by Elise Coop­er

Leav­ing Berlin by Joseph Kanon is a grip­ping his­tor­i­cal thriller. The book’s plot takes place in Berlin four years after the end of World War II. Through an action-packed plot, read­ers get a glimpse of the start of the Cold War, when Stal­in­ists replaced the Nazis. This fast-paced nov­el brings to life post­war Berlin, a city caught between the past atroc­i­ties of the Nazis and the harsh real­i­ties of the Sovi­et occupation.

Elise Coop­er: Are plan­ning a sequel to Leav­ing Berlin?

Joseph Kanon: I nev­er write sequels to any of my books. When they end for me they end for me. It end­ed where it’s sup­posed to end, at least in my head. 

EC: Do you think your book shows that there is no dif­fer­ence between the Nazis and the Sovi­ets after World War II?

JK: Yes. Espe­cial­ly regard­ing the impact of the East Ger­man pop­u­la­tion con­cern­ing their day-to-day exis­tence. I won­dered what would it be like in a soci­ety if you were one of the decent peo­ple and had to exchange one set of gang­sters for anoth­er. But, I want to make sure that the read­er under­stands how appalling the Nazis were.

EC: Do you think the Jews sided with the Com­mu­nists because they were fight­ing the Nazis?

JK: Yes and No. In the 1930s peo­ple were drawn to Com­mu­nism as a response to Fas­cism. The Ger­man Com­mu­nists were good at putting across their nar­ra­tive: we were the first vic­tims, the first anti-Fas­cists, and the first peo­ple Hitler went after.” It is a fact that for some Hitler drew peo­ple towards the Left. Yet, let us not for­get that a lot of Jews were drawn to social­ist ide­olo­gies ear­li­er in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, before Hitler.

EC: Do you think it was hard for Alex to go back to Germany?

JK: Yes. He did not want to leave the Unit­ed States and trav­el to the Com­mu­nist sec­tor of Berlin. Alex, like many Jews, did not want to return to Ger­many His par­ents were mur­dered by the Nazis. The last thing he wants is to recre­ate being a part of a scary and oppres­sive régime in Berlin, as was the case when he lived there under the Nazis. Yet, hav­ing made the deal with the CIA he must go back. There­in lies the problem.

EC: Do you think Alex was not real­ly an ideologue?

JK: It is a fair state­ment that Alex does not seem to have his heart in Com­mu­nism. He saw two sides, with the Nazis rep­re­sent­ing the Right and the Com­mu­nists rep­re­sent­ing the Left. At one point in the nov­el Alex refers to hav­ing attend­ed a Com­mu­nist meet­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. He basi­cal­ly went with some­one who invit­ed him, but he nev­er becomes a par­ty mem­ber or com­mits to it. I would describe him as a Social­ist, part­ly because he nev­er aban­doned his Judaism. When he got caught up in the crosshairs of the McCarthy sweep he got into trou­ble because of his prin­ci­pled posi­tion of not nam­ing any­one else. This ruined his life.

EC: How would you describe the doctor?

JK: I want­ed to show the sides of dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. On the one hand the doc­tor is an unre­pen­tant Nazi. He is not sym­pa­thet­ic at all. That is why I put this quote in the book: You don’t come to judge, but you do. Such ter­ri­ble peo­ple. So now we’re all guilty.” The Ger­man doc­tor who said this is being self-serv­ing and he is essen­tial­ly say­ing I don’t want any­one to judge me.’ What upsets Alex the most is that this doc­tor talks with­out any guilt or shame. But I also want­ed to show that not every Ger­man was like him. I want read­ers to ask, what if I was caught up in that soci­ety? What would I do?

EC: Would you describe Irene as double-dealing?

JK: We must remem­ber that the pop­u­la­tion in Berlin is depen­dent on the rations for their sur­vival. There are no jobs or food except what is giv­en out by the occu­py­ing forces. How some­one answered a ques­tion­naire is one of the ways to deter­mine the amount of rations they received. Irene lied part­ly for self-preser­va­tion, part­ly because she was devi­ous, and a part for sur­vival. She is dam­aged by the war, wounded.

EC: You also describe how the Ger­man Jews assim­i­lat­ed them­selves into soci­ety. Did you want to make a point about the past and present?

JK: Yes. Alex’s fam­i­ly are Jews who thought of them­selves as Ger­mans first. They had blind­folds on because they were pros­per­ous and a suc­cess­ful part of soci­ety. Then, to their hor­ror and sur­prise, they found out not every­body thought of them as Germans

EC: Herb is dif­fer­ent than Alex in that he is a Com­mu­nist who is Jew­ish in name only. What is he sup­posed to represent?

JK: He allowed me to dis­cuss the Com­mu­nist Party’s post war purges, which I moved up a year for the sto­ry. There is no ques­tion in Alex’s mind — and in mine — that these purges by Stal­in had a lev­el of anti-Semi­tism. Unlike Alex, Herb is a true believ­er and came will­ing­ly to Berlin to build the Social­ist ide­al. He gets swept up in one of those nets that put on show tri­als. I want­ed to show how his wife became a pawn to save her hus­band. She became a spy and infor­mant for the Stal­in­ists. Because they were west­ern Jews from New York they were seen as con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed, untrust­wor­thy, and not loyal. 

EC: You dis­cuss in Leav­ing Berlin how Amer­i­ca made com­mon cause with the Nazi sci­en­tists: The Amer­i­cans don’t care, as long as they’re not Communists.”

JK: I talk a bit how the Unit­ed States employed the Ger­man sci­en­tists for expe­di­en­cy. This is shame­ful. We are talk­ing about peo­ple who par­tic­i­pat­ed in war crimes and were giv­en visas, while many Jews were turned away. Essen­tial­ly what we decid­ed is that these are very bad peo­ple unless they are use­ful to us, and then they are not so bad. What they did to the Jews and oth­ers is ignored. 

EC: What would you like the read­ers to get out of the plot?

JK: An irre­sistible sto­ry. I hope read­ers are intrigued by the fact that Alex had to go back to Berlin and face the dif­fer­ent ele­ments of that soci­ety. The book is about the moral ambi­gu­i­ty of peo­ple who must tend to two sides, which will nev­er come together. 

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q&A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Relat­ed Content:

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.