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.’’