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How to be Happy in Berlin, Isherwood style

We speak to the curator of an exhibition exploring how British writers like Christopher Isherwood and Virginia Woolf spent their their time in the city during the decadent 1920s.

Image for How to be Happy in Berlin, Isherwood style

We speak to the curator of an exhibition exploring how British writers like Christopher Isherwood and Virginia Woolf spent their their time in the city during the decadent 1920s. Photo: IMAGO / United Archives

It’s 1929. A London-published travel guide called How to Be Happy in Berlin hails the city as “the coming metropolis of Europe” and encourages Britons to explore the many attractions this young, modern capital has to offer. It’s the year Christopher Isherwood ‘changes trains’ for a four-year stint in the German capital, and when Virginia Woolf visits her lover, Vita Sackville-West, in the biting cold of that winter.

Georg Wilhelm Pabst just released what would become the silent cult film Pandora’s Box, and the artsy-lefty bohemia mingle at the Romanisches Café by day, in the hedonistic cabarets by night. The Great Depression hasn’t hit yet and the city is booming, oozing youthful freedom and the kind of transgressive aura missing in good old London. British writers flock here to visit friends, to enjoy the censored-at-home Soviet culture, or just “for the boys”.

Gesa Stedman, Professor of British Culture and Literature at the British Centre at Humboldt University in Berlin, delved into the archives with her team of researchers and gathered letters, photos and exhibits of the time, now on show at the Literaturhaus until July 30. With a 30-minute audio guide, the exhibition takes you on a fascinating tour of the city as seen through the eyes of the British writers who came during the exciting interwar years, later to be remembered as ‘Weimar Berlin’.

In his 1929 guide, How to Be Happy in Berlin, John Chancellor warns “the unwary tourist” about one of the city’s infamous cabaret bars, the Eldorado on Lutherstraße: “If you go in, go alone and under no circumstance allow your wife or sister to accompany you.” I guess it sets the tone: Berlin at that time wasn’t for everyone.

Yes, and this reflects the experience of many visitors – not everyone was delighted to be here and enjoy all the sexual freedoms. Chancellor’s How to Be Happy in Berlin doesn’t go as far as some alternative city guides of the time, like Curt Moreck’s Guide Through Vicious Berlin (Ein Führer durch das lasterhafte Berlin), but he does include some interesting nighttime dives and bars. And we thought that he captured the ambivalences of Berlin in that period very well indeed.

Image for How to be Happy in Berlin, Isherwood style

One famous visitor who was ambivalent about Berlin was Virginia Woolf. Few people know it, but the writer spent a few days here in January 1929, right?

Yes, and she was very ambivalent. She came to Berlin largely because of Vita Sackville-West, whose husband Harold Nicolson was chargé d’affaires at the British embassy. The Nicolsons had all kinds of friends over at the embassy all the time, many of them writers. The whole Bloomsbury group wanted to come and see Berlin for themselves! And of course Virginia and Vita were lovers.

Woolf came with her husband Leonard Woolf, as well as her sister Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, so it was a bit difficult because the two weren’t actually on their own – it was sort of a husband-and-wife thing. Also, it was an extremely cold January with Siberian winds howling through the enormous boulevards and slush everywhere. Who travels to Berlin in January?

What did they get up to during the trip?

They managed it all – dinners, museum visits, even going to watch Podovkin’s Storm Over Asia, a Soviet film (hence forbidden in Britain) and an absolute blockbuster in Berlin at the time. And then of course everyone wanted to go to a gay club.

Just imagine: you are a British gay man in your 20s, coming from a very repressed background and then suddenly you end up in fairly cheap, pretty anonymous Berlin with its lovely seedy bars

The men were supposed to go without Harold Nicolson, but he tagged along after all, so it’s very amusing to read about it in Vanessa’s letters! They ended up doing too much for Virginia. She didn’t react very well to overstimulation. She also found Berlin very noisy, full of traffic and rather ugly.

Berlin’s ugliness, its ‘lack of style’, from fashion to manners to architecture, seems to be a recurring theme.

Berlin was a disparate, recently industrialised city. It certainly wasn’t medieval and there were none of those 18th-century gems that British or French visitors were used to. They tried to make up for it by building large Prussian palaces, which are perfectly tasteless and always have been. That said, Brits abroad tend to be extremely arrogant. They liked to judge everything according to London standards. Many of them were extremely class conscious and very scathing about people who were not from their well-to-do, upper-middle-class or aristocratic circles.

But Chancellor gets it. He says Berlin isn’t to be visited for its “beautiful corners” like London or Paris, but for the “atmosphere of the city as a whole”. That could be advice from a modern travel blog!

Completely. What attracted a lot of people then, like nowadays, were the offbeat things that you can’t find on Ku’damm or in the central museums, in areas where Christopher Isherwood and his friends ventured. Virginia Woolf certainly didn’t, even though as a Bloomsbury woman she was not constrained by Edwardian morals or anything like that. Vita Sackville-West explored the lesbian scene and described her sapphic outings in her letters to Virginia, but in an often dismissive, ironic way.

All the same, these women limited themselves to the well-heeled City West. A gay man like Isherwood, looking for sexual adventures in joints like the Cosy Corner on Zossener Straße (the Alexander Casino in Goodbye to Berlin), saw a very different side to the city, I imagine.

Oh yes. The seedy bits were in a strictly working-class area in Kreuzberg at the time, not the posh bits of Kreuzberg we know today, say on Bergmanstraße with its cafés and boutiques. Isherwood and his friends didn’t go to the glitzy cabarets. By German standards, they were rich, but they actually came on a small budget which they got from their parents. So they couldn’t afford to go where Nicolson and Sackville-West went; the Eldorado would have been too expensive, no matter how favourable the exchange rate was back then.

But there was one hotspot where everybody would go and mix, on today’s Breitscheidplatz. Can you tell us about the Romanisches Café?

Anybody who wanted to be an artist or a writer or a psychoanalyst went there; filmmakers, cinema directors, actors… It was quite an international, cosmopolitan crowd. That’s something that attracted British visitors, because they didn’t have that continental café culture at home, where you sit all day working and writing in a large space drinking coffee.

Romanisches Café had this reputation among Germans and Berliners from all kinds of countries as being the place to be if you wanted to get ahead in any artistic career or if you wanted to mingle with the right people. I suppose you could call it a cultural hub. There were also places where everyone – locals and tourists of all social conditions – would mix, like the famous Luna-Park amusement park at Halensee, with its huge, state-of-the-art wave , and the Funkturm radio tower with its restaurant, another big attraction. It was supposed to rival the Eiffel Tower, which might seem like a joke now, but the Alexanderplatz TV Tower didn’t exist then.

Image for How to be Happy in Berlin, Isherwood style

Inside the Eldorado: IMAGO / Leemage

One thing I found very interesting in How to Be Happy… is that Chancellor goes to great lengths to reassure fellow Britons about potential anti-British feelings, which makes sense if you remember how bitter the German defeat had been and the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Was there widespread resentment against the victors of WWI?

It depends when. In the immediate years after the war, you read that Berliners were quite reticent and talked about Versailles, not so much because they had lost the war but because of the terrible poverty. It does recede into the background quite rapidly when the economy picks up again, and by the end of the 1920s, Berlin prides itself on being an international and cosmopolitan city, on being the place to be (until the Great Depression sets in). Also, you have to remember that there’s a greater resentment against the French than the English in the 1920s, as the French had been considered the arch-enemy ever since the Napoleonic Wars.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that Berlin was the place to be. How did it get that reputation?

There were different reasons for different people to come. Alix Strachey went to Berlin first, so all her psychoanalytical network knew about it. Then she got to know other people, some of them friends of other Bloomsbury people. Then Eddie Sackville-West went to Germany because he thought he might want to be ‘cured’ of his homosexuality – but he discovered he didn’t want to be ‘cured’ and that it was actually much more fun being in Berlin and enjoying it!

People wrote to one another and that made others come over. The same goes for Isherwood’s trajectory: he was invited to Berlin – or enticed, as it were – by his poet friend WH Auden. It all worked by word of mouth.

Berlin was also a big travel hub at a European crossroads, where rail would connect Eastern and Western Europe. Did that play a role?

Yes, if you wanted to go further east you had to travel through Berlin. It was even possible to fly from Croydon in London if you were rich enough. Most didn’t; they took the train and the boat. But anybody going anywhere in the Soviet Union went through Berlin. The city became the place to see Russian culture, because you couldn’t do that in Britain. Cinema was a very important factor; it was not just by chance that Alfred Hitchcock came here to work on films at Babelsberg in the 1920s.

At that time, Berlin was also a big centre for Freudian analysis. Many came here to be analysed or learn about Freud’s methods, right?

Yes, and my favourite is the psychoanalyst Alix Strachey, who came here in 1924-25. She was part of the Bloomsbury crowd and came to Berlin to be analysed by the famous Karl Abraham while working with her husband James Strachey on their translation of Freud’s work, the first in the English language. Her letters to James (who stayed in London) are extremely interesting: they are very well written, but also rich in material.

She writes about going to Abraham’s Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, about going to dances and balls, and she meets Melanie Klein and is instrumental in getting the author and fellow psychoanalyst to move to England. She goes to debates, political events, the theatre, cafes, indulges in coffee and cake all the time… It’s a fascinating panorama from the early 1920s and it’s very interesting because she pre-figures quite a few aspects that we are more familiar with in Isherwood’s texts.

And in Isherwood’s words, some would come to Berlin “for the boys”. Together with WH Auden and British writer Stephen Spender, he found here the kind of sexual freedom he was missing at home, picking up lovers in working- class bars and taking young flings to the lake to photograph them.

England was extremely repressed and Edwardian in its morality. Even though homosexuality wasn’t actually allowed here either, it was tolerated. For these young men, it was extremely liberating to suddenly realise that there were other people like them, that there was a scene for them, and that they weren’t persecuted the way they were at home. Just imagine: you are a British gay man in your 20s, coming from a very repressed background and a stiff-upper-lip, circumscribed class culture, and then suddenly you end up in fairly cheap, pretty anonymous Berlin with its lovely seedy bars.

Interestingly, Isherwood later wrote about the colonial aspect of all of this because not all of the young men were necessarily gay – some were poor and prostituted them- selves. So there was an exploitative side that Isherwood wasn’t aware of originally, but he did write about it later.

Among the exhibits are photos Isherwood took of his handsome Berlin lovers, and you realise how suspiciously young these boys actually look.

You are absolutely right. They could be underage or only just above the age of consent. At that time, there were discussions on whether the freedom to engage in gay sex should extend to boys – not boys as in young adults, but boys, what we’d today call paedophilia – so certain discussions about consent were already taking place back then. But I don’t think the writers indulged in that in particular: they were 16 at least, or older, so almost adults – one hopes.

Image for How to be Happy in Berlin, Isherwood style

The Eldorado on Lutherstraße was one of the city’s infamous cabaret bars. Photo: Bundesarchiv

Parallels between Isherwood’s anything-goes Berlin and the city today are pretty obvious, at least in many expats’ imaginations. While digging into the archives, did you personally find those comparisons relevant?

Yes, actually. When I started, the documents from World War I and immediately afterwards felt quite removed to us, but then, when I moved into the Strachey period – so the mid-1920s – suddenly parallels with today’s times started creeping up, partly because we are still debating the things they debated then, and partly because the rise of fascism in Germany resonates with the crisis of liberal democracy we’re seeing in quite a few countries nowadays.

For some writers covered in the exhibition, wasn’t fascism even part of the appeal of Berlin?

Wyndham Lewis, Diana Mosley and Francis Stuart are the well-known ones. Lewis’s 1931 book Hitler is terribly obvious because the British author was a proto-fascist who succumbed to a fascination with Hitler. There were a lot of proto-fascists floating around at that moment, some of them working at the Humboldt University, which was the Friedrich Wilhelms University before it was renamed. Stuart was one of them. He was born in Australia and educated in England, but counted himself as Irish. He came and lectured at the university during World War II, and he did it on purpose!

He said, “Oh no, I was just interested and I needed a job,” but actually he was an active supporter of Nazism. He was anti-British – but not only that, he wrote radio broadcasts for and supported the English broadcaster that produced Nazi propaganda for English listeners abroad. That’s very interesting to explore because do we read the work, or do we judge the writer on the basis of his politics? How does he defend himself? Why was he made one of the most important Irish writers shortly before he died?

What do you think attracted these  expat writers to Hitler? His youthful revolutionary character, or was it anti-Semitism?

They thought it was cool, it was powerful, it was great. Quite a lot of people agreed on the Jewish issue, including some of our left-wing writers. I think generally, this male cult of militarism attracted men from Britain. It wasn’t just Germans who fell for that.

Isherwood, who was here until 1933, didn’t seem to be very interested in politics beyond the anecdotal, despite his intimacy with Jean Ross, the actress who inspired the famous Sally Bowles of Cabaret, who was a true communist.

Yes, it’s very interesting. Spender admits in his autobiographical texts in the 1950s that they dithered and sort of went to the left but it could have gone in the other direction. It wasn’t so clear cut for these three young men where they stood politically, it wasn’t that obvious. It was rather funny because we know that MI5 intercepted Isherwood’s correspondence, and watched over him. But actually, I think you’re right: in his case, it ultimately wasn’t about politics.

Those bombastic Nazi rallies sure did impress the crowds, and you do read about how British writers were thrilled and galvanised by them. But there were surely exceptions. What about the journalist Elizabeth Wiskemann?

She was most certainly not galvanised or thrilled by what was happening, and she reacted very early on to the threats of fascism in a 1935 article for The New Statesman and Nation. Many women writers were overshadowed by their famous male counterparts, and Wiskemann in particular is one of the interesting ones who deserves to be rediscovered: she was really clearsighted in her analyses of 1930s Berlin, and outspoken about the dangers to come.

Happy in Berlin? English Writers in the City, The 1920s and Beyond, is showing at the Literaturhaus and the Humboldt University Grimm-Zentrum through July 31