With Nationalism and Fascism on the rise and, and actually taking power in the United States under the guise of conservatism, readers have been turning to classic dystopian novels such as 1984, Animal Farm, It Can’t Happen Here, or The Handmaid’s Tale, and these books rocked the best seller list too. The novel that hasn’t seen a resurgence in such a way, and should, is Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories.
Isherwood taught English in Berlin from 1929 to 1933 and witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis from when people mocked and laughed at them in the streets.
Most of us are familiar with the film Cabaret, the adaptation of The Berlin Stories via the 1955 film I am Camera and the stage play of the same name. The film focuses on the demimonde Sally Bowles, played by Liza Minelli, and her complicated relationships and career in the cabaret as witnessed by the author. The novel has a whole lot less singing and dancing and Sally Bowles isn’t that talented or much of a stage presence. However, the insidious Nazis are in the film, but in the way all post World War II art is, their villainy is taken for granted. Goodbye to Berlin and its companion The Last of Mr. Norris, which together comprise The Berlin Stories, were written in the mid-1930s and published in 1939 and 1935 respectively. The Nazis are just another political party vying to win elections, demonstrating in the streets, and scuffling with other members of no less violent or radical groups. In fact, the way they are portrayed in some instances reminds me the Tea Party when they started demonstrating with their misspelled signs, open carry of firearms, and self-righteous anger at Muslims, blacks, and immigrants. Same ignorance, different scapegoats, and no less dismissed as minor fringe movement.
Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin before the outbreak of World War II, so reading it is eerie and we marvel at Isherwood’s prescient observations. During the Prussian Landtag referendum in 1931 he’s attending a party at a friend’s country house – Bernhard Landauer whose family owns a thriving department store in Berlin. They’re having a Great Gatsby style party with many of the Jewish elite and they are all gathered out on the lawn by Lake Wannsee. A young woman “sang in Russian, and, as always, it sounded sad.” Isherwood reclines on some cushions under a starry night. A gramophone played as a “Jewish surgeon…argued that France cannot understand Germany because” they had never experienced anything like the “neurotic post-War life” in Germany. Then a young woman laughs shrilly in a group of young men and Isherwood thinks, “Over there in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought, of Natalia [Bernhard’s cousin in Paris attending art school]: She has escaped—none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is a dress rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.” After the party he is in Bernhard’s hired car traveling “down the Tauentzienstrasse [where] they were selling papers with the news of the shooting on the Bülowplatz. I thought of our party lying out there on the lawn by the lake, drinking our claret-cup while the gramophone played; and of that police officer, revolver in hand, stumbling mortally wounded up the cinema steps to fall dead at the feet of a cardboard figure advertising a comic film.”
Isherwood weaves the Nazis into the story as a party on the wane until they become brazen enough to start beating people on the street as policemen stood, “with their chests out, and their hands on their revolver belts,” ignoring. Nazis now stood at the entrances of Jewish stores to stop people from shopping there, and if you did go in, when you came they’d put a stamp on your face to show your shame. The Nazis had begun rounding up opposition leaders and members to be tortured and killed, books burned, Göring’s “fresh varieties of high treason,” the propaganda and dismantling of opposition newspapers and any free press, and the “self-important men” who block sidewalks, forcing others into the gutters to get around them. He shows us the slow burn of a nation perched on the precipice of madness and mass murder all the while people not involved go about drinking their tea and “thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder [his landlady who had been an ardent communist and now sings the praises of “Der Führer”] are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” We watch people succumb to fascism the way a day drinker becomes drunk. One becomes intoxicated slowly on the bumper sticker slogans meant to make them feel clever and existential fear we’re none exists even as they are fed the illusion of superiority (if you’re so superior then why are you so afraid?) followed by the maudlin tears of nationalism until the drunken self-righteous rage spills into bloodletting. Might does make right all the way until another might quashes it.
In The Last of Mr. Norris – a story about a con artist trying to play one political group off another for profit – Isherwood recalls the elections of November 1932, which saw a resounding setback for the Nazi party and saw marked gains for the Communist Party. People thought, “the old Nazis are done for, that’s certain. In six months, Hitler won’t have any storm troops left!” American journalist at the time reported Hitler little more than a clown, and the majority of Germans thought Hitler unfit to lead and a classless buffoon not to be taken seriously with a few fanatic followers who dressed in military style uniforms and waved banners, claiming to be true patriots. Clearly, they underestimated the power of misinformation, propaganda, and the willingness of the Nazis to resort to violence to suppress the opposition. Isherwood shows us this subtle shift and how citizens bought into the delusion that Hitler had their best interests in mind and would make them supermen and women of the world.
The insight of how the Nazis took over German society is illustrated in a scene set in a carnival sideshow. Staged wrestling of the WWF type and scripted boxing matches were put on which were clearly fake. But Isherwood notes, “The audience took the fights dead seriously, shouting encouragement to the fighters, and even quarrelling and betting amongst themselves on the results. Yet nearly all of them had been in the tent as long as I had and stayed on after I had left. The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything.” Now when scripted sports and scripted “reality” television convince people fabrications are true and consequences for bad decisions solvable by the next commercial break. It is no wonder a television star who ran for president as a publicity stunt got elected by misjudging the gullibility of millions of voters. Maybe that’s why they call it programming.
Dystopia stories have been around a long time and have never really gone away, but the genre has seen a resurgence among contemporary writers along with the classics. I’m at the point where I roll my eyes when I hear, “It’s a dystopian novel…” I have become more interested in the pre-Dystopian novel.
The stories that make us wonder if we are betting on the worse of three evils and the corruption and savagery people will stoop to gain political power and how to spot that fanaticism bent on evil. The Israeli writer Amos Oz once said, “A fanatic wants to change people for their own good,” but if you prove to be “irredeemable, they will be at your throat.”
Isherwood lived on the edge of dystopia, right where propaganda outlets who spun conspiracy theories were held up as truth tellers and the free press was attacked for reporting corruption, fanned the hatred and prejudices in the name of national security (WIlliam Penn observed national security was the call of the tyrant) and actively condemned minorities and other religions as enemies, criminal activity and the moral and ethical failings of the crony and nepotistic administration; a time when all opposition parties, and law enforcement offices not aligned with the party were being undermined by his party and a time Germans could have resisted the tyranny of selfish men and women they did not. You’d think that those educated people would have known how history exposes cruel frauds, but I suppose even Stalin at that same time thought history would remember him as a superstar. Reading Goodbye to Berlin one gets the sense no one saw the horror of the Third Reich coming, but everyone knew it wasn’t going to be good. People underestimated the capacity for evil in the common citizen and even in themselves. Many bought into the belief that Hitler was going to make Germany great again without thinking of what that meant and at what it would cost (the slogan of the American Nazi Party in the 1930s was literally “Make America Great Again.” It is a hallmark of fanatics and fools to be satisfied with one sentence answers to complex questions). So what if people were just exercising their rights not to serve or do business with Jews?
When Isherwood left Berlin in 1933 he overheard businessmen talking about the Jew who ran his family’s department store. Who? Bernhard Landauer had suffered a heart attack in police custody, with a wink and nod that a bullet in the heart counts as that. They agreed it was terrible, but it wouldn’t get worse because it would be bad for business, and then told an anti-Semitic joke. Those in power believed in their ability to control Hitler for their own benefit/profit once he gained the chancellorship. Maybe they did profit for a few years. It made me think of the American farmers whose crops rotted in the fields because they didn’t think “their” undocumented immigrants would be targeted for deportation.
Through the 1930s, when Isherwood was making his way across Europe and China to eventually settle in Santa Monica, California, these same businessmen and the general German citizenry would overlook Führer und Reichskanzler Hitler’s extremism and the violence of armed supporters because unemployment was down and the economy on the upswing, and though Hitler had nothing to do with it, he still took credit for it and an adoring Germany gave it to him.
It seems a quirk of historical perception that makes it seem Hitler came to power and immediately started the Final Solution with the will of the entire German people behind him. Isherwood shows us the slow accumulation of power, the relentless destruction of all opposition, and the acceptance of those who’d become “acclimatized,” like an infection that slowly spreads from a troublesome hangnail to the heart. As everyone knows, the bill came due. Millions of Jews and other minorities were murdered in concentration camps, millions killed and wounded in combat, and millions of people displaced from the destruction of cities. Racism and bigotry are always bad for business. Isherwood missed having to live through the dystopia of Nazi Germany and the war. The opening line to Goodbye to Berlin is “I am a camera with its shutter open,” signalling Isherwood as objective recorder, a witness to the coming destruction. Perhaps when a nation is on the edge of a dystopian future, it might be like people wavering on a cliff. The force of gravity can pull them to stability and sanity or over the edge and goodbye to humanity. It depends on how many decide to lean forward over the abyss, thinking as long as it’s good for business how bad could it really become?
2 Replies to “This Isn’t a Dystopia, Yet: The Berlin Stories”
Great review Jerry. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana
I fear we may already be condemned.
Maybe not. There is a lot of grassroots and political resistance to fascism that didn’t exist during Isherwood’s time. We can hope.