Goodbye to Berlin

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Goodbye to Berlin

by Christopher Isherwood


A semi-autobiographical novel, set In Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Hmi era; first published In 1939.


Christopher, a young Englishman, lives in Berlin in the early 1930s and earns a small income from teaching English in private homes. Over a three-year period he becomes deeply involved with a number of memorable Berlin characters and observes the disintegration of the German political system that leads to Hitler’s rise to power.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Christopher Isherwood (1904-86) was born in High Lane, Cheshire, England. In 1929 he went to Berlin, where, like his novel’s narrator, he remained for four years. This period saw the curtain come down on Germany’s first parliamentary democracy, the Weimar Republic, when the constitution and the political culture proved unable to withstand the continual attacks from both the Nazi Party with its uniformed cohorts on the right of the political spectrum and the communists on the left. Isherwood experienced Berlin during a period of political tension and violence that was, at the same time, a period of cultural experimentation and artistic energy. He published two novels based on his experiences, The of Mr. Norris (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Adapted to the stage in the postwar years, the latter became the 1951 Broadway play I Am a Camera. The Broadway play, in turn, became the basis for the extremely successful stage musical and the 1972 movie Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli as club singer Sally Bowles. Isherwood moved to the United States in 1939, and later took up residence in Santa Monica, California. During the 1970s he became a kind of elder statesman for the growing Gay Rights movement in America and Britain, in particular because of his autobiography Christopher and his Kind (1977), in which the homosexual subtext of his Goodbye to Berlin moved more into the foreground of the story. More generally, Isherwood’s Berlin stories portray the legendary artistic, cultural, and sexual tolerance that reigned in the city during the years leading up to the Third Reich.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The world turned upside down

When Christopher Isherwood, the narrator of Isherwood’s novel, arrives, the city of Berlin is one in which no political or social certainty seems to have been left undamaged by the events of the previous ten years. (Hereafter “Christopher” will refer to the narrator of Goodbye to Berlin, and “Isherwood” to the author himself.) The humiliation of Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914-18), the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the establishment of parliamentary democracy, the economic trauma of the currency inflation of 1923—all these dramatic events seem to be appropriately summed up by Christopher’s landlady, Fraulein Schroeder, when she observes in a resigned tone, “Twenty years ago, if anyone had told me to scrub my own floors, I’d have slapped his face for him. But you get used to it. You can get used to anything” (Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, p. 3). Fraulein (the “miss” emphasizing her unmarried status) Schroeder is reduced to taking in paying boarders and sleeping on a couch in her living room. Her way of dealing with her considerably diminished status in life is to regard her boarders as her guests. She is concerned for Christopher’s welfare, and regards him as a gentleman in the tradition of all her previous male tenants. With her little snobberies and obsessive house-cleaning, Fraulein Schroeder is a memorable character in Goodbye to Berlin, but even more notably she is an image of the countless Berliners who had grown up in a world of stable hierarchies and respectable social status, and now feel that the world has gone terribly wrong.

Pre-World War I Berlin had certainly been powerfully and repeatedly shaken. Before a child born in Berlin during the early years of the century saw his or her seventeenth birthday, the world would have changed beyond belief. By 1918 three of the most notable empires in the world, the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled by the Hapsburg monarchy, the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant, and Tsarist Russia—all of them with roots in the Middle Ages—had collapsed beyond repair. In Russia, a communist government had taken power and was speedily transforming the most basic social structures of the country. In the last weeks of World War One, the German Empire saw the spirit of revolution stirring in the air there too: in October 1918 sailors from the naval base at the port city of Kiel mutinied and marched on Berlin; a few days later, on November 9, 1918, the reigning monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, abdicated and left the country, and a constitutional democracy was proclaimed by the SPD, the Social Democratic Party, the largest political party in Germany. The proclamation, however, rested on an undeniably shaky foundation. The winter of 1918-19 saw a situation of political chaos in Berlin, with a number of radical parties and armed militias made up of ex-servicemen all demanding that Germany move faster in the direction of a Soviet-style communist revolution.

Armed groups of ex-army and ex-navy men could be found also on the other side of the political divide. Ultimately the left-wing and communist movements were violently put down by the liberal SPD administration using the right-wing (and anti-Semitic) Freikorps, semi-official paramilitary units under loose army command; the repression aggravated anger and resentment in the young republic. Dispensing with niceties, the Freihorps restored “order” in Berlin by killing between 1,200 and 1,500 of their opponents on the streets and barricades while, in a surreal way, the life of the big city went on around the violence (Large, pp. 165-66). The intensity of German political feelings sometimes found violent expression in the fate of government personnel too: in 1922 the foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, who happened to be a Jew, was shot down in a Berlin street by right-wing fanatics who resented his commitment to pay the war reparations demanded by the victors of World War I.

Berlin’s economy had suffered serious setbacks as a result of the First World War. From 1920 on Berliners experienced the personal and social chaos that erupted as the Reichsmark, the German currency, underwent hyperinflation. Cash and savings spiraled downward in value, becoming next to useless. At the worst point in 1923 the price of a meal in a restaurant could treble between the customer ordering it and the waitress bringing it to the table, and people literally needed a large sack to bring home their wages. At the end of November of that year, one U.S. dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 marks (Large, p. 174). Although a measure of monetary and economic stability would be reestablished by 1924, this economic trauma caused not only misery and poverty but also humiliation, paranoia and political fantasy: passionately convinced that someone had to be responsible for these national disasters, many people turned for guidance to the extreme right.

The fledgling National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP)—soon to be known by its German abbreviation, the Nazis—began to gain popularity founded on a mixture of national glorification and anti-Semitic propaganda. The propaganda claimed, among other things, that German Jews had profited by doing business on the black market during the War. Despite the services of many young Germans of Jewish faith in the armed forces between 1914 and 1918, it was claimed that Jews had been living comfortably at home while “real” Germans were being killed on the Front.

The menacing activism on the political right was mirrored by the revolutionary ambitions of the KPD, the German Communist Party. Many Berliners from working-class backgrounds—along with many intellectuals—were attracted to the radical and uncompromising demands for socialist revolution represented by the KPD. The belief that a new era of humanity had dawned in Soviet Russia was held deeply by many people, in Germany and elsewhere, and even those who had no love for the philosophy of the communists had an uneasy feeling that history was on their side. The communists represented everything that right-wing supporters hated most passionately. Yet the communists had as little respect for the Weimar Republic (the original constitutional assembly had been held in January 1919 in the city of Weimar, and the name had stuck) and its democratic constitutional order as their opponents the Nazis did. Indeed, the phrase used by the KPD about the Nazi Party was “After them, us!” This belief that even a Nazi victory, gained by elections or otherwise, could bring about a catastrophe ultimately benefitting the communists caused some strange political alliances. For example, both the KPD and the NSDAP joined forces in an anti-government bus and subway strike in 1932, and a common thread in each party’s political rhetoric was contempt for the moderate Social Democrats, whose commitment to the Weimar Constitution had been a crucial force in enabling the German democratic experiment to survive, even for a few years. By 1930, however, the strain was beginning to show. The worldwide depression that began in 1929, moving out from the U.S. economy to impact the rest of the world, had started to whittle away at the political legitimacy of the SPD, who were seen as badly managing unemployment and economic collapse. In fact, not only was the Weimar Republic threatened from outside by the hostile political forces that worked for its destruction, but it was also being dismantled from within. By and large, the civil service, the armed forces, the judiciary, the industrial leaders, and the schoolteachers and university professors were authoritarian and antidemocratic. They may not have wanted a Nazi takeover with all its consequences, but they showed no loyalty to the new democratic institutions and indeed worked consistently to malign and disrupt the Weimar experiment. Anti-Semitic attitudes proliferated in schools and universities, and the police and judiciary ignored Nazi street violence while condemning left-wing activities. Meanwhile, the armed forces followed their own secret agenda of building up their strength in defiance of the limits on German military forces imposed by the 1918 Treaty of Versailles. The big industrial corporations like Krupp and I. G. Farben funded the Nazi Party (NSDAP), seeing it primarily as a nationalist and anti-communist movement, despite its socialist-sounding name.

The average Berliner had to do what he or she could to survive the violence and chaos of the postwar years, to keep body and soul together during the Inflation, and to avoid being drawn into the brutal street battles that flared at regular intervals between the different political camps. Many managed to do so successfully. Still, the system, the social and political environment that surrounded the individual, was in violent flux. Nothing was certain, except that political change would be equally violent. The future had become like a vortex into which everyone was being pulled. Towards the end of Isherwood’s novel, the following scene appears in which a Nazi is explaining drunkenly to his girlfriend in a cafe that it is not only important to win political power—they will achieve that anyhow—but that blood must flow too. The Nazi’s girlfriend reassures him, “But, of course, it’s going to flow, darling” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 199). In real life, patrons in such a cafe might soon align themselves with a Nazi, or alternatively with a communist. To a great extent, chance figured into whether an individual would end up identifying with one political party or another. Otto’s brother in the novel is working-class and pro-Nazi; he would be equally believable had he been working-class and communist at the time.

The scapegoats

The irony of anti-Semitism in Germany in the early pre-Hitler twentieth century is that it asserted itself when the social and legal status of German Jews appeared to have finally been put on an equal footing with that of Protestants and Catholics. Forming the vast majority of the German population, these two groups predominated in different regions of the country, the Catholics in the South and West, and the Protestants in the North and East. From the early nineteenth century onwards, age-old anti-Jewish laws and restrictions were dismantled and discarded in several European countries, including Germany, and Jewish communities responded by emerging from the ghetto and taking their place in the broader society. German Jews made names for themselves in intellectual and artistic life (for example, the painter Max Liebermann) and in industry (Emil Rathenau built up AEG, Germany’s largest electric corporation). Such distinction seemed to promise a bright future in an enlightened Germany, which had shed much of its legacy of medieval prejudice (Gay, pp. 169-87).

This progress was, however, not the whole story. Large segments of the population had at least a passive suspicion of Jews and continued to regard them as not “real” Germans (the resentful diatribes of the novel’s Fraulein Mayr, one of Christopher’s fellow tenants, in which she complains bitterly that all the department stores are owned by Jews, offer a fictional example of this attitude). Such attitudes appear to have been even more deeply embedded in Austrian than in German social life (Adler, pp. 110-11), which may help explain the heavy presence of Austrians in the upper ranks of the Nazi Party—including Hitler himself, of course. In Germany, the larger, more industrially advanced of the two countries, the significant undercurrent of antiSemitism was often kept to private exchanges rather than raised openly. In the early years of the twentieth century there was even evidence of public rejection of traditional Jew-baiting and race hatred. Cases involving anti-Semitic libel and perjury led to prosecutions, and most individuals who considered themselves political progressives (Social Democrats, liberal intellectuals, and the like) thought that anti-Semitism would gradually die out as a result of better general education and the growth of a more socially advanced, less superstitious society (Adler, p. 106).

Some German Jews distrusted the apparent conduciveness of German society to their assimilation, however, and the denial of Jewish identity that seemed to be the price for this. Often this distrust went hand-in-hand with a Zionist perspective, that is, with the desire for a Jewish homeland rather than full integration into the European nations. Sometimes it stemmed from the uncomfortable suspicion that, down deep, most Germans hated Jews and always would, and that the contribution of Jews to Germany’s cultural and intellectual life triggered hostility rather than respectful recognition. In realistically sizing up future prospects for German Jews, some Jewish leaders took into account this basic attitude. “We Jews administer the intellectual property of a people which denies us the right and the ability to do so,” asserted the Jewish writer Moritz Goldstein in a famous and controversial article in 1912 (Goldstein in Arendt, p. 30).

The years during and just after World War I would see both the most integration into German society for Jews and the opening of a new abyss of prejudice and hatred. This paradox emanates from two contradictory historical realities: first, 100,000 young German Jews fought for the Fatherland during the First World War, a very respectable number in proportion to a total count of Jews in the German Reich of around 555,000 (Adler, p. 114); second, there was a widespread belief after Germany’s humiliating surrender and the punitive Treaty of Versailles that Jewish economic interests had sold out the nation and brought about defeat from within. Indeed, the first intimations of this could be sensed in 1916, when an anti-Semitic member of Parliament asked the War Department to survey how many Jews were in the armed forces, with the unspoken suggestion that most were not fighting for their country but rather staying at home to run their businesses. The War Department conducted the survey but refused to release the results to the public, probably to avoid giving the impression that a large number of Jews were indeed serving at the front (Gay, p. 221).

The contradictory realities are reflected in Bernhard Landauer’s comments to Christopher in the chapter “The Landauers”: “My elder brother had been killed, right at the beginning of the War…. Later, certain business rivals of my father began to make propaganda against him … it was rumored that we were spies” (Goodbyeto Berlin, p. 169). The true story, the contribution of Jewish soldiers, sailors, and airmen to the German nation, was being continually drowned out, as it were, by the blaring of the alternative, paranoid narrative, the so-called Jewish “stab in the back” directed against the Fatherland. In an atmosphere of “cold, irrational hatred,” the combination of distorted figures regarding military service, old anti-Jewish prejudices to do with business acumen, and an ethnic nationalism that divided Germans into “real” Germans and others came together to make a potent brew (Gay, p. 244). The idea took root that German Jews had profited from black-marketeering and exploiting the economic problems of the country while thousands of other Germans died daily on the battlefield—and in vain, for Germany was defeated in the end.

As portrayed by Isherwood on the model of the fictional Landauer family, Jews in Berlin at the end of the Weimar era were caught between feelings of mounting nervousness on the one hand and of denial on the other. Convinced that the victory of extreme politics in the shape of the Nazi Party could not be prevented, the majority of the Jewish community at the same time regarded Germany as their homeland and remained unwilling to abandon their professions, businesses, and property. In the early 1930s there were very few German Jews who realized that, in a very short time, going into exile would become the only alternative to a gradually tightening noose of regulation, humiliation, and finally mass murder.

In Goodbye to Berlin, the final few pages of “The Landauers” hint at the darkening horizon for Jews in Germany as the Nazis move to implement their extreme racial policies. Christopher overhears a conversation between two businessmen in a restaurant: “’Concentration camps,’ said the fat man, lighting a cigar. They get them in there, make them sign things… . Then their hearts fail’” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 185). The years 1930 to 1933 were, in many ways, the last years of Central European Jewish life and culture as they had been known for generations. The growing brutality and state repression directed at Jews in Germany—reflected in similar events across Central and Eastern Europe—would culminate in Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the plan to exterminate all Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. This blueprint for mass murder was put together at a meeting in the wealthy Berlin suburb of Wannsee. In Goodbye to Berlin it is in a luxurious villa in this same green tree-lined neighborhood that Bern-hard Landauer and Christopher have a tortured conversation about Jews, Germans, and the English, and later it is where Christopher attends a beach party to which Bemhard has invited him. Observing the crowd of guests, the many friends and relatives of the Landauers, Christopher is struck by the disturbing gap between the apparently cheerful atmosphere at the villa and the rapidly disintegrating society outside the gates. “This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 177).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

There is a basic chronological narrative underpinning Goodbye to Berlin, but rather than proceeding sequentially from 1930 to 1933, from the narrator’s arrival to his final departure, the novel is structured around Christopher’s various interactions with three particular individuals or groups of individuals, Sally Bowles, the Nowak family, and the Landauer family. These three partly self-contained chapters are balanced, at the beginning and again at the end of the novel, by two “Berlin Diary” pieces in which Christopher recounts, in a loose, fragmentary style, various incidents he has seen or participated in, and meditates on his personal feelings about Berlin. A middle chapter, “On Ruegen Island,” is the story of what happens to Christopher when he is on vacation off the Baltic coast during the summer of 1931.

The opening section, “A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930),” begins with an interior monologue in which the narrator is staring out at the city from his bedroom window, caught suddenly by the feeling that, as he says, “I am in a foreign city, alone, far from home” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 1). As the focus of the narrative moves out of the mind of the narrator and takes in the surrounding reality, we meet Christopher’s landlady, the snobbish but good-hearted Fraulein Schroeder, and several of her other tenants, including the loud and politically pro-Nazi Fraulein Mayr and the attractive young Fraulein Kost, who appears to earn her living as a prostitute. Fraulein Schroeder cannot pronounce Christopher’s last name, and continually addresses him as “Herr Issyvoo” throughout the novel, which becomes a kind of character marker for her.

Christopher moves on to describe some of the peculiarities of Berlin nightlife: in a dance bar that he visits there are no customers as yet; the musicians, gigolos, and bartenders are lounging around chatting to each other. When a small group arrives in the bar, everything swings into action. Some of the staff pretend to be customers drinking at the bar, while the band strikes up a tune and a young couple—who also work there—move onto the dance floor as if they were regular customers too. Berlin entertainment spots, the incident reveals, have a kind of “standby mode,” a passive state in which they wait for custom until real paying guests arrive, whereupon they immediately switch into active gear. Customers must believe that everything—the music, the fun—will still go on without them when they leave, without realizing that it is all a front to entice them in to spend money. We also meet one of Christopher’s pupils to whom he is giving English lessons, Hippi Bernstein. He visits her in her family’s mansion in the prosperous Grimewald area, described by Christopher as a “millionaire’s slum,” as the expensive houses are built on tiny, constricted plots due to the exorbitant cost of land in that part of the city (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 14).

Introduced in the second chapter of Goodbye to Berlin is the famous, or infamous, Sally Bowles. Sally Bowles enters the novel as the very embodiment of the good-time girl, painting her fingernails a luminous green, singing in a bar and trying to rope the next wealthy male patsy into supporting her as the Weimar Republic descends into a vortex of anarchy and street violence all around. Sally is English, as is Christopher himself, which leads to a certain tension between the two figures, stemming from Christopher’s some pearance, how-evwhat prim reaction to Sally’s vulgarities. Like Fraulein Schroeder’s “Herr Issyvoo,” Sally’s atrocious German becomes a comic signal for her presence, as, later in the novel, the Germanized English of the character Natalia Landauer will become her most identifiable trait.

Sally and Christopher initiate a friendship in late fall of 1930, and she moves into a vacant room at Fraulein Schroeder’s house. Soon after, Christopher and Sally meet a rich American, Clive, who spends money like water and appears to have no problem buying friendship and company with his generosity. After Clive disappoints Sally’s fond hopes of serving as her permanent sugar daddy when he suddenly leaves Berlin without telling her or Christopher, she discovers that she is pregnant by an earlier lover, the musician Klaus, a situation that ends with her having an illegal abortion. Klaus, who had accompanied Sally’s singing on the piano, has abandoned her for an opportunity to compose film scores in Europe. In the late summer of 1931, Sally and Christopher have a falling out. He’s had enough of her grabby, self-centered behavior; they make up a few days later, but shortly after that Sally leaves Berlin for Rome. She sends Christopher two postcards from Italy, and that, he says, is the last he ever hears from Sally Bowles. (She makes a cameo appearance, how-ever, in Isherwood’s next novel, Prater Violet[1945].)

Christopher spends the early summer of 1931 at Ruegen Island, a popular North German vacation resort on the Baltic coast. Portrayed here is the difficult, clearly sexually charged relationship between Otto Nowak, a young working-class Berliner, and Peter Wilkinson, a sensitive and highly-strung Englishman, and their individual relationships with Christopher. Peter, Otto, and Christopher stay in the same boarding house. Whereas Peter appears to be completely obsessed with—and dominated by—Otto, Otto is interested not only in Peter but also in women, and strikes up a relationship with a teacher accompanying a group of inner-city children. Peter, a tortured soul who believes in psychoanalysis, is in many ways an unhappier and more self-absorbed version of Christopher himself. For his part, Christopher plays something of neutral diplomat, moving back and forth between the warring parties of Peter and Otto. Otto teases Peter unmercifully. Peter, who cannot abide this teasing, ultimately leaves for Britain, frustrated and troubled—“I feel I’ve got to keep traveling until I’m clear of this bloody country,” he comments—and Otto returns to Berlin (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 99). Suddenly lonely, Christopher misses Peter and Otto’s daily round of arguments.

Back in Berlin himself in the winter of 1931-32, Christopher leaves Fraulein Schroeder and moves in with Otto’s family, who occupy a cramped apartment in a run-down, working-class neighborhood. The cheerful and emotional Nowaks offer a complete contrast to the prim and proper Fraulein Schroeder. Otto, his younger sister, Crete, and their mother regularly shout at each other in fury, then make up with hugs and endearments. The father, Herr Nowak, is a war veteran with a taste for grotesque horror stories. The mother suffers from a lung disease of some kind, not helped by the damp, unaired apartment and the Berlin winter. Shortly before Christmas, her doctor decides that Frau Nowak should be confined to a sanatorium for treatment. Her leaving seems to drain all the life out of the family. Christopher gets a well-paid job around the same time, and moves out to a more attractive part of the city. Some time afterwards, Otto asks Christopher to come with him to visit his mother in the sanatorium out in the country. They travel out together, and during the visit it becomes clear that Frau Nowak’s condition has worsened. It seems unlikely that she will ever leave the sanatorium alive: “her body seemed to break in half like a hinged doll. Clasping her hands over her breast, she uttered short yelping coughs like a desperate injured animal” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 138).

From the bleak lives of the Berlin working poor, the novel moves in its next-to-last chapter to the prosperous and civilized lifestyle of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, the Landauers. Christopher’s interactions with the Landauers take place over 1930 to 1933 (encompassing the periods he spends with the Nowak family and Sally Bowles). He gives English lessons to the daughter of the family, Natalia Landauer. Natalia’s virtuous behavior—as well as her education and interest in literature—sets her up as a polar opposite of Sally Bowles. On one occasion, Christopher makes the mistake of introducing the two women to each other. Predictably, it is a disaster: Sally gossips in atrocious German about sex, drugs, and the Berlin nightlife while Natalia sits horrified, staring at Sally’s painted green fingernails.

Through Natalia, Christopher meets her cousin Bernhard. He is the manager of the Landauer’s big department store in Berlin, but in private seems to be more of a tortured intellectual, not unlike Peter Wilkinson, the Englishman on Ruegen Island. Bernhard lives alone in an apartment surrounded by works of art that he has collected during his earlier travels, and his general demeanor is one of a courteous but emotionally distant personality, with a hint of sexual ambivalence. He takes an interest in Christopher and invites him out to his villa on the lake in Wannsee. There, on one particular evening, they have a long discussion during which Bernhard tries to explain to Christopher something about his family’s history. His brother had been killed in World War I, but, on account of their Jewishness, the family was still regarded as “un-Ger-man” and hostile to the nation; after his brother’s death, his mother withdrew from reality. Bern-hard is at the same time both envious of Christopher’s Englishness and resentful of the secure identity he seems to possess. Despite his economic security and his respectable place in the world of business, Bernhard seems to be suffering on a psychic level. He echoes the uncertainty of German Jews who have had to make weighty and sudden decisions: Germany or exile trust the future to get better or make a run for it. It is as if Bemhard is transfixed at the moment of reaction, caught between “fight or flight,” as it were, and thus cannot react at all. At the end of “The Landauers” it is May 1933 and Christopher, having left Berlin for the last time, overhears a conversation in a cafe in Prague between two businessmen who reveal that Bernhard Landauer is dead of a mysterious “heart attack” that the two men don’t quite seem to accept as the true story of what has happened.

The final chapter of Goodbye to Berlin, “A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3),” mirrors the opening chapter. Fragmentary and highly subjective, it discloses Christopher’s ideas and fantasies about Berlin, providing intense descriptions of his social and physical environment: people, places, incidents. The year is now 1933, just before Christopher leaves Berlin. The Nazis have finally taken over the government after indecisive elections and months of political jockeying. Street violence with fatalities and continual demonstrations are the norm, and Christopher’s meetings with his students and others are full of fearful, coded conversations, as if everyone is hypnotized by the political crisis, not knowing what they should do or say. On his final morning in Berlin, Christopher goes for a stroll, noticing that everything on this sunny day is so oddly normal and familiar despite the fact that Hitler is now securely in power. The last sentence of the novel emphasizes the sense of distance that Christopher suddenly begins to feel toward his years in Berlin, toward all the people whose lives have crossed his and everything that he has experienced: “Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 207). He will write the novel to make it real again.

The personal and the political

One of the substantial threads woven into Goodbye to Berlin is the issue of Christopher’s sexuality. Although there is no specific plot element or scene in the novel that clearly establishes it (until a comic incident with an American in the final chapter, during which Christopher makes what could be an admission of his same-sex orientation), and although his relationships with both Sally Bowles and Natalia Landauer have a flirtatious tone at times, Christopher seems to be homosexual. It is for the most part implicit rather than explicit throughout Good-bye to Berlin, even in the “On Ruegen Island” chapter with Otto and Peter. One example of this oblique approach is a passage in which Christopher has been invited to stay to dinner with the Landauers. Natalia’s father is expounding on the topic of art and morality, mentioning the suspicions of incest that have surrounded the British poet Lord Byron and going on to ask Christopher directly about his opinions on the popular dramatist and wit Oscar Wilde, who in a well-known court case in the 1890s was found guilty of sodomy and imprisoned (see The Importance of Being Earnest , also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and to Times):

“Your dramatist Oscar Wilde … this is another case. I put this case to you, Mr. Isherwood. I should like very much to hear your opinion. Was your English Law justified in punishing Oscar Wilde, or was it not justified? Please tell me what you think?”

Herr Landauer regarded me delightedly, a forkful of meat poised halfway up to his mouth. In the background, I was aware of Bernhard, discreetly smiling.

“Well.” I began, feeling my ears burning red. This time, however, Frau Landauer unexpectedly saved me, by making a remark to Natalia in German, about the vegetables.

(Goodbye to Berlin, p. 151)

In the above exchange, it is not altogether clear just what Christopher has been saved from, but it is obvious that to be brought into connection with Wilde’s homosexuality, even by an innocent question, causes him embarrassment. Bernhard’s “discrete smile” suggests that he shares something with Christopher (and Wilde) and knows exactly why Christopher was uncomfortable.

The question of sexuality is bound up with one important aspect of the novel that is never dealt with openly: why Christopher has come to live in Berlin in the first place. His only comment is an obviously fraudulent response to one of his pupils, Hippi Bernstein: “The political and economic situation,” I improvised authoritatively, in my schoolmaster voice, “is more interesting in Germany than in any other European country” (Goodbye to Berlin, p. 15). This unconvincing cliche is justifiably ignored by Hippi Bernstein, who has correctly ascertained that Christopher does not have many friends in Berlin at all, and that life might be a little dull for him. Christopher does not, however, find Berlin particularly dull. In fact, the occasional sense of loneliness, of being far from home, seems to be the attraction of the city, as shown in the “Berlin Diary” chapters. Christopher meets characters such as Sally Bowles, whom he would be very unlikely to meet back home in England. And he enjoys the exile’s compensation prize of at times being, as he says, a passive observer, like a camera. As a narrator, Christopher prefers to focus on the characters around him, which tends to make him a somewhat flat character himself, but he does participate in the action and in the lives of other characters.

Christopher also enjoys—and this would seem to be one of his primary motives for coming to Berlin—the tolerance and the decadence. That is, he enjoys the tolerance of the fringe, the quasi-private social and sexual milieus that were a staple of the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, and the much-vaunted “decadence” of the city—the bars that rarely closed, the morbid hedonism, the delicious sense of dancing too close to the edge of the political abyss. As the British artist Francis Bacon, living in Berlin around the same time as Isherwood, once commented: “There was something extraordinarily open about the whole place… . You had this feeling that sexually you could get absolutely anything you wanted. I’d never seen anything like it… it excited me enormously” (Bacon in Large, p. 222). The reputation of Berlin had spread abroad and a part of that reputation was that the “anything goes” rule applied in Berlin despite its daytime atmosphere of grim Prussian “Ordnung.” As Isherwood himself later admitted when looking back on the experience in Christopher and His Kind, Berlin’s liberal atmosphere appealed to him in no small part because of its sexual possibilities. In short, “To Christopher, Berlin meant boys” (Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, p. 2).

Many of the unspoken, or partly spoken, implications of Goodbye to Berlin were dealt with openly many years later. In Berlin, one could join the free cosmopolitan nation of the sexually different, as Isherwood comments in his autobiography in plain language (Isherwood, Christopher, p. 12). Goodbye to Berlin is clearly, as much as anything else, a tale of individual sexual liberation. As David Large explains, Isherwood came to Berlin to get away from family and country, and these two oppressive entities could be lifted with the help of a (male) lover who was working-class and foreign. The working-class aspect undermined the snobberies of Isherwood’s upper-middle-class background; the foreign dimension was a gesture of rejection aimed at an insular, self-righteous Britain of the 1920s that looked down on Germans as nothing more than defeated enemies (Large, p. 230).

Sources and literary context

As Goodbye to Berlin is substantially an autobiographical novel, later admitted to be such by Isherwood, some of the real individuals behind the characters in the novel appear in his actual autobiography. The novel’s Bernhard Landauer was inspired by the real-life Wilfrid Israel, who, Isherwood explains, helped run a department store founded by his family, one of the largest of such stores in Berlin


Not only the fictional Christopher and the real Isherwood, but thousands of tottrJsts from Europe and America descended upon Berlin in tht 1920s and early 1930s because of the city’s reputation for sexyal tolerance, availability, and openness, These phenomena were obvioys, but a foreigner might often mm the connection between them and specific German traditions of physical exercise and the valye of the body. Nineteenth-century health reformers encouraged civic-sponsored programs of gymnastics and sport in schools and communities so that even working-class German children growing up In indystriai cities were more physically roby$t than their counter, parts in other countries. Connected to this focus on physical health was a lack of embarrassment about nudity, a kind of de, sexualized nydity thai involved open pleasure in physical health and attractiveness, In the novel, Christophers feelings about Otto Nowtk seem to be less an expression of sexual. desire than an admiration of a pagan vitality and energy connected to such attitudes to physical health and the body: “Qtto himself, squatting there on the bed, was so anlmaify alive, his naked brown body so &teek with health” CCood&ye to Serf&t, p, 114). By contrast, Christopher, the Englishman, seems more self-conscious aboyt his body and his sexuality.

(Isherwood, Christopher, p. 65). In Christopher and His Kind, we also meet the original of the character Otto Nowak. Isherwood does not reveal his real name, but does fill in the background to the narrative in Goodbye to Berlin, particularly the cover-up of the homosexual motives for the move to the Nowak family. Isherwood and Otto are lovers, and they think it will be fun to live together in the family apartment. Aware of the relationship, Frau Nowak appears to accept it with good grace.

Moving up in society through a series of better apartments, the real Isherwood ends up renting a room from Fraulei11 Thurau, the model for the memorable Fraulein Schroeder. In this period of his life, he meets Jean Ross, the figure on whom he based Sally Bowles. Isherwood and Ross became close friends, but never had any kind of sexual feelings for each other. There was no ambiguity in this regard, while there is in the relationship depicted in Goodbye to Berlin. Isherwood admired Ross’s pluck and her spirited way of dealing with adversity. Isherwood gave the story of Sally Bowles and Christopher a more poignant and complete ending in the novel than was the case in real life: “Unlike the novel’s protagonist and Sally, Isherwood and Jean did not part forever when she left Berlin. Circumstances separated them for long intervals, but they continued to meet, as affectionate friends, throughout the rest of Jean’s life. She died in 1973” (Isherwood, Christopher, p. 64).

One aspect of British literary history is particularly important for the context of Goodbye to Berlin: the English left-wing writers of the 1930s. Mostly poets rather than novelists, the writers W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis are often set alongside Isherwood. All of the same generation, a few years too young to have fought in World War I, these men were fascinated by the culture and science of modernity (Freud, Marx, Einstein, and Picasso, they thought, had radically and irreversibly redefined the human psyche, politics, science and art) and were also drawn to socialist—sometimes communist—politics by the experience of the Great Depression and the threat of fascism. They knew each other and sometimes collaborated in their writing. In the cases of Isherwood, Auden, and Spender, their homosexual (or, in Spender’s case, bisexual) orientation added a sharper edge to their feelings of alienation from the polite, respectable British society that they were born into. The works of all three, without making an explicit issue of their sexual interests, tended to covertly interweave the personal and the political; often there was a suggestion that a communist society, for example, would bring about an end to sexual exclusion and rigid bourgeois morality. Christopher’s brief account of the Communist Party cafe that he visits in the last “A Berlin Diary” chapter, however, suggests that he was less than convinced that the Berlin Communist milieu held the key to a better, more liberated future in which the whole range of human sexuality could be freely expressed.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The inevitability of war

Although the increasing aggressiveness of Nazi German foreign policy and the successful establishment of fascist regimes in countries like Spain and Italy could hardly be ignored, even in 1939 very few people in Europe—and even fewer in the United States—wanted to face the fact that armed hostilities of some kind seemed unavoidable. When Goodbye to Berlin finally appeared in Britain at the end of the thirties, Berlin had become a very different place from the open city that Christopher had experienced ten years earlier. It was now the capital of the Third Reich, an authoritarian and militaristic political system that flew the curious symbol of the swastika. The famous tolerance and decadence had disappeared, although the Nazis made an exception for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, permitting a brief and temporary expansion of prostitution and allowing a few homosexual bars to reopen (Large, p. 295). Never a Nazi stronghold in the manner of Munich, even the city of Berlin responded to the seemingly irresistible force of Hitler’s New Germany that had been expanding continuously over the last five years: independent Austria had been incorporated into the German Reich, the city of Danzig had been taken from the Poles, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia had been practically handed to Nazi Germany on a plate after Britain and France had made it clear at Munich in September 1938 that they would not support Czech resistance to the German ultimatum in any way.

The Landauers would have long since had their property confiscated and their possibilities of study or employment closed down or at least greatly restricted, as did the German Jewish family on whom they were based, the Israels. Others would have escaped from Germany to France, America, Palestine, or a dozen different destinations.

In 1938 the Reichskrystallnacht (a melodramatic term using an image of shattered glass), in which Jewish businesses and property were attacked and destroyed all over Germany in a concerted effort to terrorize the community, convinced everyone that the Nazis’ anti-Semitism was not just a rhetorical flourish to satisfy the Party faithful, but a central plank in Hitler’s scheme for a future German nation with all “foreign” elements removed. Despite the obvious threat, however, Berlin still had a Jewish community numbering 70,000 people, most of whom would ultimately be deported to concentration and extermination camps. Self-imposed exile was still possible, but it presented formidable obstacles. Already some countries had closed their borders to Jewish refugees, and the British administrators in Palestine were disinclined to encourage a Jewish immigration that they feared would anger the Arab population and destabilize British rule. Indeed, Nazi ideologists such as Joseph Goebbels saw the unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees as proof that they were not wanted anywhere—that the Nazis’ own attitude was echoed and confirmed by the lack of sympathy for Jews elsewhere in the world.

Such events served to strengthen the single-minded focus of German diplomatic and military planning. Apart from the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Italy, and later Japan), nobody was really well prepared for war, even in 1939. America was still largely isolationist, and the countries of Western Europe recognized that they would have trouble resisting a decisive German invasion. Fear of air raids was widespread; governments feared that large-scale panic among the population would be the result of bombing raids by enemy aircraft. France, a country that still ruled a worldwide empire from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, was transfixed by the anxiety that Germany would invade and overrun the country for the third time in 75 years—which indeed would happen in a few months’ time. Britain took war-related measures such as partial evacuation of children from the inner cities, but even these were half-hearted.

Goodbye to Berlin is a memorial to a time of immense energy and openness, as well as violence and chaos, that existed in one peculiar city between two world wars. The survival of the image of Berlin during the Weimar Republic testifies to the power of that experience. People such as Isherwood discovered freedoms in Berlin that were unknown at home. By the time Christopher Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin, however, aggressive expansion, mystical nationalism, and anti-Semitism had long since taken over the levers of power in the German capital.


Goodbye to Berlin existed as a series of “short stories” before it coalesced into its final form as a novel. Isherwood had published “The Nowaks,” and “The Landauers” for example, in an avant-garde literary magazine called New Writing. He submitted the piece entitled “Sally Bowles,” an earlier version of the chapter of the same name in Goodbye to Berlin, to the editor of New Writing John Lehman, who liked it but thought that it was too long for the magazine. Lehman arranged for the story to appear as a small book on its own. Sally BowZes found such an enthusiastic response from readers when it came out in 1937 that Isherwood knew it would be an important part of his planned novel (Isherwood, Christopher, p. 245).

When Goodbye to Berlin was finally published as a single novel in 1939 it attracted significant attention, and a number of well-known names in literature and criticism were among the reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the New York literary scholar Alfred Kazin, the German emigre intellectual Klaus Mann, and the


Already in the spring of 1933 a sequence of tightening restrictions on Jews (as weil as on those identified as antisocial persons or pottticai subversives) began to remove arty rights connected with citizerishfp or previous military service. Education, personal fuattties, public service—alt became irrelevant: ‘When the Nazis took power in 1933, eleven of the forty Carman winners of a Nobet prize in the sciences had been jews. But they, too, were no longer regarded as anything but members of an ‘inferior race’” (Gay, p. 256). In 1941 the Nazis started deporting Berlin’s jews east to labor and death camps. Some 5,000 managed to hide out or disguise their identity for the duration of the war while another 14,000 led “an open if precarious existence, as spouses of non-Jews; thousands more, however, were brutally killed in the Nazi gas chambers and camps, which overall claimed the lives of 170,000 Carman jews (Gay, p. 281).

critic Edmund Wilson. Wilson, for example, was generous in his evaluation of Isherwood’s novel in the New Republic (May 17, 1939) and commented on the ability the author showed to write the kind of transparent prose that allowed the perceptions of the narrator and the reader to merge: “you seem to look right through Isherwood and see what he sees” (Wilson, p. 51). In Britain, a review of Goodbye to Berlin in The Spectator magazine (March 3, 1939) by Irish novelist Kate O’Brien focused in, as Wilson did, on the objective atmosphere of Isherwood’s writing. Using a phrase that would be echoed a few years later, she asserted that the striking quality of the novel was the sense that it possessed “the laconic and unemotional selectiveness of the camera” (O’Brien, p. 364). The title chosen for the 1951 play that was adapted from Goodbye to Berlin would be I Am a Camera.

—Martin Griffin

For More Information

Adler, H. G. The Jews in Germany: from the Enlightenment to National Socialism. Notre Dame, hid.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

Arendt, Hannah. Introduction to Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, by Walter Benjamin. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Berg, James J., and Chris Freeman. The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and work of Christopher Isherwood. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Gay, Ruth. The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and his Kind, 1929-1939. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

____. The Berlin Stones. Containing Goodbye to Berlin and The Last of Mr. Norris. New York: New Directions, 1963.

Large, David Clay. Berlin. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

O’Brien, Kate. Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. The Spectator 162 (3 March 1939): 364.

Page, Norman. Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Wilson, Edmund. Review of Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. New Republic 99 (17 May 1939): 51.