Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

Rory MacLean

St. Martin's Press



Why are we drawn to certain cities? Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or maybe simply because the place touches us, embodying in its tribes, towers and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy.
Berlin is all about volatility.

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realized, and evils executed with shocking intensity. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.
Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe's capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents: the medieval balladeer whose suffering explains the Nazis' rise to power; the demonic and charismatic dictators who schemed to dominate Europe; the genius Jewish chemist who invented poison gas for First World War battlefields and then the death camps; the iconic mythmakers like Christopher Isherwood, Leni Riefenstahl, and David Bowie, whose heated visions are now as real as the city's bricks and mortar. Alongside them are portrayed some of the countless ordinary Berliners who one has never heard of, whose lives can only be imagined: the Scottish mercenary who fought in the Thirty Years' War, the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a baroness, the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall, and the American spy from the Midwest whose patriotism may have turned the course of the Cold War.
Berlin is a history book like no other, with an originality that reflects the nature of the city itself. In its architecture, through its literature, in its movies and songs, Berliners have conjured their hard capital into a place of fantastic human fantasy. No other city has so often surrendered itself to its own seductive myths. No other city has been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations. Berlin captures, portrays, and propagates the remarkable story of those myths and their makers..

Washington Post Best Books of the Year


Praise for Berlin

Berlin is the most extraordinary work of history I've ever read. To call it history is, in fact, reductive. There's some historical analysis, quite a lot of fiction, some philosophizing, lashings of wit and a fair dose of invective. It's a work of imagination, reflection, reverence, perplexity and criticism that reveals as much about the author's precocious mind as it does about the city he adores. The book's most profound feature, however, is its stunningly beautiful writing -- phrases of transcendent rhythm force the reader to reverse and read again.” —Washington Post

“Brilliant.” —National Geographic Traveler

“A wonderfully enjoyable, poetic and instructive tour through the history of this fascinating and changing city. A book that magnificently combines real history and pure reading pleasure. Not just for those interested in Germany, but for anyone interested in the history of Western culture.” —Stephane Kirkland, author of Paris Reborn

“The admiration and love travel writer and filmmaker MacLean has for Berlin is evident throughout this history of the city, which begins in the 17th century. His careful arrangement of detail and far-reaching scope make for a perfect description of one of Europe's most enigmatic and controversial cities. It's when he explores the minds of Berlin's modern masters...that MacLean reveals his prowess as a storyteller, flawlessly weaving together history, facts, and folklore. Moreover, MacLean's treatment of Berlin under The Third Reich and during the Cold War perfectly reflects the tension of the city's own attempts at remembrance. MacLean brings this "city of fragments and ghosts," with its fractured and volatile past, to life.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“...sprawling, experimental, and in certain moments, ungainly but also deeply enthralling, much like the city itself.” —Booklist (starred review)

“A series of imaginative and fanciful narrative segments--a history that is not all gloom and doom. ” —Kirkus Reviews

“Grandly ambitious . . . splendid. [T]his book is a wonderful achievement, not justly to be summarized in the few hundred words of a review, but hauntingly representing, as in a tangled dream, six hundred years of history.” —The Telegraph (UK)

“MacLean's wonderfully knowledgable overview of the city's history helps explain the place's enduring fascination.” —The Guardian (UK)

“Vivid, imaginative . . . brilliant. What makes MacLean's history of Berlin stand out is that this is an intensely human document, a rich tapestry spanning five centuries and woven together through intimate portraits of twenty-one of its former inhabitants that collectively reveal the narrative of the city . . . Their stories are wholly engaging, written with the flair of a novelist.” —The Observer (UK)

“Entertaining and ambitious . . . MacLean has written a great book about Berliners.” —New Statesman (UK)

“superb...[MacLean] has a knack of approaching his subjects obliquely, catching them unawares....original and well-researched. MacLean is a highly visual writer, and his dialogue is crisp and believable. [He] deserves to win all the prizes going.” —The Tablet (UK)

“Inventive, exhaustive, and energetic. Berlin is . . . a human story. MacLean tells it with a wonder, a sadness, and a compassion.” —Herald Scotland

“MacLean communicates his love for Berlin and sympathy with its people and gives us a fascinating and entertaining book while he's at it. By the final page the reader has a sense that this is truly one of the world's great cities with stories of significance for all of us.” —Winnipeg Free Press

“I loved it. It is such a beautiful way of understanding history, its stories are so vivaciously told, it is so heartfelt, so intelligent, and so talkative a book. So many of the characters do end up talking to each other, and the author is eavesdropping. It paints the past and the present, portrays Berlin as a portrait of someone you love. It is beautiful.” —Jay Griffiths, author of Wild, Pip Pip, and Kith

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Rory MacLean

Rory MacLean has known three Berlins: West Berlin, where he made movies with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich; East Berlin, where he researched his first book, Stalin's Nose; and the unified capital where he lives today. He is the author of nine books and has won awards from the Canada Council and Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship. He was an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award nominee and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Rory MacLean

From the Publisher

St. Martin's Press

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