Berlin At War
The horrors of civilian life in Berlin during World War II.
No city was more central to Western civilization in the 20th century than Berlin. The militarism of Wilhelmine Germany that helped ignite World War I, the decadence and chaos of the Weimer Republic, the totalitarian brutality of the Third Reich and the destruction with which it ended, and the extraordinary tension of the cold war were all centered in the German capital. Not surprisingly, no part of this experience has been more analyzed than World War II.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet despite the voluminous literature about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, there have been no books that analyzed what civilian life was like for those who lived in Berlin during the war. Given this, Berlin at War, a new study by English historian Roger Moorhouse, is overdue and welcome.
It’s ironic that Berlin became the epicenter of Nazi Germany, because many of its residents were ambivalent about the emergence of National Socialism. As Moorhouse notes, “With its liberal-cosmopolitan character, its large Jewish population and its tradition as a bastion of the left, the city had never been a natural constituency for the left and had consistently returned below average votes for Hitler.” The American diplomat George Kennan would later recall that as late as 1939, “the Berliners themselves – the simple people, that is – were of all the major urban or regional elements among the German population, the least Nazified in their outlook.” Many residents – like their counterparts in England and France – were horrified by the outbreak of the war and feared it would lead to a return of the devastating trench warfare that characterized the last war.
Initially, things went pretty smoothly. Moorhouse notes: “[F]or the opening phase of the war, it appears that a conscious effort was made in Berlin to maintain some sense of normalcy, with entertainment and sporting schedules enjoying more emphasis and interest than in peacetime. ‘You can feel the effort here to make life as normal as possible,’ wrote William Shirer that October (1939).” And naturally, many residents rallied round the flag and celebrated the successes enjoyed by the Werhmacht in Poland, Norway, and France.
But before long, normalcy disappeared. In August 1940, the British Royal Air Force began to bomb Berlin. The early raids resulted in modest physical damage.