- Berlin Revisited
“Berlin Revisited” exists as a fifteen-page autograph manuscript in the Lewis archive at Cornell. The first page is inscribed (not in Lewis’s hand) “Blasting & Bombardiering,” but in fact Lewis and his wife visited Germany and Poland in October 1937, immediately after the publication of that autobiography. (See Jeffrey Meyers, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis; the 1935 visit mentioned in the first sentence of the article is not recorded by Meyers.) 1 During the mid-1930s, Lewis’s promotion of an understanding with the new Nazi regime in Germany brought him close to being an unofficial apologist for it. His fear of a repetition of World War I, in which he had served as an artillery officer, was an inextricable part of his attitude. Count Your Dead: They are Alive!, published in April 1937, is the climax of his campaign. After the 1937 visit, Lewis made no more attempts to persuade the British public of the beneficence of the Nazis, and, as his biographer notes, decisively distanced himself from anti-Semitism. “Berlin Revisited,” then, records a visit that seems to have coincided with the turning point in Lewis’s attitude to Hitler’s Germany. It does not itself record the change of attitude, however. An “extremely vulnerable” (177) Germany is still seen as a potential victim of aggression. But Lewis is clearly disappointed by the lack of a heroic temper in Berlin’s well-dressed bourgeoisie (which indicates that he had expected the Nazis to induce one). The shoppers and café-loungers of Third City in the 1955 Monstre Gai (sometimes taken as a reflection of Lewis’s attitude to the Welfare State in postwar Britain) clearly [End Page 175] owe something to his memories of the Kurfürstendamm in 1937. 2 In Count Your Dead, Lewis had half insinuated the existence of a conspiracy by Jewish financiers to undermine European society by war, just as Russia had been subverted by communism. He was shocked by his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, but there was evidently not yet sufficient change in his worldview for him to do more than record without comment the heroic or desperate Herr Israel’s absurdist defiance of persecution.
A week or so ago I dropped into Berlin, which I had not visited for two years. This time I stayed in a small hotel off the Kurfürstendamm. The Kurfürstendamm is a big boulevard, thick with cafés. It is a sort of little Paris consisting of a single great boulevard, created under the Brüning and earlier régimes, in stark contrast with the old imperial city.
The “terraces” of these cafés which lie thick along the Kurfürstendamm are for the most part sumptuous marquees. Within these spacious tents, infested with palms, the elegant ladies and gentlemen of the new Berlin discuss coffee and cakes. These great Konditoreien are somewhat oppressively respectable, and incidentally extremely expensive.
It takes you a few days to sort out the essentials of this swarming tent-life, of Berlin’s fashionable boulevard. The first thing you remark is the admirable taste displayed in all the clothes, hats, and shoes worn. There is a great surface effect of luxury. But these are only Konditoreien, or cake-and-coffee palaces, after all. If you go into the equivalent of these places in the matter of restaurants—the Weinrestaurant—you will find that more than half the customers are not eating, or not more than one dish. They have the wine but not the food of the wine-restaurant, many of them, whereas in London or Paris they would all be eating a four-course dinner.
After this, and a few similar discoveries, seeing the extreme smartness, notwithstanding, of these half-eaters, or mere drinkers, you will be disposed to say to yourself that these Germans put all their available cash on their backs.
But that would not be entirely correct. There is an explanation for this paradoxal smartness. It is probably true to say that they put too much of their money on their backs, and think too much of sitting for an hour or two in...