In his book Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood shares his experience living in the German capital during the Weimar Republic’s fall and the rise of Nazism. Like any other author, Isherwood’s accounts are significantly influenced by the socio-economic context of the time he lived. Analysis of Goodbye to Berlin reveals how the public events in a broader political and socio-economic situation penetrated and shaped characters’ private lives.
The Context of the Public in 1930s Berlin
The context of public life in Berlin of the 1930s can largely be explored in the economic, social, and political situations. Germany witnessed a substantial level of poverty characterized by the reparation for war costs for the Allies, hyperinflation, and unemployment in the aftermath of World War I. Within the social realm, the people of Germany experienced an emotional void caused by the national humiliation after the loss of the war and subsequent economic decay described above. Moreover, the society of the Weimar Republic was highly individualistic, free, and progressive, which led to people’s nostalgia for the sense of community, discipline, and conservative values.
Finally, deriving from the social and economic conditions, the political arena of Germany witnessed the rise of Nazism and the fall of the Weimar Republic and socialism. Nazi rhetoric that emphasized conservative values such as unity, discipline and that glorified the Arian race while demonizing other ethnicities, particularly Jewish, captured the attention of the German citizens. Hence, the public background of the Berlin in which Isherwood produced Goodbye to Berlin can largely be portrayed as Germany’s experience of psychological, economic, and political decay.
Public Event Shaping the Private Experience
Individualism, Sexual Liberation, and Commodification
One of the areas within the context of the public life described above is the emotional vacuum in the social life whereby individualism and neoliberalism prevailed. This aspect of public life shaped the private experience of Sally Bowles, one of the characters in Goodbye to Berlin. On the one hand, Sally, Christopher Isherwood’s housemate, is portrayed as sexually liberated since she can pursue her sexual passions without any public restraint (Isherwood 27).
However, her pursuit of sexual liberation eventually leaves her in a miserable situation where she has no close friend or lover who cares enough to take care of her when she has to do an abortion except for Christopher himself (Isherwood 44). In other words, Sally’s profoundly individualistic external world penetrated her private life since she became a commodified object without social support. Thus, the narrative of Sally Bowles’ experience of misery within the public realm where society emphasized mere sexual passion over intrinsic love and care is one aspect in which public events shaped the private experience.
Economic Deprivation and Marginalization
Economic decay is one of the fundamental aspects of German public life at the time of Isherwood’s writing. Goodbye to Berlin portrays the life of the Nowaks, who lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Germany, whereby streets were “littered with sprawling children in tears” (Isherwood 88). Such a miserable economic situation inevitably caused sickness and hunger, which the reader can notice in Frau Nowak’s description of her health condition (Isherwood 92). Moreover, the appalling poverty, hunger, and sickness entailed destructive family relations, quarrels, and even physical violence among the Nowaks (Isherwood 113). Hence, the public event of Germany’s dire economic situation shaped the private lives of Nowaks, marginalized, working-class Germans.
Nazism and Hatred
Another central area of public life that influenced characters’ private lives is the rise of Nazism and hatred towards particular groups, namely, Jewish communities. Isherwood includes the story of the Landauers, the Jewish family residing in Berlin. In the first lines of the chapter, Isherwood mentions an attack on all Jewish shops when “gangs of Nazi roughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews” (Isherwood 118).
At that moment, Landauers, like most of the rest of Jewish communities, did not suspect the upcoming atrocities by Nazis. Nevertheless, this part reflects the broader political situation in which Nazism is rising and the hate crimes against the Jewish people. In other words, this private experience of the Landauers family is shaped by the larger political context and public sentiment whereby people actively engaged in scapegoating Jewish people for Germany’s failures. Thus, the public event encompassing the rise of Nazism shaped the private experience of the Landauer family in Goodbye to Berlin.
To conclude, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin explores the interplay between public and private in Berlin of the 30s by linking the social, economic, and political aspects of public life with the personal experience of characters. While the individualistic and liberal public shaped Sally Bowles’ experience, the broader national economic degradation shaped the lives of Nowaks. In addition, the rising public sentiment against the Jews also reflected on the private lives of Landauers. Goodbye to Berlin emphasizes how public events, political structures, economic conditions, and social values invaded and shaped the private individuals’ lives, which later gave rise to Nazi Germany.
Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. New Directions, 2012.