Berlin is now a city where everything seems possible and yet its past is barely credible. ‘Imagine a City’ by Rory Maclean is a biography of Berlin told through the lives of 23 Berliners. It is a combination of fact and fiction, a roller-coaster ride that captures all the horror, the resilience and the fascination of Berlin. The title of the book refers to the words used by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer to describe his vision of ‘Germania’, the future capital of the Third Reich. ‘Imagine a city. Imagine a capital greater than Paris and Rome, a metropolis that will eclipse Babylon and Karnak’. Speer’s plans were never realised but Berlin continues to capture the imagination. It is a city continually trying out new ideas, a city with terrible skeletons in its cupboard and a reputation for opportunity and for unadulterated pleasure.
One of the greatest of German poets, Heinrich Heine, stated that Berlin wasn’t really a city at all, but just the name given to a place where a collection of spirited people had come together. The colourful collection of characters that Rory Maclean has chosen to tell his story certainly prove this point. He starts in 1469 with a poet and singer, Konrad von Cölln who, like his father before him, defies Kurfürst ‘Irontooth’ and meets a bloody end. Then comes the terrible tale of Colin Albany, a young actor from Scotland thrown into the carnage of the Thirty Years War when over half the population of Berlin was cruelly massacred. Frederick the Great is next on stage, a King whose life was full of contradictions and who ended up being more feared than loved.
As Berlin moves into the 19th century, architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel transforms the Prussian capital with his elegant and neoclassical designs and links it to Rome and Athens. But he too was a tortured soul and felt he had compromised his dreams. There is nothing but misery in the story of Lilli Neuss, a poor immigrant from Silesia who comes to Berlin in the mid-19th century to seek a better life. By contrast, Walther Rathenau is born into a wealthy Jewish family, rises to become Weimar Foreign Minister but is also destined for death. The lives of Else Hirsch and Margarete Böhme give more hope for the freedom of the individual, especially women.
Over two-thirds of ‘Imagine a City’ is devoted to characters that either shaped or witnessed the events of 20th Century Berlin. It was in leafy Dahlem that Fritz Haber invented poison gas and in a tenement block in Prenzlauer Berg where artist Käthe Kollwitz suffered the loss of both a son and a grandson in two world wars. Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin years were turned into fiction and film, but he burned his diaries so the fascinating truth can only be surmised.
The chapter on Bertolt Brecht takes the form of a fictional letter, describing the Berlin music and theatre scene at the end of the 1920s and heavily critical of the young Brecht and his ‘Threepenny Opera’. The letter ends with a reference to the legendary Marlene Dietrich, whose story is told in the following chapter. Rory Maclean worked with Dietrich on ‘Only a Gigolo’ when the singer and actress was 77 years old. This portrait has more than a hint of reverence. “The glamorous Berlinerin ….showed all Germans that there is always a choice.”
Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels are the three characters chosen to portray the diabolical years of Nazi Berlin. The first two hit home as stories of terrible moral compromise and Goebbels comes across as evil incarnate. In his diary Goebbels described Berlin as ‘this repulsive accumulation of pirates, pederasts, gangster and their like’ and that Berlin ‘must disappear from German soil’. This is a gripping account of a bitter monster. When Berlin is left in ruins, Maclean uses two interesting stories to describe the aftermath and its division into East and West Berlin. Dieter Werner is a member of the Volksarmee who helped build the Berlin Wall and Bill Harvey is the CIA Berlin station chief who oversaw the construction of a spy tunnel under East Berlin.
The chapter on J F Kennedy’s visit to Berlin in 1961 reads as a film script and it makes sense to portray him here as a Hollywood star rather than a real character. In the late 1970s David Bowie stayed in West Berlin for much longer and the sense of freedom he found there had a profound and inspirational effect on him. Maclean also worked on movies with Bowie so this chapter contains many personal memories. The story of Lieu Van Ha, a Vietnamese ‘guest worker’ in East Berlin in the 1980s rings true as well and was told to the author by Berlin’s two Vietnamese communities.
The book ends with two contrasting vignettes of 21st Century Berlin. The first tells a short story set in 2011 in Berlin’s now legendary clubbing scene, but somehow manages to cram in twenty years of post-reunification history. The second is a moving account of llse Philips’ return to her native Berlin after leaving on the Kindertransport train in 1939. The emotional epilogue implies a sense of optimism that Berlin now has a chance to reinvent itself yet again, because ‘ideas rather than evil now spiral out from the centre’. Like the author I have inhabited Berlin and now ‘it inhabits me’. The stories contained in ‘Imagine a City’ are an eclectic mix. They are each highly readable and taken as a whole they tell five centuries of Berlin’s history in a vivid and entertaining form.