Sign of the times: revellers at the Berlin Love Parade in 2006, the last year it was held in the city
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Fly on the Wall: Berlin by Rory MacLean

The German capital lacks a modern-day chronicler. This book aims to change that.

Berlin: Imagine a City
Rory MacLean
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 432pp, £25

One of the mysteries of Berlin is that while it attracts many writers, it has a strange tendency to sap them of their creative juices when they get there. I know scores of German authors who live in Berlin, court publishers at parties in Berlin and socialise with other writers in Berlin, but just can’t get any work done inside the city borders – they go to the Baltic coast, the Bavarian mountains or rural Brandenburg to do that.

This may be one of the reasons there is a curious gap on the shelf where one would expect to find the must-read non-fiction history about Berlin: the kind of book strangers would thrust into your hands when you tell them you are moving to the hard-partying new “capital of Europe”. London has Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd; New York has Colson Whitehead; Paris has Graham Robb and Adam Gopnik: writers who tell you not just about the city’s history but also its emotional or psychological effects. But Berlin? Tobias Rapp, David Wagner or Hanns Zischler have recently come close in German but they haven’t been translated into English.

Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City is an intelligent, entertaining and ambitious attempt to fill the gap. It tries to capture the essence of the German capital in 23 portraits of Berliners through the ages, from wandering troubadours singing songs among a patchwork of dirty hovels in the Middle Ages, to young easyJetters wandering in a post-clubbing trance through the shiny metropolis of now.

MacLean visualises Berlin’s rise through the story of Frederick the Great, whose uncle first declared the city capital of Prussia and who himself ordered the building of Sanssouci palace outside the city gates, his own tribute to the Enlightenment. We see fin de siècle Berlin through the eyes of the sculptor Käthe Kollwitz; Reichshauptstadt Berlin through those of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer; and cold war Berlin via the CIA super-agent Bill Harvey, who audaciously dug a tunnel into the Soviet sector.

The breezy portrait of Frederick II, who was given a regiment of 131 children to drill when he was six years old but ended up a frustrated poet, is one of the best chapters in the book because it gets at the paradoxes that still define Berlin: the artistic hub with the proletarian manners, the world city that can feel like an island, the capital that launched wars but couldn’t feed its own citizens.

Another chapter distills Berlin’s characteristic mix of militarism and debauchery into almost parabolic form. The golden statue of Victoria that sits on top of the Victory Column in Tiergarten, built to commemorate Prussia’s defeat of the Danes and known amongst locals as “Goldelse”, is revealed to have been inspired by Else Hirsch, a prostitute hired as a life model by the sculptor Friedrich Drake. Actually, MacLean admits at the end of the book, that one really is a fictional story: these days, he argues in an afterword, biographers need narrative to propel the facts, and “the notion of non-fiction may itself be a myth”.

The reasoning behind this move is sound: Prussian princes and published poets leave behind records of their lives but the poor working women of Alt-Moabit don’t. If we want a biography that shows both sides of Berlin, it needs to be allowed some artistic licence. The rendering of the “fictive biographies” is more tricky. MacLean fashions short stories, imagined letters and mini plays but few of the invented stories here are as fascinating and morally complex as the real lives. Who could have made up Walter Rathenau, the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister, a Jewish pacifist who helped arm Hitler; or Fritz Haber, the scientist who drafted Albert Einstein’s marriage separation agreement and invented poison gas?

MacLean’s narrative-led city writing works better in the first half of the book than the second. On one hand, he breathes life into medieval history that would otherwise feel dead and dusty. On the other, he lets more recent Berlin legends get away with their own myth-making when a reality check would have been more appropriate.

The portrait of Marlene Dietrich is much more forgiving of her tempers and self-deceptions than the late Max Schell’s documentary Marlene, and David Bowie is allowed to bestride this pile of biographical sketches as Berlin’s troubadour king, the one artist whose creativity is not frustrated or curtailed by Berlin.

Bowie’s Berlin trilogy records are undoubtedly still great, not least because songs such as “Neuköln” and “Yassassin” broke new ground in tapping into the sounds of Kreuzberg’s migrant communities. But it’s worth remembering that Bowie mainly shaped the English-speaking world’s view of the German metropolis rather than Berlin’s view of itself. To suggest that Bowie performing “Heroes” outside the Reichstag in 1987 “may even have helped to bring down the Wall” is extremely generous, especially since almost every rock band that played Berlin in the 1980s has staked that claim. For context, it might have helped to point out that twice as many Berliners had watched English prog-rockers Barclay James Harvest play the same site seven years earlier.

The appeal of modern Berlin is largely due to its ability to accommodate both the Bowie fans and the BJH crowd: the cool and the naff, the beautiful and the ugly. Even compared to London, Berlin can feel like a radically liberal place, where people still drink beer and smoke cigarettes on the underground, and different social groups cut their own paths through the urban jungle. But one of the annoying side effects of that same mentality is that it can lead to a mass of posturing young people, in love with the idea of Berlin but unengaged with the city itself .

MacLean has written a great book about Berliners though perhaps not quite one about Berlin. It suggests that one of the reasons the city proves so resistant to the definitive non-fiction portrait is that it has for too long been “the capital of reinvention”. “Berlin is a place where men set their dreams in stone, or at least in brick,” MacLean writes about Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the architect who designed Berlin’s neoclassical centre. And sometimes such colossal monuments can make it difficult to see beyond.

Philip Oltermann is the author of “Keeping Up With the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters” (Faber & Faber, £9.99)

Philip Oltermann is the author of "Keeping Up With the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters"

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser