Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Berlin is one of my favourite cities, and I have spent a lot of time walking around its fascinating streets. So the republication of Franz Hessel’s guide to the city in a sprightly new translation by Amanda DeMarco is very welcome. Of course, my Berlin is that of the late twentieth- and early twenty- first century, the end of the Cold War and the heady days after the fall of the wall. Hessel’s Berlin is the Berlin of Brecht and Weill, of Irmgard Keun’s Artificial Silk Girl, and the hedonistic delights of the Weimar Republic – but even then, in 1929, as it was shaking off post-war despair, there were hints of the horrors to come. Hessel is, however, a practical and lightly humorous guide, and there is little foreshadowing of future devastation in his account of the city.

Hessel was a great friend of Walter Benjamin, and this book can be seen as a companion to Benjamin’s Arcades Project on the streets of Paris. Indeed, as the introduction to this volume notes, Hessel encouraged Benjamin to undertake his work, which was, sadly, never completed. Hessel, like Benjamin, presents himself as a flâneur, in his element on the city streets, imbibing the vibrant life of the capital at every turn, observing and reporting on everything he encounters. He is clearly a gregarious sort, meeting friends and acquaintances everywhere, engaging joyfully in the city scene.

The book is divided into twenty-odd shortish chapters, each based on a particular district. Hessel is able to use his encyclopaedic knowledge of the art, architecture, history and culture of the city to brilliant effect, offering the reader an endless stream of fascinating insights. But this is much more than a Baedeker. It’s a charmingly personal ramble around all the major neighbourhoods, illuminated by meetings with friends and fellow Berliners, spiced with whimsical anecdote and opinionated appraisal. Here, for example, he visits Schinkel’s neogothic Friedrichswerder church:

Above the entryway, a stern iron angel slays a trespassing dragon, not gazing dreamily into the distance – unlike his older kin of wood, stone or paint—but staring directly at his victim. Do the elegant saleswomen and clients of the large fashion house across the street ever look up at him? Do they sympathise with the fact that he’s so occupied with his mission, or would they rather he dreamed a bit into the unknown, and beyond?

This is typical of the way Hessel blends the personal and the public domains, producing a quirky and vivid portrait of everyday life in the capital, peopled by the shopgirls, taxi-drivers, shoe-shiners and newspaper sellers who throng its streets.

Of course, one objection to the republication of this book is that the devastation of the Second World War, and the massive reconstruction programme following reunification might have rendered this account merely a historical oddity, chronicling a brief moment in Berlin’s tumultuous history. And it’s true that the Berlin explored here is largely gone, though there are surprising remnants: Schinkel’s church, for instance, miraculously survived the war, only for its structure to be threatened, ironically perhaps, by the post-89 construction boom. Despite the disappearance of many of the landmarks so evocatively described by Hessel, the book remains a valuable document of the rapidly changing Berlin of the twenties, and preserves the essence of a briefly more optimistic time.

Amanda DeMarco’s translation captures Hessel’s liveliness and sense of fun well, and the book is presented most attractively with a delightful cover illustration that captures the flavour of the bustling twenties cityscape. The numerous contemporary references, and specifically German cultural terms, are explained through concise but informative footnotes, adding greatly to the reading experience, and negating the need to interrupt the flow in order to check something. I think the publishers may have missed a trick, however, by not including any contemporary photographs to accompany Hessel’s walks. Perhaps they might consider this for a later edition?

The value of this book lies more than in its status as a lively snapshot of Berlin in its Weimar heyday. Hessel’s warm enthusiasm for his home town informs every page, and provides the reader with a geographical guide that still holds value, despite the enormous changes in the city. More than that, though, it evokes a time that, although just about within living memory, seems almost as remote as the nineteenth-century Berlin of Schinkel.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Franz Hessel (trans. Amanda DeMarco) Walking in Berlin (Scribe, 2016). 978-1925228359 260pp., hardback.

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