The best books set in Berlin

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated with the history-soaked city of Berlin where my novels are set since a school exchange trip as a teenager. It was the border that did it. Machine guns, dog runs, barbed wire, watchtowers. They were daunting. More striking still was our guide’s story about her sister who lived on the other side in the East. They were barely a mile apart but hadn’t seen each other in the twenty years since the Wall went up. I’ve been back many times since and have had a passion for German history from that day, particularly for the experiences of its people who have lived through such turbulent times.

I wrote...

The Secretary

By Catherine Hokin,

Book cover of The Secretary

What is my book about?

The Tower House, a crumbling villa choked with memories. Berlin 1940Magda leads a dangerous double life working for the resistance and also as secretary to Himmler, leader of the SS. Her capture, and her death, seem inevitable.

Forty years later. Her granddaughter Nina flees the GDR carrying a forged passport and a scribbled address for the Tower House taken from a drawing she found hidden in her grandmother’s wardrobe. Separated from her family and betrayed by her country, Nina’s last hope is to trace her family’s history in the ruins of the past her grandmother ran from. But, when she finally finds the abandoned house, she opens the door to a forgotten story, and to secrets that will change everything: past, present, and future…

The books I picked & why

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Alone in Berlin

By Hans Fallada,

Book cover of Alone in Berlin

Why this book?

The story of the resistance to the Nazis in wartime Berlin is made up of small acts of courage. This novel, which is based on a true story, is a devastating depiction of just such an act. I love Alone in Berlin for the quietness of its characters: Otto and Anna are the last people you would expect to stand up to the terrifying might of the SS and the Gestapo and yet the campaign of defiance they embark on is totally believable. They have lost hope and so they have lost fear, and their personal tragedy becomes a liberation. I have read the book twice now and its power grows with the re-reading. I know I will come back to it again.

The Berlin Stories

By Christopher Isherwood,

Book cover of The Berlin Stories

Why this book?

The Berlin Stories was first published in the 1930s and is soaked in the dark, decadent, and delicious atmosphere of Berlin of that time. The characters who populate it are a fabulous bunch of chancers and reprobates, including Sally Bowles of Cabaret fame who makes her first appearance here. Isherwood was an American journalist who lived in Berlin between 1929 and 1933. He kept a detailed diary and clearly loved the city as much as I do, although he wasn’t blind to its problems and the shadow of the Nazis hangs thick. It is in that tension I think that his writing really excels: the lifestyles he was writing about could not withstand what was coming. It is impossible not to read this collection and feel the tragedy in that.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

By Anna Funder,

Book cover of Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Why this book?

I am utterly obsessed with the GDR, a country that existed for less than thirty years and was riddled with informers and forbidden zones. So many of the stories which have come out of it teeter on the edge of absurd: the punk scene, for example, which the Stasi (the state secret police) were so determined to infiltrate that one popular band was made up entirely of their agents. And so many of them, including the treatment of prisoners in the secret prison at Hohenschönhausen, are terrifying. In Stasiland, Anna Funder captures all the insanity and also the warmth of a country that now exists only in films and museums and memory. It is the best kind of accessible non-fiction and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Blood Brothers

By Ernst Haffner, Michael Hofmann (translator),

Book cover of Blood Brothers

Why this book?

I stumbled on this novel when I was looking for something else (a common writers’ problem). It was written in 1932 and banned the next year by the Nazis and is set amongst the gangs of young men struggling to survive in a harsh and desperately impoverished Berlin. The descriptions of the hard side of the city are brilliantly drawn and the characters are so real you long for their lives to improve even when you know there is almost no hope of it. Haffner was a social worker who clearly knew Berlin’s streets well. To add to the poignancy of his writing, nothing is known about his fate beyond a summons before a Nazi tribunal in the late 1930s. After that, he disappears. I really hope his book doesn’t.

Effi Briest

By Theodor Fontane, Helen Chambers (translator), Hugh Rorrison (translator)

Book cover of Effi Briest

Why this book?

This is the heartbreaker, the one you need tissues for. Effi Briest was written by Theodor Fontane in 1894/5 and is a German classic. It’s also really good. When we first meet Effi she is a young, naïve girl about to be married off in the way of wealthy families to a suitable husband. The Baron she is given to might be suitable but he is also old and dull and Effi makes the fatal mistake of letting her head be turned by a dangerous man. Fontane’s writing is so spare and so knowing that you end up as angry with the hand poor Effie has been dealt and the hypocritical world she lives in as you are broken-hearted for her. Don’t miss this one, it really will stay with you.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Berlin, East Germany, and adultery?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Berlin, East Germany, and adultery.

Berlin Explore 68 books about Berlin
East Germany Explore 21 books about East Germany
Adultery Explore 32 books about adultery

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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