Berlin At War

The horrors of civilian life in Berlin during World War II.

Berlin At War By Roger Moorhouse Basic Books 464 pp., $29.95

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.

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.

But the Nazis had promised that not a single enemy bomber would reach Berlin and the psychological damage was “rather more substantial.” These bombing runs soon stopped but the evidence of war became obvious. Many children were evacuated to other areas of the Reich for safety. Serious food, fuel, and clothing shortages emerged. Inevitably, a large black market – estimated to account for 10 percent of a typical resident’s income – followed. The Gestapo – aided by a large network of official and unofficial informers – maintained a vise-like grip and used torture indiscriminately. Jews were rounded up and deported.

Then the heavy bombing began. On March 1, 1943, the RAF dropped more than 900 tons of bombs in a single raid – more than twice the amount that the Luftwaffe had used in its largest raids on London. The ordnance now included new and especially terrifying weapons, such as the “cookie” or “blockbuster” bomb which was designed to destroy an entire city block. In the last year of the war, the city experienced 150 raids and, writes Moorhouse, “For many, bombing would become the overriding memory of the time, an ordeal that was almost emblematic of life in the Reich capital.”

After all this – the bombings, evacuations, deportations, shortages, rationing, informers, and the Gestapo – the Russians arrived. Moorhouse devotes relatively little attention to the last weeks of the war and its aftermath. The rape, pillage, and plunder he describes is almost unimaginable, but readers who want more detail about this topic should read “The Fall of Berlin: 1945” by Anthony Beevor.

Moorhouse is fair and even-handed toward the Berliners and their actions. With respect to the Holocaust he writes “[O]ne has to assume that the vast majority of both Aryan and Jewish Berliners either knew nothing of the Holocaust or else were unable to believe and accept what little they may have heard.” But he later notes, “[T]he German public seems to have informed on its fellows with astonishing alacrity.... Whatever the motivation, they denounced in droves – so much so that it has been estimated that fully 80 percent of all Gestapo investigations were started in response to denunciations from ordinary members of the public.”

The book is based largely on contemporaneous accounts, including previously unpublished diaries kept by Berliners, and extensive personal interviews Moorhouse conducted with the survivors. Many of the stories are grim, even horrifying. This is book is neither military nor political history – those approaches inform the narrative but do not guide it. Rather, this carefully researched study is the story of ordinary civilians who were very much in the middle of the fighting for extended periods of time. There are fresh insights on every page and even readers very knowledgeable about World War II will learn a great deal from this important and insightful volume.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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