The best books to understand 20th-century Berlin

The Books I Picked & Why

Reading Berlin 1900

By Peter Fritzsche

Book cover of Reading Berlin 1900

Why this book?

There are many books about the glitz and the cultural icons that we associate with Weimar Berlin. This one gives us a broader and deeper picture. Instead of concentrating on a few writers and artists, it anchors the city’s creative explosion in mass-market newspapers and their readers, turning our eyes to people in the streetcars and cafés and the stories they read about their own lives. We can read about sensational crimes just as Berliners did, and we find the prototypes of modern art in the layout and content of newspapers and in the chaos of the streets where they are hawked.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Goodbye to Berlin

By Christopher Isherwood

Book cover of Goodbye to Berlin

Why this book?

This autobiographical novel of Berlin circa 1930 may be too well known for its own good, ever since it was adapted into Cabaret, a dazzling film that fails to do justice to the book. Look carefully past Isherwood’s apparently straightforward account of the daily struggles of his odd and dubious acquaintances, and note the backdrop of ominous political storms--the depression and above all the rise of the Nazis—that many of them are oblivious to.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Berlin at War

By Roger Moorhouse

Book cover of Berlin at War

Why this book?

For most of us, wartime Berlin calls to mind sensational stories of Hitler and his henchmen, devastating Allied bombing, and of course, the terror and deportations that led to genocide. Without ignoring any of that, Moorhouse gives us a broader picture. Making liberal use of diaries, memoirs, and interviews, he shows us the war through the eyes of ordinary Berliners, revealing the surprising normality of most of their daily lives amid destruction, scarcity, and fear.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin

By Peter Wyden

Book cover of Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin

Why this book?

This book is unjustly neglected because it was published just days before the Berlin Wall fell, an event the author, like the rest of us, failed to foresee. Wyden, a prolific writer who grew up Jewish in Hitler’s Berlin, uses his knowledge of the city to situate stories of highwire diplomacy and sensational escapes against a backdrop of ordinary lives marked by grim repression. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin

By Paul Hockenos

Book cover of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin

Why this book?

1980s Berlin is famous for two things: a wild counterculture and the sudden demise of the Wall. In recalling the outsize personalities he got to know on both sides of the Wall, Paul Hockenos brings the two strands of history as close together as can be done. The music and party scene, the communes and the squats, arose during this quiet lull in the Cold War, as political, musical, and sexual misfits found their niche in the dead zones along the Wall. Most of us living in Berlin in the 80s enjoyed the peace and quiet. This book shows what most of us were missing out on.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists