There’s no story quite like that which has played out on a sandy strip of swamp land next to the murky river Spree. Accordingly, Berlin, in it’s myriad forms, has inspired a vast volume of literature.  From modern epics to cult classics, these are our picks for the ten best books about Berlin.

Berlin: Imagine a City – Rory Maclean

With this ambitious work MacLean plots a series of story lines, spanning from the middle ages to the twenty first century, to create a captivating and vivid biography of Berlin. The twenty four narrative threads stem from an eclectic cast: soldiers, artists, prostitutes and kings; with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Goebbels and David Bowie making an appearance. Often straying from historical accuracy, this is not an academic study of Berlin’s history. Rather, MacLean uses poetic license and prose to expose the fears, ambitions and desires of the myriad characters who have somehow played a part, for better or worse, in Berlin’s tumultuous history. 

“[Berlin] resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with shocking intensity. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.”

Metropolis – Philip Kerr

The final instalment of the Bernie Gunther novels takes the reader to the beginning of the detective’s career on Berlin’s murder squad. Set in 1928, Gunther navigates a Berlin rife with crime and bedecked in the pall of world war one with his usual sardonic wit and searing irony. His first two cases cast him into the world of prostitution and organised crime on the one hand, and the hopeless plight of disabled war veterans on the other. Historic figures like vice-president of the Berlin police Bernhard Weiss, actress Lotte Lenya, artist George Grosz  and screenwriter Thea von Harbou all enrich Kerr’s portrait of the city.  What makes this book all the more remarkable, is that it was conceived and written after the author had been diagnosed with incurable cancer, Kerr died March 2019.

Berlin looked bigger at night: bigger and quieter and even more indifferent than it did by day, as if it was someone else’s bad dream.

Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

A semi-autobiographical novel set in Berlin during the early 1930’s, British author Isherwood’s shrewd observations offer a glimpse into the desperate hedonism which defined the city during the death throes of the Weimar Republic. Contemporary author George Orwell described it as “brilliant sketches of a society in decay”. The novel which was published in 1939 is wrought with a subtle foreboding. As the novel progresses, one is faced with the increasing sense that the eccentric cast of characters are like passengers on a train, blissfully (or perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the fact they are careening towards a gaping abyss.

“The Nazis may write like schoolboys, but they’re capable of anything. That’s just why they’re so dangerous. People laugh at them, right up to the last moment…”

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

Based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hempel, Fallada’s seminal work depicts one couple’s stoic resistance to the Nazi regime. Published in 1947, the pace and tone employed expertly portray the tense fear and suspicion which permeated society in Hitler’s Berlin. Having lived through the third Reich himself, Fallada offers the reader a fantastic insight into life in the Nazi capital during World War Two. The reader is confronted with the overwhelming sense of how helpless the brave minority who chose to resist the regime must have felt in the face of such a ruthlessly effective system of surveillance and oppression.

“At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse”

Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis – Daniel B. Silver

A painstakingly researched account of the Berlin Jewish Hospital, one of only two Jewish institutions to survive the Holocaust in the Nazi capital. Using survivor interviews and testimonies, Silver weaves together the tales of those Jewish doctors, nurses and orderlies who survived in the heart of the murderous Nazi regime. The survival of the few, often attained through questionable or nefarious means, is far outweighed by the many tragic fates of those who were ‘deported’ to the East. An astonishing portrayal of the perilous life of a  allowed to exist by circumstance in Nazi Berlin.

 “Every Jew in the hospital was living on borrowed time, and (with the exception of those who were too young, too old, or too ill to understand what was going on) they all knew it.”

A Woman in Berlin – Marta Hillers

A local woman’s harrowing first hand account of the final days of the Battle of Berlin and the beginning of Soviet occupation. Published anonymously in 1954, the work was largely ignored or derided in Germany – the wounds left by the war seemingly all too fresh. After her death, it was revealed in 2003 to be the work of journalist and author Martha Hiller. With it’s matter of fact recounting of the suffering of the population, in particular the women, of Berlin and the pragmatic way in which many dealt with their situation, A Woman in Berlin confronts a story which is all too often ignored. 

“I laugh right in the middle of all this awfulness. What should I do? After all, I am alive, everything will pass!”

Berlin Blues (Herr Lehmann) – Sven Regener

Set in west Berlin in 1989, this iconic novel is centred on the universe of Frank Lehmann, a bar tender, barstool philosopher and perennial coaster. Up until the point we make Herr Lehmann’s acquaintance, he has been content with a simple existence occupying either side of a bar and residing alone in a “one and a half room” apartment in the area of Kreuzberg known as SO36. Through a series of mishaps, unexpected events and encounters, culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall, his simple universe is turned upside down as drastically as an up-ended glass of Schnapps. The novel, which has since received two prequels and been turned into a film, is a poignant, witty, and at times absurd portrayal of life in marooned West Berlin.

“After all, when you drink schnapps you only have yourself to blame.” 

Stasiland – Anne Funder

One may be forgiven for believing that this book is a work of fiction. Not only for the author’s flowing prose, but because what is revealed within the pages seems too bizarre to be true. The intimate stories of East Berliners, gathered through interviews Funder conducted in the 1990’s, expose the harrowing depths the East German secret Police plumbed to maintain the illusion of a functioning communist state. The grim subject matter details not only the experiences of the oppressed but also Stasi officials and informants. Infused with Funder’s sharp wit and keen eye for detail, Stasiland is a gripping and raw account of cold war Berlin. 

“For anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told. Not just the activists or the famous writers. You have to look at how normal people manage with such things in their pasts.”

Book of Clouds – Chloe Aridjis

The award winning debut novel from Aridjis follows Tatiana, a young Mexican woman trying to find her place in Berlin at the beginning of the 21st century. The protagonist’s almost child like innocence and social awkwardness, interspersed with episodes of insomnia and depression provide moments of dreamy surrealism. Yet the novel is grounded with cutting perception of the city and it’s inhabitants. Berlin, which plays a major role in the novel, appears gruff, half-finished and cold, completely unsympathetic to Tatiana’s tribulations. The result is a captivating portrait of a woman struggling to find herself in a city which seems to be doing the same.

“I couldn’t help sensing that this apartment possessed a memory of everything the building had ever witnessed, every voice and step and desire of it’s former inhabitants, stored up in one vast archive. The noises I heard at night were probably vestigial sounds from decades past, footfalls made by shoes never reclaimed.”

Berlin Now – Peter Schneider

A wide ranging and engaging portrait of the reunified German capital. More a series of essays than a novel, Schneider (a long-time resident of the city) explores everything from the cities clubbing scene, immigrant communities, and major construction projects to it’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with it’s history. With dry wit and the sharp perception of a seasoned journalist, Schneider pieces together a detailed portrait of an enigmatic city emerging from a traumatic past into a vibrant Weltstadt. A fantastic introduction to the German capital of the 21st Century.
 

“The pigeons and war widows in Berlin were my first muses. Without entirely realizing it, I spent my first years in Berlin in the company of these old, lonely women, whose husbands had fallen, died, or simply gone away in the war. I rarely spoke with them, and whenever I did the silence afterwards was unbearable.