Read The World: 10 Books About Berlin
Every city is the product of a rich, complex history, but Berlin, Germany, seems to stand out. It’s been the capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, Nazi Germany and, of course, modern-day Germany. It’s been split in the middle by a wall, and it’s been reunited. It’s been the home of scientists and artists, as well as some of the most heinous acts in human history. There are many different stories you can tell about the city, which is why books about Berlin are so plentiful.
To give you an introduction to the German capital’s multi-faceted identity, we chose 10 of our favorite books about Berlin. They span fiction and nonfiction, past and present. These selections certainly aren’t the only books worth reading about the city, but they’re a good starting point. Though many of these books were originally published in German — and we encourage you to try reading them in the original language if you’re learning the language — all of them are currently available in English.
Nonfiction Books About Berlin
For The Person Who Prefers To See Cities By Foot: Walking In Berlin By Franz Hessel
Written almost a hundred years ago, Walking in Berlin is not going to give you the most up-to-date landmarks of the city. In the course of Franz Hessel’s essays — all crafted around a walking journey — the author guides you through the city’s history and culture. Retracing Hessel’s steps, you can see what has changed since the days of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, and you can also see what has amazingly stayed the same despite multiple cultural upheavals.
For The Alt-History Reader: Gay Berlin By Robert M. Beachy
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that modern-day Berlin is a destination for many members of the LGBTQ community. What you might not know is that this has been the case for well over a century now. Gay Berlin traces the history of LGBTQ people in the city, and shows how Berlin’s culture has challenged notions of sexuality and gender throughout the world.
For The World War II Historian: Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 By Marie Vassiltchikov
You could fill a library with the books written on World War II and still probably run out of space to shelve the new books. Despite that, Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 stands out because of its unique view of Berlin during the darkest years of the war. The author, Marie Vassiltchikov, was born a Russian princess who had to leave her home country during the Bolshevik October Revolution. In Berlin, she ended up working in the German Foreign Ministry with Adam von Trott zu Solz, one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance who plotted to kill Adolf Hitler. Reading Vassiltchikov’s diaries gives you one of the most fascinating peeks into German life during World War II.
For The Person Wanting A Look Behind The Berlin Wall: Stasiland by Anna Funder
A powerful work of investigative journalism, Stasiland is a gripping look at the people who lived in East Germany. She interviews people who were teens, members of the resistance and members of the Stasi, the secret police who helped maintain a surveillance state. The book looks beyond the limits of Berlin proper, but its tagline — Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall — shows how central the city’s division was to the splitting of the country in the aftermath of the war.
For The Person Who Wants To Know The City Today: Berlin Now By Peter Schneider
Berlin is such a historical landmark, it’s almost easy to forget that looking at its present is still important. Though published in 2014, Berlin Now is one of the most current books available in English looking at the more recent history of the city, from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Written with the affection and strong opinions of someone who moved to the city later in life, this book traces the most recent cultural trends — particularly its arts and club scene — that have shaped the city into its modern form.
Fiction Books About Berlin
For The Classics Reader: Berlin Alexanderplatz By Alfred Döblin
Once in a while, a novel is completely identified with a city, like Ulysses and Dublin. The closest candidate for that in Berlin is likely Berlin Alexanderplatz. Alfred Döblin’s story of a former prisoner who can’t escape from sinking into the 1920s underworld isn’t necessarily the most relatable story, but it’s the defining novel of the Weimar Republic. It’s a sprawling narrative — it was famously adapted into a 15-hour miniseries — that uses black humor to analyze some of the bleakest aspects of humanity.
For The ’80s Obsessed: The Wall Jumper By Peter Schneider
Though at only 144 pages it’s more of a novella, The Wall Jumper is notable because it’s a fictional account of the Berlin Wall published in 1983, while the wall was still standing. Living in Berlin himself during the time, Peter Schneider focuses on what it was really like for the people who crossed the Berlin Wall as a regular part of their lives. It paints a picture of divided Berlin as a complicated place with much more intermixing than a modern reader might have been led to believe.
For The Politically Engaged: Go, Went, Gone By Jenny Erpenbeck
From 2014 to 2017, Germany granted asylum to more refugees than any other European country. It makes sense, then, that the debate over refugees is at the heart of one of the best novels set in Berlin this century, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The story is about a former professor who decides in his retirement to interview a group of African asylum-seekers he sees in Alexanderplatz. He quickly becomes involved in their lives, and explores the moral questions about the West’s response to the “refugee crisis.” It’s at once a philosophical and very personal story.
For The Graphic Novel Reader: Berlin by Jason Lutes
Finally released in full in 2018, Berlin was the product of decades of work. It’s a massive tome that follows the lives of a wide cast of characters as the Weimar Republic starts to take its turn toward Nazism. The story features plenty of gripping character study that in itself makes it worth reading, but the artwork also provides one of the most vivid representations of historical Berlin. That’s probably the main reason it took over 20 years of research and drawing to create.
For The Self-Described “Expat”: Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel
A lot of books on this list delve into dark corners of history, philosophical questions. While certainly not light reading, Other People’s Clothes is a departure from these other novels. The book is about two American expat women who move to Berlin and fall in love with the club scene, something that plenty of people today can relate to. When the two decide to move into a sublet that was advertised by a thriller writer, however, they quickly start living in a thriller of their own. The heart of the story is the somewhat toxic friendship between the women, but the book also provides keen observations on the larger expat art world the characters live in.