City Lit: Kurfürstendamm

Suzi from explores one of Berlin’s most famous streets via literature…

One of the great joys of reading books set in the city you’re visiting is the way they can help you understand your surroundings. I like to read novels as if they’re maps—keys to places I’ve not yet unlocked. Some people like guide books… I’d rather read a novel.

I think I’m right in saying that for most non-German speakers, the street names in Berlin can be a bit overwhelming. But even with this in mind, Kurfürstendamm – whose origins stretch all the way back o the 16th-Century – is a whole new challenge, a street name even the Germans shorten to Ku’damm.

At 3.5 kilometres long, walking the entirety of Ku’damm is not a job for the faint-hearted or the stiletto-heeled. Today the avenue is known for its large department stores, high-end fashion houses and luxurious jewellery shops, as well as its restaurants, theatres and cinemas—and of course its rows of graceful plane trees.

In the days of The Wall, Ku’damm was the centre of commercial activity for West Berlin. People shopped, protested and met for coffee here. For West Berliners at that time, Ku’damm was the place to be. With the fall of the Wall, people and businesses began to explore the East, and suddenly shoppers had several commercial centres to choose from: Friedrichstraße, Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz, for example, all of which still hold their own appeal.

Sven Regner’s novel Berlin Blues gives a pre-Wall perspective of the street. The book is set in 1989, just before the fall of the Wall and tells the story of Frank Lehmann, an aimless thirty-something bartender. Lehmann’s view of the city and its people is deadpan and sarcastic, but his description of a stressful journey down Berlin’s most famous boulevard gives an insight into the Ku’damm of years past.

Lehmann is on his way to meet his parents, and is struggling to make the appointment on time. ‘He broke out in a sweat and swore under his breath as he skipped to and fro between his fellow mortals, evaded obstructive groups of strolling, rubbernecking, chattering tourists who always walked seven abreast at least, swerved around old ladies in fur coats, and blundered into huge, unpredictable gaggles of youngsters who abruptly altered or changed direction just as he endeavoured to overtake them.’

After an unsuccessful attempt to make part of the journey by bus, Lehmann is back on the pavement and determined to stay calm. ‘Herr Lehmann crossed Joachimsthaler Strasse, firmly resolved not to allow his better mood to be spoiled by the site of the Cafe Kranzler, which to him symbolised all that made the Kurfürstendamm so intolerable. He strode swiftly along the extreme outer edge of the pavement, where dogshit proliferated and no one else cared to tread, and made for his destination past hotels and motor-show rooms, steak houses and cafes, souvenir stalls and kitsch shops, thimbleriggers and three-card tricksters.’

While Ku’damm remains a main shopping thoroughfare, it feels relatively calm in comparison to such feverish descriptions. Anna Winger’s book This Must be the Place, published in 2008 and set in 2001, gives a more up-to-date description. It tells the story of two strangers who live in separate apartments in a once-grand Charlottenburg building. Walter is an actor who’s star is fading as he approaches forty. Hope is an American who travelled to Berlin to accommodate her husband’s career. They are both lonely and, inevitably, a friendship develops between them.

‘When he’d (Walter) first moved to Charlottenburg sixteen years earlier, the streets he walked now had been busy with nightlife. But since the inclusion of its eastern half, the city had completely shifted its topography, pushing Charlottenburg to the western fringe, so that he might as well have moved to the suburbs…Gone were the bars and crowds of his youth, and in their place only hair salons and jewellery stores, women of a certain age who wore tent dresses and dyed their hair bright red, and yuppie families with children.’

Hope, through the fresh eyes of the newly-arrived, holds a more romantic view. ‘On Ku’damm white Christmas lights decorated the trees in the middle of the avenue and the sidewalks, brightening the grand buildings on either side. In the right light, this street reminded her of the Champs-Élysées. She waited for a light to change in a crowd of pedestrians packed together at the corner of an otherwise unoccupied stretch of the sidewalk thirty feet wide. No cars were coming up the side street, but not a single person stepped off the curb.’

Even more revealing are Hope’s thoughts when they turn to World War Two: ‘Walter had explained that these buildings were completely flattened in the Allied bombings in World War II and had been rebuilt afterwards. Staring up through the scrim of her eyelashes, Hope tried to imagine the fancy facades ripped off to reveal furniture and wallpapered rooms, fires burning, people screaming.’

‘Walter had told her that it took years to clear the rubble. Since most of the men had been killed or imprisoned, or had to walk home from war fronts in Russia or France, the women had cleared Ku’damm themselves. Trümmerfrauen, they were called. They passed the chunks of stone and concrete, wood and tiles, one to the next, all the way down the avenue and another mile or so through Grunewald, where they made a massive pile. The pile was apparently a proper mountain now, grown over with grass. People liked to hike and picnic there.’

The mountain in question is well known to many Berliners—it’s called Teufelsberg or ‘Devil’s Mountain’. Not only is it a great place for hiking and picnicking, in winter it provides a toboggan run and a nursery slope for skiers. It also hosts the mysterious former listening station.

There are many other landmarks around Ku’damm mentioned in This Must be the Place—from the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue burned during Kristallnacht to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which lost its steeple to a bomb during the war, and was never replaced.

Both these novels are fine reads in their own right, but also serve as unique guides to the city, both past and present. Not many conventional guide books, after all, are going to discuss dog poo on Ku’damm or the street-crossing habits of Berliners. Reading novels are a wonderful way of getting under the skin of a city.

Packabook is a project dedicated to exploring place and history through fiction. See their website for more details.

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