Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

by Rory MacLean

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Why are we drawn to certain cities? Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or maybe simply because the place touches us, embodying in its tribes, towers and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy.
Berlin is all about volatility.

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realized, and evils executed with shocking intensity. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.
Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe's capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents: the medieval balladeer whose suffering explains the Nazis' rise to power; the demonic and charismatic dictators who schemed to dominate Europe; the genius Jewish chemist who invented poison gas for First World War battlefields and then the death camps; the iconic mythmakers like Christopher Isherwood, Leni Riefenstahl, and David Bowie, whose heated visions are now as real as the city's bricks and mortar. Alongside them are portrayed some of the countless ordinary Berliners who one has never heard of, whose lives can only be imagined: the Scottish mercenary who fought in the Thirty Years' War, the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a baroness, the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall, and the American spy from the Midwest whose patriotism may have turned the course of the Cold War.
Berlin is a history book like no other, with an originality that reflects the nature of the city itself. In its architecture, through its literature, in its movies and songs, Berliners have conjured their hard capital into a place of fantastic human fantasy. No other city has so often surrendered itself to its own seductive myths. No other city has been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations. Berlin captures, portrays, and propagates the remarkable story of those myths and their makers..

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250052407
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 589,852
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Rory MacLean has known three Berlins: West Berlin, where he made movies with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich; East Berlin, where he researched his first book, Stalin's Nose; and the unified capital where he lives today. He is the author of nine books and has won awards from the Canada Council and Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship. He was an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award nominee and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Rory MacLean's books, including best-sellers Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon, have challenged and invigorated travel writing, and -- according to the late John Fowles -- are among works that 'marvellously explain why literature still lives'. He has won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work prize and an Arts Council Writers' Award, was twice shortlisted for the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Prize and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3 and 4. Born and educated in Canada, he lives with his family in Dorset.

Read an Excerpt


Portrait of a City Through The Centuries

By Rory MacLean

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Weidenfeld & Nicolson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-05240-7


Konrad von Cölln, and True Love

Marienkirche, 1469

He never liked to scribe the words, never liked to clip their wings, to fix them in time like the poor, glass-eyed songbirds stuffed and mounted in the Kurfürst's Room of Wonders. Words spoken were thoughts alive, unfettered, tracing ever-changing patterns in the air and mind, blown to and fro by a breath of fancy or gust of laughter. A gilding here, an embellishment there, the deed of a hero or the tender-hearted longing of a shepherdess tweaked and tailored for Cölln, Berlin, Spandau or Treptow. Each town was different, each ballad rejigged to suit the place, the time, the mood and appetite of the crowd. That was the artistry, the freedom, and that had been the swallow's flight of his calling. Without it his words lost their music, and his music its resonance, like a thrush snared on the branch and stunned into silence. Yet now, on this dull September evening in the Marienkirche, Konrad needed to write down the words, to tether the lyrics and melodies of the old chansons. In the lamplight the fresh paint on the mural, on his father's portrait, looked as wet as the tears on his cheeks. He lifted the flask to his lips then stumbled back through the vestibule and out into the boneyard.

His father Gottfried von Cölln had been a Minnesänger, a wandering poet and a vassal of the prince. In the year of Our Lord 1448, soon after Kurfürst Frederick 'Irontooth' had ordered the building of the Schloss, Gottfried had led Berliners to defy him, opening the Spree floodgates to swamp its foundations. 'Irontooth' responded as he had when he'd disbanded the town council, with viciousness. Five hundred knights – more skinhead bully boys than nobles – took to the streets, smiting the rebels, throwing into the Spree their statue of Roland, prized symbol of citizens' rights. Gottfried's Unwille had been the single rebellious act of his life, after which he had to flee of course. But not before bidding his wife a farewell so fond that it led – nine months later – to the birth of Konrad.

For the first decade of the boy's life, Gottfried had wandered through German lands, tramped abroad to Prague and Paris, taking whatever God sent him: sun, rain, mist, snow, famine or feast. In far Lusatia he ate pike broth and stag's liver pasties. On the banks of the Elbe he drank hot cordial spiced with cloves and gillyflowers. He was robbed, beaten and left for dead in the Alps of Savoy. He watched the sun rise over the Mediterranean. And in every place he sang, to fill his heart as much as to earn his crust.

At the courts of margraves and princes, Gottfried told the old tales of mighty soldiers of long ago, of maidens with garlands of fresh roses in their hair, of saints wise and demons wicked. He sang in Latin, French and Occitan. He even joined with a harper and a fiddler to form a travelling band, honing his powers of enticement.

At the same time he collected other traditional songs. On the Petit Pont and in Provence, he plucked sons d'amour and wanderers' melodies from the air as swallows catch insects, locking them in his memory, always favouring the courtly romances of a more chivalrous age.

But, as the traveller brings settled folk a little hunger for freedom, so he came to pine for his own hearth. Ten years to the day after his departure, the wayfarer stood on his threshold, holding out a calloused hand to the boy hiding behind his mother's skirts. Gottfried then pulled young Konrad through the earthen lanes, over the wooden Langebrücke to the Schloss by the Spree, to stand before the Kurfürst. He dropped to his knees and groaned for forgiveness. He said that he had followed his heart and the poem of the road, unravelling its twists and bends, its Wort und Weise, until it told him to return home to Berlin. He recited:

    Revertere, revertere
    iam, ut intueamurte.

    Return, return now,
    so that we may look at you.

Kurfürst 'Irontooth' – splendid in his red tunic shot through with gold – might have drawn his sword, or called upon a ruffian knight to give him satisfaction. Yet he chose not to rush the moment, and to humble the rebel poet. Instead he led both Gottfried and his son into his Wunderkammer.

In this Room of Wonders were stuffed birds and the spurs of a knight who had fallen at the siege of Constantinople, books rare and precious, a lock of the emperor's hair and a splinter from the true Cross. Young Konrad gawked at the splendid riches but the sight did not humble Gottfried. Rather he was moved to speak of the soul's unappeased hunger for beauty, as well as the troubadours' joy in summer and love, in noble quests and in sweet, blessed ladies who await the return of their betrothed. 'There is no greater power, no stronger magic in the world, than music to save the tender blossoms of life,' he said.

At first the old ideals seemed to touch 'Irontooth', for he replied without apparent anger, 'Then Minnesänger, you will sing once for me.' There and then in the Wunderkammer, flanked by Ovid's Amores and a mirror said to reflect holy light, Gottfried sang the Roman de Horn as if his life depended on it:

Lors prent la harpe a sei, qu'il la veut atemprer ...

    When he tunes the harp,
    and touches its strings,
    and makes them sing;
    Lord, what heavenly harmony!

A chanson de geste was followed by a pair of lyric pieces. Gottfried slid the words into the music like a hand into a glove, jerking his head as he threw out the lines, growing so excited that he seemed about to fly. He recounted tales of lost love and Christian heroes until the shadows fell across the room and in the lane below cowled priests answered the call to Vespers.

Throughout the performance the Kurfürst said nothing. When Gottfried finished, he stated simply, 'You have a gift, and you will never use it again.'

* * *

Twenty years later, on that dull September evening, Gottfried's son Konrad stumbled out of the Marienkirche. He had no bone to pick with graveyards. Unlike some who were unsettled by their sweet, heady stench, he didn't find the air unpleasant. Cemeteries felt strangely comforting to him, in their levelling of prince and pauper, in that they were a destination to which all men travelled. In any case he didn't want to go home yet, drunk and dishevelled as he was, to sit by the cold hearth listening to his mother weep.

He picked his way around a tangle of wooden crosses. The new stone was set beyond the shallow hollow of an old plague pit against the church wall. Konrad noted that the workmanship was fine, the letters carved well and deep, the chisel cut still sharp to the touch. Murderous 'Irontooth' himself had paid for the stone, if one could believe it, as if to hide his infamy from eternity. Here lies a good man. Here ruled a just prince. Here the Word was cherished, and other such lies.

Konrad dropped against the slab and felt the soil ooze between his toes. He couldn't remember where he'd left his boots. He wanted to believe that his father was still near, that he'd catch sight of him in a crowd on the Mühlendamm bank or among the monks at red-brick Lehnin. Yet at the same time he thanked God that his father's two decades of suffering had finally ended.

Overhead the light drained from the sky and the limbs of the elms seemed to reach out to one another in the dusk, clinging together for support through the coming night.

* * *

'Shove over,' she barked, startling him awake. Konrad must have fallen asleep, judging from the stiffness in his bones. He didn't know the hour.

'Don't throw your arms and legs about so,' cautioned the woman as he made room at the slab. 'Keep your elbows in or you'll knock over a ghost.'

Konrad was irritated. His mourning solitude had been disturbed and he was cold. 'There are no ghosts here,' he replied as silhouettes of crosses danced across the broken earth, cast by torches on the Neuer Markt. 'Only flesh rotting into earth.'

'Sacrilege,' she accused, jabbing a finger at him. 'We walk among a multitude of ghosts who are visible only to the messenger of souls.'

In the half-light the woman's face was not wholly unpleasant. Her hair was uncovered and loose. But her arms were fat and he was in no mood for conversation.

'Are you a messenger of souls?' he taunted.

'I am Lola.'

He could have kicked her, driven her away or walked off himself but her proximity stirred him, as did the warm hand now placed with skill on his thigh. He knew well that certain women – whom some called swallows – were drawn to churches and cathedrals like the feathered travellers themselves. He understood from the moans and titters around them that it was not the dead who were coming to life among the graves. Like these hidden others, he too decided to reach for comfort in the cold night, so that he might forget death for an hour and a coin or two.

'So you are alive,' laughed Lola.

At dawn she was gone, taking her superstitions with her. Konrad rose to drag himself home, crossing the waking market with its stout horse dealers, its bakers whitened by flour, its yawning peddlers of pepper and cumin seed. Pigeon-breasted farmers' wives in dusty sandals snored over baskets of onions. Stinking beggars displayed their stumps and called for alms. A Jew in ringlets and spotless black frock coat paused at a cloth merchant's stand, unfolding rich reams of Flanders indigo and perse. A wrestler in bearskin with hair wind-wild challenged passers-by to a tug-of-war.

Medieval Berlin was a dirty patchwork of squalid hovels and mean manors stitched to a low, lazy twist of the Spree. Along its sandy banks fisher-boys hawked the morning catch, their high voices lifting in a kind of babbling river music. Brawny lads stripped to the waist unloaded barrels of Rhenish wine and sacks of rice from Arborio. A matron from a noble house craned her neck to select the finest trout, the freshest loaf, the thickest wedge of cheese, tucking each prize into her willow basket. Urchins raced by the Mühlendamm mills like dogs on a scent. Blue-tunicked soldiers sauntered through the mêlée, plucking any ware that took their fancy.

Konrad crossed the river to the Cölln side, to the better half of the sister settlements, behind a lone scholar with a curl of crisp linen rising above his dark jacket. The man slipped into the Dominicans' cloister – the so-called Dom – and Konrad turned left into narrow Brüderstraße with its clustered, peak-roofed dwelling houses. Around him the Klang of canaries yellow and foreign and ironsmiths at their forges hung in the air, as did the smell of beeswax and roasting chestnuts.

In these shadowed courtyards he had learnt his father's craft in secret, memorising for over twenty years the formal songs which Gottfried himself had been banned from singing, coming to master the flute, the vielle and the viol. Gottfried had been a strict teacher, his standards sharpened by frustration, and Konrad never seemed able to live up to his expectations. He tried so hard for perfection that a tightness held him back, until finally he rejected his father's staid and dated Minnesang music, as well as its courtly Latin and French lyrics.

Konrad wanted instead to sing as a free man, in the drinking houses and at the fairs of common folk. He loved to croon on impulse and in German, composing spontaneous tunes for artisans and peasants, even though they had almost no money to pay him. He played and sang until the music moved them onto their feet, into song, to dance. He uncaged his father's chivalrous Lieder and let them soar, rewording them on the fly, spinning them anew for his audience and age, proud of never repeating himself in performance.

Often payment came to him in pleasure. He gorged himself on Berlinerinnen, becoming a skilful and energetic lover both on and off stage, a lustful carnivore who could not imagine feasting for ever on a single female. But the sport had its dangers, for the Kurfürst had imposed strict penalties for petty crimes. Loose-liver fornicators could be hung by the neck. Adulterous women were apt to be killed by the sword. Likewise, thieves who stole from the Church were buried alive and liars were boiled in an iron cauldron. Public executions took place on every second Wednesday at the Oderberg Gate, a death rattle east of the Marienkirche. The corpses were hung on the Langebrücke as a warning to others.

Konrad mourned away the September day at home until evening, when he recrossed the long bridge to Berlin. The weather was grey and wet, a Baltic rain blowing cold and sea-scented from the north. Berlin was a place incapable of tenderness, he thought, a volatile and moody virago who only ever ran fiery hot or bitter cold or drenched herself in tears.

He had told his mother that he wished to look again at his father's painted likeness. In truth he went back to the church for the living as much as the dead. When he saw Lola, her skirts dirty from practising her trade on the damp grass, he felt another flash of irritation. Like most Berliners, she was ignorant and uncouth, preferring carousal to contemplation. As she drew him near he jumped away, unable either to stand tall or lie down. He wanted to gather up his feeble defences against loss yet at the same time he could not wait to surrender to it. In response she simply warned him about striking out at ghosts and, when night closed around them, her persistence softened the man, though only his heart.

'Lola Lola', he called aloud like a child. Lola Lola.

Afterwards a woodsmoke mist rolled across the earth and he began to speak of his father, gesturing down at the mound on which they lay.

'I will write down all his old songs,' he told her, the smoke bringing tears to his eyes. 'I cannot bear to lose them too.'

* * *

In the fifteenth century lyrics were rarely recorded. Songs passed by mouth from master to apprentice, father to son with an emphasis on accuracy and external form: numbers of syllables, orthodox rhymes, rote learning. Gutenberg's press was but a dozen years old and had not yet overtaken the oral tradition. The few manuscripts in Berlin's Wunderkammer had come from a scriptorium, copied and bound by Franciscan or Dominican hands. No learned scribe had ever bothered to fix the old poems to the page. Now, in the shabby outpost, Konrad dared to imagine doing just that, with Lola at his side.

Theirs was not a usual courtship. He did not send her fragments of sugar and sweet notes. She did not withhold her favours. Instead they continued to couple like rats in straw and, after their wedding, he moved her into his house. By day he became a scribe at his father's table, bent over sheaves of cloth parchment, recalling and writing down songs. By night in his parents' old bed he was a farmer glad to plough his wife's fertile field.

    Unter den Linden, an der Heide,
    da unser zweier Bette was,
    da muget ir vinden, schöne beide
    gebrochen Bluomen unde Gras.

    Under the linden trees, and on the heath,
    where we made our bed,
    we left the grass and blooms,
    so flattened by beauty.

Konrad could not spell of course, or at least words were not yet put down with a standard arrangement of letters, yet the handicap did not diminish his eagerness. Strangely Lola's reluctance to give up her old trade also heightened his sense of urgency. He beat her, as was his right, locking her in the granary until she agreed to stop. She called it her own hunger, and it grew more acute with the loss of their firstborn. In the spring before the meadows were sown she held the babe in her arms. When it died, she placed a Bible at its head in the crib.

'Er tuot ein scheiden von mir hin, das mir nie scheiden leider wart ...' wrote Konrad that sad morning, recording the old German refrain:

    He leaves me, and no leaving brings me more pain,
    I give him my heart to guide his journey.

* * *

Berlin and Cölln were minor towns, sharing a provost and mayor, bypassed by Europe's main trade routes, much less important than busy Magdeburg and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Within their compact defensive walls gossip spread as swiftly as the pox, between women warming themselves by the fire, through servants at the Rathaus pump, to courtiers in the Schloss. When the Kurfürst heard of Konrad's ink-horned undertaking, he summoned him to the court.

Kurfürst 'Irontooth' held strong views on legend and legacy, as he did on most matters. He recognised that his Brandenburg was a headstrong borderland of little learning, peopled for the most part by the dispossessed. They'd tramped in from every corner of the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. His subjects needed both to be built up, so that they might serve him, and to be cut down so as not to rebel.

The Kurfürst understood the power of chronicle and in his chambers he instructed Konrad on which lyrics were to be preserved. Konrad was to glorify the leaders of the Germani tribes, from Hermann who had destroyed three Roman legions to Albert the Bear and 'Irontooth' himself. He was to describe war as destiny. He was never to call their land Slavonia, or Slavic, but rather a place forever German.


Excerpted from Berlin by Rory MacLean. Copyright © 2014 Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Prologue: Imagine,
1. Konrad von Cölln, and True Love,
2. Colin Albany, and the Players,
3. Frederick the Great, and the Making of Prussia,
4. Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and the Dream of a Capital,
5. Lilli Neuss, and the Owl,
6. Walther Rathenau, and Lost Beauty,
7. Else Hirsch, and the Illusion,
8. Margarete Böhme, and Diary of a Lost Girl,
9. Fritz Haber, and the Geography of Evil,
10. Käthe Kollwitz, Mother and Child,
11. Christopher Isherwood, in a City of the Imagination,
12. Bertolt Brecht, Luck and the Epic,
13. Marlene Dietrich, on Becoming,
14. Leni Riefenstahl, and the Fatal Flaw,
15. Albert Speer, and Germania,
16. Joseph Goebbels, the Man Who Made Hitler,
17. Dieter Werner, Wall Builder,
18. Bill Harvey, and the Tunnel,
19. John F. Kennedy, and Politics as Theatre,
20. David Bowie, and 'Heroes',
21. Lieu Van Ha, and the Gun,
22. People, Let's Dance,
23. Ilse Philips, in Another Berlin,
Epilogue: Imagine Berlin,
Afterword and Bibliography,
Also by Rory MacLean,

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Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this on my way to Berlin to participate in the laying of six stumble stones in the city. I felt the immense, seemingly contradictory powers of the place, and the fascination the resulting energy produces. Why the order? Why the heaviness? Why the crazed, creative energy? Reading this will help you address those questions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago