I picked up a copy of Walking in Berlin over Christmas having become fascinated by the period after reading the first couple of Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath novels and watching the superb TV dramatisation Babylon Berlin. A recent trip to Berlin also got me even more interested in the period.
This book, newly translated by Amanda DeMarco, was first published in Germany in 1929. In it, Franz Hessel goes for walks (and a drive or two) around the Berlin of the era. In that respect, this is the same Berlin that Kutscher’s detective is solving crimes in. We’re in the latter part of the Weimar Republic and the depression is probably about to hit. The National Socialists – aka Nazis – are beginning their rise to power, although we’re not quite there yet. There’s a lot of building work going on in Berlin too.
Hessel captures more of the feel of the place rather than the politics. You get only briefest mentions here and there – such as when he visits a six day cycle race, the same venue later to be used for a National Socialist rally.
Hessel mostly writes about the buildings, their history and the things that happen there. He tells stories about their past, and seems to drift through, rarely reporting any conversations he’s having. In some respects this can be quite full-on, and it might have been more useful to have read the book with a map from the period to help me locate myself.
One very long section takes the form of joining a tourist bus, but for the most part he explores different areas one at a time, we assume on foot, but mentioning the growth of motor cars. He notes that while he has no ideas about different models, small children can identify the differences very easily. They do the same with planes.
The thing that is very definitely missing is a lack of social commentary. Hessel claimed to be avowedly apolitical and therefore he doesn’t really criticise. Were it not for the often quite explanatory footnotes, things that he infers would probably be missed by readers.
Berlin has obviously changed a lot since this book was written, so it definitely captures the city at a fascinating time, and if you want to capture that feeling, this very much does it.