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Reviewed by:
  • Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany
  • Eli Rubin
Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany. By Monica Black (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010) 324 pp. $80.00

Black's Death in Berlin is a refreshing, fascinating, well-researched, and well-written monograph that focuses on funerary culture and experiences and notions of death from the 1920s through the postwar era in Berlin. Black argues that the massive upheavals experienced by Germans and Berliners are revealed by how their cultures of death and burial changed. The manner by which cultures deal with the dead and the afterlife has long been a central focus of anthropology, and nothing casts as large a shadow over twentieth-century Germany as death itself.

Black's first chapter focuses on death in Weimar Berlin, where she describes a city with a variety of death subcultures. Left-wing social reformers and proletarian culture pushed for rationalism in burial and a demystification of death. The commemoration of the war dead was often a touchstone for political battles over the legacy of the war, and the Nazis built a great deal of their ideological agenda on the idolization of both the war dead and the death of party members.

Black's second chapter argues that Nazi views on death went beyond simply worshipping battlefield deaths, embracing a larger cosmology of life and death with a mystical union of racial collective and homeland at its center. This perspective, she claims, broadens the meaning of Lebensraum to mean "vital space"—not just living space. For the Nazis, the blood of fallen German soldiers consecrated the territory where they died and made it German.

Black's third chapter, "Death in Everyday Life," is by far the best in this work. She documents what happens when the death unleashed by Germany elsewhere comes home to Berlin itself. Her sources for this chapter includes an amazing array of memoirs, diaries, and archival sources, which she uses to show how individual death and the death of Germany and the Third Reich came to be intertwined in the eyes of ordinary Berliners. Most powerfully, she shows how death, the presence of corpses and body parts, and ad hoc graves became integrated with the material-culture landscape of the city itself.

Her fourth chapter explores the meaning of death in the German Democratic Republic (gdr), where authorities in East Berlin attempted to whitewash the traces of death to create a tabula rasa, a clean break with the dark past. The gdr tried, with mixed success, to change funerary [End Page 298] culture to erase mysticism, superstition, and sentimentality in the new socialist culture that they were creating, but as Black argues, death transcended the East-West divide. The gdr could dynamite the Hohenzollern castle, but it could not erase the tens of thousands of bones that lay around the city in shallow graves, many of them exposed, and as Black notes, residents of West and East Berlin were united in their mourning of their dead and missing loved ones.

In her final chapter, Black explores the painful construction of a narrative inculcating a return to normalcy throughWest Berliners' treatment of war dead, as well as their construction of myths of mass death, including the legend of the flooded S-Bahn tunnel during the battle for Berlin in May 1945. [End Page 299]

Eli Rubin
Western Michigan University


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pp. 298-299
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