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Memoir set in Berlin of the 1920s (an age gone by…)

4th January 2017

Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel, a flâneur in the Capital. Memoir set in Berlin of the 1920s.

A physically delightful book, the unusual pink and turquoise cover really caught my eye. A perfect book to take to Berlin to get under the granite and stones facades of this imposing and historically rich city, and gain a real sense of perspective of the legacy evident all around today.

memoir set in berlin

Our copy of “Walking in Berlin” pops up at Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Franz Hessel saw himself as a flâneur, someone who sauntered about the capital on foot, and sometimes by car. He would observe the buildings and the people as they went about their daily business. Meandering at times, incisive at others, he brings to life an era that is usually accessible only through blurred black and white photos.

He chooses a theme or a “Kiez” (an area, but I doubt if they were called that then) and ponders the historical associations combined with what he could see then and there. There is a real sense of immediacy, as he glides through the streets and stops and reflects. At the heart of his musing he felt that “to date, perhaps, Berlin hasn’t been loved enough” and this memoir is his ode to this city.

He considered periods of history and happenings as he made his rounds. His eyes alighted, for example, on the gilded picture frames that came into vogue after the austerity of WW1and the later inflation; the need for people to have something glittery and showy was paramount. How Charlottenburg was created out of the village of Lietzow and how the exotic animals in the Tiergarten each had buildings to reflect their provenance – the camel house for example was a mosque. Statues in the Tiergarten were called the Puppen and later the phrase “bis in die Puppen” was absorbed into everyday language (Google Translate will have you believe it mean “up in the dolls” but in fact means “into the wee small hours” or “very late”). Wine, even, used to be produced in the environs of the city, sour as it was. Tempelhof, the original airport, was named after the Knights Templar, and that, at that point in the 1920s he says “there’s really no reason to visit Neukölln“, actually one of the up-and-coming neighbourhoods of today.

He observed how the original Alexanderplatz was already being rebuilt in the 1920s, and this led me in turn to ponder how much change this particular city has seen. Alexanderplatz today would be utterly unrecognisable to the citizens a century ago, having undergone a further major reform when the city was divided. The Fernsehturm (pictured with the book) was the status symbol of the Eastern sector (and when the sun shines it is possible to see a cross on the globe, thought to be an irony in the design as religion was eschewed under Communism). It was erected in 1969.

Walking in Berlin is a guide to enlighten and please, aimed, I imagine at those who know the city reasonably well already. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Berlin there can be simply too much information to assimilate and link with the city as it is today. Plenty of footnotes, however, do help to guide the reader a little further.

The translation still has the feel of the original German, it retains a slightly stilted structure, underlining that this is indeed a work of translation. I felt this was an intended device, to anchor it in the 1920s, although there were slang turns of phrase such as “the hideous staircase was gotten rid of” which left me questioning some of the quality of the translation.

Overall an interesting read for someone who is reasonably familiar with the city and who would like to get a sense of the history, manners and feel of Berlin of the 1920s and how much of that era still echoes today.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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