Christopher Isherwood was a British/American novelist and screenwriter whose best known works, Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains, became the basis of the hit Broadway musical Cabaret.
Originally, these novels, based on Isherwood’s diaries of his life as a language teacher in Weimar Berlin, were to be part of a larger work to be called The Lost. Instead, desperate for money, he sliced and diced his diaries into a number of articles, the novel Sally Bowles, and these two overlapping novels.
Isherwood went to Berlin to see prep school friend and poet W.H. Auden in March, 1929 and moved to the city in November, 1929. There he discovered his own homosexuality, partly in a bar called The Cosy Corner where he met his first German lover.
Although Goodbye to Berlin was published in 1939, the novel takes place between 1930 and the Winter of 1932-33 before Hitler came to power in March, 1933 and before Isherwood fled Germany with Heinz Neddermeyer in May 1933.
We tend to look back at this era as one in which the National Socialists were the dominant political force because of what came later. However, Goodbye to Berlin shows this was not the case. Isherwood says his Communist friends thought they would win the struggle for power, and if that failed, that they’d win the resulting civil war.
There is plenty of evidence the Communists were doing well. They won more seats in a city election, they staged a mini-occupation of a labour centre, they jeered the Nazis as they marched by. Here’s his description (p. 245):
But the real masters of Berlin are not the Police, or the Army, and certainly not the Nazis. The master of Berlin are the workers – despite all the propaganda I’ve heard and read, all the demonstrations I’ve attended, I only realized this for the first time today. Comparatively few of the hundreds of people in the streets round the Bülowplatz can have been organized Communists, yet you had the feeling that every single one of them was united against this march.
Somebody began to sing the ‘International,’ and, in a moment, everyone had joined in – even the women with their babies, watching from top-story windows. The Nazis slunk past, marching as fast as they knew how.
Other books, by other writers, notably Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, tell what Berlin was later, but here we have what it was early on, in 1932 and 1933, on a knife edge between the Nazis and the Communists.
Isherwood, inadvertently, tells another story, one he can’t see because as a homosexual Communist cabaret patron he doesn’t realize he is the story. As Wikipedia notes, politically, Berlin was a left wing stronghold, with the Nazis calling it “the reddest city [in Europe] after Moscow.” It also had the most open cabaret, theater and film culture, one that became a magnet for homosexual and transgendered individuals from all over Europe.
This is precisely what many Germans thought was wrong with the city. National Socialists deplored both the left-wing slant of its politics and the degenerate lifestyles of its inhabitants. Their anger was specifically aimed at Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jew, a homosexual and an early promoter of deviant sexuality, at Jews in the professions and at Jewish control of the media and major department stores.
Given this background, the characters in Goodbye to Berlin suddenly stand out as examples of what Nazi propaganda claimed. People were living in slums who once had owned country estates, women regarded prostitution as a necessary way to put food on the table, a Jewish department store owner known to Isherwood had a magnificent home and country estate. The social inequalities were gigantic, intolerable, explosive.
Here are two more observations. The character of Mr. Norris in Mr. Norris Changes Trains was based on Gerald Hamilton, an Englishman, once described as the “the wickedest man in Europe.” The character of Sally Bowles was based on Jean Ross (pictured), a British expatriate, cabaret singer and professional floozie. Yes, both Brits.
It’s worth reading Goodbye to Berlin, even now, long after British and American bombers turned everything mentioned into fine grained dust. When you do, ask yourself what caused cultural standards to degenerate in the heart of Europe’s greatest city? What caused Isherwood to gravitate to Berlin like a cigarette butt to a sewer?
Goodbye to Berlin shows what happens when you ruin a country’s economy, then its culture and finally, its politics. And who did that?