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TCW’s holiday reads: A decadent Babylon and an explosion of evil

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Metropolis by Philip Kerr (Quercus)

THE late Philip Kerr (1956-2018), whose last novel in the Bernie Gunther detective series was published posthumously this year, recounted that as a boy he rebelled against his evangelical Baptist upbringing in Edinburgh, knowing that ‘Jesus and I were not going to get along’. 

But Metropolisset in Weimar Republic Berlin in 1928 five years before the Nazis came to power, could have been written only by a man brought up in a Christian home.

Kerr wrote with characteristic acerbity in the prologue: ‘Like anyone who’s read the Bible, I was familiar with the idea of Babylon as a city that was a byword for iniquity and the abominations of the earth, whatever they might be. And like anyone who lived in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, I was also familiar with the comparison frequently made between the two cities. At the Lutheran St Nicholas’ Church in Berlin where I used to go with my parents as a small boy, our brick-faced, shouty pastor, Dr Rotpfad, seemed so familiar with Babylon that I believed that he must once have lived there.’

Anti-Semitism is an evil death rattle common to once-Christian civilisations on the brink of collapse or tyranny. Kerr superbly portrayed its terrible spectre haunting the last days of Weimar Germany in Metropolis. He had Bernie Gunther quoting a speech to the Prussian Police Officers’ Association by Arthur Nebe, who under Hitler commanded an SS unit in the Ukraine that massacred 40,000 Jews: ‘This government of Jews and apologists for Bolshevism does nothing but sit on its gold-ringed fingers and feed the people lies about how wonderful things really are . . . There’s something sick about this city and only a strongman like Hitler, with his Nazi party, has the cure.’

Though the situations are not exactly parallel, there is a whiff of the Weimar Republic about 21st century Britain. This is a nation that has intentionally turned its back on Christianity since the end of World War II and is now looking frighteningly as if it might plunge into a Weimar-like social disaster.

Having rejected Bishop George Bell’s prophetic call in the House of Lords in 1944 not to engage in the merciless bombing of German civilians, this country reaped what it had sown in the disastrous anti-Christianity of the 1960s cultural revolution.

So, even though this would not appear to have been Philip Kerr’s intention, his last Bernie Gunther thriller is a powerful warning about the lethal destination to which incipient anti-Christianity leads a nation. Its evocation of a decadent Babylon on the cusp of an explosion of evil somehow gives the Book of Common Prayer Christmas Day Collect an added urgency:

‘Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.’

The views in this book review are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all members of the Free Church of England.

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in Morecambe, Lancashire, and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome.

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