Communism, Nazism, and the Berlin Stories

In The Berlin Stories, author Christopher Isherwood characterizes the social and political climates in Germany during the rise of Nazism through a series of vignettes centered around William Bradshaw, “a young bourgeois intellectual,” and Arthur Arnold, an older Englishman with subversive Communist sympathies. (Isherwood, 64)  The first one hundred pages of the novel recount the pair’s activities and correspondence centered around the city of Berlin.  Each chapter puts forth several small fragments of interwar Germany with regard to everything from its nightlife (“‘Oh, you mean those whores on the corner there'”) to its foreign policy (“‘The workers demand assistance for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants now rendered homeless'”), ultimately creating an anecdotal portrait of this dynamic period in European history. (Isherwood, 34, 47)

I found the narrative prose style in Isherwood’s work both refreshing and compelling.  It is, in my opinion, always more interesting to absorb history through stories (even those of realistic fiction) and case studies than to simply comb through facts and data.  However, this style can sometimes allow the reader to develop sympathies for particular characters and/or demographics that may not have arisen in more formal historical writing.  Do you feel that the narrative style of Isherwood and other authors like him (e.g. Silone, Solzhenitsyn) can be problematic for readers for this and/or other reasons?

One thought on “Communism, Nazism, and the Berlin Stories

  1. The purpose of literature is not always, and not usually, to preserve the social climate of an era for historical reasons. In some cases, authors present an ideal to live up to; or they warn of how political decisions can mutate and change society on such a fundamental level that it will no longer be recognizable. Isherwood has a particular style, but his ability to create sympathetic characters no matter their situation illustrates the various parts of German society during the early 1930s. He allows readers to see and connect with the variety of people in Berlin at the time. This gives historians more freedom in how they analyze the book and use Isherwood’s perspective in historical arguments.

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