Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries was an epic book. It’s constructed as a series of “portraits” or miniature biographies of people who have lived in Berlin throughout the years. It starts off with Konrad von Cölln, a poet living in the mid-15th century, and goes right up to the present day. Along the way you’ll meet scientists and writers and day laborers and businessmen and architects. Some are well-known, like Walther Rathenau or Marlene Dietrich or David Bowie, but many simply quietly lived out their lives on the streets of Berlin. Some even knew each other, and so their stories are intertwined, like Else Hirsch, a prostitute, and Margarete Böhme, who wrote Diary of a Lost Girl, a book which is loosely based on Else’s life. Fact and fiction blur together here, so it’s often hard to tell if what you’re reading about actually happened that way or not, but it’s all thoroughly engrossing either way, and I definitely came away from the book with more of a feel for the city than I’d had picking it up. Inevitably much of the later part of the book deals with the Nazis and then the DDR, but the issues are well handled and it really breathes life into the historical figures.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the city of Berlin, or who enjoys historical biography. It’s quite an undertaking, coming in at almost 400 pages, but it’s well worth it if you want to get to know the city better or enjoy getting to know people who have lived before you. The variety of people you’re introduced to over the course of the work is quite impressive, and the narrative as a whole does paint a marvelous view of the city. There is a lot in here that left me feeling more informed — I had never heard of Leni Riefenstahl, for example, an influential director in the Third Reich, before reading this book, and I feel like I got a good sense of her life and her work through it, and how she fit into that regime. The “poor but sexy” city certainly came to life in these pages, and next time I go back I’ll feel like I know a bit more about the lives that have passed through it before me. But in the meantime I’ve had a chance to meet some fascinating people and had a window into all sorts of professions and livelihoods. Berlin is a unique city that has been at the heart of so much German history, and this book reflects that well.
In summary, it’s a wonderful book. Every chapter was satisfying, and every person introduced had a compelling story. It was definitely worth the read. If you’re looking to learn more about German history or just enjoy reading about people’s lives, this is one to pick up.