The Gereon Rath novels and Babylon Berlin
Volker Kutscher spent over a year looking for a publisher for volume one of Babylon Berlin, but there are now nine best-selling novels. Set in the years after 1929 against the rise of National Socialism, detective inspector Gereon Rath and his co-police-worker Charlotte Ritter are old-school sleuths in the neo-noir tradition of grey-zoned morality in Berlin’s Weimar underbelly.
The series has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies, been translated into 22 languages and been adapted as a hugely successful television show. Babylon Berlin is Germany’s highest-budget TV show, and it may be the most expensive non-English-language TV series ever made. Season four of Babylon Berlin is based on book three of the Rath novels.
Season four of Babylon Berlin, based on your third novel, Goldstein, was released last month. What’s your take on it?
They’ve taken quite a few liberties; some things have been left out, and some added. I’ve gotten used to that, but I’m happy that the story is being told very well. My project is the novels series, not the TV adaptation.
The intention is, I think, similar to that of my novels: showing how people experienced Berlin in those times, and how it changed. Babylon Berlin just does it with different methods. Goldstein’s character, the New York-based, lapsed Jewish gangster, has been cast very well, although the fact that he’s crossed the Atlantic to get involved in gang warfare comes across far less than it does in the novel. The TV adaptation has more narrative threads; the timelines are adjusted. That’s just the nature of TV.
You know, I wrote that book about 10 years ago. At the moment I’m writing about 1937, in the middle of National Socialism. It’s nice to see the TV spectacle of that older work but it doesn’t have a lot to do with what I’m working on at the moment.
The constant throughout your series is detective inspector Gereon Rath. He’s a morally flawed character who doesn’t mind bending the law in the pursuit of justice. How important is vigilante justice in your novels?
I’d say it’s the main topic that runs through all of the Gereon Rath series. I chose it because in a way it’s Gereon’s modus operandi. He likes to use his own methods and often applies his own vigilante justice when he realises that it can’t be achieved by other means. He’s not as brutal as the White Hand vigilante organisation that he is fighting, but the thinking behind his methods is similar.
I didn’t want a glowing hero.
My aim was to encourage people to think about vigilante justice. It’s not really in line with the rule of law. Later in the series, when the Nazis come to power, using this kind of justice to combat an unlawful regime turns into an advantage. For as long as a lawful state exists, I believe one should adhere to its precepts. That’s the be-all and end-all of democracy.
He’s also an outsider, a Rheinländer in Berlin. What drew you to this scenario?
I wanted him to have an outsider’s view of Berlin. As a native of Cologne, Gereon Rath stays a stranger and maintains a degree of scepticism. The fact that I’m a Rheinländer myself obviously plays a role – he’s closer to my heart. And the so-called Rhenish mentality – the ability to wiggle through, get by, and be a bit opportunistic – these are traits that fit well with the character I had in mind.
I didn’t want a glowing hero. Somebody who’d seen through the Nazis from the beginning would have been an Übermensch, beyond reproach, uninteresting. But we can relate to Gereon Rath. He’s fallible.
Rath’s long-term love interest is Berlin local Charlotte Ritter, a woman who has pulled herself up from underworld beginnings to join the police force and study law. Is she the innocent yin to Rath’s hard-nosed yang?
She has strong principles, she’s Prussian – but in a good way. She feels a sense of responsibility for her fellow human beings. She may have started with the best of intentions, but she has also strayed from the straight and narrow, covered-up crimes, and ends up becoming a bit more like her (later) husband Gereon, although she’s morally firmer than him.
Your novels are replete with amazing historical details. Let’s take just one example from Goldstein: the police search for vendors of Camel cigarettes in 1931 Berlin. How do you research?
I do a bit of everything. Lots of walking, comparing what I see to old photos, trying to beam myself into that time. Reading contemporary newspapers plays a big role – not just world affairs but headlines from those years that tell us what people thought was important. War reparations were a huge issue for example. Local news is also a good source: traffic accidents, fires. And advertising: department stores and car sales. Even crosswords and cartoons are interesting. They’re immersive. What did people think, what did they laugh about?
What did people think, what did they laugh about?
The Camel cigarettes example you mentioned was also an opportunity to bring in a little humour, spotlighting the Berlin inspector who mispronounces it as the German word ‘Kamel’ before being corrected to ‘Kämmel’.
So you’ve covered Berlin on foot… from Grunewald to the shacks of Müggelsee?
I’ve visited most of the locations in the novel, although I take the S-Bahn to get to outlying places like Müggelsee, and then explore. I like Berlin a lot; I have a small flat there now. I just like walking through areas that are off the tourist trail. So many buildings are witnesses to history. One example in Goldstein is the Jewish hospital situated off Schulstraße in Gesundbrunnen, which I researched in detail.
The novel I’m currently working on is set in 1937 and reading those newspapers was a lot less fun. By then, they were all toeing the same line. You have to read between the lines to get a more differentiated view.
Differentiated in what sense?
I wanted to show the caesura in 1933 – but also the many continuities: like living and working in a city, maybe thinking that politics was not as important as a happy home life. Many people just hoped that things would quieten down again. I wanted to show and understand how a country could be turned on its head.
Is that what attracted you to the historical setting of the Weimar Republic? The grey areas in which crime thrived?
I think that the Weimar republic deserved a longer life and that its downfall was perhaps avoidable. Its potential was considerable, it just had a very difficult start: war reparations and the fact that the German people were, a bit like the Russians today, pariahs in the world community. Many people had high hopes which they lost when the economy began going downhill. For me, that was tragic.
My characters belong to a luckless generation.
That was one of my main motivations: trying to work out why Weimar failed. Obviously, it’s all been very well researched by historians. But I still had questions and I try to answer them by creating a fictional situation in which empathy is allowed to play a role and helps us understand different people, of varying political and moral mindsets. How did they react to the changes happening at the time? It’s like a little experiment, following those characters through those times. It’s as much an experiment for me as it is for the readers.
What are your preferences when it comes to authors of crime fiction?
There is no one favourite author for me but James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential) is a particular role model. Many of his novels are set in the past, like mine. Interestingly his work was never stamped as ‘historical crime novel’ and I don’t see mine in that category either. To be honest, I don’t see myself as a crime novelist.
So how do you see yourself?
As someone who tells stories from a different time, trying to make history tangible while staying true to the historical picture – not blowing Hitler up Tarantino style but sticking to the developments that took place in Germany during that time. Even now, I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the characters in the final volume, but I know what happened in the world.
My characters belong to a luckless generation. Whether perpetrators or victims of crime, they were forced into decisions that inevitably involved pain. Once you cross the threshold of 1933, you’ve crossed that Rubicon. Up to that point, other scenarios were possible. Seeing how quickly it’s possible to go down a non-democratic path with democratically elected politicians is frightening.
Are you alluding to current developments, trying to raise some sense of historical awareness?
Seeing how quickly it’s possible to go down a non-democratic path with democratically elected politicians is frightening.
I’m not a finger-wagging teacher! But historical amnesia is widespread, so widespread that many people don’t realise that they’re talking the way the Nazis did. Nobody wants to be a Nazi – but succumbing to certain thought patterns is a problem that I see. Words are important. They change the way we act. If I talk a certain way, I’m more likely to act that way. Words should be weighed before being used. Using words like völkisch as the AfD did for a time, without acknowledging that it was Nazi-speak, without having that critical context – that’s a great danger.
The TV comic adaptation The Boys is a case in point. It’s set in a world of superheroes and one of those is a female superhero called Stormfront. She’s a Nazi but comes across as super cool. At some point, she says: “People like what I have to say, they believe in it. They just don’t like the word Nazi.” It’s like Putin describing the Ukrainians as fascists… We definitely need historical awareness.
Volker Kutscher was born in 1962 in North Rhine-Westphalia. He studied German, History and Philosophy in Cologne. He subsequently worked as a reporter covering local affairs before the success of the Gereon Rath novels allowed him to transition to life as a full-time writer. His days as bass player in the four-man outfit The Contrelles are over – but you can still catch his music skills on YouTube, and of course his novels on your favourite streaming service.
Interested in Berlin’s history? Check out our list of vanished buildings, (or the list of mostly vanished department stores). How about a photo series of buildings in 1945 and now? Maybe you’re after something a little more tangible: did you know that you can still see damage from World War II in some areas? Want to know what it was like to live in the DDR? There are plenty of museums that will teach you about the Stasi.
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