The best books set in Berlin

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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.

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Blood Brothers

By Ernst Haffner, Michael Hofmann

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.

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Effi Briest

By Theodor Fontane, Helen Chambers, Hugh Rorrison

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.

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