Life Among The Ruins

Life among the Ruins –
Cityscape and Sexuality in Cold War Berlin
By Jennifer V. Evans
Palgrave Macmillan – £60.00

‘’As his train rolled out of the Zoo Station bound for exile in Paris, his once treasured city grew ever smaller in the distance. All that remained was ‘’a world hived of four million lives, of hope and fear and hatred, anguish and despair, of love of cruelty and devotion, that was called Berlin.’’

If you’ve ever wondered what life must have been like in Germany’s capital city immediately after the Second World War, then this is most definitely the book to read. I cannot recommend it more highly. Life among the Ruins – Cityscape and Sexuality in Cold War Berlin by Jennifer V. Evans traverses all topography of a devastated city, ravaged by relentless Allied bombing and plighted by its inevitable repercussions. In the book’s first chapter of five, ‘The Cellar and the Bunker,’ the authoress states: ‘’With the dust barely settled and the wounds of Russian revenge still fresh, Berliners sought to take command of the broken spaces that remained, leaving post-war authorities struggling to wrest control back from those who had appropriated them for their own purposes.’’

Indeed, living in bombed out tenements and cellars beneath the ground, or amid mountains of rubble and burnt out trams and cars, what was left of the exhausted, primarily female Berlin populace, can only be viewed as a semi-modern day blueprint on survivalist tactics. A considered dissertation on how to survive starvation, mass rape, disease, sexual disease, out-of-control delinquency; not to mention the inexorable and ever lasting fog(s) of guilt. A guilt that is still very much in evidence today. In almost every other second or third street throughout the city, one stumbles across bronze plaques on the ground, that informs the onlooker of Jews having been thrown to their death out of a window directly from above where one is standing, or murdered at any number of concentration camps.

The names of which are now symptomatic with murder.
The names of which still haven’t bequeathed Germany any favour.

All the more reason therefore, to garner a modicum of reflective understanding in relation to Berlin’s ever-changing history. A city, which, as Dorothy Rowe pointed out in her study of Weimar culture and aesthetics, has ‘’become a metaphor for a modernity both feared and desired.’’

By way of questioning what became of Berlin’s history during the years leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 (a date which once again, ensured the city continued to occupy an astonishingly unique place amid 20th century European history), Evans writes with a very lucid determination throughout these 225 pages. And she does by way of leaving absolutely no stone unturned. To some degree, this is partially underlined in the book’s Introduction: ‘’At its core, this book is a history of reconstruction sites, physical, cultural, and sexual spaces and places that comprise the collective story of Berlin through the first decades of the Cold War. Fundamentally, it argues that the city is not merely an assemblage of architectural features and administrative functions but a primary actor in the historical narrative of the postwar period, both materially and discursively […]. The book focuses on the problem of aftermath, and the lengths to which people, communities, and governments went in the quest to reclaim and rebuild their city after widespread devastation. It looks at the gendered assumptions at work in the pursuit of normalcy and stabilization, and questions the usefulness of political benchmarks, like 1945, 1949, and possibly even 1961 as markers of change and transition in the social and sexual arena.’’

By not becoming too embroiled within a dense quagmire of acute analysis, Life among the Ruins – Cityscape and Sexuality in Cold War Berlin is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative account of one of the world’s greatest cities – despite some of its harrowing history. As John F. Kennedy said during his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate in 1963: ‘’for much of the second half of the twentieth century, all roads no longer led to Rome, but to Berlin.’’

David Marx

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6 responses to “Life Among The Ruins

  1. Hi David! You are my very first review! How exciting to read that you liked the book. Many thanks for taking the time. Jen

    • Hi Jennifer, pleased you’re happy, excited with my review. Suffice to say, I really enjoyed the book. There was so much in it! I’m surprsied I was the first to review it… Are you writing anything else?
      All Best,
      David

  2. Hi David, Yes, we historians pack pack pack in the information! What I really appreciate hearing from your comments here is that you found the book readable. I was very interested in telling a story while trying to get at the intricacies of these people’s lives on the page. The idea was to reproduce for the reader that sense of walking through the city, seeing these places themselves, as you describe above with the many plaques in Berlin marking times long gone.

    I am writing other things, mostly academic stuff, book chapters, journal articles. I’m finishing up a book on pink triangle victims after Hitler, but that feels a long ways away still before it is done. In the meantime, I’m interested in photography of the 1970s documenting the sexual revolution, and am spending a good deal of time with the artist Herbert Tobias’s work. And a have a new project as well that looks at social media and creative forms of anti-nazi organization.

    And I was just in Berlin this past May giving a talk at c/o berlin. We could have met up!

    Best of luck with your interesting blog,and many thanks again.
    Jen

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for getting back again – good to hear from you.
      Yes, what a shame we didn’t get to hook up in Berlin last month; if only I’d/we’d have known!

      That said, it does sound as if you’re undertaking really great research in some mighty dangerous, inflammatory, inspiring subject matter, ALL of which I’m mighty interested in…

      With regards the review I wrote, and you wanting to capture the intricacies of the people involved: I REALLY FELT THAT – which is why I opened my review with the quote of the guy pulling out of Berlin from Zoo Bahnhof. I found this piece particuarly poignant and of a poetic persuasion (if you don’t mind me saying). Admittedly, it could well have been any city, but I just happen to live in Berlin!

      By the way, have you ever read ‘Sex After Fascism’? I read and reviewed it a while ago, and I really do recommend it.
      I think you’ll find it of particular interest (and perhaps research).
      Here’s the link:
      https://davidmarxbookreviews.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/sex-after-fascism-memory-and-morality-in-twentieth-century-germany/

      I’m about to read and review ‘Selling Sex in the Third Reich – Prostitutes in German Society, 1914-1945’ by Victoria Harris (Oxford University Press). I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it looks really good.

      As for your book on Pink Triangle Victims After Hitler; it sounds most interesting.
      Again, it’s a subject I’m totally drawn to.
      So how’s it going?
      And is it near completion?
      Living in Berlin, I’d be really intersted and intrigued to read what you’ve written thus far and find out more.

      By the way, have you read ‘Homosexualty and the Nazi Party’ by Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams?
      Seems we have very similar historical/social interests…

      All Best,
      David

  3. Hi David – did you ever read my book Selling Sex in the Reich? I’d be keen to know what you thought of it, if so! Best Victoria Harris

    • Hi Victoria, thanks for your message. Since having received your book, I have moved (always a bundle of joy…!). But I am in the midst of reading it and fully intend reviewing it within the next week or so. As soon as I do, I will let you know. All Best, David

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