Happy in Berlin? English and British Writers and the Berlin Myth

Musa Okwonga, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Kate McNaughton, Rory McLean – the list can be continued easily. All these writers grew up in Britain, or have close ties with the UK, but they live or have lived in Berlin and find inspiration here. Gesa Stedman introduces a Berlin- and Oxford-based exhibition and accompanying book and website on the Berlin myth and why Berlin is still a special place for writers from Briton.

Berlin attracts Anglophone writers, there is no doubt about that. The reasons for this attraction have to do with relative cheap rents, a vibrant and diverse cultural and literary scene but also with the Berlin myth. The origins of this myth and how it has evolved since its birth in the 1920s and 1930s is the subject of three exhibitions currently on show in Berlin and in Oxford: Happy in Berlin? English Writers in the City, the 1920s and Beyond.

At the main library of Humboldt-Universität,

exhibition panels

Exhibition at Grimm-Zentrum HU Berlin

you can explore the role of politics, psychoanalysis, and pleasure as push- and pull-factors for English writers such as Evelyn, Countess Blücher, the intrepid journalist Elizabeth Wiskemann, or Christopher Isherwood’s friend William Robson-Scott, who lectured at what was then called Friedrich-Wilhlems-Universität.

portrait by Martin Fivian

Painting of journalist and academic Elizabeth Wiskemann by Martin Fivian

At Literaturhaus Berlin you can find out how the Berlin myth was created by Christopher Isherwood and his friends W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, and what role particular places like Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, gay bars and cinema played.interior view of Institute for Sexual ScienceInterior of the Institute for Sexual Science, Archive of the Magnus Hirschfeld Gesellschaft

view of one of the rooms at Literaturhaus

Exhibition at Literaturhaus

At the Weston Hall part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, you can delve into Stephen Spender’s archive, which is held at the Bodleian,

to discover how the chronicler of the group’s literary activities experienced Berlin.

The bilingual catalogue Happy in Berlin? English Writers in the City, just published by Wallstein-Verlag, Göttingen, uncovers the decadent predecessors of Isherwood and his friends, and takes the Berlin myth right up to the 21st-century and shows why the myth is still a point of reference for contemporary British writers and artists.

coloured book cover of exhibition catalogue

Happy in Berlin? Book Cover

Readings, special literary walks, and online talks accompany the exhibitions (see below).

If you are interested in attending the official online opening event at the Centre for British Studies on 22 June 2021, 6pm Berlin time, please register here: events.gbz@gmail.com

You will have the chance of hearing Patricia Duncker, professor emerita and distinguished writer, talk about the attractions of Berlin to writers in the late 20th and early 21st century. Professor Laura Marcus, Oxford, will tell us about the particular role of psychoanalysis which was a growing attraction for Britons while Professor Liliana Feierstein, HU Berlin, will speak about the fate of the famous Berlin analysts and explain what happened to them when they were forced into exile by the National Socialists. The evening will begin with welcome addresses by the new British Ambassador to Germany, Jill Gallard, and the president of HU and the Berlin University Alliance, Professor Sabine Kunst. The event is chaired by Gesa Stedman and Stefano Evangelista, co-curators of the exhibition and co-editors of the catalogue and the website happy-in-berlin.org.




The exhibitions Happy in Berlin? English Writers in the City, the 1920s and Beyond can be visited at all three venues, 15 June – 31 July 2021.

Foyer, Grimm-Zentrum, Humboldt-Universität, Geschwister-Scholl-Str. 1/3, 10117 Berlin, Monday – Friday 10am – 6pm, link to website of the main library https://www.ub.hu-berlin.de/shared/news/bereiche/oeffentlichkeit/ausstellung-happy-in-berlin-im-grimm-zentrum

Readings and events take place at Literaturhaus Berlin, Fasanenstr. 23, 10719 Berlin, Wednesday – Friday 12 – 6pm, Saturday and Sunday 11 – 5pm, link to Literaturhaus website https://literaturhaus-berlin.de/programm

Bodleian Library, Weston Hall, link to Bodleian website https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/stephen-spender-happy-in-berlin

The Oxford exhibition will close on 11 July 2021.

The catalogue can be ordered in all good bookshops and here: link to publisher’s website https://www.wallstein-verlag.de/9783835339873-happy-in-berlin.html