”It happened in November,” mural by Kani Alavi at the East Side Gallery, Berlin. (John Cairns / Alamy/Alamy)
Berlin
Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

By Rory MacLean

St. Martin’s. 421 pp. $27.99

Berlin now
The City After the Wall

By Peter Schneider. Translated from the German by Sophie Schlondorff.

Farrar Straus Giroux. 326 pp. $27

THE COLLAPSE
The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

By Mary Elise Sarotte

Basic. 291 pp. $27.99

Marc Kusnetz, an NBC News producer, spent the night of Nov. 9, 1989, watching a joyous crowd attack the wall that had trapped them for 28 years. When he returned to his hotel room the following morning, he noticed that he was covered in a thick layer of chalky powder. As he washed his face over the sink, it dawned on him that the Berlin Wall was disappearing down the drain.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of those events. Publishers have predictably responded with new books about Berlin. But they are different in tone from those published to mark the last significant anniversary. Five years ago, the overriding aim was to explain why the wall came down. Now, that barrier no longer dominates Berlin. The young people who make the city hum have no recollection of division. The wall is a relic of the ever-distant past, not a defining characteristic.

What does define a city? In New York, it’s architecture; in Venice, grandeur. Sydney has setting; Barcelona, culture; Paris, romance. None of those apply to Berlin. It’s a vast, ugly metropolis — the German Detroit. “Imagine Geneva, lost in a desert,” Honoré de Balzac quipped. In 1910, the writer Karl Scheffler described a city perpetually in search of definition: “condemned forever to becoming and never to being.”

That explains its attraction. “Berlin is all about volatility,” Rory MacLean writes. “Its identity is based not on stability but on change.” The city is defined by its people; it’s an expression of popular imagination. Berlin, MacLean argues, “is a place where men set their dreams in stone.” Those dreams have proved ephemeral because the stones have been bombed, blasted and bulldozed. Earthquakes of ambition, delusion, anger and folly periodically level the city.

With nothing permanent, identity is quicksilver. MacLean calls Berlin “the capital of reinvention.” This explains why his biography of the city is not about the place per se, but about those who shaped it or were shaped by it. He starts with the 15th-century balladeer Konrad von Cölln and ends with Ilse Philips, who escaped the Holocaust and then returned to pay homage to its victims. Their stories bookend impressionistic tales of famous residents — Frederick the Great, Walther Rathenau, Käthe Kollwitz, Marlene Dietrich — and of others so anonymous that MacLean had to invent them. A chapter called “Lilli Neuss, and the Owl” is a painfully bleak account of a mid-19th-century factory worker exploited by every man she encounters. Lilli never existed, but her suffering is generic.

“Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries” is the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read. To call it history is, in fact, reductive. There’s some historical analysis, quite a lot of fiction, some philosophizing, lashings of wit and a fair dose of invective. It’s a work of imagination, reflection, reverence, perplexity and criticism that reveals as much about the author’s precocious mind as it does about the city he adores. The book’s most profound feature, however, is its stunningly beautiful writing — phrases of transcendent rhythm force the reader to reverse and read again. Never mind that the logic is occasionally shaky and the facts sometimes slip, the prose is perfect.

Berlin demonstrates how it will illuminate the former course of the Berlin Wall from Nov. 7-9 to mark 25 years since it was toppled. (bauderfilm/ Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH /WHITEvoid 2014)

The sublime writing camouflages a vague thesis. Is there a point to these stories, or did that point escape me? One of MacLean’s invented characters reflects that “everyone who came to Berlin . . . came to make or find themselves in some way or other, their own creation changing the place itself, making them part of it, and it a part of them.” In the process, Berlin took on “a sense of cohesion, of unity, of purpose.” That reads beautifully but is far from true. In many cases, cohesion was lacking and purpose evil. Fritz Haber made poison gas. Leni Riefenstahl made poisonous films. Joseph Goebbels was poison.

There’s nevertheless something to this idea of Berlin as a canvas on which people paint their dreams. MacLean’s characters can be divided (not neatly, perhaps) into those who tried to shape the city and those willing to be shaped by it. The first group usually failed, often pulling Berlin into chaos. The megalomania of Albert Speer and Goebbels resulted in ruins. Others, like Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood and David Bowie, let the city wash over them and were enhanced in the process.

Those famous Berliners are perhaps not as important as MacLean imagines. Berlin is not the creation of a few big egos but instead an agglomeration of a million idiosyncrasies. “Wir sind Berliner,” the locals claim. “We are Berlin.” The city is fascinating and attractive precisely because it is so schizophrenic. It is built of brick, stone and human eccentricity.

“Cities,” Peter Schneider argues, “are far more vulnerable and ephemeral than people. In the span of a single human lifetime, they can transform beyond recognition.” That is especially true of his city. He claims to have witnessed two or three Berlins during the five decades he’s lived there. The causes of change are sometimes obvious — as with the wall tumbling down — but more often mysterious.

Schneider’s book is much less ambitious than MacLean’s but probes the same conundrum of identity. “Berlin Now” is a collection of introspective pieces on aspects of the city, constructed from an extraordinary collection of anecdotes. Schneider is a wonderful observer; he listens, watches and then carefully reflects. Instead of MacLean’s famous few, he presents little people doing little things of big meaning. As a method of constructing a profile of Berlin, it is much more revealing, if not quite as lyrical.

Schneider captures quirks, the way Berlin can be hilarious without trying to be so. He watches heavily tattooed and pierced punks wait patiently for the light to change at an intersection devoid of traffic. Why, he wonders, is a city so addicted to hedonism at the same time so obedient? After riffing on that mystery, he moves smoothly to Berlin’s incredible pedantry. In both East and West, he found the same sign: “It is forbidden to transport people in elevators in which the transport of people is forbidden.” His favorite headline — “Women in East Germany more orgasmic!” — provokes a few pages of delightful speculation. Communism, it seems, had some benefits.

“Berlin Now” is a wonderful little book — a map to the mind of a strange city. The last few pages discuss the successful efforts to control the pigeon population. Forty thousand breeding pairs once plagued Berlin. By 2012, however, thanks to various civic programs, the population fell to 4,827, a number more impressive for its precision than its size.

On finishing the pigeon pages, I immediately took up Mary Elise Sarotte’s “The Collapse,” an exception to the shift in focus this anniversary year. On first glance, her book seems a lot like those of five years ago. After reading Schneider’s whimsy, I expected an abrupt change in tone. In fact, however, Sarotte’s study harmonizes perfectly with Schneider’s since it’s about the little people who, through collective but uncoordinated action, changed a city.

Sarotte maintains that the collapse of the wall was one big accident — or in truth lots of little ones. There was nothing inevitable about that joyous scene witnessed by Kusnetz, but the people he observed on that night were the most important actors in the drama. She rejects the narrative that sees the collapse as a predestined result of actions taken by big players such as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. “If we assume the inevitability of events,” she argues, “we ignore the agency of people forced to make far-reaching decisions under immense pressure, the core of the story told here.”

Sarotte is a superb historian. She’s ferociously intelligent, but what really separates her from her colleagues is her acute sensitivity to human drama. “The Collapse” pivots on the story of Harald Jager, who believed devoutly in the communist experiment and served it for two decades as a border guard. He was, despite his job, a decent man. On the night of Nov. 9, his superiors failed to give him clear instructions about how to deal with the mob gathering at his Bornholmer Street crossing. When he pressed for guidance, they called him a coward. “Why have I been standing here for the last twenty years?” he asked himself as tears welled.

Jager, feeling alone and betrayed, opened his gate. He could easily have started shooting, a more predictable response. What, then, might have been the consequences, for Berlin, Germany, Europe, the U.S.S.R. and the United States? By letting Berliners pass peacefully through, Jager trumped the big players, who had no expectation or intention that communism would collapse on Nov. 9.

On that night, a young woman was heading home from her job at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry when she heard what was happening at Bornholmer Street. She decided she had to cross. That crossing changed her life, inspiring a shift from chemistry to politics. Her name was Angela Merkel.

The people shape the city. The city shapes the people.

Gerard De Groot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is “Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War One.”

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about the Berlin Wall

MLK’s forgotten Berlin speech

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BERLIN

Portrait of a City through the Centuries

By Rory MacLean

St. Martin’s. 421 pp. $27.99

BERLIN NOW

The City After the Wall

By Peter Schneider

Translated from the German by Sophie Schlondorff

Farrar Straus Giroux. 326 pp. $27

THE COLLAPSE

The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

By Mary Elise Sarotte

Basic. 291 pp. $27.99