Among my favourite annual Berlin events is the ITB travel fair, the world’s leading trade bonanza for the industry which opened earlier this week. This year some 11,000 airlines, hotel groups, tour companies and tourist bureaus from 188 countries have gathered to brag to almost 200,000 visitors about their mountains, beaches, 'off-the-beaten-track' treks and first-class sleeper seats.
Berlin itself continues to be a phenomenally popular destination, of course, with over 500,000 visitors in the city every day, 30,000 of whom need a place spend the night. That’s enough tourists to fill 580 coaches or 160 aircrafts … each day.
But as I learned while writing my book Berlin: Imagine a City, tourism isn’t a 21st century phenomena. In 1930 alone more than two million visitors a year poured into the capital, many of them to mingle in the bedrooms and boy bars, to live out their fantasies at its masked balls and revels. In those days Berlin already had a … reputation. Artists like Francis Bacon, novelists Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Bowles and Djuna Barnes, the composer Aaron Copland, actresses Lilian Harvey and Greta Garbo, as well as Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood were drawn to its hedonistic lifestyle, revelling in life with those few locals who weren’t unemployed or living on starvation rations.
Along ‘the Passage’ near Friedrichstraße hungry young men – struggling to find enough to eat – sold themselves for ten Marks and a glass of beer. Every evening behind the elegant department store KaDeWe, local girls laid aside their school textbooks, wolfed down a sausage supper then tripped off to turn tricks. An erotic guide to ‘naughty’ Berlin – Curt Moreck’s 1931 Führer durch das ‘lasterhafte’ Berlin – mapped out the dark streets, private clubs and chic cafés ripe for sexual adventure.
‘All values were changed and Berlin was transformed into the Babylon of the world,’ wrote Stefan Zweig, the great chronicler of its ‘Golden’ Twenties. Like Mann, Brecht and Erich Kästner, he also could not resist the capital. ‘Bars, amusement parks, honky tonks sprang up like mushrooms. Along the Kurfürstendamm sauntered powdered and rouged young men . . . and in the dimly lit bars one might see government officials and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without shame . . . even the Rome of Suetonius had never known such orgies as the balls of Berlin.’
Stephen Spender put it more succinctly. Berlin was ‘a city with no virgins’, he wrote. ‘Not even the puppies and kittens are virgins.’
Of all the non-German visitors from those days, Isherwood’s influence is felt most keenly by the outsider. Through his autobiographical fiction — especially A Berlin Diary and Goodbye to Berlin which came to be filmed as Cabaret — his Berlin became a literary construct. He transformed ordinary people (e.g. Jean Ross) into extraordinary character (Sally Bowles) who exuded a new kind of mythical ethos for the city. His work — like that of other writers and artists — has contributed to sustaining the myth of Berlin, creating the illusions which outsiders see as its reality, and helping to draw so many foreigners to this town and its Messe conference centre, the boy bars and o2 World arena, then and now.