The East Berlin Series by Max Hertzberg

I just finished the first instalment, Stealing the Future (there was a previous thread on that one in particular by @politicalnomad from 2017, but I didn't want to necro), and I'm already hungry for more. I'll just quote politicalnomad's take here before I offer my own perspective, which differs slightly.

I just finished Stealing The Future, which I "bought" on Monday because it was free for Amazon Kindle.

It is in the alternate history told through a murder mystery genre, like Robert Harris's Fatherland. The PoD is that East German citizens vote to remain as an independent state from West Germany; something I find to be a rather flimsy idea (the USSR flatly saying hell no to a united Germany seems much more plausible). Anyways, East Germany is trying to reform both economically and politically through extremely decentralized decision making structures, whilst struggling to fend off West German intrigues and vulture capitalists. Their economy has significantly shrunk inwards, and the GDR is still living with the ghosts of is past as it struggles to forge forward.

I found it a bit slow to get started, but the story does a decent job at world building, even if the characters can seem a bit stock at times. The pace picked up as the novel moved along, and I do have to give points for it being a different PoD than usual.

All in all, worth a read, especially if you can get it for free like I did.

So, to put all that a different way, Stealing the Future basically presents an East Germany that became free and democratic, but decided not to merge with the West, instead retaining its collectivised economy, albeit while doing away with central planning.

This isn't actually as far-fetched an idea as it may seem.

Many of the protestors, round table delegates, and others who ended up politically active in the liberalising GDR (and in opposition to the ruling party) were very much supportive of socialism/communism itself, just not of the way it was being run (to use a tired phrase). This varied from fairly orthodox Marxists (who were happy with the centrally planned economy, but wanted to get rid of the Stasi and have free elections), to those who just wanted to decentralise the planning process a little, to people advocating for something more like participatory economics. On the whole, there weren't actually very many people fervently in favour of just scrapping socialism entirely and acceding to the free market.

Indeed, here's pictorial evidence (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1219-036 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)


"For the sovereignty of the GDR / Against the sell-out and reunification"

Those people did not regard reunification with West Germany as desirable, at least not in the way it ended up happening (more a wholesale subsumption than a true union), because they didn't want to become a capitalist society. They believed socialism was a good principle, just that all the baggage that came with Cold War-era realpolitik had transformed their "Workers' and Peasants' Republic" into a repressive police state. And this point of view lost out by a far narrower margin than is commonly acknowledged. (And arguably they were vindicated by the incredible poverty and decay that followed, but that's a discussion for another time.)

So, I find this setting both incredibly compelling and highly plausible; in fact, I found it odd that I had never seen much to do with it, which is exactly how I ended up stumbling upon this author.

Anyway, regarding the literary merits:

As someone who has been regaled with stories about the real late-80s, early-90s GDR by countless East German relatives and family friends, and also someone who has lived in Berlin myself, I felt the author has a real knack for bringing this setting to life, allowing the reader to immerse themselves. Not only is the world-building great, but the descriptive, scene-setting passages (which are a tedium when done poorly) were brilliant and didn't feel like they hampered the pace in any way. The plot was also gripping once it got started - it does burn slow for the first chapter or two, but then becomes a real page-turner!

I would go a bit further than politicalnomad, though, in saying that the characters are not only stock - most of them are entirely one-dimensional. The only characters you really get to know in this book are the narrator/protagonist, Martin, and his daughter, Katrin. The other characters are essentially window-dressing. However, in defence of the author in that respect, the epistolary narrative style makes that hard to avoid - you'll find similar droves of one-dimensional characters in the Adrian Mole series, but that doesn't really detract from its brilliance. Nonetheless, the book could've benefitted from some more fleshed-out characters - I definitely felt like both Annette (the love interest) and Karo (a young punk the protagonist befriends) received less attention than they deserved.

Altogether, I would give this book a 4/5 and I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy – where, hopefully, my wishes will be fulfilled and I will get to know Annette and Karo a bit better. Who knows!

The first 2 chapters are available for free as a taster on the author's website; if you want the whole book it's £4.99 on Kindle or £8.99 as a Paperback, or you can get the entire trilogy as a bundle for £9.99 (Kindle) or £23.99 (paperback).

(Small word of warning: The Amazon page is slightly deceptive - if you do spring for the paperback trilogy, you don't get a box set of 3 individual books as shown on the Kindle page, you just get one big book containing all 3 stories)
Just finished the second book in the series, Thoughts Are Free. I feel in this second book, the author has really come into his own!

I think I might be psychic, because in my review above, I lamented that Karo hadn’t been given the depth she deserved, and this is thoroughly rectified in this second instalment - indeed, she’s been promoted to co-narrator, so we essentially get to know her as well as Martin. Annette, unfortunately, did not make a return - but I’m holding out hope for the finale!

While the entire series (obviously) has a strong political theme, this is explored even more deeply in this volume than the first one, but rather than feeling forced and shoehorned, or like the author is trying to get the reader to buy into an agenda, the reader is just presented with questions arising organically from the plot. Questions like:
  • How do you most effectively combat fascism?
  • Can security and liberty be reconciled?
  • At what point do security measures destroy the very liberty you’re trying to defend?
But, of course, you’re also forced to reevaluate history along similar lines. To what extent do ends justify means? Should we judge proactive historical missteps more harshly than reactive ones?

All this subtext aside, the story itself is once again a real nail-biter. Especially at the tensest points of the plot, what happens next scene is never predictable - also thanks to the split narration. Point being, even if you wouldn’t particularly care for the political themes or the alternate East Berlin setting, I’d honestly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thrillers generally and spy fiction in particular. It’s just really well-written and a delight to read!

Overall rating: 5/5