Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon: Cold War East Berlin Spy Thriller

by Mk

in Cross Cultural,Fiction,Historical,Mysteries & Thrillers

Leaving BerlinWhen I saw the publisher’s description for international bestselling author Joseph Kanon’s newest novel, Leaving Berlin, I realized I hadn’t read a sneaky spy thriller in a long time and that I had only rarely read anything about the Berlin split after World War II. I was intrigued by the concept of this novel, which frankly gave me chills. A Jewish man escapes the camps to America only to find himself in a rock-and-a-hard-place situation that lands him back in Berlin immediately after the war. It made me bite my nails to just think about it. It looks at loyalty, betrayal, survival, the testing of what makes us human, and includes not just espionage but political maneuvering that made my head spin. Sound interesting?

In this video, the author takes you on a tour of Berlin in the early years after World War II, the world of Leaving Berlin. It sets the scene for this novel.

Alex Meier, a Jewish writer, is one of the lucky ones. Thanks to intervention by a family friend, he escaped Berlin to America in 1933 when Hitler’s direction became apparent but before World War II began in earnest. He made his way to Southern California, where he was able to make a life for himself and to earn a decent livelihood in the film industry. He was married and had a small son, Phillip, who he adored. All in all you could say he was blessed. At least it probably looked that way from the outside.

“’But it was as you describe? You were tortured?’ Martin said, unable to resist.
‘No. Everyone was beaten. But the worst things – I was lucky.’ …’I wasn’t there long enough. Somebody got me out. You could still do that then. ’33. If you knew the right people.’ The one thing old Fritz had left, connections.”

Unfortunately, Alex’s marriage was not so blessed and he’s in the midst of a divorce. And there’s the not insignificant problem of the House Committee for Un-American Activities, which is on a witch hunt to ferret out socialists. Their biggest targets seem to be in the arts, including the entertainment industry. It seems like everyone with recent ties to Europe is being called in to testify and name names, and Alex has not escaped it. Those blacklisted names invariably end up with people’s lives being ruined, whether the original testimony is true or not. To Alex it feels much like what Berliners went through when Hitler came to power. For that reason, he refuses to be a party to this kind of witch hunt and will not give the committee names of people to hunt down and persecute.

Although he’s standing up for what he believes is the right thing to do, he pays dearly for it. He is given the choice of going to prison or he can accept an invitation to go back to Berlin. Why on earth would he want to go back to a city that caused him and all around him such pain, a city where everyone else in his family and so many more were murdered just for being who they were? Just thinking about it terrifies him.

In 1949, Alex is caught right where the CIA wants him. If he agrees to go to East Berlin temporarily, keep his ears open and let them know what he hears then they will reinstate his U.S. citizenship and all will be forgiven. A devil’s bargain if ever there was one. Yet it’s the only hope he has of ever seeing his son again. Talk about a rock and a hard place. He feels he has no choice other than to accept. And maybe it won’t be so bad. Bertolt Brecht and other German artists have already returned and are, apparently, being treated like heroes.


The Stalin government wants Alex to return very badly, so maybe there will be some small protection in that in addition to the CIA saying they will protect him…maybe. And some small part of him is curious to see his old neighborhood and to find people he knew before the war who might have survived it. He also owes a huge debt to Fritz, the man who helped get him out of Berlin.

Downfall, the book that had made his reputation, presumably the reason Germany wanted him back – Brecht and Anna Seghers and Arnold Zweig had all come home and now Alex Meier, Germany’s exiles returning. To the East, even culture [was] part of the new war. He thought of Brecht ignored in California, Seghers invisible in Mexico City, now celebrated again, pictures in the paper, speeches of welcome by Party officials.”

“Were they still alive? Irene and Elsbeth and Erich, old Fritz, the people of his life, swallowed up in the war, maybe just names now on a refugee list, untraceable, their only existence in Alex’s pages, something Felix would have hated.”

“They were still a few miles out when he heard the planes, a low steady droning, coming closer, the way the bombers must have sounded. Now loaded with food and sacks of coal…
‘How does anyone sleep?’
‘You don’t hear them after a while,’ Martin said. ‘You get used to it.’
Maybe Martin had, new to Berlin. But what about the others, who remembered huddling in shelters every night, waiting to die, listening to the engine sounds – how near? – the whining thrust as the nose was pulled up, now floating somewhere overhead.”

Although Alex is visibly shaken by the divided and devastated Berlin he finds when he returns, he is even more shaken by what has become of the people he knew before he fled to America. And it takes very little time for him to realize the assurances he’s been given by both the government in Berlin and by the CIA weren’t worth the paper they were or weren’t written on. Now he’s caught in a web between the two, each with its own agenda, and with each considering him an expendable asset.

“Not the Germany he had known, the big house in Lutzowplatz. Still, Germany. He felt his stomach tighten, the same familiar apprehension, waiting for the knock on the door.”

How has his life in America softened his war-honed survival instincts and put him at a disadvantage? To what lengths will he have to go just to survive? Who does he dare trust when trusting the wrong person will get him killed, tortured and probably sent to end his life in a uranium mine? How will he spot which of his old friends has become an enemy, something he has to do as a matter of literal survival? And he must find a way to not just survive but to regain his son and his future freedom.

Alex is not just a fish out of water – he’s a fish caught in a deadly whirlpool with sharks swimming all around him. Nothing and no one is what or who they appear. Berlin is not the Berlin he grew up in and loved as a child. His friends – well, who knows if the ones who’ve survived are still his friends or if they would sell him out for a decent meal. He also doesn’t know which, if any, of the friends and artistic peers he had back in the States who’ve returned to East Berlin can be trusted. They all seem to be walking a high-wire tightrope similar to the one he’s on and a few are already making the kinds of mistakes that could cause them to disappear in the night. Other than Brecht’s name, I haven’t given insight into other characters to avoid spoilers.

Joseph Kanon has mixed fiction with a lot of historical research in such a seamless manner in Leaving Berlin that it comes alive. He’s careful in the Author’s Note to separate fact from fiction for us; however, it’s all quite believable. The paranoia, the depth of despair and privation following the war – it all rings true for a people who’ve basically lost hope and harbor enormous gut-wrenching guilt. And then there are the unrepentant ones and the power hungry on all sides, who believe in their entitlements over their fellow human beings. This is one of the most powerful political/spy thrillers I’ve read in a long time. It’s almost dystopian in the way it lays bare the war’s aftermath. For those of us who’ve never been through such circumstances, it feels almost surreal and yet also like a reality wake-up call. It will make you very thankful you weren’t there and that you’ve never had to stand in Alex’s shoes. If you’re a spy thriller fan, I recommend this one.

Can’t wait to read it?

Leaving Berlin was published in the U.S. on March 3, 2015 and in Europe on November 6, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller no matter where you live. Just click on the link button below, or in the right column for iBooks, and get it to read today!

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I’d love to get your comments on Leaving Berlin, Joseph Kanon or his other work, and/or this review.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Techeditor March 22, 2015 at 5:10 pm

Considering that the author is in American, you would think it would have been published here first.

Joseph Kanon really is a wonderful author, and I would have appreciated reading it last November. Instead, I am reading Europeans’ reviews. I wonder why he published in Europe first.


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