Books: Those Prussian blues

Berliners always said it with bullets, reports Philip Mansel; Faust's Metropolis: a history of Berlin by Alexandra Richie HarperCollins, pounds 29.99
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Berlin hangs over modern European history like a storm cloud. If there is one factor common to every period of the history recounted in this 1,000-page chronicle, it is soldiers. When Berlin rose to prominence as capital of Brandenburg Prussia in the early 18th century, a quarter of the population served in, or depended on, the army. For the Italian poet Alfieri in 1770, Berlin resembled "a gigantic barracks".

The Duchesse de Dino, 50 years later, compared it to a military headquarters; it was less lively than the much smaller capital of Dresden. For Balzac - and many subsequent visitors - Berlin was the capital not of Germany but of boredom. When labour legislation was introduced to limit children's hours of work, the main motive was desire to improve the quality of recruits.

More than any other city, Berlin is haunted by the ghosts of war. It was in Berlin that the wars of 1914 and 1939 were prepared. From Berlin went the orders to commit "the worst crimes committed in name of all Germans": what Hitler himself called, as early as August 1939, "the physical destruction of the enemy".

Brutality remained a defining characteristic of Berlin, even after it was reduced to the "chaos of ruins" Churchill found in 1945. Although partly responsible for that chaos, he was cheered by Berliners. The war memorial to the Soviet army was dubbed by Berlin women "the tomb of the unknown rapist": they knew what they were talking about. The East German government began operating its own concentration camps in and near Berlin in 1946. Berlin was the capital of the Stasi state, of the Cold War and - in West Berlin - of that desire for detente which in reality helped Soviet regimes. Berlin was "the last bastion of communism". In 1989, resistance to the regime started not in Berlin but in Leipzig.

Berlin is in Alexandra Richie's blood. Part of her family has lived there since the 13th century; she has lived and worked there. Although no enemy to unnecessary superlatives, she writes with passion and erudition. She is not deceived by the myths of Berlin tolerance and scepticism. For those who think Prussia was a tolerant state, it is useful to be reminded that, in contrast to other armies, there was "total exclusion of the Jews" from the Prussian officer corps after Berlin became capital of united Germany in 1870.

Richie packs her story with quotations from innumerable witnesses: Faust's Metropolis is particularly detailed on 20th-century political history. We can hear the roar of the city welcoming Hitler on his return from victory in France on 6 July 1940, and, five years later, the music at the last Berlin Philharmonic concert of the war, on 12 April 1945, when departing listeners were handed cyanide capsules by Hitler Youth members.

However, her narrative is swamped by digressions on extraneous subjects. The city's political life is given much more space than its manners and customs. We learn little about the contents of the menu in the Romanisches Cafe or Berliners' trips to the Potsdam lakes. One of the greatest painters of 19th-century Berlin, Eduard Gaertner, is not mentioned.

During the Cold War Berlin became, for the first time, a symbol of freedom. But there was hesitation over whether or not it should replace Bonn as the capital after reunification, and the decision was never put to a plebiscite. Every page of Richie's history confirms the importance of history and geography in determining the character of a city and the attitudes of its inhabitants. It is hard to disagree with German writers such as Golo Mann and Marion Donhoff that the choice as capital of Berlin, a city which politically had brought catastrophe, sent out a disturbing signal. Indeed, one reason for Berlin's selection was the desire for a capital worthy of a new great power.

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