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An eye looking through a lock hole
Image: picture alliance/ZB

Scene in Berlin

Jane Paulick
December 21, 2012

Now beloved of fashion designers and digital entrepreneurs, Berlin of yore teemed with spy catchers, serial killers and gentlemen bandits - some real, some imagined.


When I was growing up, my favorite book was Erich Kästner's "Emil and the Detectives," about a gang of kids on the heels of a thief in 1920s Berlin. To this day, there's nothing I enjoy more than a pacey thriller set in my adopted city.

I'm spoiled for choice: On the frontline of the Cold War, Berlin provided the perfect backdrop for numerous espionage novels that made the most of the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of the pre-unification years. It became almost a character in its own right - so much so that when I first moved here, everything I knew about Berlin's topography had been gleaned from repeated reading of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and Len Deighton's Bernard Samson series.

These days, George Smiley wouldn't find much left of the Berlin landmarks that featured so prominently in Cold War fiction, but a few dingy relics remain. The forbidding former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security on Normannenstrasse can still send a shiver down the spine, and I never fail to get a kick out of crossing the Glienicke Bridge on the outskirts of town, where the Soviets and the Allies exchanged their spies.

Scene in Berlin


But the real skeletons in Berlin's closet are unearthed to best effect in the hardboiled genre, from Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels to Jonathan Rabb's Berlin trilogy and Rebecca Cantrell's Hannah Vogel series. It's no coincidence that most of them are set either in the Weimar Republic or the Third Reich, when jackbooted Nazi thugs roamed the streets, police corruption was rife, and the nightlife famously debauched.

These days, modern crime fiction is dominated by wisecracking, donut-munching super sleuths as preoccupied with fighting their own demons as with fighting crime. As it happens, the model for the disheveled but brilliant detective who's become such a staple of popular culture came from Berlin: Inspector Ernst Gennat was known on account of his wide girth as the Buddha of Alexanderplatz, home to the city's police headquarters until 1945.

As director of the Berlin criminal police in the 1920s and 30s, he boasted a 90-percent solve rate and is credited with developing the technique referred to today as profiling. He supposedly also coined the term "serial killer" to describe Peter Kürten, the inspiration behind Fritz Lang's 1931 classic film noir "M" about a child murderer stalking the streets of Berlin. And of course, the character of the inspector determined to hunt him down is based on Gennat.

Lurid Landmarks

Although the sets on "M" were too expressionist to be specific, to those with a ghoulish imagination, Berlin is full of places with chilling associations - which is why it lends itself so perfectly to tales of suspense and intrigue.

Symbolic silhouette of a spy
The Cold War made for the perfect spy settingImage: Fotolia/julia_freeman

I used to live on a street in the Mitte district that serves as the setting for George Grosz's grisly 1916 lithograph "Lustmord in der Ackerstrasse." It shows a lifeless woman sprawled on her bed, viciously bludgeoned with a meat hacker, while in the background, a man washes her blood off his hands. Not the sort of image you want springing to mind when you're walking home in the dead of night.

Nor did it calm my nerves to know that just around the corner on Hannoversche Strasse is the former Leichenschauhaus, the police morgue where, in the early 20th century, unidentified corpses were displayed for up to three weeks in the hope that someone might recognize them.

Berlin's Chicago

Crime in Berlin was at its apex in the years between the wars, with the city gaining a reputation as a hub of prostitution, drug dealing and black market trading. The district of Friedrichshain, now popular with students and hipsters, was dubbed the Chicago of Berlin in the 1920s because of its high crime rate. It was here, in Lange Strasse, that one of the city's most prolific murderers was finally caught by police in 1921. Carl Grossmann was suspected of killing up to 100 young women, but committed suicide in his cell before he could be sentenced.

Local lore has it that Grossmann, who ran a sausage stand at the station now known as Ostbahnhof, chopped up his victims and turned them into bratwurst - one more reason, as if I needed another, never to touch a Berlin sausage.

Gangsters and Robin Hoods

Around the same time, the streets of Berlin's rougher neighborhoods were ruled by organized crime gangs called the Ringvereine, a motley collection of not only ex-convicts and desperados, but also a fair number of crooked cops. In the 1920s, over 60 of them existed in Berlin, engaged in illicit activities ranging from protection rackets to arms smuggling and drug trafficking.

Gunshot holds and splattered blood, a symbolic image
Fortunately, Berlin has become a lot less dangerousImage: Fotolia/Domen Colja

Ironically, they disappeared after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, falling victim to Nazi repression.

But probably the best-known and indeed best-loved criminals to emerge from the Weimar Republic were the Sass Brothers, Berlin's very own working-class Robin Hoods.

In 1929, they became the stuff of legend when they pulled off the biggest bank heist in the city's history, making off with an estimated 2.5 million Reichsmarks, which have never been found. Celebrated as popular heroes, not least thanks to their habit of stuffing bank notes in the letterboxes of needy Berliners, they too fell victim to the Nazis and were executed in Sachsenhausen in 1940.

Times have changed. For a capital city, Berlin feels relatively safe. And although I'm always happy to read about tough guy cops with a bottle of bourbon in their drawer and the colorful characters they brought to justice, on balance, I'm glad I live in today's Berlin.

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