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Editor's Column

The Western canon: Why readers need more West Berlin literature

Cold-War West Berlin may be iconic to music fans, but its literary afterlife is lacking.

The Kurfürstendamm at night, 1968. Photo: IMAGO / serienlicht

Thirty-five years ago,” writes journalist Eva C. Schweitzer, “a socialist paradise perished almost without a trace.” This utopia had everything: no compulsory national service, minimal private ownership of the means of production – well, hardly any production at all – and a bustling culture scene supported by vast government subsidies and countless leftwing or anarchist political initiatives. Pity about the barbed wire and the militarised police, but hey, this was real existing socialism. An idealistic island encircled by enemies. And its name was… West Berlin.

Schweitzer’s sly joke comes towards the end of Our West Berlin: Storybook from the Island, a collection of reminiscences on West Berlin – mostly from journalists – recently published in English by Berlinica Publishing. The short nonfiction pieces that make up this charmingly curated storybook illuminate diverse aspects of a half-city that – contrary to the assumptions of many outsiders – was not actually part of West Germany during the Cold War. West Berlin was its own administrative unit. And West Berliners – as the novelist Tanja Dückers points out in her excellent contribution – viewed their counterparts in Wessiland with a (often mutual) sense of superiority and mistrust. For many, as contributor Harald Jähner writes, the fall of the Wall prompted a “rough landing”, with “life on this absurd island”, upturned by floods of money and strangers. 

In the collection, Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz shares recollections of radicalism and gender relations during the 1960s extra-parliamentary opposition. Paul Hockenos describes the cultural currents that brought together Christiane F., David Bowie and Romy Haag. There are memorable contributions from memoirist Wladimir Kaminer, gay-rights activist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim, and a cantankerous taz columnist who rescued a baby wood pigeon, then crowd-sourced care instructions from the readership. Another interesting piece tells the story of the Steglitzer Kreisel – West Berlin’s oddest skyscraper – and of Sigrid Kressmann-Zschach, the architect behind its dubious, financially disastrous construction.

For all its grit and glamour, West Berlin has a strangely muted status on the English-language bookshelf, with many titles focusing on familiar stories about anglophone bohemians. Tobias Rüther’s Heroes – one of multiple books dedicated to Bowie’s Berlin years – is packed with charming tidbits, including a description of how the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust liked cycling to the Brücke-Museum, where he encountered an Erich Heckel painting that inspired the famous Heroes album cover. The most worthwhile chapters of Rory Maclean’s genre-crossing Berlin use the author’s first-hand experience with Bowie and Marlene Dietrich to produce exciting portraits of their milieus.

But what else?  Longtime Berlin bookseller John Owen recommends Aufprall, a rebellious novel of 1980s Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg is also the setting for the Turkish-German author Aras Ören’s Was will Niyazi in der Naunynstraße? (“What does Niyazi want in Naunynstraße?”), which explores the various trajectories of migration and multiculturalism on one single street. This book-length poem, which explores the various trajectories of migration and multiculturalism on one single street, tells a story utterly essential to our city.

For many readers who don’t live here, it is hard to ponder West Berlin in literature without immediately thinking of espionage – John LeCarré’s A Legacy of Spies or Smiley’s People. These books are great, but it is heartening to see the city producing its own spy fiction. In An Honest Man, British Berliner Ben Fergusson brilliantly captures the sights, sounds, smells and suspense of late-1980s West Berlin, all held together in a genuinely suspenseful spy plot. But one hopes that many more local authors, not just in the spy genre, will find literary inspiration in that long-gone half-city: Berlin’s Western canon needs expanding.