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Volker Kutscher talks to Crime Time

Barry Forshaw interviewed our German crime author about his new novel with Sandstone Press, Babylon Berlin.

Why did you choose Weimar Germany as the setting for the book?

I primarily didn't choose Weimar Germany but Weimar Berlin, as this is a topic that has fascinated me since I read Erich Kästner's children's books Emil and the Detectives and Anna Louise and Anton. So it's about the sometimes golden, sometimes roaring Twenties in Berlin and how they came to an end. And it's also about the first well-functioning democracy in Germany, about its strength, its weakness, about its hopes and its tragic reality. It's about Western values and how important it is to defend them against their enemies. Values like freedom and democracy are anything but natural. We have to fight for them. These days we often forget that.

Were you wary about exploring such a sensitive period of German history?

Yes of course. There are many traps waiting for you to walk into and many clichés which you can either avoid or use them and play with them — contrary to the reader's expectations. It's important to me that I don't let our contemporary perspective leak into the story. My characters don't know what the future holds. We all know but they didn't. And it's a burning and not easily answered question: why all these things happened in Germany? Why did the Weimar democracy turn into such a barbarous dictatorship? Germany was a civilized country before 1933, Weimar was well-functioning democracy for at least a few years — why did it fail? And how did the contemporaries get through it? How did it change them? The Nazis were no aliens from outer space, they were ordinary people like you and me who turned into monsters — and most of them weren't even aware it had happened.

The novel obviously required a lot of research on your part. Is that something you enjoy doing?

Yes, it really is. I don't only do the research for my work, I do it purely for my own enjoyment as well. I am always curious about finding out something I don't know yet.

You chose not to include a preface in the book commenting on historical accuracy. Why is that?

I don't like to tell my readers how they should read my book. You can read it as a murder mystery, and you can read it as a thriller, and you can read it as a historical novel, and, and, and ... I am always glad if some of my readers discover their interest for history by reading my novels, but they don't have to. After all it's fiction not a history lesson.

With this in mind how important to you is historical accuracy?

It's very important to me, especially because in my novels fiction and historical facts always mix and merge together in a way that is hard to untangle. Therefore, the facts have to be as correct as possible.

You occasionally feature real historical figures in your novels. Did this require a particular approach or did you treat them like any other fictional character?

I keep everything I know about them, every fact, but then I treat them like a fictional character. Anything they do and say in my novels comes from my imagination.

Do you find it a help or a hindrance having your novels following history so closely? Does it help to have certain plot points set in stone?

I would call it a challenge. Fortunately, there is never a plot point set in stone. My central plots always are always fictional ones. It's just the historical background that is actually set in stone. Sometimes this is unfortunate as when writing my fifth Gereon Rath novel which is set in the year 1933. I would have liked to change history like Quentin Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds, but I was not allowed to. My job — and the fate of my fictional characters — is to follow history and not to change it. It was hard to shatter all the hopes of my characters.

Babylon Berlin, the first book in the Gereon Rath series, is now available.

This interview was published on Crime Time.

Volker Kutscher

Volker Kutscher