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The Story of a City
by Barney White-Spunner

It is a courageous writer who takes on the story of Berlin. The history of London meanders along like the River Thames at a slow majestic pace with only the great plague, the Civil War, the Great Fire of London, and the Blitz to trouble its course. Paris has endured the French Revolution, twice been occupied under the Prussians in 1870-71 and the Nazis from 1940-44, but has always retained its inimitable beauty and sense of an idea. But as Jacques Lang, a former French cultural minister famously said, ‘Paris is always Paris, but Berlin is never Berlin’. It is to the author’s great credit that, by the end of this highly instructive and readable book, the reader grasps what Lang intimated in his enigmatic comment.

In recounting the story of this great city, Barney White-Spunner also gives the reader an incisive insight into European history from the late middle ages. Since the author first visited the city in the early 70s, Berlin has captured his imagination and has been an important influence in his life. In return, he has brought the city’s extraordinary history to life with an engaging narrative based on rigorous research. It is a terrific accomplishment.

When the author started the book, his German friends, Berliners and the like exhorted him not to write about the era that defines the city in contemporary minds: the city of Hitler, Nazism, and the Wall from 1961 until communism’s collapse in 1989. The narrative starts in 1237 with the arrival of the Huns, led by Attila, the term of historical abuse to describe Germans. The story of Berlin begins to take shape in the flat, sandy Brandenburg plain between the Elbe and Oder rivers. Geographically dreary, Berlin nevertheless was the apex of two key trade routes running east-west to Poland and north-south from the great Hanseatic port of Hamburg. It was also the arrival of the Hohenzollern dynasty, the menfolk invariably named Frederick and given the title ‘Elector’. A secretary of the Bishop was an early casualty of a medieval ‘Me Too’ campaign when he was accused of making an inappropriate suggestion to a burgher’s wife. He was dragged to a public marketplace and beheaded on the spot.

By the mid-13th century, the Jewish community had established itself as had militarism with the presence of a sizeable military garrison. Berlin had evolved to become an established capital of an elector of the Holy Roman Empire. Militarism and the Jewish presence were to remain constant themes in Berlin’s story and, in time, were to meet head on with indescribable consequences from 1933-1945.

The Reformation and the Thirty Years War defined the period from 1500-1640. Lutheranism took hold as did Berlin’s cultural beginnings. The great plagues of that era kept Berlin’s population down to 12,000 in the early 1600s; London stood at 130,000. But it was the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, one of Europe’s most bloody and destructive conflicts, that brought Berlin to her knees. 60% of the population died. Some historians argue that the war resulted from the Reformation and religious conflict. In reality, it was the long-running contest for European dominance between the Hapsburgs in Austria and Spain and the French Bourbons. The psychological damage to Berlin and Germany from the Thirty Years War echoes to this day.

The next 150 years in this compelling story of Berlin are dominated by the remarkable Hohenzollern electors, the last of whom was Frederick the Great ‘as ane fule kno’ as the fictional character, Molesworth, might say at St Custards, or indeed any prep school boy studying European history in the 1960s and 70s. They were united in their determination to make Brandenburg Prussia a European power, and Berlin a capital worthy of their status. It was a period of sustained economic, social and cultural growth. But it came at a cost. The doctrine of Prussianism with all its deadly characteristics took hold in the fabric of the nation. The doctor who attended Frederick the Great’s deathbed was asked by Frederick if he had seen many men into the next world. The doctor’s response, ‘not as many as your Majesty,’ was true about what had taken place, and uncannily prescient about what was to come.

Complacency is often a bedfellow to success. And Prussian complacency, when faced with the French Revolution and the inexorable rise of the great soldier and statesman, Napoleon, led to near catastrophe. The Prussians were defeated at Jena and Auerstedt. Berlin was occupied by French troops. French soldiers were not hell bent on slaughter, mayhem and plunder, rather more on romantic conquest. A charming Berlin expression emerged, ‘Fisimatenten’ from the French ‘Visitez ma tente’ (come to my tent). Illegitimate births rose by 20%.

A point aside, Barney White-Spunner is a master of amusing vignettes and telling details that make his Berlin story such an engaging read. He recounts all those names that echo through history which either became battleships and cruisers such as Scharnhorst and Gneisnau;  or Prussian warriors such as Von Schlieffen, Von Manteuffel, and Von Moltke; and then the glamorous German women that still seem to pop up in Tatler and Hello Magazine, Sophie-Louise of Mecklkenburg-Strelitz, etc. What an aberration the Nazis were compared to those grand and dignified old German aristocratic families.

The industrial revolution, similar to Great Britain, brought enormous social and political change. The population almost tripled between 1840 and 1871. And so emerged the most vivid and absorbing character in Berlin’s story and the history of Germany, Otto von Bismarck. The author states that Bismarck was a more complex and contradictory character than his popular image suggests, but he does little to explain how and why, or paint more than a sketch of the ‘Iron Chancellor’. This is a pity as Bismarck was the architect of modern Germany who brought about German unification by portraying France as the key threat to European peace. The author also skates over the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the outcome of which was to have far reaching consequences in the 20th century and to the present day.

The run up to the Great War saw Berlin become the fastest-growing city in Europe. There was boom and bust, the Jews predictably largely blamed as they had always been when Berlin’s finances and economy hit the buffers but living conditions vastly improved. The author states that it was beyond the scope of his book to explain the events leading to the Great War. Again, the reader may feel a little short-changed as to why Germany pitched headlong into such a ruinous conflict.

The final chapters covering Germany’s collapse after the war, the period of hyperinflation, the rise of Hitler and the downward spiral in to the Second World War are brilliantly told. The period may be well documented but it’s impossible to tire of the chain of events that led to such destruction. The same is true of the author’s account of the last days of the war. I knew the rape of German women was widespread by Russian soldiers, but 150,000 babies born as a result highlights the scale of their appalling behaviour.

1945 to 1961 is perhaps less well-known to readers but it is a fascinating account of how Berlin, through the US Marshall Plan, got off its knees from a pile of rubble. The tightening communist grip, the Berlin airlift, the gradual collapse into the Cold War leading inexorably to the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 manned and guarded by 47000 ‘Grenztruppen’, it all makes for grim but compelling reading.

The author is on firm ground as he narrates the period from 1961 to communism’s collapse in 1989. Readers may be familiar with the film The Lives of Others which brilliantly depicts the suffocating embrace of the East German security service, the Stasi, which employed many more people than the Nazi Gestapo and with 4,200 locations in the city. The author does justice to the Stasi’s all-pervasive presence in people’s lives as he does to the extraordinary disparity between the standard of living between West and East Berlin, a contrast which seemingly escaped the ghastly President Honecker of the German Democratic Republic.

Berlin today is, once again, like it was in the 13th century, a melting pot for people from all over the world irrespective of creed, colour, or closet. It is as vibrant as any world city; its culture as rich as New York or London; its desire for technical innovation and success as hungry as Silicon Valley; and yet, as the author so rightly suggests in the quote at the head of his final chapter, ‘Berlin is condemned only ever to become and never to be.’

A small gripe: the book’s dust cover is dull. If you are in Hatchards contemplating a good holiday read, you would barely give it a second glance.

That apart, the story of Berlin is an outstanding book for anyone who wants to understand Germany and why Europe is where it is today.

Paul de Zulueta

Simon and Schuster (2020)


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