Book Club: Leaving Berlin
Joseph Kanon, author of this week's Book Club book, Leaving Berlin, explains how his novel came about through pulling at the loose thread of another story.
Book ideas are supposed to come out of thin air pretty much formed and appear above your head like a light bulb. Sometimes they actually do happen this way. My first book, Los Alamos, came to me with a question. I had gone to Los Alamos as a tourist, curious to see where the atomic bomb had been developed, and as I walked around the town imagining what life had been like for the scientists on their isolated, secret mesa, the light bulb popped on: what would have happened if there had been a crime? More questions were to follow, a whole book of them, but that was the beginning.
For the most part, however, ideas come in wisps, half-formed or hardly formed at all, their origin an aspect of literary magical thinking. For me the writing process usually begins with a place—I become intrigued and want to know more (about, say, Istanbul) until finally I go to live there (in my head), filling it with the people whose stories become the book. This method still leans heavily on the magical, but lately I’ve been aware that ideas can come in a more prosaic way—one book begins to suggest another. Some loose end nags at you, some unexpected piece of information offers a detour that becomes its own book. In that sense, Leaving Berlin had two parents.
I had written about Berlin before in The Good German a novel set in the summer of ’45 when the Allies were occupying a Berlin physically and morally devastated by war. Zero hour—Stunde null—for Berlin meant hunger, the black market, and the moral conundrum of trying to assign guilt for a crime so enormous that it had not yet been given a name (the term Holocaust wasn’t broadly used until around 1954). It was a dramatic, fascinating time, but I never expected to go back to it. (Instead I went to Venice in my next book—Alibi—a city untouched by the war, a kind of anti-Berlin.) Berlin, however, has a way of keeping its hold on you, its history endlessly interesting and important. Because it was concerned with the American occupation, The Good German was necessarily set in the western sectors of the city, but what was going on in the East? We sometimes think of East Germany as an inevitability, just another Soviet client state, but in fact it was a political anomaly, an improvised state. How did the GDR come together? How did Berlin become two cities? It was a time I wanted to know more about, an inevitable follow-up to The Good German. The Soviet Military Administration, improbably enough (given the mass rapes that characterized the Russian invasion), was trying to seize the moral high ground: as the Nazis’ first enemies and victims, they could now claim to be the true anti-fascists. It was they who could build the new Germany, neutral and socialist.
To that end, they were publically committed to promoting German culture—opening theaters, issuing publishing licenses and, their most visible weapon in the propaganda wars, inviting famous German exiles back home. It’s here that Leaving Berlin’s other parent comes into play by giving me a way, still half-formed, of looking at postwar East Berlin. In Stardust I had written about the German émigré community in Hollywood. It seemed to me a time and place of extraordinary cultural collision—the heirs of European high culture, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, et al. living almost unnoticed in a community consumed by Betty Grable grosses. The most fascinating of these (as he usually was, anywhere) was Bertolt Brecht, ignored by Hollywood, desperate to work in German again, but shrewd enough to want to return on his own terms. The exiles were often undecided or reluctant—California was comfortable and Germany in ruins—but the first winds of the McCarthy witch hunts (so eerily reminiscent to the emigres of the early Hitler days) made America a less and less attractive haven, particularly for those with a political past on the left. Brecht managed to befuddle the HUAC with testimony so opaque and confusing that the congressmen decided to accept it rather than admit they couldn’t understand it. But once the testimony was finished, he headed for the airport—and a home in East Berlin.
Writers are usually right to be wary of official flattery—the good review that serves a political agenda—but none more so than the German writers lured back by the Soviets. Most had been gone for more than a decade, fleeing Hitler for largely wasted years in Los Angeles or Mexico City or New York. A few exiles had prospered: Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger were both more famous than ever and happily settled in Pacific Palisades. A few were already gone: Stefan Zweig committed suicide in Brazil; Heinrich Mann, penniless and forgotten in Los Angeles, his early Blue Angel fame now eclipsed by that of his younger brother, had been tempted by an invitation to return but died before he could accept it. But most saw the return as an answer to a prayer, a homecoming they had almost given up hoping for. And so they came, Anna Seghers and Arnold Zweig and above all Brecht, the Soviets’ star catch. Anti-fascist, leftist, sometimes Communist, they believed in the promise of a politically reconstructed Germany.
What they found was a wasteland. When Brecht arrived in the fall of ’48 he was put up in The Adlon annex, the main part of the hotel now a charred shell. He spent his first morning smoking a cigar sitting on the rubble of Hitler’s Chancellery (whose marble was carted off to build the Soviet war memorial in Treptow). People were hungry, supplementing meager rations by trading whatever they had left (frequently, themselves) on the black market. Espionage in the increasingly divided city was a thriving business.
Nevertheless in those heady early days before the Cold War turned the city into permanently opposing camps it was still possible for the returning emigres to believe they were helping to build a new socialist future. And weren’t the Soviets supporting German culture, even bringing back into print the exiles’ banned works? Anna Seghers, almost unknown in Mexico City, now cut ribbons at factory openings, a cultural celebrity. Brecht was given his own theater—though not the theater on Schiffbauerdamm where the Berliner Ensemble plays today, for which he had to wait a few years. All the returning exiles were awarded privileges—extra food rations and flats (a rare commodity in a bombed-out city) and coal (even rarer). Brecht, after his stay at The Adlon, was set up in a large villa in Weissensee, complete with car and driver. When Mother Courage and her Children opened on January 11, 1949 at the Deutsches Theater—a premiere that appears in Leaving Berlin—all this lavish attention, and Soviet policy in general, seemed vindicated. Even as Allied airlift planes were flying overhead to relieve the blockaded western sectors, the theatrical event of the season, drawing an audience from all four sectors, was talking place here in the Soviet sector. The long cultural diaspora was over—and it had come home to the East.
Leaving Berlin is about the world of these returning exiles and about the moral compromises and ambivalent collaborations they are increasingly forced to make. The Soviets, for all this cultural patina, were ruthless occupiers, rapacious in their demands for reparations (whole factories were shipped to Russia) and indifferent to the fate of German POWs (kept as slave labor for years after the war). Now their German protégés and stand-ins—Ulbricht and the other founding fathers of the GDR—were following suit, recruiting Germans to work in appalling conditions in uranium mines and setting up the infrastructure for the secret police surveillance state East Germany would become. The haven the exiles sought was becoming a prison.
And it was then, thinking about the exiles’ special position in the new East Berlin, that the light bulb moment finally arrived: what if one of them had returned as a spy? Leaving Berlin became that story-- an émigré who’s come back for compromised reasons of his own, only to find that espionage carries a fatal price. As all the exiles discover, leaving Berlin is a lot more difficult than getting in. Some embraced their captivity, determined to see the socialist ideal through. Some sparred with the authorities—Brecht and the GDR spent years engaged in kabuki-like posturing and feints, but he kept his privileges and his theater. Some retreated into a private world. And some were purged and given show trials and imprisoned, the final stage on the road home.
Berlin stories are endless and since one leads to another I suspect another book may come out of this one. At the moment it’s only taken vague form but in writing about the German exiles, I became interested in the Soviet occupiers—background characters here but worthy of center stage in their own right. So the next book may take me even further east. But right now I’m still in Berlin, not yet ready to leave, waiting for the light bulb to go on.