“Germany has long had in its capital city the model to which it aspires as a nation”
In“Berlin: The Story of a City, Barney White-Spunner looks back at the 1000+ year history of the everchanging city and presents it as a captivating, and I must admit, a late into the night “just one more chapter”, page-turning story. Berlin, for far too many people, begins in the 1930s and ends when the Wall came down in 1989. But Berlin is much more than Nazis (in fact, Hitler HATED Berlin) and the Berlin Wall. While the size might make the book seem daunting, you won’t just find it packed with boring facts, figures and dates. Barney White-Spunner engages his readers by giving us a front seat to the events that shaped Berlin.
I remember clearly my first visit to Berlin in 1988. The Wall was up, the sky was grey, but most surprisingly, it was BIGGER than I expected. Probably because my brain could not wrap itself around the idea of a city being completely enclosed by a wall. But zipping around town in my cousin’s tiny car, I found myself amazed at just how alive the city was. Maybe that is the best way to describe Berlin, Alive! This ever-changing city gets knocked down over and over, yet the Berliners strength and determination bring it back bigger and stronger each time.
Berlin: The Story of a City
Barney White-Spunner lived in Germany while serving with the British Army. His respect for the city, and for the people of Berlin is clear. The story he shares is not just dates and names. Thank goodness, because I REALLY needed the chart of Jochaims, Fredericks, and Frederick Wilhelms… (would it kill the Hohenzollerns to name a few of their kings “Dave”?) The focus of the narrative rests on the Berliners, and how the city grows and changes with and because of them. Along the way, he shares threads of information, anecdotes, about what it was like to BE there, quoting from a wide range of sources, including the diary of a 17th century baker, and artists like Käthe Kollwitz.
You see Berlin through the eyes of the people who lived there. And those Berliners have always been just a little bit different from other Germans. Berliner Unwille, the idea that Berliners will not allow themselves to be subject to arbitrary authority is an important self-image in the city, (even though they never really never managed to fight off oppression, until 1989). Basically, they lived with it, until the oppressor went away, and then they wiped their hands of the mess and got on with life. They even have their own dialect, Berlinerisch. (I sort of imagine Berliners as the inventors of the eyeroll).
Berlin is a city of immigrants, of opinions, of order, and of independence. “A place that is united in its tribes”. Berlin is a city that gets flattened but brushes itself off and keeps moving. This overriding theme repeats itself over and over. My favorite example, on May 2, 1945 it’s the end of the war, and the city is in ruins. But by May 26, the Berlin Philharmonic gave its first “post-war concert”… the program included German composers, but now also included Mendelssohn (a Jew, who had been banned by the Nazis) and Tchaikovsky. The city destroyed and overrun by Soviet soldiers, people are hungry, but, there will be music! Because it’s Berlin.
Barney White-Spunner connects the dots to Germany history, but truly focuses on Berlin itself. Berlin started as two small fishing villages in the sandy plains of Brandenburg where the Spree meets the Havel, hardly the place you would expect a world class capital to emerge. The story begins with the Wends (who didn’t leave a written history) and the struggles with the Franks and Saxons. Christianity came late to Berlin (and frankly, Berlin has never been a tremendously religious city), and the Protestant Revolution and Thirty Years War brought devastation to the city. The Hohenzollern monarchy ruled for almost 500 years, with more and less success, until Berlin became the center of Germany in 1871. (I love how they snuck in the the shift from “King in Prussia” to “King OF Prussia”… subtle) Along the way plague, war, communist uprisings, nationalist fervor, and religious challenges would try to bring the city down. But nothing ever did.
Perhaps BECAUSE it is a city of immigrants, and always has been, Berliners just learned to accept others, and absorb them into the Berlin identity. It’s a city that attracts new ideas and gives them a test spin. And unlike many German cities, there is a genuine live and let live attitude. Berlin is more than a Wall. Berlin is music and architecture, it’s a city of David Bowie and Frederick Wilhelm (the Great Elector). It’s where Marx and Engels worked out their politics… where Schliemann and Humboldt’s treasures were displayed… and where alternative lifestyles barely raise an eyebrow. It is museums and grand avenues, palaces and cramped apartments. And it has always been like that.
Flash forward 30 years, and I’m visiting my daughter who spent a semester studying in the city. Our first stop, the Brandenburg Gate, where I finally got to see it from the other side. Despite it still being early spring, the city felt brighter. We visited Museum Island… the New Schloss and Sansoucci in Potsdam… the Turkish market in Kreuzberg… the East Side Wall Gallery. And on an S-Bahn I see a pair of teenage girls in hijabs, chattering away in German about the prizes they found in Kinder Eggs. All the bits and pieces mentioned in Barney White-Spunner’s book, and now the buildings, the memorials, and the people all have a deeper meaning to me. Time to go back. (You can see by my copy above….I’m planning for it already)
About the Author: Educated at Eton College and the University of St Andrews, Barney White-Spunner was appointed Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry in 1996 and became Chief of Joint Force Operations for the British contingent in the Middle East in 2003. He was made Commander of the British Field Army in 2009. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002. This is his first book to be published in the United States.
Order Your Copy of Berlin: The Story of a City Here