The chronicle of a fall and spring in Berlin during the peak influx of refugees into Europe in 2015-16, Joshua Weiner's Berlin Notebook opens a new view on German society's attempt to cope with an impossible situation: millions of people displaced by the Syrian civil war, fleeing violence, and seeking safety and the possibilities of a new life in the west. As some Germans, feeling the burden of the nation's dark past, try to aid and shelter desperate asylum seekers, others are skeptical of the government's ability to contain the growing numbers; they feel the danger of hostile strangers, and the threat to the nation's culture and identity. Unlike other contemporary reports on the situation in Europe, Weiner's sui generis writing includes interviews not only with refugees from the east, but also everyday Berliners, natives and ex-pats – musicians, poets, shopkeepers, students, activists, rabbis, museum guides, artists, intellectuals, and those, too, who have joined the rising far-right Alternative for Germany party, and the Pegida movement against immigration. Intermixed with interviews, reportage, and meditations on life in Europe's fastest growing capital city, Weiner thinks about the language and literature of the country, weaving together strands of its ancient and more recent history with meditations on Goethe, Brecht, Arendt, Heidegger, Joseph Roth and others that inflect our thinking about refugees, nationhood, and our ethical connection to strangers.
The complexity of the refugee crisis in Germany is conveyed in this insightful narrative that tells the story not only of the refugees themselves, but also of a country, its history, and its culture. What began for poet Weiner (The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish) as a series of articles for a newspaper, written during his visit to Germany in October 2015 at the height of the refugee influx from Syria, turned into this updated "notebook" following his return to Germany to follow up on the crisis in April 2016. In this free-flowing narrative that includes interviews with a wide range of people, both refugees and Germans, Weiner reveals both the logistical and underlying ideological issues involved in refugee resettlement. Revealing how stereotypes oversimplify situations and beliefs, Weiner conveys the refugees' dignity and also sheds light on Germany's sociopolitical issues. Weiner's lyrical and affecting writing style betrays his poetry background, complementing journalistic frankness that captures the richness of the people and the city and makes the strife all the more hard-hitting. This beautiful study and exploration of people and values possesses relevance far beyond Berlin.