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Book Review of "Berlin" (1932), by Joseph Hergesheimer

Updated on December 13, 2016

When the novelist Joseph Hergesheimer traveled to central Europe in the summer of 1931, his main goal was to see how it had changed since his last visit there in 1907. He was particularly interested in the changes that were caused by the great European war of 1914-1918 that had redrawn the map of central Europe.

Hergesheimer found a variety of changes in his journey through Germany, Austria, and Hungary. In some places, they were reflected in what had disappeared since the end of the war, and in other places, in what had appeared. In the process, Hergesheimer also learned more about himself.

When Berlin was published in 1932, readers knew Hergesheimer as an established novelist who had also done some travel writing, including a book about Havana, Cuba (San Cristobal de la Habana).

If they had a copy of the 1931 book Living Authors: A Book of Biographies, they would have known that Hergesheimer was "a lover of beauty and luxury above all things, and takes a sensuous delight in fine ornaments, rare silks, beautiful clothes, and accessories" and that he "has made a passionate study of the manners and modes of life of evolving American civilization."

In the larger world, these readers also would know about a politician named Adolph Hitler who was rising to power in Germany. Much of that rise occurred between Hergesheimer's trip to central Europe in the summer of 1931 and the publication of Berlin in the summer of 1932. An editorial in the April 25, 1932 edition of The Lincoln (Nebraska) Evening Journal read:

The Fascisti in Germany, under the leadership of Adolph Hitler, remains the strongest single force in that country. In spite of the rebuff handed Hitler, personally, at the general election when he was denied the presidency, enormous groups of people have confidence enough in him to elect men he dominates, to the state diets.

There is no mention of Hitler in Berlin, but Hergesheimer did see military-type youth groups who we now know were strong followers of Hitler.

There were, I knew, young political organizations, marching-clubs with banners and Spartan rules, small organized communions of hate. A society of boys tramped by me in Potsdam, uniformed in short pantaloons and black shirts, and I was quite appalled by the grimness of their young faces, at the contempt with which they shouldered me aside.

Hergesheimer decided to focus on other youths in Germany as an example of what had changed since "the war," as he simply called what other writers of the time called the Great War or the European War and what we now call World War I.

He wanted to feel optimistic about the future of Germany, and often found himself admiring the youth of Germany in different ways. He admired their physical fitness, as well as their determined nature.

Hergesheimer observed the youth mostly in public places like parks, athletic fields, bars, and restaurants. In the Gourmania bar in Berlin, he noted:

The young men, the girls, were gravely absorbed in everything they did, and I felt at Gourmania the air of fatalism settled over Germany...They were quiet, yet, I thought, not depressed. No air of defeat bore them down; on the contrary, it seemed to me, the men and girls in Gourmania were entirely self-confident; I began to recognize a caustic wit, a freedom of bearing, that must have developed in Berlin since the war. There was, rather than a lack of spirit, an attitude sharp and relentless, searching, like a knife.

At times, I felt like I was reading a description of the fertile, almost innocent, soil that helped nurture the seeds of power that were planted by Hitler in the early 1930s in Germany. The young people whom Hergesheimer admired were different from the military-type youth groups. But they were not part of the old Germany that had been defeated in the 1914-1918 war, and Hitler understood the hopes and dreams of these young people for a better Germany.

Berlin is a valuable picture of a world that would be dramatically changed in the next 15 years by the rise of Hitler and World War II.

Cover of Berlin
Cover of Berlin

In the city of Berlin, Hergesheimer saw the past being replaced by a new future. In Vienna, Austria, he saw the past slowly fading away, being replaced by an uncertain future.

When Hergesheimer had last visited central Europe in 1907, Vienna was part of the powerful Austro-Hungarian empire that stretched from central Europe to southeastern Europe. The war of 1914-1918 had brought that empire to an end. Now Austria was one of many countries that had been created from that empire, along with Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

When the European war had broken out in 1914, many writers expressed the hope that the destruction of the war would at least have the benefit of ending the aristocratic empires of Europe, including those in Germany, Russia, and Austro-Hungary. Hergesheimer's tour of Vienna gave him a firsthand look at how those writers' hopes had been fulfilled.

Hergesheimer had mixed feelings about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire, whose glory was centered in what in 1931 was Austria.

On one hand, he recognized that the ruling power of the Habsburg family dynasty had to give way to more democratic impulses. On the other hand, the old Vienna was a symbol of a cultured grace and civility that in the 21st century still endures in such activities as the New Year's Day concerts that are broadcast on worldwide television from Vienna.

From Vienna, Hergesheimer traveled to Budapest, Hungary, where he saw another consequence of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The 1914-1918 war was caused in part by the conflict between ethno-lingual identities and national boundaries. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia were attempts to resolve this conflict. Hergesheimer's observations of Hungary confirmed that in 1931 it had a much stronger cultural identity as a stand-alone country than it did as a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In Budapest, Hergesheimer perceived an earthier, more fundamental type of personality that in some ways was symbolized by the folk strains of its native gypsy music. Hergesheimer noted that in Budapest he often felt that he was not in Europe. Instead, he was in a country that had been ruled by Turkey for 150 years, and that was populated by many people of the Magyar race, not the Teutonic race of Austria and Germany.

Budapest was the easternmost stop on Hergesheimer's journey through (in this order):

  1. Berlin
  2. Munich
  3. A scenic lake region near Munich
  4. Vienna
  5. Budapest
  6. A return to Berlin through Czechoslovakia before returning home to the United States

At each stop, Hergesheimer absorbed as much as possible of the everyday life, avoiding standard tourist destinations like museums and churches. His impressions of each area seemed to take deep root in his minds and emotions, so, naturally, at each stop, he was struck by strong contrasts with his previous stop.

Berlin gave him a cautiously optimistic feeling about Germany, but Munich's ancient atmosphere depressed him. He stopped in a crowded cabaret in Munich, and listened to a serious female singer, which made me think of the movie Cabaret, which was set in Berlin in 1931.

His next stop in the mountainous Tegernsee lake region lifted his spirits to the point that he impulsively considered staying there for the rest of his life. The stop in Egern by the Tegernsee obviously struck a deep chord in Hergesheimer's mind and emotions. The confessional nature of his deep attraction to this area is poignant.

Then came the faded grandeur of Vienna, followed by the earthy charms of Budapest. At his final European stop back in Berlin, he reflected on his trip, and ironically participated in a celebration of the American Fourth of July holiday at the American embassy. These reflections continued in Palm Beach, Florida, where he wrote Berlin.

Yes, I was glad I had come to Europe when I did, between happenings, in a momentous pause; nothing political or spiritual was stable; the forms of Europe had no more stability, they were not more fixed, than water. The armies were either gone or completely shifted in nationality and weight; the courts were practically all gone; a handful of kings survived as symbols, expedients of state; soon it must be discovered that their cost was far in excess of their usefulness, and they, too, would go. The old, long familiar shape of things was definitely breaking up. I could not live long enough to see the new world, but I had viewed the last traces of historical middle Europe.

Title page of Berlin
Title page of Berlin

The book jacket of Berlin notes that "the book is, in its narrative of experiences and its reaction to people and cultures, an excellent portrait, half-serious, half-amusing, of the author himself."

When you finish Berlin, you get the sense that Hergesheimer's trip through Europe was also a journey of self-discovery. Hergesheimer was past the age of 50 when he made this trip, and it seemed that he wanted to observe many different lifestyles to see which one might suit him best.

I was, it turned out, thoroughly provincial, local. Nothing that could happen in Europe, in the sense that happenings in the United States were important, appeared important to me. Europe was very much like a spectacle on a gigantic stage. That, I understood, was as narrow as it was ignorant; but it was not superficial.

That section was one of many examples of how Hergesheimer shared himself with the reader and didn't try to be just a detached travel guide writer.

In Hergesheimer's journey, readers recognize the same mixture of emotions that they feel during a vacation. The initial excitement; the parade of new impressions; idealized views; dashed expectations; weariness; and finally the melancholic realization that it is time to let go and go home, because that's where they belong.

Berlin received mostly positive reviews, including these comments from Thelma Browne Ziemer in the July 23, 1932 edition of the Santa Cruz (California) News:

What is particularly refreshing about Hergesheimer's books of this type is his open mindedness. He does not approach such a study with the conviction that life is joyous, or sad, or tragic, or useless. He finds and records the attitude of the people themselves.

Sources

Hergesheimer, Joseph. Berlin. Alfred A. Knopf, 1932.

Tante, Dilly. Living Authors: A Book of Biographies. The H. W. Wilson Company, 1931.

Newspapers.com


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