cover image Berlin: A Portrait of Its History, Politics, Architecture and Society

Berlin: A Portrait of Its History, Politics, Architecture and Society

Giles MacDonogh, Author St. Martin's Press $30 (540p) ISBN 978-0-312-18537-4

Journalist and historian MacDonogh has written most extensively about food and drink, particularly in the German-speaking lands. So while there's plenty of history here, MacDonogh is the sort of writer who's fully aware that it's not just fine words that keep one alive. MacDonogh's history is woven into a broadly thematic arrangement that can make it spotty, redundant and hard to piece together. For example, in a section about various revolutions in Berlin in which he notes that ""[b]y 1918 the middle classes had achieved their political aims,"" he sheds little light on the Second Reich's unfair electoral system. Said section belongs in a chapter titled ""Belial,"" which also deals with the battle of Berlin and the 1953 uprising. Other chapters are equally amorphous agglomerations: ""City of Order,"" for example, deals with all facets of regulation whether it be the U-Bahn or the Deutsche Christen movement of the 1930s. But if the various chapters lack an overreaching coherence (""Berlin Itineraries,"" in particular, almost requires the presence of the city itself to realize any narrative logic), there is still a great deal of fascinating information, mostly about aspects of popular or daily life ignored by more traditional histories. MacDonogh is particularly good on certain recurring themes and people: the history of beer; the satirist Adolf Glassbrenner (aka Brennglas); painter Heinrich Zille, whose subject was the Berlin worker; and police commissioner Wilhelm Stieber. There are also extensive references to Adam von Trott zu Solz (a reflection of his biography of the anti-Nazi conspirator, A Good German) and to E.T.A. Hoffmann that might hopefully indicate a forthcoming biography of that great writer. (Aug.)