IBDP Extended Essay: Insights into Berlin's Political Landscape from its Inhabitants

 To what extent does Christopher Isherwood use characters to illustrate the political change in Berlin in​ Goodbye to Berlin​ and its effect on marginalised groups?

A city largely defined by 20th century conflict, Berlin has taken many forms throughout history. During the 'Golden Years' - the 1920s, it reflected "an image of the metropolis that was lively, lavish, [and] liberally open minded" (Jelavich 97). Commercialism, the arts, and cultural diversity in Germany's ​Weltstadt ​were in abundance. Nestled between the first and second world wars, lay an era of cosmopolitan liberalism crescendoing into the early 1930s. This was impeded by the demise of the Weimar Republic and the onset of the rise of fascism, culminating to the atrocities of World War II under the Nazi regime. The complexities and counterbalance of self-discovery in a city of unease and growing political restrictions, foreshadows the approaching conflict of unimaginable proportions.
The enigmatic Christopher Isherwood takes the form of the "self-effacing onlooker" (D. Thomas44)inhisnovel​GoodbyetoBerlinp​ublishedin1939tocapturetheessenceofthis fleeting era, labelling himself a "camera with its shutter open" (Isherwood 1). Isherwood melancholically bids farewell to his beloved Berlin from 1930 to 1933. His retrospective and episodic narration of a rambunctious society descending into precarious political tension becomes almost a eulogy; as he mourns the city's departure to fascism. In the novel, Isherwood lives as a tenant in central Berlin, earning income as an English tutor for the wealthy. The novel's episodic chapters fixate on the stories of Isherwood's most prominent friends, ranging from Sally Bowles; a young wannabe English actress, to the grandiose life of the wealthy Jewish Landauer family. All of these characters loom on the "fringe of society" (Fryer 343), their futures hang in the balance as Berlin enters a new age.
Isherwood’s preference to write from behind the camera lens in his ambiguous style - operating as a socialite - is crucial in utilising his characters to reflect the milieu of Berlin from 1930 to 1933. Isherwood’s shifting focus of contrasting characters reflects the aforementioned complexities of the lives of marginalised individuals. The literary significance of this piece of semi-autobiographical fiction reflects Isherwood's first-hand experience of diversity, sexuality and socio-political impacts during this period of history. He does this in a nuanced, often subliminal way, through his characters and metaphorical camera lens. Isherwood’s characters seek refuge and self-discovery during this period of respite between two world wars. Even though the imminence of a second world war was unbeknownst, the temporary nature of the current era was foreshadowed by an atmosphere of apprehension. Isherwood’s detailed depiction of character leads to the research question: ​To what extent does Christopher Isherwood use character to illustrate the political change in Berlin in ​Goodbye to Berlin and its effect on marginalised groups?
In order to respond to this question, this essay will explore the way in which Isherwood uses characters to represent the surrounding political climate. In doing so, it will investigate and analyse - in a chronological fashion - the explicit and nuanced development of Isherwood's characters, exhibiting the narrowing of Berlin society. The prominent marginalised characters used to depict such a change are; Sally Bowles, Fräulein Schroeder, Bernhard Landauer, and Christopher Isherwood.
This exploration of Isherwood’s ​Goodbye to Berlin is worthwhile because it highlights the nuances and undercurrents of political development of which marginalises certain groups that do not dominate society's normality. It is significant because these political undercurrents that undermine racial groups, lower socio-economic classes, or the LGBTQ community still exist today in seemingly very liberal countries. These lessons are learnt and forgotten. Critics of ​Goodbye to Berlin tend to fixate on the decadence of the city from a historical context, or the existence of 'camp' and homosexuality in 1930s literature. A more detailed study of the characters in Isherwood's novel may include all of the prominent characters such as the Nowak family or Peter Wilkinson. However, in the interest of providing detailed analysis considering the constraints of this essay, four characters (including Isherwood himself) will be included. Nevertheless, this analysis will explore how homosexuality, liberalism and these marginalised groups are gradually erased from society.
This exploration of marginalised characters also considers how the human condition is one of adaptation in the face of adversity. The evolution of Isherwood’s archetypal characters represent the vulnerable demographics in the face of the looming Nazi regime. These character idiosyncrasies are used to embody the wider average German citizen - those outside the parameters set by Nazi ideology of an Aryan race: German, non-German, Jewish, bourgeoisie and working class. For an epoch that is written about in countless history books from a distance, Isherwood captures the essence of life as Berlin's 'golden years' are drawing to a close. ​Goodbye to Berlin sheds light on the personal anecdotes of its citizens at the time, the adaptations that had to be made, and indeed what this meant for the wider world.

Characters in ​Goodbye To Berlin
Sally Bowles: Promises, Prairie Oysters and Promiscuity
As the first character in Isherwood’s novel; it would be fair to argue that Sally Bowles is a product of her environment. Bold, "theatrical" (Mizejewski 237) and gregarious, Sally projects an air of promiscuity as an English wannabe-thespian who aspires to be "the greatest actress in the world" (Isherwood 53). Renowned for her diet of strictly prairie oysters, seemingly unwavering spirit and pursuit of amusement, Isherwood symbolises Sally to represent the bohemian, sometimes "unsavoury" (Holbeche 37) lifestyle of Berlin youth in the early 1930s, an "emblem of the self-deception and folly of that doomed society" (Lodge 67). Her apathetic, expressive and jaunty character fits comfortably into Berlin society at this prominent junction in history, prior to the Third Reich. However, it's clear that despite Sally's consistent rambles about her plans for when she becomes "terribly famous" (Isherwood 38), she possesses little concern for her realistic long-term aspirations. Isherwood characterises her "innocence and immorality" (Maes-Jelinek 346) by his presentation of Sally as the archetypal dreamer. In reality, Sally lives a marginalised life; facing multiple job rejections, an unwanted pregnancy, and the unsuccessful manipulation of "really rich men as [her] lover[s]" (Isherwood 54) on the promise of stardom. In spite of these setbacks, Sally's resilience is conveyed through her perpetual optimism. Her fixation on short term conquests is reflective of the highly uncertain and politically tense Berlin climate even at the beginning of the novel. Following his stay with the Nowak family, Isherwood confesses that he had "long meditated the experiment of introducing Natalia [Landauer] to Sally Bowles" (Isherwood 195), Natalia Landauer being the prudish Jewish cousin of Bernhard Landauer, who agrees to meet Sally and Isherwood for lunch. Sally characteristically arrives late. She excuses herself pretentiously, vulgarly oversharing; "I've been making love to a dirty old Jew producer. I'm hoping he'll give me a contract" (Isherwood, 196) before Isherwood promptly kicks her under the table for her "endless silly pornographic talk" (Isherwood 197). Undoubtedly also for her casual anti-semitism in calling her latest encounter a 'dirty old Jew', conveying that as far as Sally is concerned, these three words coincide with equally negative connotation. Isherwood characterises the unconsciousness of her anti-semitism, subtly highlighting her change in character through dialogue, not present at the beginning of the novel despite the anti-semitism of her environment - such as Fräulein Shroeder. Sally's subtle yet likely unintentional insult is significant as Isherwood does not previously expose any form of anti-semitic behaviour or dialogue from Sally throughout her characterisation. It is now, towards the end of 1932 that she begins to make negative connotations to the word ‘Jew’. Her statement is notable because it signifies that even Isherwood’s most licentious, unpolitical and apathetic character was beginning to comply with the socio-political atmosphere, the subtext of Isherwood's novel; Nazism (Marcovitch 81). Isherwood uses Sally as a vehicle to portray the unmarried, foreign female expat residents of Berlin who still felt they belonged as political aggression was directed at Jews. As the Third Reich was to rise to power, there would no longer be a place for the marginalised Sally Bowles, characterised by Isherwood as the unmaternal, promiscuous British socialite.

Fräulein Schroeder: Adaptation in the Face of Adversity
Isherwood introduces another marginalised character forced to adapt and acclimatise in the form of Fräulein Schroeder. Schroeder is Isherwood's landlady and characterised as anti-semitic spinster from the outset of the novel through her friendship with Bavarian singer Fräulein Mayr, of whom Isherwood describes as "an ardent Nazi" (Isherwood 12). The two women ruin the engagement of a Jewish neighbour and revel in the domestic violence that ensues. Isherwood highlights the prominent anti-semitism reverberating throughout Berlin as a common social construct of society. Additionally, Isherwood notes Fräulein Schroeder's compulsion to organise her belongings "like an uncompromising statement of her views on Capital and Society, Religion and Sex" (Isherwood 3) emphasising with simile her staunch, rigid views of society. Nevertheless, Fräulein Shroeder's character develops to depict her as almost comically changeable as readers approach the novel’s conclusion. Isherwood is well aware that Berlin is growing increasingly unsafe. Fräulein Shroeder is not as quick to comprehend this herself - likely in denial - and pleads with him not to depart, but Isherwood notes that like the city, she too is "adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime" (Isherwood 251), characterising her conformable personality to suit those in power. This reference to levels of power is further characterised as Isherwood despondently remarks that "Hitler is master of this city" (Isherwood 251), communicating a nuanced note of Schroeder's submission to the dominance of the impending regime. Isherwood directly contrasts this to Schroeder's aforementioned steadfast mindset to convey the increase in the resounding influence the Nazi regime imposed in developing the political climate for Berlin residents during this time period. Twentieth-century British literary specialist Heather Marcovitch claims that "Shroeder is emblematic" (344) of the transition of Berlin society, in which individualism is cast aside by acclimatisation and acceptance of authority. Shroeder certainly embodies the proportion of the Berlin population that aligns themselves with the beliefs that are necessary to survive, as the dominance of the new regime is inescapable. This can be reflective of Berlin itself as the city undergoes the inevitability of overwhelming ideological changes. Shroeder's purpose in society throughout the novel is to subsist in the uncertainty of Berlin's "demimonde" (Marcovitch 329). Ultimately, Shroeder would not be directly persecuted in Nazi society. However, she would be undoubtedly marginalised as Nazist ideology enforces domesticity and increased childbirth. Schroeder does not fit the role of the supportive, homely wife, nor is she of childbearing age. Her marginalisation as a spinster would be significant in the Third Reich because ideology saw “a sharp distinction between married and single status for women” (Heineman 18). Hence, she would not be deemed a valuable member of fascist society. Isherwood makes Fräulein Schroeder's transition throughout the novel one in which she appears to subconsciously morph her political views to align with the Nazist Berlin upon her. She develops from a headstrong and meddlesome member of her neighbourhood to one who is exceedingly yielding to authority. Fräulein Schroeder’s “spinsterhood” (Jeffrys 86) would further marginalise her due to biased expectations surrounding marital status in Nazi Germany. Her contigent loyalties demonstrate the increase of the overwhelming influence of the Nazi party in Berlin throughout the novel.

Bernhard Landauer: Casualty of the Final Solution
Unlike Fräulein Schroeder, Bernhard Landauer does not have the luxury of being able to morph his beliefs and is directly both marginalised and persecuted for his Jewish identity. An enigmatic figure of the Berlin upper-class, with his urbane yet aloof demeanour, Bernhard is a pivotal character for the reader as the sinister aspects of the Nazi regime are further unveiled following his introduction as a wealthy Jewish businessman. Introduced circa 1931, Isherwood meets the Landauer family at dinner. Herr Landauer directs a personal yet seemingly coded euphemism to Isherwood which Bernhard appears to be party to; “Was your English Law justified in punishing Oscar Wilde?” (Isherwood 184) to which Isherwood appears flustered, noting “in the background, I was aware of Bernhard, discreetly smiling” (Isherwood 184). From a queer perspective, Oscar Wilde was a prominent homosexual writer in literature and such a subtle manoeuve is considered a deliberate attempt by Herr Landauer to ascertain Isherwood’s opinion on homosexuality, and consquently alluding to Isherwood’s own sexual-orientation - an act of queer-coding (Groden 413). Bernhard’s inclusion in such an insinuation brings about a nuanced suggestion of his own sexuality. Isherwood visits Bernhard’s flat following the dinner,
 marvelling through flamboyant imagery at his “beautifully embroidered kimono” (Isherwood 188). Although dress is a largely stereotypical medium of judgement of one's sexuality, it is not the only inclination of Bernhard’s homosexuality. As he and Isherwood briefly discuss politics, Bernhard concedes that he "[believes] in discipline" (Isherwood 194), alluding to the rigidness of the competing political parties - including the NSDAP (Nazi party). He goes on to confess "we poor barbarians need the stiffness of a uniform to keep us standing upright" (Isherwood 195), leaning in favour of a strict regime to rectify the liberalism of Berlin. Bernhard juxtaposes his Jewish identity and belief in discipline, suggesting the need for strict reform. Further aligning himself with Nazist vernacular, Bernhard labels himself a "cross breed" with "polluted veins" (Isherwood 195), using semi-sarcastic language one would connotate with a dog. His affluence and popularity would not shield him however from the clutches of the Nazi agenda or anti-semetic propagranda.
As the novel progresses into 1933 with Hitler’s impending chancellorship, the tone of Isherwood’s interactions with Bernhard fall away from their previous sarcastic wit or aloofness, becoming morose and uneasy. Bernhard takes Isherwood to a country house outside of the city, where he is hosting a party. However, the mood becomes pensive as Bernhard shares intimate details of his life with Isherwood. From the perspective of sexuality, he shares he “was a queer sort of boy.... [he] never got on well with other boys” (Isherwood 205), a striking reference to his sexuality. The word ‘queer’ was in use throughout England and central Europe in the late 19th century in reference to homosexuality (Tamagne 30). It is likely therefore, that Bernhard was aware of this double entendre. Mirroring the degradation of Berlin's lively and liberal society, Isherwood notes with melancholic imagery Bernhard's "ill" appearance, with "sallow half-moons under his eyes" (Isherwood 216). These illustrations of decay reflecting symptoms of the influence of Nazism over those marginalised in society - even the wealthy Jewish. Bernhard dismissively reveals that he received a "bloodthirsty" letter from Nazis (Isherwood 216), foreshadowing Bernhard's later death, and the bloodthirsty domestic policy of the Nazi party to eradicate Jews - and homosexuals - from Germany. Isherwood on the other hand, is highly concerned by Bernhard’s refusal to contact the police, adding "we receive three or four such letters every week" (Isherwood 217). The novel had not previously revealed such harassment directed towards a prominent character, alerting the reader to a drastic increase in the level of Nazist activity in Berlin, and thus a considerable shift of the political landscape towards fascism. Bernhard is now in denial, highlighted by Isherwood's frustration as he calls Bernhard's party "a dress rehearsal of a disaster" (Isherwood 214), metaphorically referring to their performative ignorance of the increasing political tension between the Nazi and Communist parties. It appears Bernhard has accepted his fate, admitting he is "out of touch with existence" (Isherwood 218). Already contemplating his death, Bernhard proposes "perhaps, when I die my spirit will be wafted to Peking" (Isherwood 219), further foreshadowing his subsequent disappearance. Yet, Bernhard offers the idea of himself and Isherwood escaping to China together and “leave Berlin this evening” (Isherwood 220), “seemingly in jest” (Imrišková 31). Isherwood admits the denouement did not emerge until eighteen months after their last meeting, realising this proposition was “perfectly serious” (Isherwood 220). Moreover, English language professor Barbora Imrišková refers to Bernhard's offer as an elopement, rather than simply to escape Berlin, highlighting both his sexuality and possible attraction to Isherwood. Undeniably, it is clear through the queer perspective that Bernhard is a figure of nuanced homosexuality in ​Goodbye to Berlin​. His contemplative language in cohesion with his Jewish faith indicates his realisation and acceptance that an end to his current lifestyle, or even his life is forthcoming. Bernhard develops from a character of affluence to a murder that nobody dare question or investigate. Therefore, Isherwood demonstrates the development of Berlin's political landscape with the initial grandiose lifestyle of the confident, charming Bernhard Landauer, leading to his demise. The brutality facing marginalised groups such as homosexuals and Jewish citizens becomes a harsh reality for the reader as both Bernhard and Berlin fall to the hands of the Nazis.

Christopher Isherwood and his Narrative Voice

Isherwood finds himself on the margins of Berlin society, for being both a foreigner and somewhat closeted homosexual. Berlin's political future during this epoch is ambiguous as Isherwood divulges the secrets of Jewish millionaires and underground communist clubs all whilst observing the growing '​Sturmabteilung' disturbances on the streets of Berlin. Isherwood's role in the novel is intermittently intimate, despite designating himself at the onset of the novel as "a camera with its shutter open" (Isherwood 1). Isherwood conceives an idea between autobiography and fiction, effectively communicating his first-person narrative perspective of Berlin's instability alongside action and dialogue. Isherwood incontestably defines his narration as "passive" and "not thinking" (Isherwood 1), of which literary professor Malcolm Bradbury labels "almost neurotic passivity" (Tukacs 263). Isherwood's clear commitment to objectivity and detail throughout most of the novel is illustrative of authenticity. He accentuates to the reader that Berlin is a "foreign city" to him (Isherwood 2), perhaps feeling protection through his foreign identity and homosexuality - albeit closeted - thus not posing an imperative threat as he is able to flee Germany. As for his neuroticism, Isherwood's choice and composition of his subjects of observation serve as a nuanced indicator to his subjective sensitivity to the political situation. Thus, what Bradbury calls "neurotic passivity" is only accurate to an extent. For example, Isherwood provides a segment of what is "overheard in a café", and follows the dialogue of young Nazi couple disturbingly discussing "the future of the Party" (Isherwood 241). Isherwood does not directly provide narrative perspective on this dialogue. Nevertheless, its inclusion is indicative of an authorial decision that reveals its value to the narrator and thus the reader. Therefore, although his observations may be passive, his choice of what is observed is not.
Furthermore, despite the novel's extensive objectivity, Isherwood's description of Berlin's growing decadence is openly intimate and subjective on numerous occasions. His tone adopts an increasing disheartenment throughout the progression of the novel as both the transience of this era and the looming fascist influences begin to infringe upon Isherwood's observations. In attending a dinner party hosted by Bernhard Landauer circa 1931, Isherwood expresses a fatalistic outlook on the event; "However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch" (Isherwood 214) characterising a far more pessimistic and judgemental version of himself than previously represented. This is contrary to Bradbury's criticism of his passivity. Isherwood alludes to an air of denial from the guests, referring to the temporality of the era as he becomes increasingly burdened with the knowledge that his time in Berlin will come to an end, and not of his own volition. Isherwood would certainly be persecuted in the new era of the Third Reich for his British nationality if not his homosexuality.
In his final chapter, Isherwood demonstrates Nazism's growing influence on Berlin using figurative language of melancholia, disintegration and contamination. As the novel proceeds, Isherwood's imagery becomes lamentable as Berlin no longer appears the city of vigour it once seemed. Isherwood illustrates a street with "dirty snow", its inhabitants with "raw sullen faces" (Isherwood 158), a scene not only revealing Berlin's growing decadence, but exposes the economic discrepancy in Berlin's social classes (Leitch 653). Isherwood also describes the air in having a "moist, familiar, rottenness" (Isherwood 158). However, this rotting, decaying imagery alludes to fascism as an illness, and Berlin's growing decadence from the festering illness. Isherwood also personifies the city as a once living organism, as now "Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching" (Isherwood 226). He creates a profound mournful tone as he depicts himself and the city as mortally connected, sharing a skeleton. Despite Malcolm Bradbury's precision regarding Isherwood's objectivity, it is not true for the novel’s entirety. In an emotive display of pathetic fallacy and empathetic character, Isherwood prompts sympathy from the reader, this once "foreign city" (Isherwood 2) becomes largely sentimental. Literary professor Andrew Monnickendam's claim serves a more accurate depiction, in which he describes Isherwood's narration as a documentation of the "maladies" of Berlin society (Tukacs 263). Moreover, this correlates to the aforementioned diseased and skeletal imagery used to describe Berlin. Much of Isherwoods narration following 1932 becomes a commentary of the decaying Berlin society that was once vibrant, as Isherwood becomes equally unspirited and grievous. The development of his character alongside the festering decadence of Berlin is evident as Isherwood walks "down the Bülowstrasse, the Nazis were raiding the house of a small liberal pacifist publisher." (Isherwood 249), in 1933. Contrastingly, a street that was aforementioned the location of nights of laughter with Sally Bowles, is merely two years later the scene of raids of minorities. Here, Isherwood’s narration takes an almost comatose state of observation, inferring his dismay at how his environment has so drastically changed. He breaks this objection in his last line of the novel, remarking that "No. Even now I can't altogether believe that any of this has really happened" (Isherwood 252). Isherwood underscores his disbelief at the drastic shift from Berlin as a multicultural hub for the arts, to this new pre-fascist regime in which he no longer feels safe from authority.


In ​Goodbye to Berlin,​ Isherwood extensively utilises his characters to provide the reader insight into how the political landscape of Berlin developed, its sweeping societal standards re-drawing the margins of society as liberal Berlin ceases to exist. Isherwood channels this through the development of characterisation using primarily dialogue, imagery and symbolism to reveal the extent of this influence. Although vastly different, they are outside of the exacting standards of the new fascist order, marginalised. Sally's status as an expat alongside being an iconic figure of the sexually liberal culture of Berlin's "underworld" (Marcovitch 338) positions her directly contrary to the standard of Nazi women. However, she demonstrates the increasing influence of Nazi prejudices with her anti-semitic dialogue. Neither German, nor conforming to the role of a submissive housewife, she would likely be persecuted as a result. Fräulein Schroeder on the other hand, makes a conscious shift in loyalty once she realises Nazis are in favour of attaining power. Shroeder exhibits animal-like survivalism, a symbol of Berlin’s lower class acting in conformity with authority in order to subsist. She would nevertheless be marginalised by Nazi society for her status as a childless spinster, her devotion to fascism intensifying as a result. However, she would not be pushed outside the “unforgiving margin” (MacNeil 3) like Bernhard, Sally, and Christopher - for reasons they cannot change. As the novel nears its end, Isherwood shifts not only to a member of the upper class, but to the flamboyant Bernhard Landauer. As both a Jew and inferred homosexual, Bernhard's introduction is placed at a pivotal point in the novel in which Berlin's sink into fascism gains momentum. His experience of multiple anti-Semitic provocations prompts vivid imagery of his ill appearance, aligning to Isherwood's diseased imagery of the city itself. Bernhard is not only marginalised, but violently oppressed as the reader is exposed to the novel’s abrupt reality of the escalation of violence and murder at the malevolent birth of the Nazi regime.

 Contrary to the beginning of the novel, Nazist activity becomes increasingly aggressive to the reader, as these events are documented more frequently by Isherwood in his observational narration. Conclusively, Isherwood's own frustrations are revealed in his diary entries as he grows irritated with Berlin’s political evolution. Furthermore, in an emotive moment of reflection, Isherwood uses captivating imagery and pathetic fallacy to describe the disease of Nazism which holds control over Berlin.
Written with the benefit of hindsight, ​Goodbye to Berlin is a testament to how the grass shoots of violent oppression grew into the mass genocide of the marginalised. The characters in ​Goodbye to Berlin retell the wider story of Berlin’s societal metamorphosis from the perspective of its impact on the everyday person. These characters were fully functioning members of society, yet their innate attributes or positions in their community - being single, Jewish, or homosexual - would now be demonised. Reverting to his observant role behind the camera, Isherwood escapes Berlin at the beginning of 1933 - mere weeks before Hitler's rise to chancellorship - leaving his characters behind as symptoms of Berlin's great malady; fascism.

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