Joseph Pearson on Berlin

Joseph Pearson's new book, Berlin, offers a comprehensive short history and portrait of the German capital today. We asked him about his experiences of the city, its turbulent history, and how his book differs from other histories of Berlin.

This month, you published a history and portrait of Berlin for Reaktion Press, having lived in the German capital for almost a decade, working as a writer and historian there. What makes Berlin different from other European capitals?

Berlin has done something savage to my taste in cities. I don’t like freshly painted walls anymore. I am suspicious of pretty gardens, symmetrical squares with trimmed hedges, archways framed by columns. For many, the archetypal European capital is precisely all of these things: a dense, historic, confection. They look for an identifiable centre marked by a grand edifice such as a cathedral or medieval town hall. Certainly, cities such as Paris, Rome, Prague fit the type. But Berlin sets different expectations.

I like to tell visitors that Berlin is ugly but interesting. It was bombed, divided, then brutalized by urban planning developments that were both capitalist and socialist. The fact that it’s vast, spread out, and with many incomplete and irregular spaces, decaying industrial lots and decrepit walls splattered with street art, means there isn’t the feeling that the city is finished – there’s room to grow and be creative here. There are, I think, few other places in Europe where one feels quite as free.

To talk in metaphors – I’ve heard it said that most capitals are like fried eggs – sunny side up – with a clear centre in the middle. But Berlin is a scrambled egg, with many diverse neighbourhoods, and the yolk spread everywhere. There’s something democratic about being in a city without one dominating centre. Certainly, the culture that has emerged in Berlin is non-conformist, skeptical of central control, with little social pressure for how to dress or act in the city. Even expectations to be ‘successful’, famous, or wealthy feel attenuated here. This relaxed atmosphere, combined with low rents – despite recent gentrification – continues to make the city popular with artists and those seeking an escape-hatch from neoliberalism.

You allude to the partial destruction of the city during the Second World War. Do you see longer themes that connect Berlin’s contemporary atmosphere of openness to the past? What relationship does it have to the darker moments in German history?

One of my students asked me what it was like to live in a city where you are surrounded by monuments to the dead, to victims of murderous ideologies. ‘Doesn’t it depress you? How can you live here, especially knowing and writing about that history?’ And I replied that I actually feel reassured living in a society that has an experience of the consequences of fascism only a few generations ago, or of the authoritarianism of the GDR in very recent memory. The German public sphere reacted remarkably vigorously, vigilantly, for example, against the rise of far-right nationalism in the shape of the Alternative for Germany party. And I’ve never lived in a place where privacy matters more – the shadow of the Stasi falls on this debate.

I don’t think most Germans take for granted the freedoms they have. Perhaps, they even hold on to them more dearly than in other places.Time will tell, but I hope that a dark past has immunized Germany against many of the more populist and xenophobic impulses being stoked in other countries. Berlin is certainly an intellectual and political centre of resistance.

How does the book differ from other histories of Berlin that are available?

Many of the very fine Berlin books on the market are either large-scale histories or else personal narratives. I wanted to provide a single volume that was both an academic short history (from the 13th century to the present) and contemporary portrait – a combination that otherwise doesn’t exist in the English language. I am a historian by training – I read history at Cambridge, received my doctorate there, and have since taught at Columbia University and New York University – but I also try to write in an engaging way for a broader audience, as a contributor to publications such as Monocle or Newsweek. I also wanted to include histories that are often ignored: focusing on alternative sexualities, immigrant groups, or the nightlife scene, for example.

What else are you writing? What’s next?

My next large-scale project is about the consequences of losing the generation that had direct experience of the Second World War. I’m interested in memory and generational change. Again, this will be a book that has a solid historical backbone, but whose flesh is made up of intimate, everyday stories and objects. I’m fascinated by recipe books, household keepsakes, and old clothes. I’m interested in the stories objects cannot tell on their own. One problem, about which I think often in Berlin, is that stones cannot speak on their own. We need to keep telling, conjuring, their stories to keep the past present.

Joseph Pearson is a writer and cultural historian at New York University in Berlin. He is the voice of The Needle, one of Berlin’s most popular blogs, and a contributing arts writer for Newsweek in Berlin. His latest book, Berlin, is published in July 2017 and available to order from our online shop.