57 books directly related to Berlin 📚

All 57 Berlin books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Book cover of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Alfred Doblin

Why this book?

Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives powerfully in the imagination. Döblin's breathlessly innovative 1929 masterpiece — the most important work of literature in the Weimar years, is as hypnotic and unpredictable as the city itself.

From the list:

The best books to read if you are planning a trip to Berlin

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Book cover of Mephisto

Mephisto

By Klaus Mann

Why this book?

Berlin aches with absences as much as its brazen presence: the sense of lives lived, dreams realized and evils executed with an intensity so shocking that they rent the air and shook its fabric. In Mephisto, a vain and ruthless second-rate theatre actor becomes a national star by aligning himself with the Nazis. Haunting.

From the list:

The best books to read if you are planning a trip to Berlin

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Book cover of Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836 - 1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry

Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836 - 1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry

By Uwe Westphal

Why this book?

Uwe Westphal has spent many years researching and writing about the Jewish contribution to the Berlin fashion industry between 1836 - 1939.  This is a story that has never been told before. Jewish entrepreneurs invented ready-to-wear, mass-produced, fashionable clothing. By the early 1900s, Berlin was the hub of world fashion with the majority of clothing firms being Jewish-owned. In 1933 the Nazis swiftly foreclosed and “Aryanized” these businesses and their owners fled into exile or were murdered. After 1945, the now non-Jewish fashion firms, which had taken over their predecessors’ companies, enjoyed a tremendous increase in worldwide sales due to…

From the list:

The best books to read if you are visiting Berlin and love history

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Book cover of DK Eyewitness Berlin

DK Eyewitness Berlin

By DK Eyewitness

Why this book?

How would one navigate Berlin without an invaluable guidebook? There is just so much to see and learn that you require help - and here it is! There’s advice on planning your trip before setting off and then how to get around, where to eat, sleep, shop, and what to see. Discover how to use telephones and public transport and learn where all the best concert venues, theaters, clubs, and activities for children are located. It’s easy to use – having clearly drawn street finder maps, photographs on almost every page, color-coded chapters to each district of Berlin - with…

From the list:

The best books to read if you are visiting Berlin and love history

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Book cover of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

By Lucia Berlin

Why this book?

Many of the characters in this story collection work in unappreciated, underpaid, and unseen labor: as caregivers, nurses, cleaners, switchboard operators, administrators, substitute teachers. The stories are rooted in Berlin’s own experience as a mother, worker, and alcoholic.

A lot of authors are famous for writing “working class” stories — but many of them are men. I love this collection because it centers the story on working-class women, who often happen to be mothers raising their children alone. 

Lucia Berlin didn’t receive much attention as an author in her lifetime, but she writes with a skill, shrewdness, and vulnerability that…

From the list:

The best books featuring transgressive mothers

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Book cover of Berlin Diary, 1934-1941: The Rise of the Third Reich

Berlin Diary, 1934-1941: The Rise of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Why this book?

Berlin was at the centre of Nazi Europe and is invariably at the heart of my novels, including Agent in Berlin. I’m fascinated by Berlin and I try to get beyond the obvious aspects of the city and give a sense of what life was like on a daily basis.  I have chosen this book by William Shirer, an American journalist based in the city from 1934 and who only left after Pearl Harbor. The book combines the sharp observations of a journalist with an eye for fascinating detail, such as the nuanced wording of the death notices of…

From the list:

The best books to get a sense of Berlin under the Nazis

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Book cover of Berlin at War

Berlin at War

By Roger Moorhouse

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.

From the list:

The best books to understand 20th-century Berlin

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Book cover of The Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories

By Christopher Isherwood

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…

From the list:

The best books set in Berlin

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Book cover of Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers

By Ernst Haffner, Michael Hofmann

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…

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The best books set in Berlin

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Book cover of The Berlin Blues

The Berlin Blues

By Drew Hayden Taylor

Why this book?

Many of the plays written by Indigenous playwrights are usually dark and critical. This play is a little different. It’s an unabashed comedy celebrating the Indigenous sense of humour. Essentially, the play is about two German entrepreneurs who travel to a First Nations community planning to build the world’s largest Native theme park, called Ojibway world. The play deals with stereotypes and the global marketing of culture. 

From the list:

The best Indigenous plays that give the audience a window into the people and community

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Book cover of Das Berliner U- und S-Bahnnetz: Eine Geschichte in Streckenplänen von 1888 bis heute

Das Berliner U- und S-Bahnnetz: Eine Geschichte in Streckenplänen von 1888 bis heute

By Alfred B. Gottwaldt

Why this book?

Don’t worry if you are not fluent in German: this book is packed with images and if you want to understand the way the Berlin U-Bahn system expanded - it is required reading. Gottwaldt was the first person to collect and publish historic maps of the system and reproduction of the maps is exceptional. Starting in 1888 - before the present U-Bahn was conceived - his selection of cartographic delights includes the city’s earliest urban rail lines. The 1896 plan of the ’Nord-Ring’ and ’Sud-Ring’ foretells how the pattern of Berlins current S-Bahn and his example of a 1922 track…

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The best books about subways and urban trains

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Book cover of Russian Disco

Russian Disco

By Wladimir Kaminer

Why this book?

In 1989 when the Wall fell, Kaminer moved from Moscow to Berlin in a lucky wave of emigration. Russian Disco catches the euphoria and vodka-fueled madness of a city adrift in the flux of reunification with contract killer on the trams, black marketeers in sushi bars and artists dreaming of success as another week passes them by in non-stop, techno clubs.

From the list:

The best books to read if you are planning a trip to Berlin

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Book cover of Polina

Polina

By Bastien Vives

Why this book?

Polina is about a would-be ballerina and a teacher and the methods he employs to get the best from his students. Polina ages from child to young adult through its pages, and as her comprehension of the world about her and the people in it changes, so too does the reader’s impressions of her. Like any good character piece, much depends on the performance of the players, and therefore Vivès and his ability to convey subtleties of emotional reactions. He always leaves enough room for the reader’s own interpretations, and so hooks you into the nuances of Polina’s feelings. Vivès…

From the list:

The best graphic novels for an emotional sensory reading experience

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Book cover of Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First-Century Companion

Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First-Century Companion

By Leonard Barkan

Why this book?

If you are Jewish and have ambivalent feelings about visiting Berlin, then this could be the book for you.  Leonard Barkan is a professor at Princeton where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature. A Jewish American, growing up in a secular New York family, his book is a personal reflection on traveling in the city. 

Berlin for Jews is part history and part travel guide.  Barkan shows how, in the early nineteenth century, Jews dominated the arts, sciences, and public life and the way in which, despite the horrors of the Nazi era, they left an indelible imprint…

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The best books to read if you are visiting Berlin and love history

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Book cover of Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem

Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem

By Philip Kerr

Why this book?

This book – well, technically, the first three books in the series – is for anyone who enjoys mysteries or detective stories, especially the hardboiled variety. The core of the book is Bernie Gunther, who is – depending on the situation – a protagonist, a hero, and/or an anti-hero. A former Berlin detective turned private investigator, he’s cynical and sardonic, not to mention a hopeless romantic who repeatedly falls for the femme fatale or damsel in distress while on a case, which pretty much always leads him into trouble. The first book is set in Berlin in 1936, the second…

From the list:

The best fiction books set during the Third Reich

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Book cover of Winter: The Tragic Story of a Berlin Family 1899-1945

Winter: The Tragic Story of a Berlin Family 1899-1945

By Len Deighton

Why this book?

While technically a prequel to Deighton’s well-known Cold War Game, Set, Match trilogy, Winter can certainly be read as a standalone novel. As the subtitle indicates, this is a book about a family. But really, this is a novel about two brothers, Peter and Pauli. The evolution of their relationship over the course of nearly half a century, 1900-1945, is the foundation on which Deighton explores this tumultuous period of German history. From their innocent and carefree youth in the late Wilhelmine period, to the trauma of their military service during the First World War, through the rise and rule…

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The best fiction books set during the Third Reich

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Book cover of Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary

Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary

By Bella Fromm

Why this book?

Fromm, too, was a journalist alarmed by the rise of Nazism and Germans’ increasing embrace of hatred and falsehood. She differs from Halton and Shirer in that she was 1) born in Germany, and thus had a deeper perspective on Nazism’s place in German history and culture, 2) a woman, and thus expected to report on “society” and fashion stories, although her interests and abilities soon drew her to politics, and 3) Jewish, and therefore subjected to the daily indignities, threats, and violence that in 1938 led her to flee a land her family had inhabited for five centuries. Fromm…

From the list:

The best books by and about eyewitnesses to the rise of Adolf Hitler

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Book cover of Reading Berlin 1900

Reading Berlin 1900

By Peter Fritzsche

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…

From the list:

The best books to understand 20th-century Berlin

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Book cover of Berlin: The Downfall 1945

Berlin: The Downfall 1945

By Antony Beevor

Why this book?

Antony Beevor is arguably our pre-eminent military historian and like another of his books, Stalingrad, this is the gripping story of one of the key battles of the Second World War, that of the Red Army capturing Berlin. Beevor manages to avoid excessive military detail but does include enough to provide a detailed account of Marshal Zhukov’s skilled capture of the Nazi capital. At the same time, the book provides an insight into the drama of Berlin in its last days under the Nazis and also describes the horrors which occurred as the Red Army wreaked its revenge once…

From the list:

The best books to get a sense of Berlin under the Nazis

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Book cover of Effi Briest

Effi Briest

By Theodor Fontane, Helen Chambers, Hugh Rorrison

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…

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The best books set in Berlin

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Book cover of Funeral in Berlin

Funeral in Berlin

By Len Deighton

Why this book?

Though Deighton has gone on to write several hugely popular and better-known spy stories, none of them beats Funeral In Berlin for sheer fun. Narrated by its nameless, smart-ass protagonist, who works for an obscure and underfunded British intelligence agency, the book has all the Cold War suspense, plot twists, and dubious characters you could wish for. Swiftly paced and told with great irreverent humor, it’s terrific entertainment.

From the list:

The best tales of spies and intrigue

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Book cover of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

By Sara Zaske

Why this book?

Preschoolers who wield knives and start fires? Kids riding by themselves on the subway? Welcome to Germany, where “free range parenting” is the norm and free play takes priority over academic learning in the early years. Zaske’s journey as an American mom in Berlin is a fascinating and thought-provoking read that turns many of our preconceived notions about German culture and parenting on their head. Parents looking to raise confident, self-reliant children will likely take Zaske’s book to heart. 

From the list:

The best books on parenting secrets from other cultures

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Book cover of Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Isaiah Berlin: A Life

By Michael Ignatieff

Why this book?

Ignatieff’s intensely readable authorised biography of Berlin is based on a decade of recorded conversations with his subject about all aspects of his life, as well as on a study of the massive archive of letters and other papers that Berlin left at his death. As a result it has many of the characteristics of the autobiography that Berlin never wrote, but one filtered through Ignatieff’s shrewd critical intelligence, deployed in the service of the liberal humanist outlook that he shares with his subject.

From the list:

The best books by and about Isaiah Berlin

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Book cover of Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought

Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought

By John Gray

Why this book?

John Gray’s encounter with Berlin’s ideas, first published in Berlin’s lifetime, remains one of the most intriguing and challenging explorations of the intellectual territories that he inhabited. Gray is not afraid to disagree with Berlin, but makes clear where he goes beyond him to present his own interpretation of the topics by which they are both preoccupied: freedom, pluralism, history, nationalism, Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and liberalism.

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The best books by and about Isaiah Berlin

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Book cover of Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941

By William L. Shirer

Why this book?

Another journalist dispatched to Europe in the 1930s, Shirer stayed until 1940 when, fearing arrest by the Gestapo, he packed his diaries from his tenure in Berlin and Vienna and fled. His account is full of shocking incidents of Nazi barbarity, inside information from off-the-record conversations, and, seemingly incongruously, tender scenes from his marriage to Austrian photographer Tess Stiberitz, as the young couple struggled to create an alternate realm of love and stability midst the horror and chaos. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is more famous, but can’t match the intimacy and poignancy of this one.…

From the list:

The best books by and about eyewitnesses to the rise of Adolf Hitler

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Book cover of Kafka in Love

Kafka in Love

By Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

Why this book?

I consider the author my French Writing Partner; I have been her translator. Our mutual love for Franz Kafka brought us together. Her book draws on Kafka’s letters to the women he could never bring himself to marry. Jacqueline and I feel that, in our shared devotion to Kafka, we perhaps understand him better than the women he left behind. He may have had a hard time finding his own soulmate, but in our case, he turned out to be quite the matchmaker.

From the list:

The best offbeat memoirs

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Book cover of Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life

Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life

By Eric Hobsbawm

Why this book?

Hobsbawm was both one of the most influential professional historians of the twentieth century and a lifelong communist. As a historian, Hobsbawm had no illusions about the failures of twentieth-century communist regimes. His life story illustrates how a commitment to communism entailed far more than an endorsement of Stalin or the Soviet Union. A schoolboy in Berlin when the Nazis came to power, Hobsbawm, associated communism with antifascism. In his autobiography, he offers not a confession or a justification for his membership in the communist party, but an effort to explain what he calls the “wars of secular religion” that…

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The best books on world communism

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Book cover of Last of the Conquerors

Last of the Conquerors

By William Gardner Smith, James Avati

Why this book?

The Last of the Conquerors by William Gardner Smith, a Black G.I. who served in Germany after the war, is a beautifully written, with a Hemingwayesque flair, look at the Occupation from someone who was there. This clear indictment of the segregated U.S. Army pretending to spread democracy and equality in a defeated nation that treats Blacks perhaps not well, but better than America does, is honest, painful, and especially relevant to our moment. An interesting footnote to the book is the difficulty of obtaining a copy these days. The one I read came from the New York Public Library,…
From the list:

The best books on the Allied Occupation of Germany

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Book cover of Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin

By Christopher Isherwood

Why this book?

Introducing the character of Sally Bowles, Goodbye to Berlin was adapted into the musical Cabaret, a byword for high-kicking razzmatazz. The novel itself is a different kind of gem: an entrancing, wistful portrait of the last days of Weimar as the Nazis prepare for power.

A series of episodes observed by the narrator, it’s based on the author’s own years in Berlin. ‘Sally Bowles’ was a real person (who spent the rest of her life trying to get away from the character). The one thing Isherwood changed was his own sexuality. He becomes a passive observer of other gay…

From the list:

The best novels where you need to read between the lines to get the point

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Book cover of Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin

Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin

By Peter Wyden

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. 

From the list:

The best books to understand 20th-century Berlin

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Book cover of Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone

By Jenny Erpenbeck, Susan Bernofsky

Why this book?

This is a beautiful book about a retired academic and widower who finds himself embroiled in the lives of young African refugees trying to seek asylum in Berlin. What I love about this book, besides the beautiful writing, is that neither the widower nor the refugees are portrayed as saints and neither really finds redemption. It is, rather, a very real story of fragile yet real connections between people who, for entirely different reasons, are very much alone. I love this book because it holds us all accountable as human beings and asks us how we can retain our humanity,…

From the list:

The best books about looking for and finding refuge

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Book cover of A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm

Why this book?

Just like Api’s diary, A Woman in Berlin begins on April 20, 1945, and she, too, writes daily to maintain her sanity in a world of chaos and death. The author, who wanted to remain anonymous, gives a clear-eyed perspective of a woman alone, trapped in Berlin, fighting starvation and the terrors of Soviet invasion. For women above all this meant rape. They tried to hide in the ruins, make themselves look old, dress up as men. Nevertheless, Soviet soldiers raped over 100,000 women. I read in Api’s diary that Berlin doctors soon began to perform then illegal abortions for…

From the list:

The best WWII memoirs and stories about ordinary people caught in the horror of war

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Book cover of Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin

Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin

By Dina Gold

Why this book?

Dina Gold knew her grandmother lived a glamorous life in pre-war Berlin and that she dreamed of one day returning to reclaim the family business building. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Dina set out to do just that. Marching into the building, just two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie she declared, “I’ve come to claim my family’s building.” Stolen Legacy is a detailed account of Gold’s research, legal pursuits, struggles and victories.

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The best books written by children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors

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Book cover of The Second World War

The Second World War

By Antony Beevor

Why this book?

It's too easy to dismiss the Second World War. To relegate that epochal conflict into realms of ancient history, action films, kitset models, unread Father's day gifts, and black & white footage. But we all live through the consequences of this epic global struggle. This was the last time western civilisation brought itself close to destruction and it was a close call. 60 million lives were lost and no one died easily. The war was also raging just shy of 80 years ago. In the scheme of human history, that's recent.

Beevor's history of the global conflict - and it…

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The best books about Armageddon

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Book cover of Russian Thinkers

Russian Thinkers

By Isaiah Berlin

Why this book?

As a Russian Jew and Russian-speaker by birth, a witness of the Russian Revolution, a historian of ideas by vocation, and a consummate prose-writer, Berlin was able to extract the pith of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia and present it in English as no one else has before or since. Belinsky, Herzen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and others come to life in these ten essays and speak to us and our concerns today in Berlin’s ventriloquistic tours de force.

In particular, Herzen’s passionate denunciation of political extremism plays a central role, and provides a moral underpinning for Berlin’s commitment to liberty. The book…

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The best books by and about Isaiah Berlin

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Book cover of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

By Erik Larson

Why this book?

Does Erik Larson really need another plug? I can’t help it – his work is popular for a reason, and this one is among his best. It is full of extraordinary and well-drawn characters who are struggling to make sense of what is happening to Germany. I initially found the main character, William Dodd, US Ambassador to Berlin from 1933 to 1937, a bit of a bore. He could be humorless, hectoring, sanctimonious, and arrogant (and a history professor to boot – yawn!). But as the story unfolds he emerges as the moral centre, a voice crying in the wilderness…

From the list:

The best books by and about eyewitnesses to the rise of Adolf Hitler

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Book cover of Fatherland

Fatherland

By Robert Harris

Why this book?

Fatherland was Robert Harris’s first book and arguably one of his finest. A portrait of functional totalitarian evil, it is a projection of what might have happened if Hitler won the war - the first of this genre. I loved it for both the visceral atmosphere of Berlin under fascism albeit futuristic and also the very fallible moral quandary of the German detective protagonist. Originally recommended by a Dutch boyfriend of mine, I found it both terrifying - I genetically would not have existed under such a regime - and fascinating. The other thing I love about this book is…
From the list:

The best thrillers to educate, illuminate, and escape into guilt-free

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Book cover of Tokyo Totem - A Guide To Tokyo

Tokyo Totem - A Guide To Tokyo

By Christiaan Fruneaux, Edwin Gardner

Why this book?

Tokyo can be a quirky place, which of course requires a quirky guidebook. This collection of essays, illustrations, photos, and photo essays are a good way to delve into the unique elements of Tokyo. The chaotic approach of the book ranges from photos to personal musings to sketches to abstract concepts about everything from sidewalk markings, bathhouses, urban building design, aerial views, nature, fashion, family homes—the entire range of Tokyo’s interiors and exteriors. In short, the book doesn’t really cohere, but then, neither does Tokyo. That’s what makes the city so fascinating, and so confusing. This is less a guide…

From the list:

The best books on Tokyo’s essence

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Book cover of Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin

Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin

By Sonja Dümpelmann

Why this book?

Maples, magnolias, oaks, and ailanthus: from the native to the exotic, from the carefully cultivated to the weedy and unwanted, Dümpelmann tells the history of the trees that line our city streets in two complementary case studies. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, trees became yet another technology of urban planning, bent to human designs by tree surgeons, dendroscopes, and all manner of other fantastic inventions. Dümpelmann avoids the pathos of the solitary tree sandwiched between asphalt and concrete. Instead, her story is one of flourishing mutualism: as trees became urbanized, cities became naturalized. Urban trees tell very human stories…

From the list:

The best books on nature in the city

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Book cover of March Violets: A Bernie Gunther Novel

March Violets: A Bernie Gunther Novel

By Philip Kerr

Why this book?

This book is part of the Berlin Noir series featuring former Berlin cop and private eye, Bernie Gunther. It’s a great mystery thriller leaning on the wonderful American tradition of pulp noir. Set in pre-War Berlin, I loved the sense of place, dark foreboding, and the humour – something I’d love to inject more of into my own books.

From the list:

The best historical thrillers set just before the Second World War

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Book cover of The Iron Curtain Kid

The Iron Curtain Kid

By Oliver Fritz

Why this book?

This is a memoir written by a young man who grew up in East Germany. I picked this one up for research but found myself completely enthralled by the story. His attention to detail is excellent. If you ever want to know what it was like to grow up in East Germany on a day-to-day basis, this is a great source of information. When the author finally goes to West Berlin for the first time in his life, it made me cry. 

From the list:

The best books that show living in East Germany really was like a spy movie

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Book cover of The Last Jews in Berlin

The Last Jews in Berlin

By Leonard Gross

Why this book?

When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the Jewish population of Berlin was 160,000. By the start of the war, it had fallen to 80,000 due to people emigrating. By late 1943 almost the entire Jewish population of Berlin had been deported to the death camps, but around 4,000 remained in the city, living in hiding, with false identities, underground, and in constant fear. This book was first published in 1982 and is a remarkable account of how some of these people survived (though the majority of those who went underground were eventually caught and murdered).  The book reads…

From the list:

The best books to get a sense of Berlin under the Nazis

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Book cover of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45

Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45

By Roger Moorhouse

Why this book?

This is another book that manages to paint a picture of what life was like in Berlin during the war.  Roger Moorhouse tells some fascinating stories, such as that of Paul Ogorzow, the so-called S-Bahn Murderer. The fact that a serial killer was operating around Berlin’s railway system was a dilemma for the authorities who tried and failed to lay the blame on either Jews or Poles. Ogorzow was eventually captured convicted of the murder of eight women and of attacking thirty-seven more during 1940 and 1941. The fact he was a Nazi Party member was a deep embarrassment and…

From the list:

The best books to get a sense of Berlin under the Nazis

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Book cover of Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the Detectives

By Erich Kastner, Walter Trier

Why this book?

Although I write mostly history books and only non-fiction, I loved adventure stories as a child and these five have all stuck with me into adulthood. That must say something. The fast pace of this particular one, and its very realistic setting (1920s Berlin, peopled by some fairly tough characters), was highly unusual for children’s fiction when it was written more than 90 years ago. Because of this, I’m sure that even now most readers will have no difficulty imagining themselves filling Emil’s shoes and would want to join in with his adventures if they could. It’s properly engaging,…

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The best adventure stories for young readers

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Book cover of Berlin

Berlin

By Jason Lutes

Why this book?

Jason Lutes spent decades creating this masterpiece—a graphic novel that brilliantly reconstructs life in Berlin in the years before Hitler became Chancellor. The characters are fully dimensional, a diverse and compelling collection of individuals, reeling from World War I, struggling to face the fall of Weimar and the cold hands of fascism tightening around their necks. This is a perfect melding of art, narrative, and political urgency that speaks eloquently to our perilous age.

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The best books to read when fascism is creeping in the window

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Book cover of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré

Why this book?

It’s simply a great and well-crafted story and one that grabbed me well before I knew I wanted to write. British agent Alec Leamas is burned out and believes the Cold War is over for him, but then he’s given a chance at revenge by posing as an East German defector. All the while, Western espionage methods aren’t looking any morally better than the enemy’s, and Leamas feels it. No heroes here, just underdogs and survivors—a revelation at the time. A classic for so many reasons. 

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The best novels about underdogs on a doomed mission

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Book cover of The Fall of Berlin 1945

The Fall of Berlin 1945

By Antony Beevor

Why this book?

I quote Beevor in my memoir because he helped me understand both the broad historical context of the city’s last days and the experiences of ordinary people caught in it. Beevor combines tireless research with consummate storytelling. This is his eerie description of the night of April 29, a terrifying date also for my grandfather: “the flames in bombarded buildings cast strange shadows on the otherwise dark streets. The soot and dust in the air made it almost unbreathable. From time to time there was the thunder of masonry collapsing. And to add to this terrifying effect, searchlight beams moved…

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The best WWII memoirs and stories about ordinary people caught in the horror of war

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Book cover of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

By Vladimir Nabokov

Why this book?

Out of all Vladimir Nabokov’s books, Speak Memory -- this rebellion “against the two eternities of darkness which bookend a human life” -- is the one I return to most often.  Exiled and dispossessed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nabokov manages to escape the snares of nostalgia. He does not grieve the lost past, but revisits the very heart of his Russia, the people, the sites, the tastes of his childhood and adolescence. Speak Memory does not end with exile. Nabokov chronicles the lives of the Russian emigres in Berlin and Paris, the necessary adjustments and transformations of…

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The best books on Russia’s history and culture

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Book cover of Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South

Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South

By Ira Belin

Why this book?

This book uses census data and other historical facts to highlight the 250,000 free blacks who were in the south post-Civil War. It shows the struggles black people faced in regards to their community, liberty, education, and economic independence inside an oppressive society. Berlin does a good job at depicting the interaction between Blacks and Whites both free and enslaved. He offers a better understanding of the complex race relations that existed in the south. He gives one of the best accounts on record, of the wealth black people accumulated during slavery and 20 years after despite the pushback they…

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The best books on the history of land dispossession

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Book cover of In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936

In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936

By Jeannette Eileen Jones

Why this book?

This is a breathtaking book. The image of the “Dark Continent” seems so ingrained in our understanding of how Africa was perceived in the nineteenth century that it’s hard to overturn it. Jones does just that, showing how Pan-Africanists, naturalists, and filmmakers reimagined Africa as a site of regeneration for a variety of different ideas. But it’s about more than that – it’s a serious challenge to confront what you think you know about Africa today too.

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The best books on the USA and the world in the nineteenth century

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What Is History?

By Edward Hallet Carr

Why this book?

This book is a classic, for more than half a century, and remains the starting point in the current discussion of the historian’s craft. Edward H. Carr underscores the importance of dialogue in the study of history. History is a process of interaction between the historian and their facts, or between the past and the present. In this dialogue, the historian is not an objective reporter or analyst, but an individual whose world view and scientific approach are shaped by society.
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The best books on how historians work

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Book cover of Tokyo: A Biography: Disasters, Destruction and Renewal: The Story of an Indomitable City

Tokyo: A Biography: Disasters, Destruction and Renewal: The Story of an Indomitable City

By Stephen Mansfield

Why this book?

This biography by writer and photographer Mansfield is probably the best guide into Tokyo’s vibrantly organic nature. To get a thorough line on the largest city in the world isn’t easy, but Mansfield carefully selects the most relevant, and interesting details. Inevitably, it’s a work of exclusion as much as inclusion, but is magnificent for that. Seeing and understanding Tokyo requires getting past the cascade of small details that keep you from seeing the whole forest. Mansfield keeps his biography flowing with the right balance of telling details and insightful summary. His companion volume, Tokyo, a Cultural History is also…

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The best books on Tokyo’s essence

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Book cover of No Place to Lay One's Head

No Place to Lay One's Head

By Francoise Frenkel

Why this book?

This incredible memoir reads like a thriller. Polish-born Francoise ran a Berlin bookshop until she was forced to flee from Nazi persecution, first to Paris, then to Southern France. The term ‘unputdownable’ is a terrible cliché, but was literally the case for me with this breathtaking story of escape and survival. Clear your diary before you open the covers of this compelling book.

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The best WW2 memoirs by brave, witty, resourceful, and downright remarkable women

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Book cover of Good-Bye Marianne

Good-Bye Marianne

By Irene N. Watts, Kathryn E. Shoemaker

Why this book?

I love historical fiction that reveals little-known elements of real history. That's why I loved this book so much. It tells the story of the Kindertransport - an initiative to save thousands of Jewish children by sending them to England just before the outbreak of the war. The protagonist of this book is modeled on the real-life story of the author. Irene Watts was only 7 1/2 years old when she was sent to England by Kindertransport. I could feel this young child's fear and uncertainty oozing from every page of this book.  

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The best YA historical fiction about the Second World War and the Holocaust

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Book cover of Hitler at Home

Hitler at Home

By Despina Stratigakos

Why this book?

This fascinating book takes the seemingly banal topic of Hitler’s domestic interiors as a way into exploring both how Hitler chose to project himself and how others – from foreign diplomats to ordinary Germans – learned to see him. From his initial humble quarters in Munich to his conservatively furnished apartments in Berlin and his mountain retreat in the Alps, the evolution of Hitler’s interior design ethos reflected his move from ordinary front soldier to European statesman. The reproduction of his furnishing choices in glossy consumer magazines, meanwhile, offered aspirational Germans a chance to remake their own homes in emulation…

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The best biographical studies of Hitler

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Book cover of In Times of Fading Light

In Times of Fading Light

By Eugen Ruge

Why this book?

In Times of Fading Light is a masterful five-decade family saga that melds the personal and the political to create a fascinating portrait of East Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Intelligent, fearless, and full of dark humor, it is both an ingeniously structured page-turner, moving back and forward in time, and a literary tour de force. Eugen Ruge was a 35-year-old playwright when the Wall fell, and In Times of Fading Light, published in 2011, was his first novel. It provides a rich understanding of how people lived and loved in East Germany that scotches…

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The best books about life under the Stasi

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Book cover of Measuring the World

Measuring the World

By Daniel Kehlmann

Why this book?

This book features a scientist traveling the world—but this one has a comic tone. It fictionalizes the true story of Alexander von Humboldt’s and Carl Freidrich Gauss’ competing efforts to measure the globe—one by exploring it and the other using mathematics from his home. One of the reasons I read, including fiction, is to learn. This book taught me a great deal about scientific passion in the post-Napoleonic world. It also inspired me with the liberties it took in characterizing two historical figures, with its ability to lie to tell the truth.

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The best books that lie to tell the truth

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