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.


A Death in Denmark

Danish Gabriel Præst is not your typical PI.  He’s intellectual, dandyish, and upscale.  He quotes Kierkegaard and Sartre, wears designer clothes, loves fine wine and good whiskey (though he’s also a beer aficionado).  His high-end coffee maker likely costs several thousand dollars and he’s fastidious in other ways, too: he’s been working for a decade on remodeling a townhouse he inherited.  Latest DIY problem? Locating more hard-to-find 17th-century Spanish tiles to finish the bathroom that already has a wildly expensive antique French claw-foot tub.

Præst’s main clients are corporate law firms in Copenhagen, and his brief is corporate theft, embezzlement, industrial espionage, corporate corruption, insurance fraud and that old PI standby, adultery.  The man’s personal life is intriguing.  He has a woman journalist friend-with-benefits, gets along amicably with the mother of his daughter, really likes her new husband, and even rents space in the husband’s law firm building.

Unlike most crime fiction–whether screen or book–his daughter in this book is not troubled, difficult or any other cliché of the genre.  In fact, she’s “morally sound, smart, self-aware and courageous.”

The story begins when Præst has been asked by an ex-lover to investigate the case of a Muslim Dane convicted of killing a right-wing politician.  He accepts the case because he’s still under the spell of this ex-.  She’s “the one who got away.”

In a classic genre scene, he’s warned off the investigation by a tough advisor to the Danish prime minister himself.  Of course nothing will stop Præst and every step of his investigation seems to expose right-wing bigotry against Muslims living in Denmark even if they were born there.  As the investigation unfolds, we learn that the victim was secretly working on a book about Denmark’s time under German occupation that might reveal a less-than-heroic role for some important Danes.

The characters are vividly described, the translation from Danish feels smooth and the story is compelling, though readers might feel the author overdoes Præst’s foodie lifestyle since it feels like he’s eating or drinking on almost every page.  And  awareness of his “white privilege” is practically a flag he waves as if he has to prove some kind of point.  A careful editor might have suggested a lighter touch, and did he need to be beaten up so often–and shot too?

However, the author does a good job of leavening this mystery with humor. There’s a constant joke that everyone refers to the mother of Præst’s child as his “ex-wife” when they were never married and it frustrates them.  And some of the best parts of the book are Præst’s sarcastic observations about the difficult weather in Denmark and complaints about people lacking style.  Readers who don’t find the food references overdone may feel like they’ve been given a welcome tour of cool places to eat and drink in Copenhagen.  As well as a style guide for men who want to look like what one character calls “a southern Swedish metrosexual.”

Lev Raphael has reviewed crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of the Nick Hoffman mystery series.