EVEN AS HE LAY DYING, crippled by exile, Franz Hessel had no ax to grind. Even as he was forced into a French internment camp as a German, having been driven from Germany as a Jew, the writer was disinclined to view his destiny through the prism of politics. Even as his spirited wife Helen dragged him away from Berlin shortly before Kristallnacht in 1938, Hessel saw no cause for urgency. Things couldn’t be as bad as people said.
How could this man who was almost suicidally apolitical, blind to the influence of ideology, have produced a masterpiece of observation like Walking in Berlin? Published in 1929 and long lost in ill-deserved, untranslated obscurity, this outstanding portrait of the city in its Weimar apogee is finally available in sparkling English, thanks to Amanda DeMarco.
The translator ponders Hessel’s strange gift. “He is a camera,” says DeMarco, borrowing the description Christopher Isherwood applied to himself more in hope than certainty. “It’s this kind of recording faculty. The fact that he recorded in such detail so much of this city that’s just gone, is part of what makes it unique and special.” We are sitting in a spotless, wood-laminated, vaguely corporate cafe in Berlin. It is, most likely, the polar opposite of what comes to mind when you hear the words “cafe” and “Berlin,” and is attached to a colossal postwar furniture store full of smoked-glass wall units and other big-ticket fixtures. The building looms over Genthiner Strasse like a false memory, its ugliness as eloquent an expression of loss as any monument.
Few places testify to what’s gone from Hessel’s city as powerfully as this. The year Hessel left Berlin, there were 529 buildings in the Tiergarten district, between here and the enormous park of the same name at its northern perimeter. Just 16 survived the war and subsequent cleanup. Landwehr Canal, two blocks north of here, was environed by an elegant haut-bourgeois neighborhood home to well-to-do families both Jewish and gentile. In a piece written in 1889, novelist Theodor Fontane, wandering the canal to see what he can see, passes the corner of Genthiner Strasse, where banker Heinrich Hessel had recently arrived from Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) with his family, including eight-year-old Franz. Fontane sets off with the words “Ich flaniere gerne in den Berliner Strassen.”
“I like to stroll the streets of Berlin.” German had borrowed the verb “flanieren” from French earlier in the century, but had not yet freighted it with the Baudelairean associations of flânerie — the directionless yet observant exploration of the city. That sense was added by the man whose birthplace lies just around the corner on Magdeburger Platz — Walter Benjamin. Thanks to the vast, unfinished Arcades Project, Benjamin is inseparable from any discussion of flânerie in the 20th century, but it was his review of Hessel’s Walking in Berlin that first crystallized his thoughts in this direction.
Here, in these few vanished streets of the city that’s vanished, is Hessel and Benjamin’s shared arcadia, a landscape of remembrance essential to 20th-century intellectual history. Where we sit was once the corner of Steglitzer and Genthiner, a location to which Benjamin dedicated a chapter of his posthumously published Berlin Childhood around 1900, although Steglitzer Strasse has disappeared, along with its corner.
DeMarco ponders Hessel the flâneur of Walking in Berlin, and how he differs from Benjamin the theorist of flânerie. “He says at the beginning of this book that his project is to look at the city as if it’s the first time he’s seen it,” she says. “He really wants to show you what it is to see, not show you what it is to think about what you see.” It’s an important distinction. “He’s certainly not expecting any expert or inside knowledge from his reader,” she says. Hessel himself happily supplies these qualities, carrying his erudition about him like contraband, revealing his wares to the reader on quiet corners. And not just canonical, capital “H” History, but also art appreciation, armchair sociology, anecdote, fable — folk inheritances reaching back to Berlin’s medieval origins.
It was in early 20th-century Munich that Hessel first schooled himself in perceptive wandering. As a moneyed young man with literary aspirations, he had naturally gravitated to what was then the country’s cultural capital, and in 1905 he issued a volume of poetry. More interesting is his 1913 novel, The Junkshop of Happiness, which fictionalizes the author’s revels in Munich with the likes of poet Karl Wolfskehl and “bohemian countess” Franziska zu Reventlow, as well as a subsequent period in Paris, when he entered into a ménage with art collector Henri-Pierre Roché and art student Helen Grund. Better known, however, is Roché’s own roman à clef about this period, which came 40 years later: Jules et Jim.
Hessel returned to Berlin in the 1920s, just in time to see his inheritance consumed by hyperinflation. He adjusted to circumstances with alacrity and industry, translating Proust with his new friend Benjamin, with whom he bonded over memories of the Tiergarten. It was once again the center of Hessel’s world, as he lived and worked near the canal, taking up editing work for the Rowohlt publishing house, helping to further the careers of authors such as Robert Walser. Walking in Berlin appeared amid an eclectic and productive streak that lasted until 1933, which also brought forth a piece of classically inspired epic verse, a fictional 24-hour stroll in and around the Tiergarten, and one of the first books dedicated to Marlene Dietrich.
DeMarco and I look across the furniture store’s largely empty car park to Kurfürstenstrasse, where sex workers still ply their trade on the corner where teen addict memoirist Christiane F. once toiled. For the translator, Hessel’s book revealed the deep roots of the city’s permissiveness. “We kind of think of our modern era as being remarkably open, but he’s talking about his youth 10 or 20 years earlier that seems to be just as open as our day is now.”
Hessel was in his mid-40s when he returned to these streets in Walking in Berlin. Heavy with memory, he seems more comfortable in the company of caryatids than people; sometimes you wonder what manner of fleshly beings might have walked past as Hessel peered at architectural features. Contemporary reviews emphasized the “stillness” of Hessel’s observations, a rebuff to the mechanized tumult of the 1920s; Magali Laure Nieradka’s 2003 biography of Hessel bears the title Der Meister der leisen Töne — the master of soft tones. Quiet, musing aimlessness might be considered a radical act in a city streamlined for purpose, soft power exercised within an urban machine advancing with forthright military vigor. Or it could be a dandyish refutation of drear toil, a practice reflecting a conception of leisure fallen out of time. Hessel referred to himself as a laudator temporis acti — one who praises times gone by.
This lyrical heimatsick mode is just one of several, but it lends the book warmth and substance. “If you’re walking around a city street there’s something that’s unmoored about it,” says DeMarco. “The pace of urban life can make things rapid or disjointed or unemotional. And if you’re recording detail after detail after detail, having an emotional counterweight for that, whether that’s in another part of the book or supplied in the moment, I think is a good literary device.”
Some of these pieces started life as feuilletons, another French borrowing the Germans attach to chatty or pensive first-person newspaper articles on some aspect of daily existence, large or small. Hessel’s capacious sympathies for urban life allow him to shift register deftly, as well as his voice and his presumed audience:
Sometimes when he’s drawing more on memory there’s a “we” that refers to people that come from a particular neighborhood and sometimes there’s a “we” that’s Berliners, and sometimes there’s an “I” that’s separate from the people who are judging him. He’s accomplished in making you feel of or not of the place.
Hessel covers an impressive amount of what was then the third largest city in the world, after London and New York. Each chapter in Walking in Berlin stakes out a different area — “To the East,” “The North,” “The Southwest,” or something more specific, like “Kreuzberg,” “Hasenheide,” or “Dönhoffplatz.” Hessel mostly explores on foot in the flâneur tradition, although, in one lengthy piece, he joins visitors to the city in motorized “sightseeing” (he is amused by the apparent redundancy contained in the English word). Naturally, Hessel knows far more of what these sightseers encounter than the guide. But his more spontaneous, flâneur-y moments are triggered by situations and areas with which he is unfamiliar, particularly in the north and east of the city. Sometimes he ducks into one of the shadowy, enclosed courtyards found in many Berlin apartment buildings, and discovers children, artisans, troubadours — another world again. The city’s endless tenements, it has to be said, were of finite interest to Hessel. A huge working-class district that is now, arguably, Europe’s hipster capital is dismissed with the words, “There’s really no reason to visit Neukölln for its own sake.” But most of what passes before his eyes is met with childlike reverence. Factories, flower markets, nightclubs, theaters, museums, hairdressers, shoe-shiners, taverns, gardens, cemeteries, slaughterhouses, palaces, lumber yards, monuments, department stores, print works — the momentary and the momentous — all are mysterious and enchanting, all bind him closer to the city he loves. Joseph Roth’s articles from the same period portray Berlin as an enormous mechanism; but to Hessel, a mechanism is a mechanism, just one of many competing wonders in a city that, if properly tended, can offer the warm embrace supplied by the village of völkisch obsession.
When he visits the Reichstag, Hessel speaks of left and right in terms of stage directions, and indeed they might as well be stage left and stage right for all the meaning he attaches to their underlying ideals. In the vanished Sportpalast, he witnesses a Nazi rally, its communist equivalent, as well as an epic six-day cycle race, and treats them all as essentially interchangeable spectacles. “He just doesn’t draw certain political or social conclusions,” says DeMarco, “and if there’s a critique to be brought to this book it is that.” Her footnotes, largely confined to fleshing out details alluded to in Hessel’s text, rightly upbraid the writer for his blithe indifference to the inhumane racism of a “human zoo” then operating in Berlin.
Although he knew that development was changing Berlin, he was ignorant of the greater calamity to come. His goal was to capture the city he loved before it transformed, and so he merely records, going unnoticed so that he may notice all the more. Hessel is like so many of the people he lived among. “That’s what makes the book sexy — it puts it in the shadow of danger,” says DeMarco. “They act with a sort of abandon that they wouldn’t have been capable of had they known. So when you see this flourishing subculture, the condition for its flourishing is that it has to be oblivious to where it’s headed.” However, DeMarco does find evidence of what she calls a “pre-political” stance in Hessel’s exploration of the city. “It’s a way of being a citizen, it’s a way of occupying a place that I think is not yet political, but is sort of a pre-requisite for being a politically aware resident of a place.”
His “recording faculty” supplies plenty of the dramatic irony we expect of Weimar-era literature. Hessel describes the central Lustgarten (“pleasure garden”), where Hitler would later give inflammatory speeches, as “an island of peace.” In the Scheunenviertel, then a ghetto for Jewish arrivals from the east, Hessel comments that pending redevelopment would see it “wiped from the face of the earth”; it was the war that flattened numerous buildings here, but not before many of their occupants were transported to the camps. Casting an aesthete’s disapproving eye on the historicist neo-Romanesque confection of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Hessel expresses the wish that it would “deteriorate and collapse a little.” Largely destroyed in the war, its truncated spire was retained as a warning from history (further infamy accrued to the site in late 2016 when an ISIS-inspired terrorist ran a truck through a Christmas market).
Walking in Berlin rightfully joins the Weimar writings of Robert Walser, Joseph Roth, and Siegfried Kracauer, in a lineage of Berlin texts reaching back through Victor Auburtin, Alfred Kerr, and Julius Rodenberg (spot the common denominator; not for nothing does Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s recent cultural history of female urban exploration, ignore the German capital). But Hessel himself was a man who barely tipped his hat to posterity. He died in 1941, surviving Walter Benjamin by little more than three months, and he remains overshadowed by him, by Roché, and even by his own son, Stéphane Hessel — a Resistance hero, French diplomat, and, later, godfather to the Indignados.
On the cover of Der Meister der leisen Töne, Hessel père positively woos anonymity, staking out the middle of the grayscale in a shapeless cardigan. He looks, in other words, like someone you probably wouldn’t glance at twice in the street.