Das Capital

REVIEW: ‘Berlin: Life and Death at the Center of the World’

October 2, 2022

Berlin is a marvelous read. The author does not just pile up the prose like a supersized New Yorker piece. Zeroing in on essentials, he envelops his narrative in a dazzling dramaturgy that makes the reader eager to churn through 400-plus pages.

A consummate storyteller, Sinclair McKay writes like a reporter covering the past, but he knows his stuff, as illustrated by an index running for 17 pages and footnotes for 33. The research is as exhaustive as any academic treatise, yet the style is journalism at its very best—with a lively turn of phrase and a sharp eye for details that matter. Those interested in Germany during its darkest 20th century moments will be roped in. The book holds the attention of amateurs and experts alike.

That said, this reviewer ends up on a note of frustration. Where are the chapters that broaden the book’s ken beyond its main focus on the first half of the 20th century? What about the Berlin before and after—during the rise of the new Reich and especially after the fall of the Wall?

These are not catty questions because the "before" matters as much as the "after." Presumably, McKay did not want to revisit a field, which English-speaking historians have already plowed. In his Berlin, a massive tome published in 2000, David Large starts with Bismarck and concludes with "The Berlin Republic" after reunification. Even heftier is Alexandra Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis of 1998 with its 1,100 pages. Her departure point is the 16th century; she, too, concludes with a chapter on "The New Capital."

Why the "yes, but?" You cannot explain the triumph and tragedy of Berlin without going back to the Reich’s "original sin," when, in 1871, Bismarck pounded 25 little Germanies into one big one. Germany was now too strong for Europe, yet too weak to dominate it; hence the second Thirty Years War (1914-45) that cut the new behemoth down to size. Such a curtain raiser is indispensable for the drama that follows: two world wars, Nazis. Holocaust and all.

McKay compresses Berlin’s CV. Essentially, it spans the period between the two world wars, with a brief excursion into the German Democratic Republic, West Germany’s defunct communist "counter-state." What about the new Berlin, now already 32 years old, of which we know little?

Instead, the reader is treated to many chapters on the rise of the Nazis and their blood-drenched fall on V-E Day in 1945. They are first-rate, sparkling with unfamiliar detail. Likewise the harrowing account of the fate of the Jews, as they are being rounded up for their last journey to the death camps—we relive the unprecedented horror as if present at the destruction.

A parallel track deals with the Herrenmenschen, the "master race," being killed in the carpet-bombing of Berlin. Again, the author tells the story of ordinary people—history from the bottom up. Having grown up in postwar West Berlin, this reviewer will never forget a city core reduced to a wasteland by U.S. and British bombers, then by the Red Army invading from the east. Berlin, the author reminds us, used to be the "new city of light in Europe." In 1945, the lights went out.

Juxtaposing the fates of murdered Jews and bombed-out Germans, the book casts a fresh light on the historiography of Nazi Germany, and therein lies its originality. Traditional scholarship has dealt separately with perpetrators and victims. Now, they appear side-by side. To relieve guilt, revisionist German historians have equated the annihilation of the Jews with "what was done to us"—Dresden, Berlin, et al. McKay, however, neither equates, nor equivocates. He bears witness.

So, what is the downside?

This reviewer sees three lacunae. One could have been closed with a stage-setting chapter on Unification 1.0, the birth of the new empire in 1871. Though diplomatic historians have dealt with the fallout before, the drama laid out in Berlin would have profited from a first act about hubris and catastrophe. It is about wealth and power breeding blind ambition spawning double-defeat and dismemberment in 1919 and 1945.

A second story in need of amplification is the explosion of the arts and sciences, of literature, philosophy, and technology—not only, but mainly in Berlin. The puzzle: Why there of all places, in the capital of a Kaiser not exactly enamored with the idea of a free-wheeling liberal democracy? Why did this miracle continue after World War I, just as the Weimar Republic was being ground down by Nazi and Communist thugs?

As misery soared, Berlin became the cultural capital of the West. New York wasn’t there yet, Paris was sidelined after Germany had vanquished France in 1871, and London tended to its far-flung empire. It was a Golden Age, especially for Jews who flocked to this new Promised Land where they would garner one-third of German Nobels until 1932, though anti-Semitism was rampant. At that point, Berlin’s Jews numbered around 160,000, one-third of the country’s total and far more than the 80,000 McKay has counted. A key part in Berlin’s biography is about these drivers of accomplishment, a story covered only lightly by the author.

The third and widest gap in Berlin opens up in the present. The city does not show the scars of the war anymore, but it has not recovered its past glory. Naturally, we are curious about the Now, to which the author devotes only a three-page "Afterword." This is where more would have been better. After all, reunited and democratic Berlin is now more than three decades old, in place longer than the "Thousand-Year Reich" (12 years) and Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic (14 years). Savor the difference between yesterday’s and today’s Berlin. McKay recalls the British historian Eric Hobsbawm: "It was very obvious that the [Weimar Republic] was the Titanic and that it was hitting the iceberg."

The hungry reader asks: What about Berlin’s reassuring career since the razing of the Wall half a lifetime ago? Could Berlin regain the cultural clout befitting the country’s predominance as the world’s fourth-largest economy? Berlin isn’t like Marion Barry’s Washington, which Washington Monthly named "worst city government in America." But it does look vaguely like a failing state.

Its industrial base, once Europe’s largest, was wiped out in World War II. Banking and business absconded during the Cold War and did not return. Roughly 40 percent of the population do not live off earned income, depending on government largesse disbursed by a swollen bureaucracy subsidized with billions from the federal kitty. Try to get your ID renewed or schedule a marriage date with the municipality, which is obligatory. The new airport BER took 14 years from start to finish; the costs rose nine-fold due to sleaze and sloth.

Weimar Berlin as a "city of light" was a treacherous promise when set against the darkness to come. About the home of "Cabaret," Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang, Albert Einstein, and the German Expressionists, mold-breakers all, Alexandra Richie writes: "Berlin is a city of myth, legend, and the deliberate manipulation of history." Hyped or not, Berlin did radiate across the world as a beacon of achievement. Yet in 2003, the then-mayor Klaus Wowereit could only quip: "Berlin is poor, but sexy." Alas, as great cities from Athens to New York show, riches are the mother of creativity.

Why is Berlin no longer the "center of the world," as this fine book’s subtitle has it? McKay has a consoling answer wrapped into another question: "History never ends," he avers in his concluding paragraph and "who might guess what form the next … Berlin will take?" Add: Can it return to its former grandeur, or will it continue to play second fiddle to New York, Paris, and London? "I never make predictions, least of all about the future," runs a Yogi Berra malapropism. So, set aside the missing pieces because there is another book waiting to be written by the author—about post-Wall Berlin, the capital of Germany’s first rooted democracy that has outlived Wilhelm, Weimar, and Adolf. Not bad, given its poisoned past.

Berlin: Life and Death at the Center of the World
by Sinclair McKay
St. Martin’s Press, 464 pp., $29.99

Josef Joffe, a longtime observer of Germany, teaches international politics and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Published under: Book reviews , Germany