The Berlin of 2014 is almost desperately concerned with being fashionable, all-inclusive; being downright nice and politically correct. A casual stroll, however, shows that this city has a dark, even diabolical history. It confronts it with memorials, with statues, with cobbles marking the names of those sent to extermination camps. Berlin is on probation not just in the eyes of the world but also in those of its citizens.
Rory MacLean, inventive, exhaustive and energetic, makes the obligatory effort to begin his series of essays on the city with a departure date of 1469. Berlin, though, is a 20th-century construct; a wilful, often belligerent child let loose on a world shifting uneasily under political tensions.
It was possible in 1843 for Balzac to observe that Berlin was dull of spirit, bereft of inspiration. "Imagine Geneva, lost in a desert."
Most historians of the First World War reflect that, in the years immediately before 1914, Berlin could be described accurately as merely a garrison town. Yet 25 years later, Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, was making another call on the intellect before making a call to the builders: "Imagine a capital greater than Paris or Rome, a metropolis that will eclipse Babylon and Karnak."
MacLean's technique is to use a personality to drive the narrative through the history and it works beautifully for the most part and spectacularly on occasion. His mission is to try to explain Berlin, but this effort is compromised by the very ambition of the purpose.
His most convincing lines on the culture of Prussian Berlin come at the end when he relates how he crossed a quiet street against the advice of a red light. The citizens of the city formed a barricade on the other side of the road to prevent him from reaching the pavement. "I had mocked the other pedestrians' need for order. In response they seemed to have had no qualms about watching me be squashed like an audacious bug."
MacLean does not tell us quite how he survived but he is less reticent about charting the victims of a city that has both been mercilessly traduced and acted without mercy to others. The idea, of course, of laying all this human experience, breathing and aching suffering on a place is, of course, absurd. MacLean recognises that if a pile of bricks can have any malevolence it has seeped from the human beings that inhabit them. He is also insightful on how art is born of dissidence and therefore how the fear of disorder can spark an insatiable desire among some to create something fresh, something affirmative.
Thus the march from the Great War, through the Weimar Republic, the Second World War, the Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall, is accompanied by portraits and observations that seek to lighten the darkness without denying it. The horror of Fritz Haber, the purveyor of poison in the First World War, Josef Goebbels, the prosecutor of the Holocaust and much else in the Second World War, and Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker, are all described with a judiciousness that accentuates their crimes rather than diminishes them.
This young adult of a city is taken from its 20th century beginnings as the cradle of war, the incubator of the most heinous sins, to the split personality of dysfunction caused by the trauma of the Great War. However, life continued, art survived, even thrived. MacLean is brilliant and revelatory on Brecht, Dietrich, Isherwood and Bowie, with whom he worked on the film Just A Gigolo, filmed in Berlin.
It is forgivable that MacLean takes certain fictional liberties when describing a city where the idea of freedom has been constrained, sometimes negligible and often a cause of conflict. It is the right, even the duty of the artist to use every device to reach the truth.
He writes that everyone who comes to Berlin "came to make or find themselves in some way or other, their own creation changing the place itself, making them a part of it, and it apart of them, making them Berliners". But this is true of every major city. And Berlin has been home, albeit temporary, to those who did not want to find themselves but to destroy others, from the Nazi henchmen who drifted in from the countryside to the Red Army which swept into the city on a tide of awful vengeance in 1945, to the functionaries of the East German security service and on to the Baader Meinhof terrorists.
There is something special about Berlin. It encompasses a darkness that cannot be denied. There was artistic creation in Berlin not least in Bowie's Heroes or Isherwood's diaries or Brecht's Threepenny Opera. But there was death and denial, too. Marlene Dietrich, the brave and singular actress, left and denounced the city. In this element of her life, she pointed to a truth that must be grasped. Berlin was the scene of unimaginable, contagious horror by an accident of geography. It is people who create or destroy and there is always a choice.
Berlin is thus a human story. MacLean tells it with a wonder, a sadness and a compassion.