Book review: “Berlin” by Jason Lutes

There are only two sides to a Revolution, Kurt. You have to choose one.

This book was a pleasant surprise when a book on the Weimar Republic popped up on @scihoroscope’s Twitter feed. And more than that, it was a graphic novel: how unusual, at least for me. I haven’t yet read a single graphic novel, and here comes one covering a period of history near and dear to my heart.

The Weimar Republic was the fragile democracy cobbled together from post-WWI Germany. The Kaiser had abdicated. Starting a democracy overnight was difficult, not to mention the harsh war reparations that eventually led to runaway inflation, high unemployment, and a starving population. The unstable conditions were ripe for political polarization, as more moderate parties lost control of first the streets and then the government as Communists on the left and National Socialists on the right captured the loyalty of a frustrated public.

As you read about this period in time, you can’t help but start to make comparisons with our own age. The clashes between alt-right groups and Antifa in Portland, Oregon sound eerily like the fights in the streets in Wedding and Berlin. Reviewers of Berlin have made the connection as well. For instance, from the back of the book, This landmark collection returns this story to us now when we need examples of how to stay human to each other in the face of a politics that turns friends into enemies– a newly necessary book and Devastatingly relevant.

I have read a few non-fiction books with similar themes. Perhaps most relevant, Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s also mixes up politics, personality, art, and culture in the teeming capital of Germany in the Jazz Age. But even this book, though it does better than a straight-up history of Germany in the 20s would do speaking in generalities like the economy and public opinion and trends and foreign policy, still can’t quite capture what it was like to be in 1920s Berlin. And a graphic novel has the space to do that.

The book is epic in scope: it doesn’t follow a linear plotline. In fact, I don’t know if you can really say there is a plotline at all, in the same sense that history doesn’t have a plot. Pulling that off can be hard, because you, in essence, have to create an entire world. Just reading Lutes source material, you can tell that he has meticulously reconstructed the past. His author bio says he started the drawings for Berlin in 1994! The reader has to be careful to keep track of the fairly large dramatis personae, similar to reading The Iliad or Middlemarch or The Stormlight Archives. Sub-plots and sub-plots, with the shadow of Hitler present on every page, even though he’s actually depicted only occasionally throughout the work and only says a handful of words.

The variety of personalities is amazing. We sometimes paint the past in monotones, and that variety can be hard to recover. Marthe Müller, a young woman studying art in the big city; Kurt Severing, an idealistic journalist losing faith in the printed word as extremism spreads like poison; Gudrun Braun, a working-class mother whose family is torn apart by politics. All is carefully documented, as the year marches from 1928 to 1930.

The book is breath-taking. It captured my imagination in a way a book hasn’t done in a while. I honestly wish there were more.

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