Berlin is a modern city with vibrant street art, a growing tech scene and world-renowned museums and galleries — but it also has the dark history of the Nazi Third Reich and the Berlin Wall. In today’s episode, American thriller author Rebecca Cantrell talks about her love of the city and how it features in her historical mysteries.
In the intro, I mention my own trip to the city when I visited the murals on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, and the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum, once an entrance to the ancient city of Babylon, erected by King Nebuchadnezzar in 575 BCE, and now in full splendor in Berlin.
Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning thriller and mystery author. Her books include the supernatural Sanguine series co-written with James Rollins, the Joe Tesla technothrillers, and the Malibu Mysteries co-written with Sean Black. Today we’re talking about Berlin, the setting for her Hannah Vogel historical crime thrillers.
- How Rebecca fell in love with Berlin as a young American from Alaska
- Where the past and present collide in modern Berlin — Nazi Germany and the Berlin Wall
- Street art, murals and modern, arty Berlin
- Fascinating museums
- Recommended food
- Books about the history of Berlin
- Why Becky loves to travel
Transcription of interview with Rebecca Cantrell
Jo Frances: Welcome, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jo Frances: Thanks so much for coming on the show. First up, you’re American.
Tell us why you decided to write about Berlin. What’s your history with the city?
Rebecca: Well, I had a random history with Berlin. I was an exchange student from a little town called Talkeetna, Alaska, and I went to Germany. When I filled up my application, the board said, ‘Where do you want to stay?’ I said, ‘I’d like to stay in a small town because that will be most similar to where I’m coming from and I feel like it will be a little bit more manageable.’
So they sent me to Berlin, which that’s how that works! At the time, it was a city of about two and a half million people surrounded by a wall in the middle of communist East Germany.
It was fantastic! I was blown away with how different things were and it was an amazing, artistic, wonderful place to be. History was right there and very, very real.
When you went to East Berlin, you could see piles of rubble from when they had knocked it down to build the wall. When you went to look at the museums of East Berlin, they still had bullet holes on them from when they had been strafed by Russian artillery during the fall of Berlin in 1945.
That was just amazing. I went back again for a year in college. I went to the Freie Universität. Then I wanted my son to get a taste of Europe before he grew up, so we moved there when he was 12 and lived there for 4 years. We’re just back in the United States for almost three years now.
Jo France: Wow. I had no idea you moved from Alaska.
Rebecca: Very different weather-wise.
Jo France: Different in so many ways.
Is there a culture shock that you think Americans get when they hit Europe? Berlin is very European.
Rebecca: Part of it is just that everything is different. In Berlin, for example, I had public transportation, which, of course, I didn’t have in Alaska. That meant that as a teenager, I could go anywhere. I had a little bus pass and the subway and the S-Bahn, which is like an aboveground subway. The buses in Berlin go everywhere. For example, when my son went there at age 12, he could go to the movies by himself with his friends.
When you go on the subway, you’ll see little kids going to school, like six or seven-year-old kids will be on the subway going to school. They’ll have their big backpacks on their back and they’ll just get off at their stop and then go on to their class. For my son, it was a huge amount of freedom. When he came back here and he was 16 and he didn’t have a driver’s license yet, it was this reverse culture shock where he’s been used to having all this freedom and then he didn’t have it anymore.
Jo France: You talked about freedom there, and, of course, Berlin had its Wall and you write about Nazi history in your Hannah Vogel books.
In Nazi Germany, freedom was out of reach for so many. What remains of that Nazi presence in Berlin?
Rebecca: A lot of the city was destroyed during the bombing at the end of the war. But, for example, the Olympic Stadium is still there. In 1936, Berlin hosted what’s now called the Nazi Olympics, which is where Jesse Owens won 7 gold medals in defiance of their racial ideology. It’s still a stadium, you can go see events in it, they have a swimming pool. One summer, I took my son there and he swam in the same pool that the Olympians use.
Some things aren’t there. If you go to the Hitler bunker, it’s been filled in, paved over. It’s a parking lot by my doctors. So I was leaving my doctors and I saw a little plaque and there was a tour bus, and I’m like, ‘What could that possibly be? It’s just a parking lot and a modern building.’
I went over and read it. ‘This is where Hitler died and this was where the bunker was.’ So there’s this old and then new. You can see it at different places. For example, the SS headquarters, they have the foundation of that building and they have a giant exhibit where you can go through and they talk about what happened there.
So they have remnants of it, but not all of it. That’s kind of what Berlin struggles with. They have this problematic past and they work pretty hard to confront it, which I think is a uniquely German thing.
If you look at stuff in the United States or in Britain, it’s very pro-American or pro-British. There are things that we just don’t deal with. When I was in France at Nantes, I went to a museum and they had a slavery museum. And that was when I first realized I’d never seen a museum that documented slavery like that in the United States.
But Berlin works harder to consider those kinds of things and you’re constantly coming face to face with what happened before. Like the cobblestones.
I lived in Mitte which was in the former East Berlin and they have cobblestones everywhere made out of stone. They have some cobblestones that are made out of brass. On those cobblestones is the name of a person who lived there who was Jewish who died in the Holocaust. It’ll have their name, when they were born, when they died, and what happened.
Jo France: And it’s illegal in Germany to deny the Holocaust, right?
Jo France: Where it’s not illegal in our countries to deny that kind of thing. And there’s also a very beautiful Memorial, isn’t there? Near the Brandenburg Gate?
Rebecca: Yes, there’s the Holocaust Memorial, which are these giant squares that are made out of concrete and they’re gray. You can walk between them and they represent the graves of all the people who died in the Holocaust.
It sounds really stark, and it is very stark, but it’s very, very powerful as you just walk amongst them because you go down and the way the water kind of runs down the side, it looks like the stones are crying when it rains, which happens a lot in Berlin. And when you wander around between them, because they’re taller than your head, you’re kind of in this maze of a gravestone.
Jo Frances: I’ve been there. It’s a very powerful place. People are very respectful even though it’s not a museum as such. It’s just a public sculpture. But people were very respectful when I was there, which was lovely.
So the other thing you mentioned, East and West Germany. Berlin is really famous for the Wall. Some people will remember the pictures of when it came down.
What remains of the Wall now? If people go there, what can they see there?
Rebecca: Well, the biggest still standing segment of the Wall is the East Side Gallery. It’s over a kilometer long, and it’s painted with murals by various artists that they had them come in and paint them.
There’s a Keith Haring mural there, and then there are murals by various artists all around the world on the subject of walls, and peace, and reconciliation.
That’s the biggest segment, but there’s also a smaller segment at Potsdamer Platz, where you can go and touch it and see it. Then there’s a teeny tiny fragment at Dussmann, which is a bookstore in Friedrichstraße. If you go into the back, there’s the English bookstore, and in front of it, they have a big case and it’s a piece of the Berlin Wall and it’s signed by Ronald Reagan and he wrote, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ and then he signed it. So that’s kind of the American Wall moment, I would say.
Jo Frances: It used to be called graffiti when people put paintings on walls, but it really is art, isn’t it, around Berlin?
It’s not just the wall, there are a lot of murals.
Rebecca: Oh, Berlin has so much graffiti everywhere. There are tons of murals, there’s this technique people use where they’ll take something and paint it on paper. And then they’ll just basically wallpaper paste it to a wall so they can get something that’s very detailed without getting caught because it is still against the law. There’s just amazing artwork everywhere.
There’s the Anne Frank House, which is a memorial to Anne Frank. If you go back in there, there’s a theater in there and there’s this kind of weird robotic Goblin house where you go in and they have like lights and these giant robotic goblins do dances and things. But if you go around the Anne Frank House, it’s covered with incredible graffiti. And people are constantly painting over it. And I have just hundreds of pictures on Facebook that were taken at that location because it’s always new and it’s always different artists and it’s just so interesting what they come up with.
Jo Frances: For your Hannah Vogel historical crime thrillers, are there any places that you put into the books that you particularly feel a kinship to?
Rebecca: It’s amazing that the world of Berlin now is more like Hannah Vogel’s world than it was when I went there in the ’80s. So, I’ve lived there in the ’80s and ’90s and the novel came out in 2009 and I hadn’t been back for a long time. When I went back, I was astonished to find that many of the buildings that had been destroyed during Hannah’s time had been restored.
So for example, there’s Hotel Adlon. A Night of the Long Knives takes place in that hotel. And it was destroyed by the Russians. They had a giant wine cellar.
At the end of the war, the Russian soldiers broke into the wine cellar, much wine was consumed, and the building ended up being set on fire. And then after the war, the Wall ran right next to it. They just moved the rubble out of the way, built the Wall, put down the land mines, and there was nothing there.
Then when the Wall came down in 1989, they rebuilt it and they rebuilt the hotel in the style that they had been before. So this hotel that hadn’t existed except for in my imagination is suddenly there again, which is just astonishing.
And then Eldorado was this gay club that existed in the ’20s. And then they turned it into Nazi headquarters. Then in the ’90s, it became a gay bar again. I went there and it was very cool and it had all these paintings on the wall. It looked like my book, like it looked more like my book than it had when it was the original bar. But when I went back there in 2013, it was no longer a bar, it was an organic grocery store. So time moves us on.
Jo Frances: That’s very cool.
What about modern Berlin?
I visited as part of an entrepreneurial conference and it’s got a reputation in Europe now for being a tech hub and very young and full of sculptures. So what do you think modern Berlin is like?
Rebecca: They had a unique opportunity and when the Wall came down, suddenly they had a bunch of downtown property that they could build on it. I don’t think that’s the case for most cities in the world because, you know, they grew up over time and you very rarely get city centers to design in the modern style. So you see a lot of really interesting architecture and sculpture and things that you wouldn’t miss. They had just so much space to play with.
So Potsdamer Platz has that big, giant tent over it that looks like Mount Fuji or circus tent, depending on who you ask.
And then there’s an American theater in there, or a theater that plays original version movies, many of which are in English. So that’s where we spend a lot of time with my son. And they’ve got a big Christmas market in there and they have Christmas trees. And it’s kind of this multi-purpose space. And there’s a Starbucks there, the café. So you can sit there and write and look down and watch all the people and watch it kind of change throughout the year. So it’s a cool meeting place but there’s stuff like that everywhere.
There’s Hamburger Bahnhof which has a ton of different kinds of art. There are art galleries just everywhere. So it’s a wonderful place to go. They have giant sculptures. They have a sculpture of the man…I forget what it’s called, he’s like punching through the stomach of another man. You can also go and see the East Side Gallery and wander and look at all the painting, all the murals on the Wall. It’s extraordinary. In case you didn’t guess, I’m enthusiastic about Berlin!
Jo France: I know how much you love it. The first time we met was in Berlin near Museum Island.
I was visiting the Pergamon Museum which is really incredible, which has the Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’
So what are the museums that have inspired you in your research or that you think are fascinating?
Rebecca: Museum Island has a bunch of wonderful museums and temporary exhibitions that go through. I wrote a book called iFrankenstein, which featured the art of Caspar David Friedrich who was a German romantic author. He started what we would now call kind of the Gothic sensibility, where you have the one human being dressed in Victorian-era clothing and looking out over a giant vista, or in a ruined Gothic church with the light coming in just so.
When I worked on the Sanguine series, those paintings were definitely a friend of mine, and they did do an exhibit there at the Alte Nationalgalerie, which was very cool. And they also have an old cloister that was destroyed and they still have part of the building. So you wander around this destroyed Gothic cathedral, which is very cool.
The Jewish Museum is amazing. It has the whole history of Judaism in Berlin. It’s not just the Holocaust, although obviously, there’s a huge Holocaust section, but it starts back when Jews first immigrated to Berlin and it has a big section on 1700s and 1800s, too.
If you have a kid, I would say take them to the Currywurst Museum. So that’s this museum that traces the history of Currywurst, a kind of sausage that you cut up and then you cover it with ketchup and then you put curry on top. It’s very much a Berlin institution in street food. And it was invented after the war by this woman called Herta Heuwer, I think. And so there’s this museum dedicated to it and you go with kids, and they have giant French fries and video games. So it’s kind of a cool place to take a kid if they’ve been holocausted out.
[Note from Joanna: It looks like the Currywurst Museum closed in Dec 2018, but you can still eat it on the streets of Berlin!]
Jo Frances: That’s really important because there’s a lot of darkness in the city, but there’s a lot of celebration and fun, too. It is very young as well. Currywurst is hilarious. It’s one type of street food. Christmas markets are another thing that Germany is well known for.
So what are some of the other things that people might like to eat or drink in Berlin?
Rebecca: Well, you definitely want to have a Döner kebab. So that’s a Turkish street food. And you get a flatbread, they cut it in half, and then they cut the meat off of the spit. They put that in there with a bunch of red cabbage and sauce and onions and tomatoes, and then you just carry it around and eat it. That’s definitely my favorite street food. But as far as food is concerned, Berlin is a food capital. It has amazing food of all different kinds.
So when we moved, we lived in this one little part of downtown and within a kilometer of our house, there were 25 different ethnic food restaurants. So there was Ethiopian, there’s a great Syrian place close to my son’s school, there was an amazing Vietnamese place not far from our house. So there’s just so much food. If you’re in Berlin, eat, eat, eat. And then as far as Christmas market food is concerned, they have…and this is much better than it sounds. They have this giant cauldron and it’s full of kale and potatoes and sausages. It doesn’t taste like American kale and it’s cooked down and it’s so, so good.
They have really good mulled wine and eggnog, hot eggnog, but you have got to watch the eggnog because it is high octane stuff. If you have a full eggnog in a short period of time, you should not drive!
A friend of mine and I did the Christmas market tour one year where we went to three different Christmas markets and we had an eggnog at each. We walked a couple kilometers and spent a lot of time walking around, but even by the end, the three eggnogs after like five hours was too much for me.
Jo Frances: You mentioned driving. Now, obviously, I’m British and I don’t have a car. Many people in Berlin don’t have a car. You walk or get public transport, as you said at the beginning.
People might just want to walk around most historical areas. Is that all walkable?
Rebecca: It is very, very walkable. When I lived in Berlin, we didn’t have a car for four years. I mean, we’re Americans so we have cars here because you have to have one. But in Berlin, we didn’t have one and it is very walkable. So we could walk from our house to Museum Island and you can walk from Museum Island to Brandenburg Gate. Like, it’s a little over a kilometer.
Then from Brandenburg Gate, you can walk less than half a kilometer to the Holocaust Museum. And then another half kilometer will take you to Potsdamer Platz. So it’s all very, very walkable, especially the downtown area. If you don’t want to walk, get yourself the tourist pass and take public transportation.
There’s a great app called VBB. You put in your destination and where you are and it tells you what public transit you need to take to get there. So it’ll be like, ‘Take the 17 bus, and then get off here, and take the subway 2 stops, and walk.’
So it’s definitely possible to get around everywhere. What’s really astonishing is how well developed the public transit system is. There is nowhere that’s more than I’d say 50 yards from a bus stop, subway stop or a tram stop. It is amazing, I’ve never seen the likes of it. I think it’s because the West Berliners had to build theirs up and then the East Berliners built theirs up on a different set of tracks. When you mash them, you get an amazing amount of public transit.
Jo Frances: Fantastic. What are a couple of books you would recommend that people read to get a sense of Berlin?
Rebecca: Okay. But I don’t know if I’m going to be able to limit it to just like a few! But I will do my best.
My first book, A Trace of Smoke, is set in 1931 in the gay cabaret era. If you want the best book on bars and cabaret and the weird sexual history of Berlin in the ’20s, I would recommend ‘Voluptuous Panic’ by Mel Gordon. It has a lot of pictures and a lot of fascinating details about what was going on. And if you’re interested in the Cold War, people after the Cold War, there’s a really good book called ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder.
She is an Australian journalist who lived in Berlin in the ’90s, after the Wall had come down, back when Berlin was still cheap and had a lot of people who could still afford to live there, who’d lived there for years and years and years. She interviewed a lot of people who’d been involved in the Stasi. The Stasi was short for the Staatssicherheit, kind of like their FBI, but it was very intrusive. They say that one in four people in the country was an informant for the Stasi. So it’s a fascinating book about that.
‘In the Garden of Beasts’ by Erik Larson is a really interesting nonfiction book. And these are all nonfiction. It’s set in 1936 when the new American ambassador came to Berlin. It’s a true story. He’s documented his sources exhaustively. It’s the story of the American ambassador and his daughter who was an adult but just a total whirlwind. She dated SS officers, and then dated Jewish people, and was very much plugged into both sides of what was going on in Germany at the time. That’s definitely fascinating.
If you want a better sense of the ’20s and the era before the Nazis, I would recommend the Harry Kessler diaries, Berlin in Lights. The author is Harry Kessler, and it’s rumored that his mother had an affair with the Emperor. He is royalty, but he’s actually much more royalty than he seems. He was this diplomat and intellectual, and he kept this extensive diary of everything that was going on in his life. He was sent to negotiate the ceasefire with Poland in World War I. He also knew everyone.
If you look at his diaries, every single important person in Europe, in the 1910s, ’20s, visited his house. Everybody from Albert Einstein to Josephine Baker, she came to his house and danced wearing nothing but four bananas. And everybody in between! He’s a very entertaining writer.
He went out and did things as well. So when there was the Spartacist revolution, they were shooting people on the streets, he marched right out there to see what was going on, and everybody was like, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ His staff, you know, his valet and such, said, ‘Don’t go outside, sir.’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll be right back.’ He goes out and creeps down the pavement and then documents everything that he saw. But in a very matter of fact, what I would call almost British sensibility of the stiff upper lip. ‘And so then there was this bullet. It took a piece out of the thing next to me. How extraordinary.’
Jo Frances: I love how detailed you are about your research. I know you worked really hard to make the Hannah Vogel series so exact.
Do you list all your research in the back of your books for those people who love all the detail?
Rebecca: I do. So I have author’s notes in the back of my book. I usually list, if not all my sources, my most interesting sources or my most relevant sources. Hannah is a reporter, for example, and there was a woman called Bella Fromm, who wrote a book called ‘Blood and Banquets.’ She was this society reporter in Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s. And she met Hitler, she met all these other people. She was Jewish so she had to flee to the United States. But I got a lot of information from that book about what it was like to be a reporter back then as a woman.
Jo Frances: Really fascinating. Now, I know you’ve traveled a lot for all your book research and you’re often in Europe and other places.
Why do you travel? Why do you love traveling and what does travel give you?
Rebecca: I like to see different ways of doing things and different ways of thinking. I feel like it gives me a chance to walk where history walked. To see these places where extraordinary events occurred, and then just to see the ordinary everyday life that’s there now. And also food. All the amazing food.
Jo Frances: Oh, I love that! So where can people find you and your books online?
Rebecca: I have a website, www.rebeccacantrell.com. And my books are everywhere that books are found, Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, etc.
Jo France: All of the usual places. Well, thanks so much for your time, Becky. That was great.
Rebecca: You bet. Thanks for having me. I’ll talk about Berlin all day!