No city has been a deeper well for espionage fiction than Berlin. There is a long and growing list of novels that contribute to the city’s image as a hotbed of spies and conspirators. The fifty-one years bookended by Kristallnacht in 1938 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 provide the rich historical dramas that continue to excite writers’ imaginations. Berlin has preserved the iconic symbols of those years in the Stasi museum and at Checkpoint Charlie’s hop-on, hop-off tourist bus stop, but it is the canon of Berlin spy fiction that excites the popular imagination. Two novelists, Joseph Kanon and Paul Vidich, have published Cold War novels this month and both are set in Berlin. Kanon’s The Berlin Exchange, is his third novel set in the city, and Vidich’s The Matchmaker, is his first set there. We asked both authors: Why Berlin?
Joseph Kanon: One thing led to another. In The Good German, I was really writing about the Allied occupation. That, in turn, led to an interest in how the city finally split and became the epicenter for the Cold War, which I explored in Leaving Berlin. And that, in turn, led to a fascination with the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany/ GDR) which in retrospect seems an Alice In Wonderland kind of political entity— everything upside down.
If you write about Berlin, sooner or later you have to deal with the wall. The Berlin Exchange is set in 1963, after the wall went up and changed everything—including espionage. Before that, with people able to go back and forth, espionage was a kind of cottage industry in Berlin. All the major powers had operations there, with everyone rubbing up against each other. Your question made me think of Willy Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, said, ‘Because that’s where the money was.’ Why Berlin? That’s where the spies were.
Paul Vidich: I chose Berlin because I was fascinated by the Stasi. There is the Berlin of Kristallnacht, the divided Berlin of Allied Occupation, and the Berlin of the Wall. All have been luminously explored by writers. But there is also the Berlin of the Stasi at the end of the Cold War. By 1990, when the GDR fell, the Stasi ran a comprehensive surveillance organization that employed 91,000 people and managed a network of one million informers. One in seven East Germans spied on friends, family, or neighbors.
Across the Berlin Wall, West Berlin was a cosmopolitan home for artists, writers, bohemians, punk rockers who enjoyed their freedoms, and moved back and forth through border checkpoints. Berlin was the friction point between the Communist Block and the NATO Alliance, and you had all these spies running around. Both sides recruited sources, placed penetration agents, and when necessary, undertook legally sanctioned criminal activity against each other.
In many regards, what drew me to Berlin was its history as a magnet for spies – a ‘swampland of spies’ as Nikita Khrushchev put it – and that history has sustained its identity as a cynical place of betrayal and intrigue.
Kanon: The Stasi was really a world unto itself, wasn’t it? It gave the GDR a surreal quality that’s hard to imagine now. Although of course we can imagine it, since so much of its physical presence survives. One of the remarkable things about Berlin is that it doesn’t ignore its often grim history. It may be that preserving it is a way of dealing with it—once it’s memorialized, it’s really the past. But in any case, it provides visual resources to interested visitors—or writers researching a book.
The Stasi headquarters out in Normanenstrasse is a good example. Once the most feared office building in Berlin, it’s now a museum, with relics of the surveillance state, informer files, etc. But even more interesting are the executive offices they’ve preserved, right down to the 60s telephones and furniture—you feel as if people have just stepped away for lunch and you’re peeking into their offices, perfectly ordinary, but at the same time the operating center of a police state. Even eerier, if you’re ambitious, is to go out to the Stasi remand prison in Hohenschonhausen, where you can see the holding cells, rubber-lined, the interrogation rooms, the cheap lace curtains, all still there.
Vidich: Today, cell phones track our physical movements, cookies show which websites we visit, facial recognition software identifies us passing through airports, but none of these technologies are as effective as the Stasi’s pervasive surveillance.
There is another thing that drew me to Berlin. Shed spying of its popular mythology, and spies are well trained stuntmen whose job is to lie, deceive, and betray trust for the purpose of gathering intelligence against an enemy. Berlin just happened to be ground zero for the great conflicts of the 20th century and spies from all sides gathered there to learn what they could about the enemy. Berlin fits the criteria that I look for in a setting: the mood, the things that draw a character to a place, that establish the novel’s atmosphere, and evoke an appealing imaginary world. No city offers a richer setting for the literary spy novel than Berlin. Joe’s Berlin novels, together with le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Len Deighton’s Berlin novels, are superb explorations of the intrigues and betrayals of the spy game and they could only have been set in Berlin.
CrimeReads: Can we shift the question a bit. There are spies in Berlin, but there are also spies in London and Washington D.C. What else excited your imagination about Berlin?
Kanon: The larger history. Weimar Berlin. Nazi Berlin. Cold War Berlin. Each of these periods has its own dramatic fascination, above and beyond espionage, and together they pretty much define the 20th century, at least in the West. How do you live through such history? And there is the phoenix-like quality, a city constantly re-building itself. But these are really just rationales for something inherently mysterious—the attraction of place. Why do we respond to some places and not others? I love Paris (who doesn’t?) but I’ve never wanted to write about it. Istanbul, on the other hand, captured my imagination almost immediately.
It may be, as writers, we’re drawn to places we want to know more about. Not every writer cares deeply about place—think, for instance, of a locked-room mystery, where place is irrelevant—but for me it’s the engine that drives the project. I want to know exactly where my characters live, how they’d get to work, what were they likely to see on the way, etc. etc. For that, you have to walk a city, get to know it on the ground. Or at least I do. I think of it as location scouting. Of course, it’s also an excuse to spend time there, make another visit. Do you find this or do you simply use your imagination?
Vidich: For me, place—or setting—is what begins a novel. I may have an idea of the story, and a character or two, but they only exist in the circumstances found in a particular place. Setting establishes the boundaries of the imaginary world that I’m interested in exploring. Out of place, a character is formed; out of a character’s motives comes the guardrails of plot. Another way to put it is this: place releases my imagination from the prison of the blank page. Berlin has been a popular setting for spy novels, but in different periods in the past few decades Beirut, Hong Kong, Moscow, and London have given themselves up to the spy novelists’ imagination. And there is your novel, Istanbul Passage, which brings the city alive.
CrimeReads: What draws readers to the literary spy/espionage thriller novel? Why is it a popular genre?
Kanon: I think at the heart of all fiction, whatever the genre, is the mystery of character. Who are we? How well can we ever know someone? We have all experienced variations of this—the public face and the private self—but spies take it to a more dramatic level. As you said before, spies lie. And what makes them so intriguing is that they lie to everyone, all the time—their colleagues, maybe their spouses, certainly their children. Their survival depends on deceiving people. This is not only interesting in itself, but puts enormous stress on them, sometimes to the point of cracking, so they’re rich source material for fiction. Of course, most spies are ordinary desk workers, maybe a government clerk who copies papers because he has gambling debts or wants a new car.
People who’ve become spies for ideological reasons (fewer these days) are the ones who really capture the imagination, or at least mine. Someone like Kim Philby, for instance—England’s famous Soviet mole. Was it worth it in the end? What did it feel like to betray everyone? At times there seems to be almost a sense of delight, a little boy getting a kick out of getting away with something. But what we shouldn’t forget is that getting away with something often meant people being killed—not a game at all. Spies were the line soldiers of the Cold War, the proxy fighters, which gives them an added layer of interest for fiction about the period. But we should be wary of romanticizing them. At the heart of what they did was betrayal. E.M. Forster once famously said that if given the choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would betray his country. But when you betray one, you invariably betray the other.
Vidich: I love that E. M. Forster quote. He was one of those early mid-century Englishmen who placed a greater importance on personal loyalty than on national belonging. The essay in which he makes that statement came out in 1939. Spying, at that time, was pretty much a gentleman’s game. World War II marked a boundary for English spy novels by authors like Eric Ambler and W. Somerset Maugham, whose popular entertainments were characterized by patriotism worn proudly, trust in government, and flirty romances with pretty girls. Then came the Cold War and a gray-toned world and a new kind of spy who operated on the fringe of civilized behavior, suborning friends, lying for advantage, who often nourished a healthy distrust of democratic institutions. These are the spies that excite today’s popular imagination—and certainly my imagination.
International intrigue and exotic settings draw readers to the genre, but readers also want to empathize with characters who confront the moral hazards of their work. Men and women living double lives who find themselves in extreme situations making extreme choices beyond the boundaries of civilized behavior.
Any final thoughts about your love of spy fiction and Berlin?
Kanon: Some cities are natural magnets for spies—Istanbul was a neutral capital 20 miles from Nazi occupied territory, an ideal listening post—but none has ever offered as many opportunities as postwar Berlin. All the players are there, in the same city, interacting, turning the place into a giant chessboard of spies, very rich material for fiction. But we shouldn’t forget that Berlin also saw some of the darkest days of the past century. WWII and the Holocaust were administered from here and there are visual reminders everywhere. Sometimes the city feels to me like a storehouse of history lessons.
We’ve both just written books about the GDR, yours at its end, mine some 25 years earlier, when it was still just possible to believe in its future. To get a glimpse of that earlier Berlin go to Karl-Marx-Allee, an avenue of apartment buildings in East Berlin that rose out of the rubble and was meant to be a showcase of the socialist future. Today it feels drab and oddly empty but you can still feel the aspiration in the architecture. The designers meant to build a socialist dream. Their Stalinist bosses instead built a prison. I’ve now written three books set in Berlin, but just when I think I’m done with it I learn something else, another one of those lessons. There seems to be no end to Berlin. At least I hope not.
Vidich: Well said.