even ignored in thinner works.

Large is especially strong on culture, providing an overview of the artistic landscape of the city, such as the role of theatres during the Nazi-era, the underground dissident arts scene of the GDR, as well as high-culture rivalries between conductors and orchestras, the motivations behind the Kaiser’s art collections, and how the architects were chosen to re-build the Potsdamer Platz following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Along the way background detail and colour are given to the lives of those whose creative works have shaped our imagination of the city, from writers such as Brecht, Isherwood, Döblin and Kästner, to the cultural dissidents of East Germany and their colleagues on the other side of the wall.

Large is also careful to explore in depth the lifestyles and conditions facing ordinary Berliners. Whilst the twenties were roaring and the West End was a hotbed of glamorous decadence, the factory workers of Wedding, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg were living in unimaginable conditions, and the link between the economic realities of the 1920s and 1930s and the social unrest and tension that ultimately resulted in the rise of the Nazis and the horror and catastrophe that followed is persuasively made.

In more recent times, there are interesting sections on the everyday life for people in socialist East Berlin, as well as the experiences of immigrant communities that arrived in West Berlin during the 1960s and 1970s. It’s this willingness to delve deeper into the history of Berlin beyond the big headline events, to take the time to go into detail and to trust the reader to follow, and to keep it all entertaining and interesting, that makes this such a powerful book for anyone who has an interest in how Berlin got to where it is today.

Paul Hoeniger: Im Café Josty, 1890
Paul Hoeniger: Im Café Josty, 1890

Books like this not only inform but also feed the imagination. So now, when I stand at Potsdamer Platz, I do not only see this ‘international airport space’, but also the Potsdamer Platz of a century back, when it was the busiest intersection in Europe. I can see the hotels, department stores, theatres and dancehalls, all illuminated by neon lights; a riotous celebration of Berlin as a metropolis that could rival anything across the ocean.

The Kempinski Haus with its seating for three thousand diners, and the Cafe Josty with its window-seats filled with a sneering gathering of artists and dreamers, looking out over the Platz, where horse-drawn carts competed for space with electric trams and one of the first sets of traffic lights in the world tried to bring order to the chaos.

How did we get from there to here? Read David Clay Large’s book to find out.

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