When this book by Christopher Isherwood starts you can’t help felling its some sort of travel journal come diary written by someone who is hanging around Berlin teaching English until they can make it as a writer and go back to England. But as the book goes on it has a deceptive edge to it that becomes heart breaking at the end as a City, country and people is consumed by Nazism.
For those historians that wonder how Hitler managed to appeal to a large number of the population this gives a slight insight into the fickle nature of people, the desperation of the poor and the willingness for people to accept the status quo.
Christopher is a writer who has had one book published, which he confesses sold only five copies, who is teaching English in Berlin and making friends along the way. He tells the story of a couple of years in the German capital at the start of Hitler’s reign through a series of stories that link and roughly follow in consecutive order. The characters he meets illustrate the poverty the German’s find themselves in after the slump, the sort of people (aggressive loners) who are in the vanguard of the brown shirt movement and the ignorance of many people about the looming danger. He leaves Berlin when the city is daubed in swastikas and Nazi flags and the change in the city and the people he knew is starting to make it an unsavoury place to live. He can show the reader just how things have changed by reflecting them back on the characters and the locations.
Is it well written?
It is subtle in its power and authority and it manages to slowly turn itself from a journal into a historical statement. But it never feels like that is going to happen from the start it seems like a genuine reaction to events and that makes it more powerful. Some of the characters you discover become early victims of the Nazi anti-Semitic policies with Bernhard the man Christopher befriends who is the nephew of a Jewish department store owner being killed. The various different characters, ranging from a social gadfly from England who sleeps her way through the city, a homosexual who becomes obsessed with a German named Otto and Christopher’s various landlady’s all represent different social positions and political views and the book is made richer by the author’s movement through various different situations.
Should it be read?
The simple answer is that it should because if history repeats itself then it is best to be aware of just what can happen to a people when they are put under economic strain, exposed to extreme politics and largely react with indifference. It is an easy book to get through and although you sometimes want Christopher to become more than just an observer you are grateful he can remain objective. For history lovers, those who like the diary style and anyone looking for a book describing the end of an era this is a perfect read. I particularly like the end of the era feel to it because just like some of the great Russian revolutionary literature it is the political background that drives the story and defines the characters.
There is one other point that is still haunting me. When the Nazi’s sat down and dreamt up the horror of the final solution it was in a Wannsee villa that they had taken over from the Jews. In the book Christopher is invited out to a villa in the same location by Bernhard the rich retailer. You can’t help but feel it might have been the same place and the bitter irony of the lonely detached Bernhard having his villa, where he entertained, being used as a venue for such a gruesome discussion.
A tale of how a people allowed themselves to sleep walk into a Nazi regime that started killing from the start
Version read – penguin paperback