One of the best things to do on a warm summer day in Berlin is to hop on a boat. Admittedly, the German capital is not generally associated with water. Its main river, the Spree, doesn’t have the evocative ring of the Seine, the Thames, the Tiber or the Danube. But, while its residents may not boast about it, Berlin is built on water. The city is crisscrossed not only by the Spree, but also by the rivers Havel, Dahme, Panke and Wuhle; and there are dozens of canals, lakes and ponds. The biggest river cruise lasts three and a half hours, but it only gets through a fraction of Berlin’s vast network of waterways. The sixty crossings it passes are a tiny proportion of Berlin’s nearly 1,000 – that’s more than twice the number of bridges to be found in Venice.
Today’s Berlin feels young and thoroughly modern, but the ancient waters that flow through it tell a much older tale. The Undercurrents: A story of Berlin by the British-American writer and art critic Kirsty Bell picks up on this theme. Part memoir, part potted history of the German capital, the book begins in the author’s house on the banks of the Landwehrkanal, the Spree’s artificial bypass. “Water always finds a way”, Bell notes as she tries to deal with a leak in her kitchen. Just as the Landwehrkanal is forcing its waters into a part of the city that never asked for it, so water was “winding through the crevices of this old building” on its banks.
When her marriage broke down, the middle-aged mother of two sons suddenly found herself alone in the brooding building into which she and her German husband had moved in 2014. Contemplating the “city of extremes and interrupted histories” from her kitchen window, she set out to uncover the hidden stories that have shaped it. Christopher Isherwood – another Anglo-American writer who drifted through the German capital in search of meaning – “adopts the same approach”, she writes. In his novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), he paints a vivid image of the city’s descent into Nazism. Bell’s portrayal, by contrast, remains curiously detached. The turbulences of her life seem to whisk the author and her readers past many intriguing details – too quickly for us to take them in. There is a line from a poem she remembers, but doesn’t recite. A “mysterious” adopted girl found in the records remains without a story. The Undercurrents is an articulate but somewhat breathless journey of self-discovery rather than a cultural topography from Berlin.
The dark waters of the Landwehrkanal behind Bell’s house push their boats through the city at an altogether more ponderous pace. Once a defensive ditch south of Berlin’s city walls, it was later used to drain water from the surrounding swamps into the Spree. It was when the Industrial Revolution threatened to clog the river in the early nineteenth century that the Landwehrkanal became a revitalizing bypass. By 1850 a sixty-five-foot wide canal was ready to deliver wood, coal and building materials to the city – quietly, without drawing attention to itself. Today the Landwehrkanal’s banks are lined with trees and walkways. At one point near its western end it crosses Berlin Zoo. From the deck of a boat one can hear the calls of exotic animals. Sometimes children wave from the twin bridge that connects the zoo’s two parts across the canal.
A hundred years ago, a visitor to the same spot might have heard children singing a macabre song:
A corpse is floating in the Landwehrkanal,
Pull her here to me
But do it carefully.
This was Weimar Berlin’s sinister take on a well-known folk song, rewritten to mock the brutal murder of the communist revolutionary and intellectual Rosa Luxemburg during an armed uprising in 1919. She was captured, battered with a rifle butt and shot dead. One half of the twin bridge, now called Rosa-Luxemburg-Steg, and a small memorial underneath it remind passers-by that a woman’s bloated corpse was once dragged out of the water here. The uprising that Luxemburg had helped to inspire was ruthlessly crushed by brutalized First World War veterans unleashed by a nervous interim government. However, “there would be outbreaks of repercussive violence in the city between left and right throughout the decade to come”, notes Sinclair McKay in Berlin: Life and loss in the city that shaped the century.
Characteristically perceptive and fast-paced, McKay’s new book artfully plunges its readers into contrasting layers of history. The author of The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (2010), The Secret Listeners (2012) and Dresden (2020) puts human experiences at the center of his historical work, and Berlin is no exception. Seen through the eyes of McKay’s colourful cast of city dwellers, twentieth-century Berlin is brought vividly to life.
Many lost souls arrived during the 1920s, when the German capital was full of contrasts and offered a rich landscape from which inspiration could be drawn and absorbed almost by osmosis. This attracted individuals such as a young Jewish screenwriter from Vienna who went by the name of Billie Wilder. Wilder helped to shape the vibrant Berlin film scene and it shaped him in turn before he fled the Nazis in 1933, taking his considerable talent to the US. Gone were the days when he worked at a Berlin hotel as an Eintänzer (“a term used interchangeably for paid dancers and gigolos”, McKay tells us wryly). By now Billy Wilder with a “y”, he had a glittering career in Hollywood ahead of him.
Outsiders tend to see Berlin as a fractured city. Wilder left his “Weimar” Berlin in 1933, when another Austrian, Adolf Hitler, was dreaming of transforming the city into “Germania”, the capital of his ambitions. When the dictator, in turn, left the scene by killing himself in the spring of 1945, another era began, heralded by the arrival of “Soviet invaders who had viewed with both wonder and disgust” what remained of Berlin – a period McKay explores in all its bleak depth. After the war Berlin was literally segmented, first into four zones of occupation, then into two halves, divided by the wall that would cement its divide for nearly three decades.
Most Berliners, on the other hand, have never observed such neat divides. In this book we meet women such as Marie Jalowicz-Simon, who was born in Berlin in 1922 into a Jewish family, but managed to survive Nazism in Berlin by pretending to be non-Jewish, only to be raped and mistreated by a Red Army Soldier in 1945. Afterwards, McKay tells us, she “found that some of these soldiers wanted their uniform white scarves, worn inside the collars of their tunics, washed and ironed”. She had little choice but to comply. Yet, despite these experiences, Jalowicz-Simon stayed in the Soviet sector of Berlin and became one of East Germany’s most prominent historians. By the time she died in 1998, eight years after the reunification of Germany and its capital, her home city was unrecognizable from the one she had been born into.
The idea that the first half of the national story begins with the state’s foundation in 1871 and leads to worse and worse excesses until its ultimate catastrophe in 1945 necessitated a new beginning is a powerful one. McKay’s Berlin Reinforces it somewhat by placing the emphasis squarely on the years before and after the supposed “zero hour”. But to this day we can find much longer continuities. Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate symbolizes many of them. McKay tells us that the nearby Hotel Adlon was turned into a military field hospital at the end of the Second World War. But the Brandenburg Gate has a history that, like the capital it represents, stretches well beyond the Nazi era and its immediate aftermath. Nearly a century and a half before, Napoleon had marched his victorious troops through it in a triumphal procession and had its quadriga taken to Paris as a trophy. Until its restoration eight years later, only the iron rod that had held it in place remained, quite literally needling Berliners day in and day out about their humiliating defeat.
After the Second World War, East and West Berlin authorities squabbled over whether or not the postwar restoration of the destroyed quadriga should include the original Prussian insignia of eagle and Iron Cross. Both sides had collaborated on the overall restoration, as the standing stood on the fault lines of a city not yet definitively divided. In the end the magistrate of East Berlin had the symbols removed secretly before restoring the quadriga back on the Brandenburg Gate. As part of the Cold War divide, the monument remained a powerful national symbol. It stood once again for German national unity when images of the celebrations in front of it in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, went around the world. The quadriga even received its eagle and Iron Cross back.
Of course, every history of Berlin has to be selective. Quoting the architect David Chipperfield, McKay begins his book with the assertion that “Every city has history, but Berlin has too much!”. It is certainly true that Berlin, one of the youngest European capitals, has experienced a huge amount of trauma, upheaval, excitement and renewal. But as McKay observes, “Berlin is a naked city. It openly displays its wounds and scars.” A journey along its rivers and canals will show you a postmodern chancellery, not yet twenty-five years old, built because no suitable precursor existed in a state that has had chancellors since 1871. It will take you underneath the Oberbaum Bridge, a Wilhelmine stone structure. Blown up and rebuilt, it became part of the border that divided Berlin from 1961. It will take you to the medieval Nikolaiviertel, with its peculiar mixture of historical reconstruction and prefabricated housing blocks.
The art critic Karl Scheffler, a native Hamburger who moved to Berlin amid the rapid transformation of the 1890s, was shocked by the ever-changing faces of his new home. Berlin’s fate, he commented, condemned it “always to become, never to be”. Kirsty Bell doesn’t know why it’s so difficult “to pin down the ambiguous forces that influence this place”. Frustrated, she writes “Berlin resists me” in her diary, finding it “so hard to integrate into its flow”. Yet the solution for anyone who tries to understand Berlin is simple: let go. The dark waters of this scarred and characterful city will not always take you to the most beautiful or even the most exciting places. But they will take you somewhere interesting.
Katja Hoyeris the author ofBlood and Iron: The rise and fall of the German Empire 1871–19182021
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