Place is crucial in my books, a character in itself, and it’s important to me to know where the protagonist lives – what the neighbourhood is like, can he walk to work, is there a tram line nearby? That this character is imaginary makes no difference: his life has to be real to me. Sometimes the lines get blurred. I see a building where a character lived, a café he used, and a park where an assignation was set up, and for a minute or two, it seems that all this really happened. After all, the physical evidence, the place, is all around me.
Berlin has now become a tourist centre, attracting busloads to its famous sights (the Pergamon Museum with the splendid Ishtar Gate), its reconstructed sights (the Gendarmenmarkt, still in ruins as recently as the 1960s, but now restored) and its vanished sights (Hitler’s chancellery and bunker). But the Berlin of Leaving Berlin was a different city – buildings in ruins, streets lined with rubble. To research that city you have to become a literary archaeologist, looking for glimpses of the old city between the new buildings that have risen on top of it.
Imagination is key here. The Adlon is once more the city’s premier hotel, but a photo shows the burnt-out wreck it would have been in 1949, on an Unter den Linden still without street lamps. Prenzlauer Berg, where Leaving Berlin’s Alex Meier is given a flat, is now a leafy, upscale residential district, perfect for idle walking, but was then a dingy working class neighbourhood, lucky enough to have escaped the worst of the bombing. The water tower Alex can see at the foot of Rykestrasse, now in a park filled with prams, was once the site of SA atrocities. The Brandenburg Gate, under repair, was missing its Quadrigia and was filled with road blocks between the occupied sectors. Sachsenhausen concentration camp, in suburban Oranienburg, now a moving and extensively restored memorial, was then still in grisly operation – the Soviets simply took over the Nazi camp and filled it with their own prisoners.
But sometimes that earlier Berlin still exists as it was – rubble cleared away, often re-purposed, but still the city the characters of Leaving Berlin would have known. Start underground. Next to the Gesundbrunnen S-bahn station is the ticket office for Berliner Unterwelten, an organization that offers guided tours to a hidden Berlin – Cold War bunkers and ghost U-bahn stations and here, just below, a World War II air raid shelter. This fascinating maze of underground storage rooms, some painted with still visible phosphorescent signs, offers a chilling sense of what it was like to endure the nightly raids at the end of the war, the overcrowded rooms with dwindling oxygen, the claustrophobia, the explosions overhead. In Leaving Berlin, Irene’s husband panics during such a raid and flees the shelter only to meet a worse fate above ground.
Much of the rubble from those raids was later piled on top of anti-aircraft flak towers (so strongly built they were hard to blow up after the war), to make hills in the local parks. Alex Meier is told to meet his contact at Volkspark Friedrichshain near the famous Fairy Tale fountain and it is there that he sees the narrow gauge railway, hauling debris up from the bombed-out streets of Friedrichshain. Millions of cubic feet of rubble would form the rising Grosser Bunkerberg and Kleiner Bunkenberg, new hills in Berlin’s largely flat landscape, now covered with grass and trees, the war just a layer below.
Once the rubble was cleared from Friedrichshain’s major artery, Grosse Frankfurter Strasse, it was rebuilt as an architectural showcase of the new Communist regime, renamed Stalinallee and lined with ‘palaces of the people’. In Leaving Berlin an architect assigned to work on one of these buildings considers it a symbol of East Berlin’s postwar aspirations. But his design is scrapped and the palaces become instead, Stalinist wedding cake apartment blocks, a kind of German Gorky Street. Once scorned as dreary socialist city planning, the mile long avenue – now called Karl- Marx-Allee – is making a retro comeback. Halfway down, at No. 72, the Café Sybille, filled with Stalinallee memorabilia, is a kind of unofficial museum of the street.
In Leaving Berlin the infrastructure for what would become the Stasi, the East German secret police, is being put into place, but even its most enthusiastic supporters could not then have envisioned the behemoth it would become: at its height some 180,000 informers filling millions of files on their fellow citizens. The files are still at headquarters, as is an interesting museum, with cases of surveillance devices and the office of former head Erich Mielke, perfectly preserved, looking as if he’d just stepped away for a few minutes (Magdalenestrasse U-bahn station). Those arrested would have been taken to the Stasi remand prison in Hohenschonhausen (tram 5 to Freienwalder Strasse), once in the ‘restricted area’ (it appeared as a blank spot on city maps), but now open to the public. The interrogation rooms are disconcertingly bland, but the torture chambers are as sobering as you might expect. The guided tours (some in English) are given by ex-prisoners.
Planes fly overhead all through Leaving Berlin, part of the massive airlift (June 1948 – May 1949) to supply the blockaded western sectors of the city in what is now considered the first battle of the Cold War. At its height, American and British forces were flying in 8,000 tons of material a day, most of it into Tempelhof Airport. The terminal, one of the few remaining buildings of the Hitler era, is closed now, but the runways behind, once the lifeline into the city, have been reclaimed by Berliners as a park for cyclists and windsurfers and in-line skaters, and maybe even a few strollers who can remember the airlift, the time of Leaving Berlin, and can marvel at this remarkable city’s resiliency.