Berlin –

Life and Loss in the City That Shaped the Century

By Sinclair McKay

Viking/Penguin – £20.00

Berlin in s a naked city. It openly displays its wounds and scars. It wants you to see. The stone and the bricks along countless streets are pitted and pocked and scorched; bullet memories. These disfigurements are echoes of a vast, bloody trauma of which, for many years, Berliners were reluctant to speak openly. In the shadow of filthy genocide, it was taboo to suggest that they too were victims in Hitler’s war. The city itself is long healed, but those injuries are still stark…


Throughout the twentieth century, Berlin stood at the centre of a convulsing world. It alternately seduced and haunted the international imagination. The essence of the city seemed to be its sharp duality: the radiant boulevards, the cacophonous tenement blocks, the dark smoky citadels of hard industry, the bright surrounding waters and forests, the exultant pan-sexual cabarets, the stiff dignity of high opera, the colourful excesses of Dadaist artists, the grim uniformity of mass swastika processions.


(Preface; ‘Every city has history, but Berlin has too much’).

The ‘gentlemen’ didn’t know where she was going. Then the ‘gentlemen’ led her to the door. We heard it slam behind them and listened to the quiet little steps and the echo of boots stomping down the stairs. Then it was silence again.

(‘The Road That Led into Darkness’)

From the social(ist) idealism of Messrs. Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, to the beer-hall bigotry of Hitler’s delusional rantings (‘’They had intoxicated themselves with crazy theories and senseless catchwords, by which the militarist elements in Germany try to console themselves for the loss of the war’’); from the generality of the city’s citizenry (‘’[…] the majority of citizens in Berlin were, by April 1945, denied the luxury of speculation about the future. Their city was suspended in time; an unending midnight, between one era and the next. The three weeks that were to follow – through which they were to face bombardment and conquest and unimaginable trauma – seemed to have neither day nor night; yet somehow, these Berliners retained an extraordinary obdurate toughness, and a keen sense of their own identity. In those three weeks, the entire world was once again watching their city’’) right through to the infamous Berlin airlift between June 1948 and May 1949, this simply superlative new book by Sinclair McKay, covers every unfortunate verisimilitude of twentieth century Berlin.

Hence the title.

Hence the degree to which Berlin – Life and Loss in the City That Shaped the Century essentially covers a vast and unequivocally vertiginous terrain. A terrain, which, it has to be said, is neither linear nor lacking, pleasant nor peaceful.

In fact, it is everything but the latter.

Having lived in Berlin for a number of years, I can wholly substantiate that Germany’s capital city is many things. Many things to many people. Although beige, boring and bland, absolutely isn’t one of them. And as McKay writes with such a high-octane, fine nuance of literary verve and panache, so much of what is written within these 375 pages (excluding List of Illustrations, Picture Credits, Maps, Preface, Acknowledgements, Selected Bibliography, Notes and Index) is akin to dissecting a photograph. If not reading photographic evidence.

It really is that real. That gritty. That honest.

‘’They had been complicit, even if they personally felt no guilt. They might not have seen the camps, or the railway trucks, but they had known about them. And what they certainly had seen was the violence of Kristallnacht in 1938; the howling, shouting groups of civilians. That was the night upon which no Berliner could claim to be in ignorance of the depth of malevolence directed towards the Jewish people. The philosopher Hannah Arendt was later to make the distinction between ‘collective guilt’ and ‘collective responsibility’ – the former meaning that, in essence, no single individual was guilty, the latter obliging German society as a whole to acknowledge what had been done in its name. For the hungry and sexually violated Berliners in 1945 such distinctions will at the time have felt abstract’’ (‘Complicity’).

Berlin almost reignites this extraordinary city in such a way that none of the last century’s tempestuous history can or could ever be denied (let alone questioned). This includes Berlin’s many variations of shade – both good and bad.

In other words, the trajectory of Berlin’s more than substantial dark-side is herein, very candidly brought to the fore – of which the following two quotations (from the chapter ‘Where was home’) are a prime examples:

‘’And Death Mills, made with footage taken at the nightmare discovery of the camps, was directed by Hanus Burger. The narrating voice, provided by Oskar Seidlin, was openly accusatory of ordinary people, as the film juxtaposed images from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and from the death camps. ‘Yesterday, while millions were dying in German concentration camps, Germans jammed into Nuremberg to cheer the Nazi Party and sing hymns of hate,’ ran the narration. ‘Today, those same Germans who cheered the destruction of humanity in their own land, who cheered attacks on helpless neighbours, who cheered the enslavement of Europe, beg for your sympathy. They are the same Germans who heiled Hitler.’’’


‘’In those post-war months, the US Army quietly conducted a survey in its sector of the city concerning civilian attitudes towards the Jewish people. They found that at least 39 per cent were openly anti-Semitic – 18 per cent of the total radically so. Well over a third of the respondents voiced the belief that it would be preferable if the Jewish people remained away from the city.’’

Dark, disturbing, yet majestically written, Sinclair McKay has perhaps herein written the book on Berlin, by which all future others will be compared and measured.

Surely a contender for book of the year.

David Marx

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