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Review Essay

Where Weimar Germany Went Wrong

The Turbulent Politics of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”

In This Review

Berlin Alexanderplatz
Berlin Alexanderplatz
By Alfred Döblin. Translated by Michael Hofmann
New York Review Books, 2018, 480 pp. Purchase

Published in the fall of 1929, two weeks before the Wall Street crash, Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz is a classic of the turbulent late Weimar period, an era that provides a favorite point of comparison with the politics of our own day. The story of Franz Biberkopf, reissued now in a new edition, is a kind of morality tale. It shows a man who is repeatedly knocked down and gets up again, before he finally opens his eyes to what is happening around him. But the novel also presents a morality tale about the politics of resentment on the right and sectarian conflict on the left, and where they can lead.

Newly released from Tegel prison, where he served four years for killing his girlfriend in a jealous rage, Franz tries to go straight, selling shoelaces, neckties, and newspapers, before being cheated and going on a bender. He gets back on his feet, meets Mitzi, a prostitute, falls in with a criminal gang, is run over by a getaway car after an attempted heist and loses an arm. He becomes Mitzi’s pimp, rejoins the gang, and has a breakdown when Mitzi is murdered. After a spell in a mental hospital, Franz is “reborn.” He faces yet another new beginning as the book ends. It all sounds very grim and seedy, just as Crime and Punishment would in summary. (“Student kills old lady with ax, then becomes riddled with guilt, despite the support of a prostitute.”)

In fact, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a work of extraordinary exuberance, its narrative interspersed with human interest stories from the newspapers, weather forecasts, reports of events such as the Tunney-Dempsey fight in September 1928, articles about nutrition, popular songs, fragments of courtroom proceedings, and lists of businesses and advertisements. The novel’s jump cuts and syncopated rhythm, borrowed from the cinema and jazz music of the 1920s, mimic the street life of the city. But a firm structure contains the freewheeling energy. Carefully placed episodes from the

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