Daily life before the downfall

HISTORY: ROBERT GERWARTH reviews Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939-1945 By Roger Moorhouse Bodley Head…

HISTORY: ROBERT GERWARTHreviews Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-1945By Roger Moorhouse Bodley Head, 448pp. £25

AS THE RED ARMY mounted its final attack on the capital of the Third Reich, in April 1945, a young woman in Berlin climbed to the roof of her apartment block to watch the thunderous explosions in the distance. As she looked over the city in which she had lived all her life she noted that the sky to the east was tinged with red, “as if blood had been poured over it”. “Before us lies the endless city,” she later wrote in her diary, “black in the black of night, cowering as if to creep back into the earth. And we’re afraid.”

This young woman was not alone in her fear. Most Berliners were fully aware that after five years of unprecedented bloodshed on the battlefields of Europe their city was about to reap the consequences of the whirlwind of destruction that Hitler had unleashed on the world. Many did not wait for the Russians to decide their fate: in April 1945 alone nearly 4,000 suicides were reported in the capital. Countless more went unregistered.

The gruesome violence that accompanied the arrival of the Red Army in Berlin is a story that will be familiar to those who have read Antony Beevor's magisterial Berlin: The Downfallor the harrowing autobiographical account A Woman in Berlin,published anonymously in 1959. Estimates of the number of Berlin women who were raped by Soviet soldiers in 1945 vary widely, but the capital's hospitals put the total at about 130,000. The true figure is undoubtedly higher. Few were overlooked: prepubescent girls, nuns and grandmothers were among the victims, as were pregnant women, fugitive Jews who had survived in hiding and liberated slave labourers.


While this last dark chapter of the second World War has been well documented, little attention has been paid to how ordinary Berliners experienced the war in its entirety.

It is their story that forms the core of Berlin at War, a new book by Roger Moorhouse, who has previously published a compelling account of the 1944 plot against Hitler.

As Moorhouse rightly points out, Berlin was an unlikely city to become Hitler’s capital. Home to the world’s strongest organised labour movement, and at the forefront of avant-garde modernism throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, Berlin was less easily won over by the Nazis than Munich or Nuremberg. Indeed, throughout the Third Reich Berlin witnessed more opposition to the Nazis and sheltered more Jews in the underground than any other German city.

Moorhouse’s book opens in 1939, the year that Germany attacked Poland. For most Berliners the mood on the outbreak of war was one of shock. With memories of the first World War still fresh in the minds of older Berliners, enthusiasm for war was limited. Support for Hitler grew with the Wehrmacht’s early victories over Poland and France, but many continued to secretly voice their opposition to the war. Surprisingly, Hitler’s Berlin was subject to considerably less stringent domestic surveillance than Stalin’s Moscow. Despite the Gestapo’s fearsome reputation as an omnipresent force of surveillance, there were, in fact, never more than 800 Gestapo agents monitoring the lives of four and a half million Berliners, which helps to explain why many got away with listening to the BBC or privately expressing opposition to their leadership.

For the first year of the war the conflict had little impact on the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. As William Shirer, the American CBS correspondent in Berlin until late in 1941, observed in January 1940: “You would have found it difficult to believe that a great war was on . . .The place was a paradise for children, and they were in the parks in droves.”

A few months later, in August 1940, the illusion of normality was shattered by the first RAF air raids. Few were prepared for the severity of the attack, and those civilians who chose to ignore the warning sirens and stayed in bed paid with their lives. All in all about 67,000 tons of bombs were dropped over Berlin during the second World War, killing an estimated 200,000 people.

As the air raids intensified the Nazi leadership stepped up its campaign against the remaining Jewish minority, resulting in the 1942 deportation of Berlin’s Jews to extermination camps in the east. Few Berliners protested against the forcible removal of their neighbours and former colleagues, some out of ideological conviction, others out of fear. There were exceptions, such as the famous 1943 Rosenstrasse incident, during which hundreds of German women successfully demonstrated against the threatened deportation of their Jewish husbands. The event showed that the Nazi regime was prepared to back off when confronted with determined popular opposition. But such acts of open resistance were limited.

Despite Hitler’s obsession with racial purity, wartime Berlin remained a strangely cosmopolitan city. “In some streets and districts one really does not hear a single word of German,” observed the writer Felix Hartlaub, “and so one has the feeling of strolling through a particular Babylon.” The Nazis had set out to create a racially homogenous society, but their capital was more international than ever before. Most of its 400,000 foreign residents were not there by choice: they were slave labourers from occupied Europe whose fate was largely in the hands of those running the factories in which they were deployed. Other foreigners gathering in Berlin towards the end of the war included SS volunteers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands. With no option of returning home, where they would have been sentenced as traitors, these SS volunteers were among the very last to surrender in the ruins of Berlin in May 1945.

The greatest achievement of Moorhouse’s book is that it manages to capture the complexities and contradictions of life in Hitler’s Germany, illuminating the experiences of those who were victims, perpetrators or both. In so doing it provides something rare: a popular- history account that will satisfy both general readers and professional historians.

Robert Gerwarth is director of UCD’s centre for war studies (ucd.ie/warstudies.ie)