The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Berlin: An Overview

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry


Berlin was the city which gave a context for Georg Simmel’s essay on The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), being also the birthplace of Walter Benjamin and of Franz Hessel, who attempted to be a flâneur in the city. Simmel the sociologist and Benjamin the critic, who wrote Berlin Childhood around 1900 (1932–1938), are two of the most decisive writers for considering cities as creating new modes of experience, and of being, and that idea gives a special color to Berlin, alongside Paris, the city with which Berlin competed. It is perhaps one of the most mythicized cities in literature and history and culture. Its streets and buildings have been the most renamed, on account of its several histories: as a young capital (1871) in contrast with others in Europe; as a city which has been seen as very Prussian – Prussia as a separate territory was abolished in 1947 – as German, especially by the Nazis, who wanted to call it “Germania,” and who planned huge building works, of which Hitler’s Chancellery, in Wilhelmstrasse, at the intersection with Vossestrasse, itself one street north of Leipziger Strasse was completed; and as partially Soviet, between 1945 and 1989 when it was part of the GDR (DDR: Deutsche Demokratische Republik), and so the Soviet Union.

Since then, it has been seen as a renewed capital of Germany, and as European, and always, as comparable to an American city. In the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain likened it to Chicago, a comparison much developed, though indirectly, by Brecht. Its rebuilding since 1989, especially around the Potsdamer Platz, has drawn on many American architectural firms, and as internationalist in style, the city has become more of an image to capture tourists and investors rather than a place for inhabitants. Nor must it be forgotten that it has been a Jewish city (it never had a ghetto), with one third of all the Jews in Germany in the 1920s (approximately 170,000), being in that productive of art, music, philosophy, and literature (Barkan 2016), as well as generating an Enlightenment through the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). Finally, Berlin has generated a plentiful literature and, of course, has been endlessly described in literature.

Myths of the City

As a German city, Berlin’s competition is with the older (Roman) and much more “traditional” city of Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until this, like the German Empire, was dissolved in 1918. The only other German city with which Berlin has been comparable in terms of culture was Weimar, in the days when Goethe (who once visited Berlin and disliked it) and Schiller lived there. Berlin, in contrast to Vienna, seemed more Puritanical, more reactionary, as the embodiment of the Prussian state and its militarism, but that perhaps provoked more desire to break free, as happened in Modernism.

The mythicization of Berlin, which gives the city an immediate appeal, but which needs to be inspected critically, shows itself in numbers of ways. It had a reputation as a Prussian city for its troops: the Lustgarten, i.e., the area in front of the Altes Museum, was a parade ground from the seventeenth century onward. The straight streets of the eighteenth century were to facilitate marching; this continued with the city’s imperialism after 1871, and its fascism after 1933. Equally, the city has a reputation for its consumerism, such as with the Wertheim department store in Leipziger Strasse (1897: architect Alfred Messel (1853–1909), who also designed the Pergamon Museum) or through cabaret (famously described by Christopher Isherwood, in Goodbye to Berlin 1939; this was, of course adapted as the musical Cabaret (John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff, 1966). Isherwood and W.H. Auden both helped give it its reputation as a gay center in the Weimar Republic (White 1989: 124–145). Cabaret itself, outside the myths about it, has been seen as “metropolitan montage” by Peter Jelavich: he relates it to Dada, to collage, and to the jerky, atomizing effects of living in the “metropolis” as described by Simmel. Similarly, the city has been made famous through photography (Long 2012) and through film, for example, with the actress Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992: her reputation was made in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel, 1930). Many Berlin films have contributed to mythicization, such as Walter Ruttman’s documentary Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, (1927); Fritz Lang’s M (1931); Gerhard Lamprecht’s Emil und die Detektive (1931 – screenplay by Billy Wilder); Leni Riefensthal’s Triumph of the Will, made to accompany the Berlin Olympics, Hitler’s showpiece in 1936; or Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948), or Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (1981), on gay culture in West Berlin, or Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987).

Hannes Stöhr’s Berlin is in Germany (2001) and Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin (2003) are both about the problems of surviving the loss of the GDR as a home and the feeling of anger and of inferiority about being taken over by West Berlin after reunification in 1989. Its “techno-music,” partly imported from Detroit, fills nightclubs such as Berghain, a vast ex-warehouse (an old GDR power plant, between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain). The myth Berlin promotes is as “creative”: an image promoted by its SPD (Social Democratic Party) Mayor from 2001 to2014, Klaus Wowereit, who talked the city up as being “poor but sexy.”


Berlin begins in the twelfth–thirteenth centuries as two medieval towns, one (Kölln, first mentioned as far as we know in 1237) on an island on the Spree river and the other (Berlin – first mentioned in 1240) on the east bank of the Spree facing the island, as the river turns northward. The Spree joins the Havel river at Spandau; this flows into the Elbe and so into the North Sea. The northern part of the island is now Museum Island; it is cut off from the southern part – Fisher Island – by the main thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, which crosses it. The Old Berlin is represented by two churches, the Marienkirche in Mitte (“center,” a title from 1920), which is medieval and baroque, and the Nikolaikirche in the Nikolaiviertel, a medieval quarter reconstructed after 1979. Prominent in this old quarter is also the Rotes Rathaus (the town hall, built in 1869 by Hermann Friedrich Waesemann).

The city lies in the territory of the Electorate of Brandenburg, whose capital was the Hanseatic town Brandenburg an der Havel; in 1417 the Hohenzollerns, who had taken control of Brandenburg, moved the capital to Berlin from where they extended their power in 1701 to become kings, first “in” and then “of” Prussia. The first king was Friedrich, the son of Friedrich Wilhelm the “Great Elector” (ruler of Brandenburg-Prussia 1640–1688, in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War). He permitted religious toleration and settlement by Huguenots and Jews; Friedrich ruled in Berlin from 1688 to 1713 and began some decisive rebuilding. The two cities were formally merged in 1710, and newer parts were added in the late seventeenth century. These were Friedrichswerder, west of Kölln, now best remembered in the neo-Gothic Friedrichswerder Church (Schinkel, 1831), and Dorotheenstadt which included Unter den Linden and the area north of it, on the westward side of Museum Island, and Friedrichstadt, which was the area south. Both these developments share a grid pattern for the street layout.

The major event in the nineteenth century was the unification of Germany under the power of Prussia and its Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), and the creation of the Empire under Wilhelm I (1871–1888) and his son Friedrich (1888) and militaristic grandson Wilhelm II (1859–1941 Emperor from 1888 until his abdication in 1918). Bismarck, the political architect of the Empire, wanted the city to rival Paris with an avenue like the Champs-Élysées, connecting the Tiergarten – which included the zoo (1844) – with the Grunewald (Wilmersdorf, on the western side of the city). The Kurfürstendamm was upgraded for that, but it never had the width of the Champs-Élysées, nor the public monuments. It may be said that Berlin was not taken very seriously as a major city until 1871; perhaps it became more recognizably important, less provincial, after its trade fair in 1896, held at Treptow, to the south and east of Kreuzberg, and dominated by signs of Germany’s heavy industry, as with Borsig, who built train locomotives, and Pintsch Enterprises which produced boilers, and the electrical industry which was dominated by Siemens (Siemens and Halske, begun in 1847) and AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft). That was founded by Emil Rathenau, the father of Walther Rathenau (born 1867 and assassinated as a Jewish liberal politician, in 1922 by “Organisation Consul,” a Freikorps unit – for a study of the Freikorps; see Theweleit). With these industries, plus garments, and dyeing businesses, Berlin became a factory town independent of the imperial court. Berlin’s industrialization meant the construction of five-storey tenements called “Mietskaserne” – “rental barracks,” a term which reflects the extent to which Berlin remained a garrison town, with many soldiers to house – consequently making working-class people live cheek by jowl in apartments where neighbors had no relations with each other.

The city as the new capital of a united Germany had been painted by such nineteenth-century artists as Adolph Menzel (1815–1905), whom the art critic Michael Fried saw as a realist in the mode of Courbet, and by the Jewish Impressionist Lesser Ury (1861–1931). In Modernist terms, Berlin housed the Berlin Secession group of artists (after 1898), led by Max Liebermann (1847–1935), who painted bourgeois Berlin in Impressionist style and lived near the Wannsee, where Kleist had killed himself in a suicide pact with his lover Henriette Vogel in 1811, and the site for the secret planning of the Final Solution (1942). Another artist leading the Secession was Max Beckmann (1844–1950). In the later artistic movement, Ernst Kirchner (1860–1938) painted Berlin especially for its sex workers, while Ludwig Meisner (1886–1966) painted it as an apocalyptic city. Berlin in the days of Modernist art and music, and of the city resisting its Prussian imperialism, found one of its Meccas in the Café des Westens on the Kurfürstendamm: it is worth noting that Rupert Brooke (1887–1915) dated his poem The Old Vicarage Grantchester (May 1912) from this very Café, as if to express, though ambiguously, the absolute difference between the “decadent” city and eternal Englishness in a village life outside Cambridge.

Many artists persisted beyond Expressionism (an art of the city, finding it like a vortex of energy, in which they were like the Italian Futurists; only Berlin Expressionism added in sexual energy) through the Weimar Republic. They included the Dada-ist Georg Grosz (1893–1959) and John Heartfield (1891–1968). Their satire, rejecting the subjectivism of Expressionism, became part of “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity), an art movement which became popular, indeed dominant, in the mid-1920s: one of its main influences being an artist associated with Dresden, Otto Dix (1891–1969). Heartfield worked with Erwin Piscator (1893–1966), who ran a theatre company in Berlin. His ideas for a political, socially based theatre (he was a profound advocate of the Russian revolution) associate broadly with those of Brecht and Kurt Weill in The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928): Brecht after the war was to have his own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm on the banks of the Spree in Mitte (in the old East Berlin): this theatre, of 1892, had first staged Gerhart Hauptmann (1862–1946)’s naturalist play The Weavers (Die Weber, 1893), as well as, later, The Threepenny Opera. Piscator was to move to the United States in 1939 and back to West Germany in 1951. In 1963, he staged plays at the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin, including Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy (or The Representative, 1963) about the role of Pius XII with regard to the Nazis.

Walter Mehring (1896–1981), another satirist and friend of Grosz, and of Piscator, wrote cabaret songs and the play Der Kaufmann [Salesman] von Berlin, 1929). Mehring was one of the numerous authors forced out by the Nazis, his citizenship taken away. In a different mode, an artist of working-class Berlin (and so in touch with “naturalism”) was the lithographer and caricaturist Heinrich Zille (1858–1929), who now has a museum in his honor in Nikolaiviertel. Born in Radeburg, near Dresden, his parents lived at Rummelsburg, on the east of the city (Lichtenberg).

Modern Berlin

Berlin suffered intense food shortages and upheavals in the First World War (Winter and Robert 1997). After Kaiser Wilhelm fled the Empire for the Netherlands on November 9, 1918, the Empire was formally replaced in 1919 by the Weimar Republic, so called because the constituent assembly for its founding took place there and because it looked back to the days of Goethe’s humanism; and that was replaced by the Third Reich. Friedrich Ebert (1871–1925) was the first president and a supporter of the Freikorps. In 1920, Berlin became Greater Berlin, divided into 20 districts, and at nearly four million population, it constituted one of the largest cities in the western world, along with New York, London, and Paris. Cosmopolitan Berlin was less in favor of Hitler than the rest of Germany (28% voted for him in 1932, 37% in the rest), and Berlin was for him the seat of decadence to be cleaned up (though the Nazi exhibition of Entartete Kunst – degenerate art – was held in Munich 1937). Berlin was to be replaced by huge monumental architecture. Deportation of Jews from Berlin began after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), which also saw an attack on the new synagogue in Oranienburgerstrasse; deportation intensified in October 1941. After 1945, Germany and Berlin itself – the race to reach Berlin first and control it was dominant in the closing days of the war - were divided into west and east, the latter (the GDR, created 1949) under the control of the Soviet Union. A Soviet attempt to blockade Berlin in 1948–1949 was foiled by American and British planes flying in goods: this committed the western powers to maintaining West Berlin in perpetuity, something made slightly easier when the Wall was built from the Soviet side, ratifying the division of the city in the fullest possible way. Germany was unified again in 1990, and the capital reverted from Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace, where it had served West Germany, to Berlin (1999), though Frankfurt and Hamburg and Munich remain heavily influential cities.

The Berlin Wall, called by the Soviet forces “the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” was in place after August 13, 1961, and the source of much graffiti art on the western side. It enclosed 8 of the 20 districts of Greater Berlin, Pankow, Weissensee, Lichtenberg, Köpenick, Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte, Friedrichshain, and Treptow, and it separated from the West much of the interesting historical area, heavily bombed though that had been. Bordering the wall, but on the West Berlin side, were, from north to south, Reinickendorf and Wedding (both in the French sector), Tiergarten (British), Kreuzberg, and Neukölln (both American), districts all devalued economically as a result. Kreuzberg and Wedding accrued substantial Turkish populations: Kreuzberg has the largest Turkish diasporic community anywhere. The wall ran behind the Reichstag and in front of the Brandenburg Gate from which it took a direct line 1 km south to the Potsdamer Platz which it effectively bisected. This square had become central to Berlin in the nineteenth century, having grown as the entry for traffic from Potsdam and as the road into Leipzig Platz, and Leipziger Strasse, laid out in 1688. Leipzig Platz, octagonal in shape, was part of Friedrichstadt and used for military exercises, like so much of Berlin. Potsdamer Platz increased in importance when it gained railway stations to its immediate west, the Potsdamer Bahnhof (1838) and the Anhalter Bahnhof (1841, still visible in a ruined state).

After cutting through Potsdamer Platz, the wall turned sharp eastward, crossing Friedrichstrasse, once one of Berlin’s most active and consumerist streets, as well as the site of Hitler’s Chancellery, before reaching the Spree on its westward side, and crossing the Landwehr Canal. Here, on Friedrichstrasse was Checkpoint Charlie, at the limit of what was the American sector. Checkpoint Charlie was the only point of entry into East Berlin for tourists from the west and became famous on account of John Le Carré’s novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963, filmed by Martin Ritt, 1965).

West Berlin, an isolated and claustrophobic area, a hundred miles from the border with West Germany, re-acquired the image of a capital of consumption that it had had before, centered on the Kurfürstendamm, with the ruined neo-Romanesque Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at its head (1895, architect Franz Heinrich Schwechten) – intended, in its building, to contest Socialist and Modernist decadence. The city attempted to modernize, as, for example, through the architecture in the old West Berlin of Hans Scharoun (the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, 1964) or Mies van der Rohe (the National Gallery of Art, 1967), virtually facing Potsdamer Platz.


Unter den Linden, created 1647, with its prominent public buildings, symbolizes Berlin, extending westward from Museum Island to the Brandenburger Tor (Gate); it was the royal road westward, to the hunting grounds beyond, the Tiergarten. This area, including the Brandenburg Gate, was to be enclosed as East Berlin between 1945 and 1989. The area west of it, including the Reichstag (1894, architect Paul Wallot rebuilt it after it was burned in 1933, by Norman Foster (1999)), and the Tiergarten, goes out west to Charlottenburg, the Versailles-style palace built for Friedrich I and his wife in the village of Lietzow, via the Kurfürstendamm. This area had already grown and become very middle class in the years following the creation of the German Empire.

The older area east had been enclosed by walls and was to be further replaced by walls and gates set up for taxing goods coming into town in an expansion of 1737. This gave, in the south, in present-day Kreuzberg (so named in 1921) Hallesches Tor (gate), just beyond Mehringplatz, named after Franz Mehring (1846–1919), journalist and biographer of Marx. Mehringplatz is circular and, which was earlier, therefore, called “Rondell,” and after Waterloo, Belle-Alliance Platz. North of it is the octagonal Liepzigerplatz (the Achteck), behind Potsdamer Platz; north of that is the square of the Brandenburg Gate: these were eighteenth-century ideal orders in space, to be compared to the planning of Bath, or Paris, or St. Petersburg. Potsdamer Platz was the entry in from Potsdam, which was the site for Sanssouci, the summer home of Frederick the Great (ruled 1740–1786): Frederick, whose sympathies were with rococo rather than neo-classical, was responsible for making the city more European (i.e., Parisian); one of his legacies was the Berlin State Opera house on Unter den Linden and, behind it, the Catholic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (1743), whose architectural inspiration was the Pantheon dome.

The Brandenburg Gate (1788–1791) was the work of architect Carl Gotthard Langhans and based on pictures of the Propylaea in Athens, as an instance of what the literary critic E.M. Butler, in a famous book of 1935 with this name, called the tyranny of Greece over Germany. The Quadriga, the horses above, driven by Victoria, the goddess of peace after victory, looked east; they were designed by the sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764–1860) and added to by the Greek Revivalist architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), architect also of the Altes Museum, the first to be built on Museum Island. Unter den Linden runs eastward from the Gate, past the Pariser Platz, so named in 1814 to celebrate victory over Napoleon, and also past the Holocaust Memorial (“Denkmal für die ermordeten Jüden Europas”) which was designed by Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005, to Schinkel’s Schlossbrücke (1824), where it crosses the Spree to join the island. The other prominent institution of those years, its headquarters also in Unter den Linden, was the University of Berlin (1810), which was named after its founder, Friedrich William III, King of Prussia (1797–1840) but renamed the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1949, after the linguist, philosopher, and educationalist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Here modern history was first taught as a scientific, source-based discipline; Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) worked here after 1825; and Hegel (1770–1831) taught from 1818 until he died of cholera. His intellectual opposite, Arthur Schopenhauer, a Kantian (1788–1860), also taught there after 1820. The University was part of a series of Enlightenment reforms carried through after the Battle of Jena (October 14, 1806) and the Treaty of Tilsit, wherein Prussia lost out to Napoleonic France (Napoleon, in the course of occupying Prussia, took the Quadriga to France: it was returned in 1814.) Noteworthy also in Unter den Linden is the Neue Wache (the New Guardhouse, 1816) designed by Schinkel, a classically designed guardhouse for then victorious Prussian troops.

To the north of Unter den Linden is the Lustgarten, which includes another of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reactionary architectural projects: the Cathedral Dom (built 1903). Schinkel’s Old Museum (1830) is at the back of the Lustgarten; on the other southern side is the façade of the reconstructed Palace, now called the Humboldt Forum. The Palace dated from 1451 after the Elector Friedrich had moved to Berlin from Brandenburg; it was several times rebuilt, most notably by the baroque sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter (1659–1714). After 1701 he was to be poached by Peter the Great to work in the new, and comparable city, St. Petersburg, a year before his death. Further progress eastward was, until 1885 historically, blocked by the royal palace, which the Hohenzollerns had commissioned. Damaged in 1945, it was blown up by the GDR in 1950 as an emblem of monarchy. Its GDR replacement, the Palace of the Republic, was, controversially, destroyed in 2008. The monarchical and imperial palace is now, equally controversially, being currently rebuilt as a façade for a museum and conference center.

In 1885, the northern tip of the palace was removed to continue Unter der Linden eastward, in what is now called Karl-Liebknecht Strasse, named after the Spartacist and Communist Karl Liebknecht (born Leipzig, 1871), who, along with Rosa Luxemburg (Polish-born in 1871, and a writer on Marxist theory and economics as well as activist), was killed by the Freikorps, as agents of the Social Democrats, on January 15, 1919. Luxembourg’s body was found in the Landwehr Canal (built 1845–1850), which flows through Kreuzberg: one of the many waterways in the city, which makes it distinctive, even Venice-like in places. Karl-Liebknecht Strasse becomes Alexanderplatz, named after the Tsar Alexander I (1801–1825) who was there welcomed to Berlin in 1805 (it was a parade ground before, within a less architecturally planned part of town). Alexanderplatz was a center for transport into and around the city throughout the nineteenth century – an “elevated” railway line, like in New York, opened in 1877 and it was a center for shops, with a central market (obviously necessitating transport facilities), which dates back to the market held outside the medieval gate to the city (the Georgentor, destroyed in 1746). The area, with its working-class edginess, was the place for police headquarters (das Polizeipräsidium), and of course, these factors construct the narrative impulse behind Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). Alexanderplatz was destroyed by 1945, and, dominated by the TV tower (Fernsehturm), became a center again in the GDR. It is currently being redeveloped. The road continues toward Pankow, and Schönhauser Allee, another formerly Jewish area, and Prenzlauer Berg, a nineteenth-century development. All this part of Berlin received an immigrant, heavily Ashkenazi Jewish population from the second half of the nineteenth century onward.

Hoffmann and “My Co Corner Window”

South of Unter den Linden, in Mitte, is the Gendarmenmarkt square. This included Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus, now a concert hall; it opened with Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (1821): Weber (1786–1826), associated with Dresden’s opera house, wanted to create a distinct “German opera,” hence part of his popularity with Wagner. E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) had an apartment overlooking the Gendarmenmarkt in 1815 and describes the market square and the physiognomies of the people there in the short story “My Cousin’s Corner Window” (“Des Vetters Eckfenster”), one of the first and most influential texts to give a sense of the city crowd, and of the types within the city, and to promote the idea of the observer of the crowd (who becomes the flâneur in later nineteenth-century writings, and so mingles with the crowds). In Hoffman’s story, the cousin confines himself, as he has been paralyzed, to looking out of his window and examining the physiognomies of the people. Hoffmann was born in Königsberg, the administrative capital of East Prussia, lived in present-day Poland (Glogau, Posen, Plock, Warsaw), and then moved to Berlin in 1807 and then on to Bamberg where he worked as a conductor and composer in the city’s theatre, opera house, and then Dresden (1812 – setting of The Golden Pot) and Leipzig, before returning to Berlin, where he continued writing music and stories while acting as a legal councillor at the Supreme Court (Kammergericht), where he associated with such Romantics as Adelbert von Chamisso (1781–1838), creator of the Peter Schlemihl story; Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), poet, novelist, and critic; the poet Eichendorff (1788–1857); and Clemens Brentano (1778–1842) and Achim von Arnim (1781–1831), the last two the collectors of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. As part of this fantasy world which forms the basis of some of Freud’s thinking in his essay The Uncanny, Hoffmann’s opera Undine, based on a fairy tale by Fouqué (1777–1843), was performed in 1817, and he became something of a flâneur as well as part of a café and drinking culture (Lutter and Wegner) until he fell ill with the creeping paralysis which killed him. Hoffmann was promoted to become a member of the Supreme Court, but he was fascinated by the city as a place of leisure: his short story Ritter Gluck (1809) begins with the narrator watching a Sunday crowd strolling “along the Lindenstrasse to the Zoological Gardens” before turning into a fantasy/ghost narrative about the composer Gluck (who was more associated with Vienna).

In Hoffmann’s short story, interest in crowds and the urban joins with the fantastic and the uncanny and produces a unique sense of the need to sharpen a sense of how writing can respond to the city as grotesque. Hoffmann was essential reading for Baudelaire, who responded to him as a humorist and as an original comic writer, as well as an essential “man of the crowd,” a term taken, of course, from Poe.

Berlin’s Writers

For good coverage of Berlin literature, see Masur (1971: 153–254), Sullivan and Krueger (2016), and Webber (2017). Masur devotes space to Berlin’s theatre, for example, to Otto Brahm (1856–1912), who founded the Freie Bühne company (the free stage, 1889) to present largely naturalist drama; he went on to run the Deutsches Theater and was succeeded in this by Max Reinhardt (1873–2943), influential both in Berlin and Salzburg (he was also crucial as a film director). Reinhardt left Berlin in 1933, and Austria in 1938, ultimately for America.

Many of those writers associated with Berlin were not native to it, but were imported, like the philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716), brought from Hanover by Queen Charlotte to form the Academy of Sciences in 1700. Another Enlightenment instance is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781): being more traditional, Vienna had less of an Enlightenment than Berlin had. That shows, too, with the Romantics, many of whom, in addition to those mentioned above, had a passing relationship with Berlin, even though it was still not a university town. One Berlin woman, Dorothea Veit (1764–1839), a member of a salon run by Henriette Herz, and the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, was the lover of Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), who arrived in 17,797 from Jena; she was an inspiration for his novel Lucinde (1799). Important here too are Schleiermacher (1768–1834), Fichte (1762–1814), and Kleist. August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) also moved from Jena to Berlin where he lectured on European literature and taught the children of Madame de Staël (1766–1817), who herself wrote on Germany and German “enthusiasm” in Of Germany (1813).

The most considerable writer of the imperial city is the novelist Theodor Fontane (1819–1898). It may be argued that Berlin has produced less women writers, and this relates to its militarism: here it is worth noting how Fontane’s novels of Berlin frequently use women’s names as titles, not least Effi Briest. For work on modern women writers in post-1990 Germany, for example, Tanja Dücker, Inka Parei, and Christa Schmidt, see Gerstenberger (2008).

Any review of Berlin writers must supplement the note given above to Gerhart Hauptmann, by noting how much Berlin attracted naturalism, following a vein within Ibsen in this. (Ibsen was not officially performed in Berlin until 1894.) Hauptmann wrote the play The Rats (1911), set in a working-class tenement of 1884, and there were others, including the novelist Max Kretzer (1854–1941); Hermann Sudermann (1857–1958), for his play Sodoms Ende (1891); and Arno Holz (1863–1929), whose poetry Phantasmus (1898) deals with the district of Wedding, where he then lived. Kaiser Wilhelm was personally antagonistic to Hauptmann, which at least indicates that art and politics were in a contestatory relationship and which testifies to the politics inside naturalism specifically: similar points about censorship could be made about the Austrian Marxist naturalist Hermann Bahr (1863–1934), who worked with Reinhardt in Berlin: he popularized the term “die Moderne” for Berlin, in considering naturalism as modern art.

Many writers came to Berlin from outside, and worked there, or were born there, moved away or were exiled, and returned, as with Gottfried Benn. Examples to be noted in any account of Berlin’s writers must include Georg Heym (1887–1912); Jakob Wasserman (1873–1934), for Christian Wahnschaffe (1919); or the Dresden-born Erich Kästner (1899–1974), whether for Emil and the Detectives (1929) or Fabian (1931 – originally called Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist). Similarly important are Hans Fallada (1893–1947) and Irmgard Keun (1905–1982), author of Das Kunstseidene Mädchen (The Artificial Silk Girl, 1932), and Christa Wolf (1929–2011), whose last novel City of Angels (2010) reviews life in the GDR with comparisons to US cities. The Jewish critic Carl Einstein (1885–1940) came to Berlin in 1903 and was a modernist critic and friend of George Grosz: leaving Berlin in 1928, he still was a victim of the Nazis (like Benjamin, he committed suicide). Another such critic of the arts was Herwarth Walden (1879–1941), who died at the hands of the Soviet Union: as the editor of Der Sturm, which gave expression to such movements as Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, he was married to the Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler (1869–1945).

For literature and film post-1945, see Taylor (302–351). Any list here can only be selective. Peter Weiss (1916–1982), born near Berlin, and training as a painter there, sets his novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975–1981) in Berlin in 1937, partly in the Pergamon Museum. Uwe Johnson (1934–1984) made divided Germany his subject in Mutmassungen über Jakob (Speculations about Jacob, 1959), Das dritte Buch über Achim (The Third Book about Achim, 1961), and Zwei Ansichten (Two Views, 1965). Asked why he lived in Berlin, Johnson replied “because here I do not need a television to see what is going on.” The most famous post-war novelist was his friend, the Danzig-born Gunter Grass (1927–2015); though he died in Lübeck, he was based in West Berlin after 1953 until 1995; his novel Ein weites Feld (1995), with a debt to Fontane, is a discussion of reunification and may be thought of as his attempt to write the novel which embraces the problem fully, seeing the healing of the breach as essential in order to destroy the possibility of further fascism. The Viennese-born (in 1935) Oswald Wiener’s novel The Improvement of Central Europe (1969) came from West Berlin. Stefan Heym (1913–2001) returned from the United States to write in East Berlin; Heiner Müller (1929–1995) was also resident there. Peter Schneider (b. 1940) in Der Mauerspringer (“The Wall Jumper” 1982) has been a prominent writer of West Berlin and, now, of the inner divisions between the two Berlins which remain after the wall has come down.

East and West Berlin in Memory

Divided Berlin presented writers and artists with the reality of fragmented, inherently split identity, and reunification only healed those psychic divisions (basic to Modernism, of course) at a formal, not a real level. The issue of being happy with neither side of the division is focused in Monika Maron (b. 1941), whose stepfather, Karl Maron, was Minister of the Interior in the GDR. Her Die Überläuferin (The Defector, 1986) questioned life in the GDR and found it traumatic, especially for women. Animal Triste (1996) discusses a love relationship between people on either side of the “wall,” even after this has come down (it follows a theme in Peter Schneider’s Paarungen (1992)). She maps sexual division onto the problem of the two states.

Problems of memory remain vivid after 1990: the Nazi past, the genocide of Jews, and many more historical atrocities before that. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Jewish Museum, in Lindenstrasse, near Kreuzberg, are obvious and good sites of memory, but they have remained controversial for their architecture, for their selectivity (e.g., nothing for the murdered Roma people), and even, from Martin Walser (b. 1927), for “turning shame into monument,” as he put it in a speech in Frankfurt in 1998, for which he was roundly criticized by the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920–2013), survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. Does imaginative and “trendy” architecture fetishize, and aestheticize, the shocking in political life? Problems of memory also play out in those areas of Germany which were under Soviet rule and now feel their material deprivation in comparison to the more prosperous West: in some places, giving way to the politics of the far-right AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland,” founded 2013). Specifically, beyond the economic inequalities persisting in the East/West divide, how can Berlin’s history be held in memory? How can the GDR’s Berlin be remembered, beyond through a nostalgia (Ostalgie), since that era is now finished with and many of its structures (e.g., Potsdamer Platz) have been remodelled by a new apparently triumphant capitalism which has gone for unlimited growth (behind the myths of hedonism) and seems to erase that past and the lives of many in it? Was the destruction of the wall a signal for a taking over of East Berlin in a mode analogous to a rape? For discussion of novelistic representations of post-1990 Berlin, see Broadbent (2008). Certainly, until 1945 it was possible to think of Berlin as one city, however split and divided; now, the absence of the wall only masks the point that it is not one city now; however many attempts are made to make it so; in this split condition, it is questionable whether there can be a literature which pulls the city together in one book.


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Further Reading

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  7. Ladd, Brian, 2005. 1997. The ghosts of Berlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  8. Ladd, Brian. 2005. Socialism on display: East Berlin as a capital. In Berlin-Washington 1800–2000, ed. Andreas W. Daum and Christopher Mauch, 217–231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Masur, Gerhardt. 1971. Imperial Berlin. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  10. Paeslack, Miriam. 2019. Constructing imperial Berlin: Photography and the metropolis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK