By Stan Persky | April 16, 2002

David Clay Large, Berlin, A Modern History (Perseus 2000, Penguin 2002)

The most memorable image in Walter Benjamin’s writing, "the angel of history," appears in "Theses on the Concept of History," a late schematic essay written in 1940, the year that the Berlin-born thinker and critic took his own life while fleeing the Nazis.

In a passage now famous to his readers, Benjamin portrays the angel as a witness to the ongoing catastrophe of history:

"His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress."

If any city can claim to lie under the gaze of the angel of history, it must be Berlin. Nowhere has the wreckage of the past been piled higher–sometimes literally, as in a mountainous pile of war rubble known as Devil’s Mountain, or Teufelsberg, heaped up in the nearby woods of Berlin–and nowhere has the storm of "progress" blown more ferociously. Writing the history of such a place poses particularly tough problems, as David Large is the first to acknowledge. "A city is invariably a chaotic place, especially a big city like Berlin," he remarks, as we talk over coffee at a cafe in Berlin’s Savigny Platz.

Large, an American historian whose field is 20th century German and European history, which he teaches at Montana State University, is the author of Berlin, A Modern History, the best attempt to date to chronicle both the wreckage and the storm. His book, originally published in 2000, has just appeared as a Penguin paperback, and more significantly, in a German translation, the first English-language history of Berlin to have been accorded such attention among the several that have appeared in the past decade. Curiously, there are no recent major German-language histories of the German capital, so Large’s book has been getting considerable play in the media here.

Urban history raises problems not only specific to the genre, but also to other more literary attempts to "portray" a city, something that Benjamin himself had a particular interest in, and which he explored in sketches of Moscow, Marseilles, Naples, Paris, along with Berlin. City portraits are distinguishable from histories and narratives of world or national history (although the latter presents somewhat similar issues in terms of "national character") and from biography, which by definition is the history of a person. The city and its history constitute the biography of an imaginary personage–imaginary, since the city is in fact not a person but an assemblage of people, physical structures, and institutional arrangements over time, an assemblage that nonetheless adds up to a "personality." How to render a "likeness" of that imaginary personage is part of the challenge of urban history. The theoretical issues generally go unaddressed in urban histories, and the historian often produces ungrounded sentences of the form, e.g., "Berlin wanted…" or "Berlin thinks…" where the Berlin personified in the sentence may amount to little more than the wishes or thoughts of a particular class, or the public relations rhetoric of the local tourist bureau.

The case of Berlin poses the added difficulty of being an unusual national capital. For example, a history of New York or Toronto is simply an account of a particular big city, its people and culture, and its internal politics. Its story is only indirectly affected by the history of the nation. That’s not the case for Berlin. Histories of capitals like Ottawa or Washington, D.C., on the other hand, are primarily histories of national politics, with the medium-sized city that houses the capital often lacking an independent identity other than as the country’s designated political centre. Again, that’s not the case for Berlin. Further, Berlin is even distinguishable from such long-standing big-city capitals as London and Paris, in that its role as a capital has been more violently interrupted by events than anywhere else. Berlin was the capital of Germany from the unification of the country in 1871 to the Nazi-provoked devastation of 1945, and then the capital of East Germany from 1949 to 1990 (while the provincial town of Bonn served as West Germany’s always provisional capital), a city divided by the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989, and now, since German reunification in October 1990, Berlin has subsequently become the capital of Deutschland once more.

The challenge of telling Berlin’s story no doubt accounts for the sizable number of books written about the city in recent years. The most formidable of them is Alexandra Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis, A History of Berlin (1998). In addition to a great catchy title, it has all the features that would appear to make it the definitive urban-history-to-end-all-urban-histories, at least as far as Berlin goes. It is a massive 1100 pages, it has a vast historical sweep–covering Berlin from its first mention in the records of the 13th century to the present-day "Berlin Republic"–and its author is both convincingly erudite and interpretively bold. Any assessment of contemporary Berlin history, such as Large’s, inevitably has to be measured against Faust’s Metropolis.

Fortunately for David Large, Richie’s doorstopper-sized account is not the last word on Berlin (well, probably no book is). In fact, Richie’s tome is decidedly frustrating. For one thing, her Metropolis, I think it’s fair to say, is a noticeably conservative history. This, of course, doesn’t rule it out of court. In fact, the historian’s politics are as inevitable in urban history as in any other historical writing. While there are some indubitable documents and facts, and certain agreed-upon standards of objectivity, ultimately, I think, the Berlin historian’s portrait of, say, the German civil war or revolution of 1919, or the interpretation of the Weimar Republic of the interwar years, is bound to be infused with the historian’s political judgments. So, the objection has to be not to politics, but to the results of a particular political perspective as it is applied to the creation of the civic portrait.

Richie’s basic strategy is to view German history through the prism of Berlin, and vice-versa, to the mutual disadvantage of both. The point of the title of a current German movie playing here, Berlin is in Germany is that it is an ironic counter to the often-uttered dictum that "Berlin is not in Germany," that it is something else, somewhere else. It is simply not like the rest of Germany, as non-Berliner Germans are quick to reassure visitors to the country. Richie’s decision to write a history of Germany "through the prism" of its principal city is fatal, especially when one of the striking features of Berlin is its difference from and resistance to that history. The decision, in any Berlin history, about how much detail to provide about German history, is a difficult one, for any historian, and Richie’s solution is less than satisfactory. Do we need to know everything about Kaiser Wilhelm’s foreign policy leading to World War I to understand the experience of Berlin during that war? Do we need a full-blown account of Nazism when Berlin is the major German city not to have voted for the Nazis? Nor is that the extent of Richie’s difficulties.

Richie’s barely-suppressed hostility to the city–a curious stance for someone writing a thousand pages about it–comes out primarily through her repeated emphasis on debunking the "myths" of Berlin, most of them, in her view, self-promoting rhetorical illusions of its inhabitants and boosters. As a right-of-centre historian, she’s dismissive to the point of contempt of the city’s indisputable history of supporting the political left; worse, she’s weak on culture, the very arena in which Berlin, for all its other arguable qualities, must rest its claims as a world city.

I have a vivid memory of reading Richie’s book. I’d recently seen a massive exhibition at Berlin’s Academy of Art commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the gay movement, which had its origins in Berlin in 1897 with the founding, by Magnus Hirschfeld, of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a political group that had, among its other objects, repeal of the country’s anti-homosexual statute. Hirschfeld, an early precursor of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, had been prominent in Berlin history, especially during the Weimar period in the 1920s, as the founder-director of an institute for sexual research. For visiting artists like W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender, Hirschfeld’s headquarters was one of the first stops on the tour.

I was curious to see what Richie had to say about Hirschfeld, and before I’d gotten far into her history, I checked the index. Much to my surprise: no mention of Hirschfeld at all. Not so much as one passing reference. Now this wasn’t a case of the critic trying to spot what the expert has missed, but to miss Hirschfeld entirely certainly put me on alert. If she didn’t notice Hirschfeld, who’s pretty hard not to notice, what else had she missed? After that, it was unsurprising to find that Richie didn’t have much to say about homosexuality in general, though Berlin has a major place in the history of modern homosexual life. Nor did she have much to say, for that matter, about Isherwood, Auden, and many others, nodding to the culture of the 20s, but essentially writing it off as mostly decadent glitter, a scene ultimately of "boredom and listlessness." There was very little about thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, Eduard Bernstein, Walter Benjamin, or comparable figures of the Berlin intelligentsia, other than sneers.

I guess what I most noticed, as a part-time resident of Berlin for the last decade, was that Richie had little feel for the city as a physical experience. Nowhere in her 1100 pages was there any recognition of Berlin, especially in the spring and summer–everyone agrees that it can be a tough and dreary place in the winter–as a remarkably comfortable big city, a quarter of which is invested in parks, lakes, rivers, and canals, and marked by dozens of hidden, bucolic corners, and hundreds of inviting cafes. Nowhere in Richie was there a hint of a leisurely mid-morning coffee, such as Large and I were enjoying at the Zwiebelfisch Cafe, with its view of the Savigny Platz greenery and a 1930 statue by August Kraus of teenage goatherders and their animals. I suppose historians are not required to actively like the city they’re writing about, but they’re required to be alert to what other people like about the city. Even in a modest partial history like Anton Gill’s A Dance Between Flames (1993), an account of the city’s social and cultural life between the World Wars, one gets a more focused as well as a more nuanced picture of Berlin than in all of Richie’s pages.

David Large’s Berlin, happily, makes good on a lot of the flaws and distortions in other works, especially Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis, and is thus a genuinely useful addition to the shelfload of Berlin civic histories. His first decision, one of scope, is more modest than efforts to account for everything from the first shovel-full of sandy subsoil turned in town down to the latest foundational hole-digging in contemporary "Building-Site Berlin." (For interested patriots, one of the more recent holes is the one for the new Canadian embassy that will eventually go up on Leipziger Platz. The other day, I saw a photo of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien dutifully handling his spade for the groundbreaking last fall).

Large’s book "is a narrative history of the city of Berlin framed by the two German unifications." Those two historical moments, Large notes, "harbour some intriguing similarities. Much of Europe watched in trepidation as the Germans marked the establishment of their new nation with a pompous ceremony at Versailles in 1871, and many Europeans shuddered anew when the two Germanys were reunited in 1990." Both "capitalizations" spawned short-lived economic booms, followed by recession, both moments saw an influx of foreigners, including sizable Jewish contingents, and in both cases "the city’s physiognomy was instantly transformed as old buildings were renovated and new ones thrown up… In each instance, great expectations were quickly replaced by angry disillusionment and a search for scapegoats." Still, the similarities, Large points out, should not obscure the differences. "Germany’s unification by ‘blood and iron’ in 1871… was attended by an outpouring of national pride, even hubris. The new capital was awash in patriotic demonstrations and chauvinist rhetoric. By contrast, there was little of this kind of thing following reunification in 1990, which of course was achieved not by war but by the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the implosion of East Germany."

Having framed his account around the 130-year period from 1870 to the present, Large shapes the story in terms of a number of significant themes. Among them are Berlin’s inferiority complex as a late-arriving national capital. "Although the Spree metropolis became famous for its cutting-edge modernity, its celebration of the new and the experimental, a fear persisted in some quarters that the town was still ‘behind’ its European rivals when it came to urban sophistication." Even today, Large says, Berlin "is always comparing itself with other capitals, and there’s a real insecurity about where it stands."

Second, Berlin "is a city with a difficult and ambiguous relation with the rest of Germany. From a conservative point of view, it is too ‘red,’ a city too ‘multi-kulti,’ too cosmopolitan, and historically compromised," Large says. "If you wanted to dislike Berlin, you could hate it for many reasons," not the least of which is the long period of taxpayer subsidization of West Berlin by the rest of Germany during the Cold War. A corollary theme is the tension between the city’s own governance and that of the rulers of the nation, from Kaisers to the Nazis, most of whom distrusted and disliked the sprawling capital on the Spree River. Finally, as a thematic, there’s Berlin as "a city that constantly reinvents itself," yet always with a tinge of regret for all that was being lost. As Large says, "Nostalgia is as pervasive a theme in Berlin’s modern history as the cult of the new."

Large’s account divides rather naturally, beginning with the rule of the hard-drinking, 300-pound Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck–in physical terms a precursor to the similarly beefy former Chancellor Helmut Kohl who reunited the country 120 years later–who saw the city swell from 865,000 inhabitants to more than twice that many during his 20-year authoritarian reign. Large notes that despite some observers’ distaste for both the rowdy and risque atmosphere of the city, infrastructural improvements in transportation and sewage by the 1880s made Berlin a pleasant, spacious place, notwithstanding the noisy barracks-like living conditions of its working-class dwellers. It was also the host city for the 1885 African Conference, which mandated Europe’s latest colonial scramble, including, most notoriously, King Leopold of Belgium’s grab of the Congo. By contrast, it was the place that saw the rise of a Social Democratic opposition to the Bismarck regime, one that wasn’t halted by the Chancellor’s anti-socialist legislation.

The rapidly modernizing Berlin of 1890-1914–which led Mark Twain to call it "the German Chicago"–was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose own penchant for reshaping the city included a taste for bloated architecture and archconservative aesthetic preferences. But just as socialist politics were developing through the SPD party and thinkers like Eduard Bernstein, as well as the nascent communist group led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht–enough so that the city was dubbed "Red Berlin" by 1900–there was also an oppositional culture, with gritty dramas by Gerhart Hauptmann, a Berlin Secession group in painting, advances in science at Berlin University, where Rudolf Virchow invented pathology and Robert Koch pioneered germ theory, and a world of Berlin noir, including the city’s early homosexual scene.

Large gives a lucid account of how Kaiser Wilhelm’s blundering foreign policy fanned the flames of World War I. The war quickly turned catastrophic for Germany and life in Berlin became a matter of unceasing hardship. The end of the war saw the deposing of the Kaiser and the emergence of the first German republic. Large coherently sorts out the tangle of political factions which plunged the country into what was a prolonged civil war in the name of revolution, and which was played out primarily in the streets of Berlin, where the SPD national government of Friedrich Ebert, backed by conservative elements, including the all-important military, shot it out with the left wing of the recently-formed German Communist Party, led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, both of whom were brutally executed in the course of the failed revolution.

Even in the midst of the post-war economic collapse, a physically expanded Berlin of 3.8 million people (in 1920 it incorporated the surrounding suburbs) became a mecca for the arts and social experiment. "Weimar culture," to which Large devotes appropriate and necessary attention, featured a prominent array of visiting and home-grown artists. The roster includes a who’s who of literary artists, among them Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Musil, Bertolt Brecht, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Alfred Doblin, filmmaker Fritz Lang, visual artists John Heartfield, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and George Grosz, contemporary composers Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith, and such prominent symphony conductors as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwangler. A city vibrant with the rhythms of American jazz, Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and the atonal symphonies of its musical avant-garde, Berlin also experienced a boom in air transport, broadcasting, and especially architecture, through its association with the Bauhaus group. And of course, with the presence of Albert Einstein, Berlin was by definition a leading scientific centre. Large pauses long enough to record the flaneur’s pleasures in Berlin, as described by Franz Hessel, Benjamin and others. This litany of famous names is not only a measure of the cultural importance of the city, but also a reminder of the enormity of what was subsequently lost in the rise of Adolph Hitler and Nazism in the early 1930s.

Large’s Berlin of course offers an extended account of Hitler’s Berlin, which ended in literal ruin for the city, the subsequent Cold War period, in which the Berlin Wall became a global symbol of the imperial struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the chaotic decades of the 1960s and 70s during which the walled island of West Berlin was home to anarchist social experiments. He also provides the fullest historical account available of the post-Wall era, a 130-page section that details the restoration of Berlin as Germany’s capital, along with a critical portrait of the city’s architectural (and memorial) developments in the 1990s.

As a historian, Large has a nice, reassuring manner which is neither bland nor overly-aggressive. He retains, throughout his substantial book, a sure-footed sense of the importance of telling a story, as well as a measure of wit. His own politics are moderate left-centre, but they’re not worn on his sleeve, and there’s very little ax-grinding in his pages. For anyone wanting a reliable account of a city at the centre of the European 20th century, and one that promises to be more or less at the literal centre of European politics in this century, Large’s Berlin can be easily recommended.

At the same time, I don’t think Large’s book is the last or final word on this city, nor does Large pretend that it is. In terms of the themes around which to hang the story, there’s quite a bit that’s arguable. While Large certainly captures the sometimes halting, sometimes surging waves in which Berlin has perpetually "reinvented" itself, including the uncertainties of the present period, I think a more dramatic shaping image, such as Benjamin’s "angel of history" (an image with a Berlin pedigree), offers a sharper perspective by which to understand a city uniquely marked by unprecedented cataclysms throughout its modern history.

There’s something similar to say about Berlin’s cultural history, both artistic and social, which I take to be a large part of the intelligence or mind of the imaginary personage of Berlin. Large is generally good on cultural developments, recognizing that it was mostly "through culture that Berlin exerted its influence outside Germany–an achievement that many Berlin artists and intellectuals carried on in exile when their city turned hostile to the spirit of free expression." So, for example, unlike Alexandra Richie’s book, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld makes an appropriate appearance in Large’s Berlin (there’s even a photograph of him), and visiting writers like Christopher Isherwood are put to positive use in portraying the city, rather than merely accorded passing mention. Still, I wouldn’t have objected to an even more extensive exploration of the content of the work of Berlin artists and thinkers than is afforded here. This is a difficult topic to get a handle on. Perhaps it’s simply an intuition on my part that a deeper and more integrated treatment of social and artistic culture is possible.

I’ll give one example–a minor one–of what I mean, making use of Hirschfeld as an example, since I’ve already referred to him here more than once. While Large’s presentation of Hirschfeld is a big improvement on other treatments, I have the sense that there’s still something missing. It has to do with how Large conceives Berlin’s homosexual history. While he’s not in the least hostile to it, he has a tendency, like other historians, to fold the homosexual milieu into the city’s renowned "naughtiness." It is the case that Berlin’s sensuality is both an enticing "myth" projected to the larger world and a reality, and while it is true that homosexuality in Berlin has been naughty enough–as portrayed in John Henry Mackay’s novels of homosexual hustling in Wilhemite Berlin or Isherwood’s description of pre-Nazi era gay bars–it is also something other and more than that. I think a case can be made that the place of homosexual life in Berlin, rather than of a piece with the mystique of naughtiness, is closer to the historical experience of the city’s Jewish community, both in its sporadically successful quest for tolerance and integration and in its victimization as a scapegoat. It should be noted that while Isherwood’s experiences in Berlin tend to be recalled as "life is a cabaret, my dear" and one-night stands, in fact they involved complex romances and relationships of several years’ duration. Large gets some of this, but I suspect there’s a deeper level of the story yet to be explored.

One thematic that stands out for me, but which isn’t explicitly drawn together by Large–although, again, he presents all the constitutive facts–is that Berlin is, historically, a left-wing city, a city of resistance. Berlin is the centre of the naissance of the German Social Democratic movement, led by August Bebel in the 1870s and 80s, the thinker’s study of Eduard Bernstein, a still-underappreciated turn-of-the-19th-century social democratic theorist, the site of simultaneously a civil war and a bloody internecine struggle among leftist parties in 1919, the place where a workers’ general strike defeated an attempted coup, the Kapp putsch of 1920 and, after the Nazi debacle, a city that elected a post-war socialist mayor, Ernst Reuter, while West Germany opted for the Christian Democratic regime of Konrad Adenauer. As well, it is the city that provided the base, in the late 1950s, for the political career of Willy Brandt, one of Germany’s most interesting civic and federal political figures.

One striking, seldom-noted feature of Berlin is that the city never voted Nazi. Throughout the rise of Nazism, Berlin’s vote for the Nazis was always proportionately less than in Germany as a whole, and even in the elections of the 1930s, at the time of and after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship, the Nazi vote in Berlin never amounted to more than slightly over a third of the city’s electorate, while a well-over-50% majority supported left-wing parties. In East Germany’s first free election in 1990, while the newly-democratic East elected a Christian Democratic government (lured by the prospects offered by Helmut Kohl’s West German CDU regime), East Berlin gave fully two-thirds of its vote to the SPD, the Party of Democratic Socialism (the successor party to East Germany’s Communists) and other left-of-centre formations. Since the publication of Large’s book, last year, after a 15-year Christian Democratic city administration led by the popular if bland Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, Berlin elected a "Red-Red" coalition government of the SPD and the PDS, headed by SPD Mayor Klaus Wowereit who, shortly before the vote, casually announced that, by the way, he’s gay.

The reason I point to this in some detail is because of the historian’s problem I flagged earlier about the difficulty of locating the voice of the imaginary personage that is a city. If anything stands out in trying to determine what "Berlin thinks," it is the actual behaviour of its citizens at the polls on a series of occasions that extend more than a century. While voting is hardly the only measure of what a city thinks, the strikingly consistent pattern of Berlin’s voting, and its contrast to the national pattern, certainly makes it a plausible candidate for one of the themes upon which to build the story of the city’s history. Even the chaotic anarchist, alternative, and Green politics of the 1960s through the 80s, which Large views with some degree of distaste (particularly for its more violent aspects), can be viewed as an integral part of Berlin as a left-of-centre metropolis.

My criticisms notwithstanding, David Large’s Berlin history is the most informative, balanced, and readable version so far of what the angel of history has witnessed in the last century and a third. Nothing can awaken the dead or make whole what has been smashed, but our stories can at least make sense of the swirling storm of progress that propels the angel into the future.

Berlin, Apr. 16, 2002 4407 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: