Novel set in Victorian Birmingham
Talking Location with author Dan Fesperman – Berlin, including top tips for a visit
16th July 2018
#TalkingLocationWith…. author Dan Fesperman talks about Berlin, how its history subtly informs a present day visit. it is the setting for his new thriller “Safe Houses”
Berlin, a city I love, is nonetheless a haunted theme park of Twentieth Century Horror, with a climate to match. Dark and damp and shadowy through much of the year, the glories of its vibrancy are built upon a sediment of ruin.
Mind you, that’s not a criticism. It’s part of what makes the place so compelling. For every temporal pleasure to be found – and there are many in Berlin – there is usually some grievous memory buried close at hand. Layer upon layer, complexity atop complicity, all of it shoveled onto the bone and ash of failed and corrupted empires. For a novelist, what’s not to like?
Okay, let’s back up a bit. I’m not insisting that anyone visiting Berlin should simply wallow in the miseries that its past leaders so thoroughly inflicted upon the world in the fifty six years from the beginning of Nazi rule to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But you will certainly miss a chance to deepen your understanding of the city if you concentrate only on its current attributes. And that’s partly because those transgressions have plenty do with its citizenry’s present-day yearning to do the right thing.
I lived in Berlin from 1993 to ‘96, and have returned (and will doubtless return again) for research. I’ve set three of my eleven novels at least partly in Berlin. One focused on a young resistor during the Second World War (The Arms Maker of Berlin). Another, although set mostly in the Balkans, opened with a Berlin scene in the construction boom after The Wall came down (The Small Boat of Great Sorrows). Nearly half of my newest book, Safe Houses– a spy tale wrapped inside a murder mystery– takes place in the Cold War Berlin of 1979. So I feel comfortable offering a little travel advice.
If you go, by all means focus first on the city’s restaurants, bars, clubs and, weather permitting, its idyllic scattering of urban lakes and forests, with their wooded paths for bicycles and hikers. Swim naked if it’s warm enough, because the locals certainly will. Do enjoy its wealth of museums and performing arts, and punctuate your days with a currywurst, or a doner kebab, or a glass of crisp pilsner.
But I’d also recommend making at least one of the following four stops – not to creep you out, or turn you against the city and its inhabitants, but to let you understand that, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, even a place as cosmopolitan as this can slide into the abyss:
1 – Topografie des Terrors (Topography of Terror), Niederkirchnerstrasse 8 – Built upon the ruins of the headquarters of the SS Reich Main Security Office, where the Nazis planned many of their worst crimes, this museum and documentation center offers free exhibitions and guided tours. The most haunting section may be the Gestapo detention cells in the excavated basement. As a bonus, if you can call it that, the museum is next to the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall – one regime’s nightmare abutting another’s.
2 – Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Friedrichstrasse 43-45 – A great place to get a feel for life in the shadow of the Berlin Wall from1961 to 1989, when East Germans could be shot dead if they tried to leave the country without permission, and West Berlin was an island of freedom within. With its watchtowers and kill zones, Checkpoint Charlie was The Wall’s most famous crossing, a Cold War flashpoint featured in many films and novels (most famously, John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). It’s the perfect place to get a feel for the desperate – and often ingenious – lengths that some East Germans went to in their efforts to get over, under or through the despised Wall.
3 – House of the Wannsee Conference, Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58 – In this grand villa on the picturesque shores of the Wannsee, Berlin’s largest lake, a conference of ranking Nazi officials in January 1942 began planning Hitler’s genocidal Final Solution of the “Jewish problem.” A sobering tour, made all the more jarring by the pastoral beauty of its surroundings.
4 – Stasi Museum, Haus 1, Ruschestrasse 103 – The former headquarters of the East German Secret Police, its exhibits creepily illustrate how a repressive state can tightly control most of its citizenry and instill deep fear of resistance, largely by creating a culture of informants (one in ten citizens!) in which it becomes impossible to know who you can trust.
Thank you to Dan for suggesting such great travel tips for anyone finding themselves in the city! You can buy his book through the TripFiction database
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