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Berlin for Everybody

ISSUE:  Spring 2001
Berlin. By David Clay Large. Basic Books. $40.00.

When you see a 706-page history book written by a history professor, you have every right to think: oof! Put it up with the reference books, I’ll get to it. . . .

Don’t put David Clay Large’s Berlin on a shelf. The writing is, shall I say, “dismounted”; it’s easy reading. He’s achieved this easy reading despite the fact his source materials might have contained such Teutonic jawbreakers as the one Life magazine once created: Hottontottenpotentatenmuttermoederattentatsverraeter. Right up front, Large uses the relaxed phrase, “these fellows” and even the dust jacket features George Grosz’s totally informal and informative Beautiful Evening on Motz Street.

My test of a historian who writes of the recent past is this: does the historian’s description of a situation accord with something I have personally experienced? If so, I feel I can go on to read about the history neither of us have personally lived with the assurance that I am getting, as the imperial British burrah sahibs would say, the pukka gen.

It is also further reassuring to note Large’s acknowledgement that his colleague, Professor Peter Gay, has shared his real-life knowledge of Berlin, as in a recent exchange of letters, Professor Gay and I realized that on Nov. 10, 1938, we both were out on our bicycles riding around in the midst of scandalous Berlin Kristallnacht destruction. Gay is a source I can appreciate, as is information from United Press correspondent Howard K. Smith. We two newsmen stood shoulder to shoulder at a crack-of-dawn press conference in the summer of 1941 as Ribbentrop told us Germany was “striking back” (!) at the USSR “on a 2,000 kilometer front.” For fellow-footnote addicts, Large gives us 646 of them, but doesn’t put them into the text to interrupt his smooth and engaging story of Berlin.

The city’s history from its first role as the German capital in 1871 until today’s reappearance as reunited Germany’s capital, accompanied by the Sturm und Drang of high-decibel rebuilding, is the task on which Large has embarked. He has taken full of advantage of the fact that he is dealing with a period in which the camera came to be a part of the telling of history. He has put 109 photos throughout the book. Example: have you ever seen the eerie flickering lights and fluttering Nazi banners of a night time torchlight parade such as the one shown on Large’s page 254? I’ve watched them—with astonished awe. Even the professor’s mastery of English is sorely tested to describe the genius of Nazi propaganda conveyed by the photo Large uses to tell us about Berlin.

In addition to Fact This and Fact That, Professor Large has wisely woven into his Berlin something about the city’s citizens about which the outsider should know: the notorious Berliner Schnauze, the “impudent, subversive wit” called the “Berlin Snout.” That’s part of knowing about Berlin. Thank goodness the author explains why that impudence was held in check after the ich bin ein Berliner boner by President Kennedy. He also names the presidential staff Besserwisser—the Know-It-All—who gave Kennedy the wrong words to use to say “I am a citizen of Berlin.” What came out was, “I am a jellyroll.” He used the phrase, Ein Berliner, which is the capital’s name for a favorite pastery, rather than the proper ich bin Berliner, without the indefinite article. So much for White House staff.

The book is in great part about the period in which today’s Seniors either lived through or heard about in school. Large’s delightful language balances Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister (called, in a sly, Nazi “inside” joke, the inventor of “relative truth”), as a “randy little doctor” with a description of a more historic figure, Kaiser Wilhelm II, as having “a high tolerance for Kitsch.” Perhaps a monarch’s tolerance would extend from ordinary Kitsch, through “high Kitsch“—hoch Kitsch, leading up to his own royal, edel Kitsch—”noble Kitsch.

Large has made the comment in his introduction that he trusts that Berliner’s can “abide some constructive criticism from outside” and he presents a bit now and again. He delivers some in his appraisal of Col. von Stauffenberg’s Hitler assassination manque. Contrary to the view that historians would simply mention this event en passant, Large writes that the July 20th plot was not a minor matter, but had significant reverberations throughout the life of Berlin and Germany.

The discussion of the notorious Berlin Wall, which finally came tumbling down, is especially gripping. He presents points of view from the “other side” which many of us may not have considered. In the narrative about the divided Berlin he makes the point, also seldom considered, that both sides of the split Berlin were supported by their respective national governments.

The heartbreaking and bizarre ways East Germans tried to come through, over and under the Wall are no longer part of Berlin life, but they can be understood at today’s “Checkpoint Charlie” museum. Earlier, The Wall was so much our concern that in my Berlin CIA office I had a screen which led from a TV camera, focused on “Charlie,” 24 hours a day. The Agency has re-planted two or three slabs of the wall near the entrance of the George Bush Intelligence Center campus in Langley. The Agency clearly feel it had a hand in the whole thing, as Large makes clear it had in the famous—but compromised—Berlin Tunnel.

Lange describes the rebirth of Berlin Kultur: museums, orchestras, contemporary painters, all going full tilt. Once again, one of the useful photographs explains better than words why Berlin Snouts dubbed the new tent-like hall of Direktor Herbert von Karajan and his Philharmonic, the Zirkus Karajan. The Berliner Staatsoper is going full tilt, too, unaware that it still owes me one performance of Parsifal, scheduled for the evening the Royal Air Force closed it for several seasons.

Large rounds out his fully-packed account with details of the post World War II political life leading up to the removal of the Federal Republic’s capital from Bonn back to its home base.

For anyone—but especially Berlin buffs: buy this book.


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