The Romans failed to conquer the lands inhabited by the Germanic tribes: in 9CE when an army led by Varus was ambushed in the Teutoberg forest, the Romans suffered one of the worst routs in their history. As the Roman Empire came to its end, these tribes began to occupy what was Roman territory, and the region evolved into a conglomeration of tiny states known as The Holy Roman Empire. The Empire lost almost half its population during the massacres of the Thirty Years War, and remained fragmented until 1871, when Bismarck, then President of Prussia, pursued a war against France, and in doing so, forced the empire into uniting. France was defeated and William I was crowned first Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. Prussia had become the most militarised state in the empire, and its capital, Berlin, became the capital of this new, mighty country.
Faust’s Metropolis is the history of the German capital. It is a huge book, 800 pages, but its subject is vast and complex. Berlin lies at the heart of Germany, and has been at the centre of a European nightmare which has its origins in Prussian militarisation. Berlin has been at the epicentre of two world wars, and almost a third. The Cold War, a stand off between opposing political systems, was epitomised by the division of Berlin, and, to a great extent, ended when border was opened in 1989, and the Wall subsequently destroyed.
As far as the English speaking world is concerned, the history of Germany, and particularly, Berlin, have been foreshadowed by those catastrophic events. In most bookshops at least three quarters of any section on German history will be devoted to Hitler, the Nazis and World War One.
When Napoleon conquered Germany, he stood before the tomb of Frederick the Great in Berlin. ‘Hats off gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if he were still alive, we would not be here.’ There is no doubt that Versailles was chosen for the coronation of the first German emperor, William I, as revenge for the Napoleonic wars. The reparations set out in that treaty of 1919, ending World War One, signed in Versailles, had a significant role in the rise of the Nazis. After the invasion of France, Hitler stood before Napoleon’s mausoleum, creating a sinister symmetry with Napoleon’s tribute to Frederick. He said it was the ‘greatest moment’ of his life.
In the closing months of World War Two, Stalin’s armies swept through the Berlin, committing atrocious acts, murdering and raping, taking revenge, as they would say, for the failed Nazi invasion of their country. The city was divided, the Wall built.
Berlin has been occupied by the French, the Russians, the Americans and the British. It has been the home of Hegel, the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Dada, Brecht. Alexander Von Humboldt, an intellectual giant, born and died in Berlin, he was a scientist, explorer, mapmaker, yet his achievements remain relatively unknown in the English speaking world, probably because of wars that began and ended long after he died.
In the early 1700s the city welcomed immigrants from Denmark, Sweden, France and Scotland. There were an eccentric series of monarchs: Frederick William the First who appointed a jester to replace Leibniz in the Academy of Science, and who called intellectuals ‘dogfood’. He disguised himself as commoner and wandered the city, physically attacking those he saw as idlers. He conscripted taller men for his ‘giant grenadiers’ and made them march through his rooms. Frederick the Second, perhaps the most famous Prussian king, better known as Frederick the Great, was a tormented, bullied young man. He was an accomplished flautist, Bach wrote ‘A Musical Offering’ based on a theme he composed. Voltaire, despite being a friend of Frederick, said of Berlin it had ‘too many bayonets and not enough books.’ Indeed, Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, was at the heart of a militarisation that would spill over into the twentieth century. For many years Berlin was like a garrison town, and its citizens in awe of the military. Berliners deference to authority is beautifully encapsulated in the story of Wilhelm Voigt, an unemployed shoemaker, who, masquerading as a Prussian officer, ordered a company of troops to accompany him to the city treasury, where he was handed 4000 marks, an enormous sum at the time. He was jailed for two years, but eventually pardoned by the Kaiser, and is now something of a folk hero, a statue of him still stands, perhaps reminding Berliners that their once great reverence for authority had grave consequences for the world.
The city was completely destroyed in World War Two, very little of the past remains. More bombs were dropped on the city than on the entire United Kingdom. Most buildings from the Nazi era, and from the German Democratic Republic, have gone; the Wall has more or less disappeared. In Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie’s galvanising study, the city is conjured before our eyes, rebuilt layer upon layer, rises from the dust.