I happened upon Christer Isherwood's 1939 book, "Goodbye to Berlin" on the shelves of The Strand in New York City. George Orwell had endorsed this book with the statement - "Brilliant sketches of a society in decay." This sparked my curiosity to read more about 1930s Berlin, and I now feel tremendously rewarded for having read it.
"Goodbye to Berlin" is technically a fiction novel, but it is a largely autobiographical account, based on the author's diaries while living in Berlin. Isherwood gives us novella-like glimpses into the lives of a variety of characters that he encounters, befriends, lives with and shares moments with during his time in Berlin.
What strikes me about the characters in this book and the lives he describes is how utterly modern 1930s Berlin is - and how similar it is to, say, New York City today. There is Sally - adventurous, independent, proud of her crude sense of humor and her numerous affairs; there are Peter and Otto, the gay couple who can't seem to get along; there is Natalia, always speaking in the repressed, schoolgirlish tone of an overprotected daughter from a patriarchal family ("I do not understand what this modern books mean when they say the mother and father always must have quarrel with the children. You know, it would be impossible that I can have quarrel with my parents. Impossible. Absolutely impossible, because I know that my father and my mother love me. And so they are thinking always not of themselves but of what is for me the best"); there is Otto's mother, surviving with little money and little family support - it is a collage of ordinary Berlin society - each person with his own history, her own sufferings and longings for the future.
Amidst this all, Germany's political situation fraught. Nazi sympathizers are all over town, just as there are communists, gays, Jews and Nazi opposers. Coffee-shop conversations about the political situation are as heated or as mundane as what you might hear in any American city today. Academics and intellectuals feel lightly repressed but they either feel that things will blow over or they are apathetic to attempt bringing any real change.
As the novel progresses, so too does the rise of the Nazis. What happens with Frl. Schroeder is symptomatic of what happens with all of Berlin - "It's no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about 'Der Führer' to the porter's wife. If anybody were to remind her that at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town."
This paragraph was important in the parallels it draws to mind with our present time. The idea that entire communities simply acclimatize is a scary one. That's what happens in Orwell's "1984". It's also similar to what Dave Eggers is writing about with regard to social media in "The Circle." When societies suspend rationality and disbelief, when discourse ceases or is supplanted by sound bites, when politics become ideologically driven, the foundation of a civilization weakens and dangerous possibilities suddenly become viable.
I will close this review with a scene Isherwood describes. He witnesses a boxing match where all the boxers are essentially actors performing a role. One boxer is told to win, the other one is told to lose, one is told to look injured, etc. The audience can witness everything that's going on - "The referee… calls for a challenger from the audience. Before any bona fide challenger can reply, another young man, who has been quite openly chatting and joking with the wrestlers, jumps hastily into the ring and strips off his clothes, revealing himself already dressed in shorts and boxer's boots. The referee announces a purse of five marks; and, this time, the Negro is 'knocked out'. The audience took the fights dead seriously, shouting encouragement to the fighters, and even quarreling and betting amongst themselves on the results. Yet nearly all of them had been in the tent as long as I had, and stayed on after I had left. The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything."
This ability to believe "in anybody or anything" creates an environment that power brokers often exploit - whether it's Nazi Germany, "Big Brother" in 1984, the "Dear Leader" in Kim Jong Il's North Korea, or the ominous not-so-fictional world of Dave Eggers where slogans ("All that happens must be known" and "Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft") supplant critical thinking and genuine political discourse. In each case, it is the ordinary citizen that suffers, it is the exploited that become further exploited and it is tacit acceptance by mainstream society which allow civilizations to crumble.