Sunday, 14 November 2010

New books: Berlin united and divided

The ever-changing city of Berlin is today one of the most interesting capitals in Europe and has one of the most dramatic histories. This history is not particularly long – the town that would eventually become Berlin was first mentioned in 1237 – but it continues to fascinate.
The Swedish journalist Folke Schimanski tells the history of this pulsating metropolis in his new book Berlin – En stads historia, published by Historiska Media. Schimanski was himself born in Berlin in 1936, to a Swedish mother and a German father, but escaped to Sweden in February 1945. However, his own story is only mentioned in passing where it seems relevant.
Medieval Berlin is quickly dealt with in this book, while the 17th and 18th centuries are accorded somewhat more space. However, the focus is mostly on the 19th and 20th centuries and Schimanski manages to touch on a multitude of issues – politics, science, literature, film, architecture, art, the press, social conditions, etc.
The picture he paints of “the golden 1920s”, when Berlin overtook Paris as the most dynamic and modern capital in Europe, is particularly fetching. The Berlin of the 1920s had a pulsating nightlife, was a focal point of the art world and had by 1928 one hundred political daily newspapers and altogether 2,633 newspapers and periodicals.
How this was followed by what Schimanski calls “the double destruction of Berlin”, is a prime example of what he sees as characteristic of the history of a city which has been ever-changing, not through organic processes, but by seismic shifts.
Another recurring point is how Berlin has had to fight for its position as capital against non-Berliners questioning its status. Schimanski argues that Berlin was not an obvious choice for capital in 1871 and that Bismarck ten years later suggested moving the capital to Cassel, while Wilhelm I argued the case for Potsdam and others suggested Frankfurt or Leipzig. The decision to return the capital to Berlin after reunification was reached with a narrow majority and even today plans for a reunification memorial in Berlin are met with demands that part of the sum allocated should be set aside for a memorial in Leipzig.
The vastness of Schimanski’s tale means that most stories are told somewhat fragmentary and he gets some of his facts wrong (Pyotr III of Russia was not the son of Empress Elizaveta; Christian Krohg did not spell his surname Krogh and was not Danish, but Norwegian; Helmut Kohl did attend the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last year; Margaret Thatcher has not, at least not officially, been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s). At the beginning of the book we learn that Charlottenburg Palace was not destroyed during World War II; towards the end of the book we hear that it was.
One or two explanations are perhaps a bit too simple, such as the idea that World War I might never have happened if Friedrich III had lived longer – although this seems to be a pet idea of certain amateur historians, it is almost as far-fetched as suggestions that the Great War would never have happened if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been shot in Sarajevo.
One might also object that the author might at times have tried to be a bit more objective. In particular he seems to have an unresolved issue with the architecture of the late 19th century, which is consequently referred to in terms such as “ugly”, “uglier” and “tastelessness”. Art historians – and, I think, the general public – have long since come to a more nuanced view and appreciation of the eclecticism of the late 19th century.
Each chapter ends with a box of related sights worth visiting and suggestions for further reading and begins with a black and white illustration of low quality. The limited number and low quality of the illustrations do not do justice to this book, which all in all is a readable and informative account of the many aspects of the history of the fascinating city that is Berlin.

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