'For the foreseeable future,' say Anthony Read and David Fisher, 'Berlin is likely to remain the world's biggest building site.'
That prospect alone would justify this detailed history, however vitiated it turns out to be by a stubborn idealisation of 'ordinary Berliners'. At the outset, the authors, recently responsible for a comprehensive account of the cataclysm that befell Berlin in the Second World War, demonstrate the intended scope of this 'biography' by vividly evoking the city's origins as twin trading villages in the 13th century. They tend to agree with John Mander who, in his spirited 1959 history of Berlin, suggested that Prussia's bracing climate and arid soil helped to instil a hardness, thrift and irony into the ethos of its chief town.
There is also agreement that the later influx of diverse migrants added a zest and irreverence unique among European cities and far from popular with the staider run of Germans.
Read and Fisher stress this difference to the point of acquitting 'ordinary Berliners' of the iniquities attributable to Germany down the centuries. Thus the militarism and repressiveness of Prussia were not, we are told, to the liking of Berliners in the mass. When rebellion against imposed nastiness proved futile, 'they found ways of getting on with their lives by working hard, playing hard, grumbling loudly and joking quietly'.
The Berliners disliked Hitler, listened in considerable numbers to the BBC even in the Thirties and for the most part felt ashamed of the Kristallnacht assault unleashed by their Nazi masters on the Jews. They absented themselves from Hitler's celebration of his Sudetenland takeover, cheered troops returning from victory in France only because they thought it signalled the war's end and viewed one big RAF raid in particular as a fitting retribution for a round-up of Jews that day.
Such propositions take on an air of unsubstantiated special pleading. But the authors can relax once their story reaches the end of the Second World War, and especially after the 1948-49 airlift and the Wall have made their portrayal of Berliners as historical 'goodies' less questionable. However, the extent of the virtue already claimed for them in these pages would be enough to leave any Berlin readers abashed, if not actively guffawing out of their much-vaunted spirit of collective cynicism.
The whole painful effort to make past generations of Berliners seem politically correct mars a book which otherwise teems with fascinating information - the description, for instance, of those Mafia-
like institutions of underworld Berlin in the Twenties, the Ringvereine. The Twenties are highlighted in a manner befitting their repute as the golden decade of Berlin culture, though the artistic dynamism equally evident just before 1914 is underplayed, despite achievements like Ludwig Meidner's chilling pictorial premonitions of the 1945 catastrophe.
And the future? In 1948, with the Allied transport planes sustaining the city, that redoubtable Berlin poet Gottfried Benn (sadly unmentioned here) sensed radical creativity stirring again, 'an ambivalence such as centaurs or amphibia are born from'. To judge by the profuse chronicle of resilience which this book, for all its attempted sanitising, provides, the renewed germination will now accelerate in the irrepressible town John Mander called 'the power-pivot of Europe'.Reuse content