Leaving Berlin: Joseph Kanon

Posted: October 11, 2015 in Germany, Historical, review, Russia, spy story

leaving berlinJoseph Kanon’s best known book is The Good German, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. Leaving Berlin would probably make an even better movie. I would agree with distinguished author Alexander McCall Smith’s back cover blurb that this is a very exciting book. But it is also a thriller for grown ups, which discusses political topics that are still extremely relevant today.

From the back cover:

Berlin 1949….a city caught between political idealism and the harsh reality of Soviet occupation………Alex Meier is a young Jewish writer who fled the nazis before the war….in the cross hairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of family, Alex makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin.

Of course things are never that straightforward, Alex has a son in America and a back history in Berlin which he left in 1935. The Russian military government, and their German fellow travellers, have invited “socialist” writers, playwrights, architects to work in the New Germany. Many of them in a similar situation to Alex.

“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.

“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained.

“My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”

I read a lot of historical political thrillers simply because I enjoy learning about the past and perhaps being able to judge current trends. This novel is full of lessons for us and future generations. I loved the way Alex is given his Kulturband membership documents and told the food is excellent there, but for members only. In 1949 Germany had not yet formally split into two states but much of the structure of the oxymoronic German Democratic Republic, GDR, was in the process of being created. 

Alex’s aunt Lotte married into the von Bermuth family, who lived a life of comparative luxury before the war, and he had indulged in a secret affair as a young man with the beautiful Irene von Bermuth. Irene is now the mistress of Russian officer Sasha Markovsky, deputy to Maltsev an important cog in the Soviet Military Administration. Alex’s American minders want him to revive his relationship with Irene, and question her about Markovsky’s pillow talk. 

This novel is well written in an easy to read style, but the plot is very complex because such a lot happening. German POWs working in terrible conditions in a secret uranium mine. Decent men and women facing trial for treason for expressing deviation from the Party approved line, or simply it seems being Jewish.

Espionage. Shady deals. Murder. Betrayal upon betrayal. The use of old Nazi camps to house prisoners.

When Erich, Irene’s brother escapes from the uranium mining camp, and seeks her help in Berlin, and Sasha, Irene’s protector, is suddenly recalled to Moscow. The danger begins to escalate.

For all the excitement of the car chases, espionage and murders, it is the educational value of the story that makes this such a good book. Were the dedicated socialists who returned to work in their hoped for utopia very naive?

Herb Kleinbard, an architect makes fun of the plans for rebuilding the new Berlin. He calls the structures “Stalin wedding cakes”, and Alex discusses his situation with his wife.

“He could go to the West. A German. They take in any German.”

“The West? And work for the old Nazis? Another Speer? No, thank you. This is the Germany he wants. You’re here too. You understand how he feels. You don’t go.”

“I’m not in Sachsenhausen.”

This novel is a reminder that there is not a cigarette paper between Fascism and Communism, and in the long term very little between hard left Socialism and National Socialism. I am old enough to remember how the German Democratic Republic was admired by some as the new socialist Germany, the artistic achievements a revival of German culture, the sporting success one of the results of a true socialist state.  These people ignored the existence of the Ministry of State Security [Stasi] with its hundreds of thousands of secret informers, which must have seemed so familiar to those who had lived through the National Socialist years.

In the long history of walls from The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Israeli separation wall, the fence round the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, to the Hungarian razor wire, walls were designed to keep people out. 

Only the German Democratic socialist utopia had a wall to keep people in!  

Leaving Berlin is a great book well worth reading as both a fine thriller, and a warning from history.    

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Comments
  1. tracybham says:

    You have convinced me to purchase this book. I have put it off because I already have some Kanon books that I have not read, but this one is closest to the time period and events I like to read about.

  2. Norman Price says:

    Thats good Tracy. I am a little embarrassed by this period of history and the aftermath, as for a few years I thought communism was the answer, but then I was only twelve when I realised my mistake.

  3. I have very much enjoyed all the Kanon books I have read – maybe 4 of them? – and this one sounds like a must-read for a fan…

    • Norman Price says:

      Thanks Moira for your comment.
      I must admit that reading Joseph Kanon, followed by Eric Ambler and Alan Furst has left me rather depressed.
      I am usually optimistic about the basic good nature of the British people, but we of a “liberal” left of centre persuasion have taken a few blows lately. Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends”, Tom Watson’s “activities”, and now the appointment of Seamus Milne are enough to worry even an optimist.
      I am therefore moving on to read a more cheerful book about crooked Italian cops, multiple murders, and the ‘Ndrangheta.
      A bit of light relief. 😉

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