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Berlin: Cold War spy-thrillers from a restless and changing city.

 

If you asked me to describe the city of Berlin today in one word, I'd say that Berlin is a "restless" city.

Any visitor to Berlin will surely be enthralled by the many dramatic sights to see, and the dramatic history to learn or re-learn.

By "re-learn" I mean that if you grew up in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century, Berlin was written large in the WW2 history that we learned at school and heard our parents and grandparents talk about. Berlin was prominently featured too in headline-making live European news stories that unfolded during the Cold War years when East and West waged a post-war conflict of propaganda, politics and Panzer tanks facing each other on opposite sides of the border.

Divided by the infamous Berlin Wall that the Soviets erected in 1961, Berlin was the ultimate symbol and flashpoint of East and West divide in the Cold War.

A generation earlier, Berlin had headquartered the rule of the Third Reich. Cast into a political vacuum after WW1 when Germany was in disarray, Berlin had been wrestled for by left and right wing factions. Their bitter opposition to each other saw open battles in the city while the Weimar Republic tried to achieve rule and order. Then along came one Joseph Goebbels, to epitomise what the journalist Matt Frei has described as Berlin's predilection for harbouring "Dangerous Ideas". Goebbels joined the Nazi bandwagon, was appointed as head of their Berlin section and was hugely influential in forming and articulating the Nazi manifesto. In 1933 Hitler entered the Reichstag in Berlin.

 

Literature of the Cold War: John Le Carré and Len Deighton

If you read 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' in the Penguin Classics edition (2010) you will find two extra bonus features. In addition to John Le Carré's classic spy tale (first published by Gollancz in 1963) you get a preface by William Boyd who persuasively explains the reasons for the story's enduring greatness. You get too a short retrospective that Le Carré penned in 1989, reflecting on the novel (his third) that "changed my life."

The huge sales figures and success for Le Carré saw a film version of 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' appear from Paramount Pictures (1965). Richard Burton starred in the award-winning Martin Ritt production, with Claire Bloom his co-star in a thrilling adaptation that satisfactorily replicated Le Carré's suspenseful, atmospheric and dark, brooding story.

What, though, of the ending? - a tense attempt by the escaping Burton (Alec Leamas) and Bloom (Nan Perry) to escape over the heavily-guarded Berlin Wall at night? William Boyd confesses that the ending of the story has always bothered him. After several re-readings he has worked out that Le Carré cleverly provided the keys to the fateful ending when he weaved in a crucial moment of action involving a car and a crucial question that George Smiley calls out to Leamas from the other side of the Wall. Both of these are missing from the film. So I wonder: did cinema audiences truly grasp what had happened, and why, at the denouement of Le Carré's classic thriller when we finally learn whether the weary Leamas will triumph against the manipulative machinery of Whitehall versus the KGB.


Len Deighton is another masterful story-teller who has gifted us a rich harvest of war and spy stories from WW2 and the Cold War. 'Berlin Game' (1984) was the first of a trilogy that Deighton set amidst Berlin's famous landmarks such as Alexanderplatz, the Polizeipräsidium and “the pock-marks of Red Army shell splinters of 1945.”

The opening pages of 'Berlin Game' and 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold' are both set at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin where an anxious wait is taking place. Will a returning agent successfully bluff his way across the border?

Bernie Sampson, the hero of Deighton's story, shares with Alec Leamas the cynicism of an agent who has long learned that the job contains little glamour. Sampson and Leamas are both hardened to the drudgery and squalor of undercover operation work. In the respective stories Le Carré and Deighton each require their hero to be pitched into one last hurrah: a crucial make-or-break mission in the twilight of their work for the Ministry.

 

On foot today in the “new” Berlin; Lifting the lid on the mysterious East Germany and the feared Stasi


Tourists today can freely see and walk around all of the famous Berlin landmarks of the Cold War that previously resided on the forbidden Soviet side of the Wall.

For example, on the tourist path to the Brandenburg Gate, modern-day pedestrians can visit the free museum that showcases the political life of Willy Brandt. His was a key role throughout the Cold War trying to maintain a peaceful and constructive dialogue between East and West and thereby keep a flame of hope flickering for the divided and despairing population of Berlin.

Visiting the Willy Brandt museum is an exact example of what I mean by "re-learning" history that we may once have known - or that we knew in fragments, at least. Likewise a visit to the Topographie des Terrors, a free museum in Niederkirchnerstrasse (former Gestapo headquarters), enables us to "re-learn" the history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. The museum graphically details the mass persecution and destruction that resulted from Nazi rule from Berlin.

In contrast it may be entirely "new learning", or at any rate confirming the accuracy of guesswork, to visit today the fascinating DDR (Deutsche Democratic Republic) museum beside the River Spree in Berlin. For this museum lifts the lid on what it was really like to live on the East German side of the Berlin Wall after WW2 and until November 1989 when Berlin was again made whole. It is a fascinating revelation of the relentless enforcement of uniformity in citizens' lives: the censorship, the indoctrination, the drive for production within a market economy that eventually and inevitably collapsed.

'Stasiland' by Anna Funder is not a novel: the Australian writer spent time in post-1989 Berlin and became absorbed by the history of the feared Stasi. The Stasi were the secret police that hounded and interrogated thousands of ordinary East German citizens who were deemed to have offended against the ideals of the Party. Her resultant book 'Stasiland' (2003) documents the extraordinary real-life stories of individuals, or their friends and family members, striving to rebuild lives that were shattered by the intimidating and insidious activities of the Politburo. Literally "rebuilding": for there is a cottage industry in post-1989 Berlin of spending hours, days and weeks painstakingly trying to glue together shredded paper files retrieved from the Stasi archives, so that the full truth of surveillance and punishment activities can be established.

 

A restless and changing city

'Stasiland' typifies my opening remark about Berlin being a "restless" city. Berlin may now indeed be a reunited city and the restored capital of Germany, but one senses that Berlin and its people still struggle to agree about "closure" of the dark and dramatic events that shaped the city's twentieth-century existence.

Do monuments of the Third Reich such as the Führerbunker and the Holocaust Memorial dominate and define Berlin? - these and Cold War mementoes such as the section of the former Berlin Wall deliberately left standing at Potsdamer Platz? Or is Berlin now to be defined by the cranes that fill its skyline to proclaim rebuilding? - for example the new Chancellery building where Angela Merkel keeps her desk, and the futuristic new Reichstag glass dome (architect Norman Foster) that symbolically allows the public to stand on the top floor and be "above" the government who are running the country from the offices below? 

In 1920s Berlin while the political agitators fought and marched on the streets a large slice of the population ignored them and partied Berlin onto the map as Europe's capital city of decadence: arts, jazz, clubs, drugs and transvestites. They too embodied "Dangerous Ideas". British author Christopher Isherwood was drawn to Berlin like a magnet and captured it all in his essential retrospective memoir 'Goodbye to Berlin' (1939). His legendary Sally Bowles was later brought to life by Lisa Minelli in the superb film 'Cabaret' (1972).

Isherwood also wrote the Berlin-based semi-autobiographical novel 'Mr Norris Changes Trains' (1935). Right now in 2013, looking at that skyline of giant cranes, I'd say that the restless city of Berlin is changing. It's a city perhaps where there are still more questions than answers. Are there writers out there, of the calibre of William Boyd, Len Deighton, Anna Funder, Christopher Isherwood, John Le Carré and Matt Frei, who in the future will gain perspective of Berlin and will help put the city to rest? Time will tell.

Jerry Dowlen
August 2013

 

 

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