Berlin in Fiction: A Reading List
Whether you’re coming to the German capital for the first time and looking to do some background reading, or a veteran wanting to brush up on your Berliner Schnauze, our reading list of some of the best novels and works of fiction set in Berlin is the perfect place to get started...
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
One of the great 20th century German novels, set on the sordid streets of the working class neighbourhoods around Alexanderplatz. Franz Biberkopf, a murderer fresh out of prison, tries to leave the underworld behind him and live a decent life against a backdrop of unemployment, crime, misery, and growing political extremism in Weimar Berlin.
Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone), Hans Fallada, 1947
Based on a real-life Gestapo file acquired by the author post-WWII, Alone in Berlin, set in 1940, tells a poignant tale of courage and character in the face of the grim realities of Nazi Berlin. After the death of their son on the Western Front, working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel begin a campaign of quiet resistance placing postcards around their neighbourhood. It’s not long before the Gestapo is on their tail.
Berlin Noir, Phillip Kerr, 1989-1991
A collection of three of Kerr’s lauded Nazi-noir crime thrillers – March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem. Each follows hardboiled private sleuth Bernie Gunther as he drinks, smokes and gets up to his elbows in the filth and corruption of Nazi Germany, running up against some of history’s most notorious criminals in the process.
Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood, 1939
Sex, cabaret, and political violence leap off the page in Isherwood’s fictionalised autobiography of the time he spent living in Berlin in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. It makes a compelling chronicle of Berlin’s instability and schizophrenia in the period – the rise of the Nazis juxtaposed with the defiant hedonism of the era.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré, 1963
This iconic and atmospheric Cold War espionage thriller – in which British agent Alec Leamas is sent to East Germany as a faux defector to compromise a powerful intelligence officer in the Ministry of State Security – starts with a taut opening at Checkpoint Charlie and culminates in a violent set piece in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.
Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kästner, 1929
One for the kids. Young Emil is sent to Berlin by his mother with money for his grandmother, only to have it stolen during the train journey. It’s up to Emil and a group of local children to track down the thief, reclaim his grandmother’s money, and bring the perpetrator to justice. A children’s book, certainly, but an atypical one – set in a rough and realistic Berlin, with some seriously unsanitized characters.
Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher, 2007
Now a big-budget HBO-style TV series in Germany, this Weimar-set noir (‘Der Nasse Fisch’ in German) follows detective Gereon Rath as he becomes caught in a web of sex, drugs, political conspiracy and murder in Berlin as Germany teeters on the edge of Nazism.
The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov, 1938
Part fictionalised autobiography, part metafiction, The Gift follows impoverished émigré writer Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev as he pursues his literary ambitions in Berlin, having been forced to flee the Bolshevik revolution with his family. It’s typical Nabokov – complex, playful, lyric – and features some tantalising descriptions of the author’s Berlin.
Heroes Like Us, Thomas Brussig, 1995
A laugh-out-loud romp hailed as ‘the novel of Reunification.’ East Berliner Klaus Uhltzscht sees big things in his future and does his best to serve his nation. He joins the Stasi but a glorious career in international espionage never materialises. At home Klaus’s parents do their best to keep his various bodily urges under close observation. Then, in the Autumn of 1989, Klaus has a strange accident that changes him forever.
The Innocent, Ian McEwan, 1990
Leonard Marnham, a young and naive Post Office technician, finds himself at the front line of the Cold War in 1955 Berlin as part of a top-secret US/British operation to tunnel beneath the Soviet sector to gain access to Russian communications. An affair with a German divorcee five years his senior compounds his loss of innocence. A taut psychological thriller.