Newsletter - Twentieth Century Berlin and Crime Fiction by Jack

Tuesday Aug 06 2013
by Jack

Perhaps no other city in the world has experienced such a tumultuous twentieth century, especially since 1918, than Berlin. Certainly no other city has served as the setting for so many crime novels. The period of the Weimar Republic was followed by twelve years of Nazi rule. The city was invaded by the Russians and virtually destroyed in 1945, after which it was divided into four parts by the occupying powers, the United States, Britain, France, and Russia. (Measured by amount of contribution to the war effort, Canada should have been one of the occupiers rather than France, and Canada used the refusal of the Allies to recognize its role as an excuse for bringing its forces home ahead of schedule.) The Russians attempted in 1948 to starve the Allies out of Berlin, but were thwarted by the Berlin Airlift. Then in 1961 the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep East Germans away from the West. It remained in place until 1989, when its destruction signaled the beginning of the process of reunifying Germany. Through all these changes, Berlin was a city of tension and conflict. One can follow its history in the crime fiction written about it.

The Armistice that ended World War One came as a complete surprise to most Berliners, who had not appreciated the extent to which Germany was losing on the battlefield, its army decimated by military losses and the influenza epidemic known as the Spanish flu. German troops straggled home to the city, hungry, flu-ridden, and demoralized, to face unemployment , famine, and an open conflict on the streets between the Communist Spartacists led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and the supporters of a Social Democratic government. “The true masters of Berlin,” wrote one observer, “are indiscipline, vice and chaos.” Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered. The situation serves as the setting for Jonathan Rabb’s novel Rosa. Senseless violence would continue to be the norm in the city for many years, and one of the reasons so many Berliners supported Hitler and the Nazis was the hope of stability. Another was the promise of the return of the German capital to Berlin; the social disorder of the city after the war had led to the establishment of the German government at the small city of Weimar

One of the many complications in postwar Berlin was the appearance of a large contingent (over 100,000 strong) of refugees from the Russian Revolution of 1917. At first, many were quite well off, but these were soon joined by others with no visible means of support. The Russians congregated together in their own districts, with their own subculture. In 1922 a woman confined to an asylum named Anna Anderson appeared claiming to be the Russian princess Anastasia, miraculously saved from the brutal executions that had destroyed the rest of the royal family. The Anastasia business and the Russian community which became caught up in it serves as the background for Ariana Franklin’s novel City of Shadows.

The period of the Weimar Republic in Germany was one of a great cultural explosion in art, music, literature, theatre, and film. The mood was edgy, and most of the major developments occurred in the realm of popular culture. This was the era of the cabaret made famous by Christopher Isherwood, but also of a German film industry second only to that of Hollywood in the postwar period. By the mid-1920s the industry had established its own Hollywood on the outskirts of Berlin in a district known as Babelsburg, where the great German private film company UFA built a huge indoor film complex capable of replicating the outdoors on its indoor stages. Film was the great medium of Weimar Berlin, producing great names like Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, Alexander Korda, and Joseph von Sternberg. Babelsberg and the UFA studio serves as the backdrop for Jonathan Rabb’s novel Shadow and Light.  Many of the leading figures of the German film industry left the country in the early 1930s for Hollywood and Britain. We hear often about the directors and stars who appeared in front of the camera, but the most important German exodus (and gain for film in the United States and the United Kingdom ) consisted of skilled technicians who worked behind the spotlights and transferred their expertise.

Weimar Berlin was always inherently unstable, as we can see in the crime novels by Paul Grossman (Children of Wrath), Craig Nova (The Inferno), and Rebecca Cantrell (A Trace of Smoke) set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was a society profoundly anti-Semitic; the Nazis did not invent a hostility to Jews, but only adopted an already popular attitude. It is worth remembering that Hitler came to power on a wave of popular support brilliantly orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels, who was a genius at manipulating public opinion. Behind Goebbels, of course, was the economic disaster that struck Germany after 1929. Not just unemployment but runaway inflation were endemic. Stories of paying for a loaf of bread with wheelbarrows full of paper currency were not greatly exaggerated. Hitler came to power in 1933, and a year later purged the party of its most dangerous dissident, Ernst Rohm, the head of the ultra-violent Sturmabteilung (SA) in “the Night of the Long Knives.”  Rebecca Cantrell deals with this in her novel of the same name.

By 1935 the Nazi reign of terror was in full flight, victimizing Jews and any who attempted to oppose the government. Hitler routinely employed terror as a political weapon, as Jonathan Rabb illustrates in his novel Second Son. The number of Germans who mysteriously “disappeared” was substantial, and led to the emergence of a small army of private detectives searching for them; one of these detectives was Bernie Gunther in Philip Kerr’s March Violets. The terror was reduced in 1936 as Hitler and Berlin prepared for the Olympic Games of that year. The Olympics are the setting for Rebecca Cantrell’s Game of Lies and David John’s Flight from Berlin. Many nations participated unwillingly in the 1936 Games, hesitant to provide support for the Nazis. The only national team from a British Commonwealth country to give the Nazi salute at the opening ceremonies was the one from Canada. The gradual deterioration of the international scene after 1936 can be followed in Kerr’s The Pale Criminal, David Downing’s Zoo Station, and Jon Cleary’s City of Fading Light. The beginning of war forms the background for Downing’s Silesian Station.

Germany’s early successes in the war – the invasion of Poland, the use of Blitzkrieg tactics to overwhelm the French, and the retreat of the British at Dunkirk (a terrible defeat for the Allies that was successfully sold to the British people as a great victory) – produced much support for the Nazi regime. In 1940 the British stood virtually along against the Nazi juggernaut, supported mainly by Canada, which got precious little credit for its loyalty.  But the unfathomable decision of Hitler to invade Soviet Russia and the inevitable losses there soon led to considerable restiveness. Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone tells the story of one Berlin couple who respond to the loss of their son on the eastern front by sending threatening postcards to Hitler, thus spawning a major manhunt. David Downing’s Stettin Station and Don Fesperman’s The Arms Maker of Berlin both deal with the wartime situation in Berlin, as does Len Deighton’s Winter, a novel which has followed the lives of a Berlin family since 1899. Berlin spends the last three years of the war under constant bombing by the Allies; one can still see the path taken by the bombers    

By early 1945 Germany and Berlin are on the verge of defeat. The Allies are rolling westward across Europe towards Berlin, while the Russians are approaching the city from the east. A race develops to see whose armies will get to the German capital first. Hitler and most of the Nazi leadership hunkers down in Berlin bunkers, although more than one of the nastiest characters manages to escape. This exodus is the subject of The Valhalla Exchange by Harry Patterson (aka Jack Higgins). Unfortunately for Berlin, the Russians arrive in the city first. The result is mass destruction, rape, and theft. The city is overrun, its population reduced to starvation.  Joseph Kanon’s The Good German is set in this chaos. The confusion of the initial period after the conquest of Berlin makes it possible for much shifting of identities to occur, described in Dan Vyleta’s Pavel and I.  The Allies simultaneously turn to trying the Nazi leadership for war crimes and rehabilitating millions of lesser Nazis, many of whom would successfully pretend that they had not been party members or supporters. The Allies divide up Berlin into zones of occupation and use a massive airlift to successfully keep the population from starving in 1948 when the Russians close down the access routes to the city, which is an isolated island in the middle of Russian-occupied East Germany. The story can be followed in David Downing’s Masaryk Station and Leon Uris’s blockbuster novel Armageddon.

From 1945 to 1961, Berlin was divided into competing zones which reflected two competing world views. It was the capital of the German Democratic Republic, but not of West Germany, which was governed from the much smaller city of Bonn. Berlin nevertheless became the battleground for a mighty struggle between the Soviets and the Americans for world supremacy usually known as “The Cold War.”  In Berlin this conflict took many forms, ranging from the establishment of parallel cultural institutions such as symphony orchestras or architectural developments to espionage, with spies and counter-spies, agents and double agents, all collecting information. At one point Nikita Khrushchev jocularly suggested to Allen Dulles that the Americans and the Russians should exchange their lists of spies, which would cut down on the expansion of non-productive espionage. The spying was the visible symptom of the division of the world into two fiercely antagonistic blocs. In 1961 East Germany changed the rules by hastily constructing the Berlin Wall, designed to prevent open intercourse between its citizens and those in the West. The most successful crime novel to reflect this new situation was John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, followed shortly thereafter by Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. For the next thirty years, a succession of novels set in Berlin dealt with various aspects of Cold War espionage. The Wall collapsed suddenly in 1989, symbolically ending the Cold War and the spy novels associated with it. Instead, fictional writing about espionage shifted to the War on Terror. But that is the subject of another essay.

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