The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City

Thomas Friedrich (Yale University Press, 482pp, £29.99)

Reviewed by Alan Berman

I know of no city where the layers of a perverse and idiosyncratic history are as tangible as  Berlin. The bombast of Beaux Arts monumentality; revivalist styles of every sort crowded together –  neo-classicism, Art Nouveau Paris, Secessionist Vienna –  alongside quintessential Modernism.  For C20 buffs, the exemplary social housing of the 1957 Hansaviertel  Interbau, now being restored.  Everywhere, wasteland plots where the War and the Wall left gaping holes, and, everywhere, furiously optimistic reconstruction following unification, too often, alas, in today’s characterless international style.

But there is little of that Berlin in this book. Instead, it begins with Hitler’s life in Munich after WWI, and traces his activities in Berlin up to 1940. The author explores the city’s shifting allegiances and personalities, the political and military groupings, and who agreed with the Fuhrer about what. But in all of this the fabric of Berlin figures  little. Not until the last chapter is there any focus on Hitler’s plans for Berlin and its purpose as propaganda and symbol for his mission. Even here, there is little physical description, no hint of the spaces, the forms, the nature of the place.  We learn of Hitler’s influence on choice of architect,  his instructions for ever larger projects, his vision of the city as capital fit for the new Germania  and a new world. There are meetings with Albert Speer and Lipper (his predecessor as controlling architect).  Many projects, plans, and models are mentioned, including ideas for a grand cross-city axis, yet none is illustrated. Of the projects that were built –  the  Olympic stadium, the new Chancellery – there are but brief descriptions. This is a detailed and remarkable book, but it deals with the politics of a chapter in Berlin’s history rather than the city we experience when we visit it today.