Life and Death in Berlin

It’s been said that Berlin is a city with “too much history” and reading this fascinating, encyclopedic book you can see why. Relying heavily on the letters, diaries, and accounts of ordinary people like clerks, housewives, factory workers, and teenagers, the author charts the complex transition of Germany’s capitol from the end of WWI to the end of WWII and beyond, from rebirth to almost total destruction to rebirth, division and union. 

In the first part of the book we follow Berlin’s path from imperial capital to hotbed of anarchy to democracy to the rise of fascism.  It all seems to happen with dizzying speed in a city internationally renowned in the Teens and Twenties for its striking architecture, its art and music, its amazingly open gay culture, and a boom and bust economy that ruined the lives of far too many citizens. 

Life seemed even faster-paced than in New York City and change could happen with frightening rapidity; equally frightening was the violence that broke out between varying political factions well before the Nazis took complete control and the insane mob violence directed at Jews.

The author deftly captures the bureaucratic madness of Nazi rule as when he lists some of the attempts to control the jazz that citizens enjoyed.  Rules stipulated, for instance, that jazz played on the radio should not have “rhythmic reverses characteristic the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people.”  As opposed to the dark instincts that they were at home with?

In the second part, we enter the downfall of Berlin at the end of the war, experiencing life under ceaseless bombardment by Allied bombers and then Soviet attacks as they seek to pulverize the city and extirpate fascism.  It’s suitably grim as citizens live without electricity, heat and adequate water inside subway stations and basements, scrounging for food, desperate not to be killed while out in the open or buried alive.  Anyone reading news about the current war in Ukraine will recognize the horrendous living conditions under siege, though the aggressor is different.

Surprisingly, the shortest section of the book might be the freshest for people who’ve read books like Berlin at War by Roger Moorehouse or Germany 1945 by Richard Bessel.  Here McKay explores the chaos in a city not fully divided between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, the growing iron fist of Soviet rule, the ways in which people coped or escaped, the re-emergence of cultural life across the city and the widely-held alarm in East and West Berlin about rock music and how it supposedly endangered teens.

Given how often jazz comes up, it’s strange that there’s no entry for it in the index, and though the author occasionally mentions Berlin’s famous cynical humor, he doesn’t offer enough of it to match his characterization of Berliners as ultimately resistant to authority.  Readers interested in that side of the story would probably enjoy Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.

These minor flaws aside, the book is an evocative tribute to a city whose energy is admired worldwide.   ★★★★

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 26 other books in many genres.


The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans


In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at